One of the best modern critics of ideology, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), often called on literature for the light it sheds on distortions of perspective in politics and thought. The novelists, poets, and essayists, being highly attuned psychologists and social observers, can penetrate, with heightened perspicacity, into derailments of orderly life and the demonic workings of the libido. In previous discussions, I have shown how works as various as Herman Melville’s Typee, the Thirteenth-Century Vinland Sagas, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 illuminate our current, early Twenty-First-Century situation in Europe and North America. In the present discussion, I wish to consider the seemingly disparate cases of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and his story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) and the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Karen Blixen) and her story “The Poet” (1934). I wish also to examine these stories in a framework of Voegelin’s analysis of totalitarianism as a type of secular religiosity or “Gnostic derailment,” a term whose meaning will emerge in the discussion.
Literary criticism typically casts Borges as an ironist and genre-parodist, a master of the essay and the short story, one of whose technical mainstays is the oblique literary allusion. John Sturrock’s Paper Tiger (1977) provides the locus classicus of the habit. Critics like Sturrock tend to see what is perhaps Borges’ most famous story – “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” – as an instance of the so-called mise-en-abîme of the externally allusive and internally self-reflective text. Borges becomes for academic readers a formalist engaged in a purely formalistic experiment, offering a perfect example of Jacques Derrida’s Deconstructive claim that, “there is nothing outside the text.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, however. For such criticism indeed, far from elucidating the story, has the aim of disarming the narrative’s – any narrative’s – real import. In the case of the Borges fable, this import concerns the insidiousness of all Deconstructive or radically formalist or reality-denying claims. Deconstruction as such did not yet exist when Borges wrote “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” but its precursor-doctrines existed.
The date of publication of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” immediately suggests that the story is an instance, not of some pure formalism, out of contact with the world, but rather of referential fiction, with the “Thirdness” of the title’s final element fixing the reference. “Thirdness” afflicted the Twentieth Century, from the ersatz religion of Marxism-Leninism, which conceives of itself, starting with Marx, as the final term in the sequence of feudalism-capitalism-socialism, to the Third Reich, to the Swedish “Third Way.” Whatever socialism calls itself – whatever multiculturalism, an adjunct of socialism, calls itself – it remains as dogmatic and destructive as ever, seeking to obliterate inherited customs and institutions, and the openness of the market, as the conditions of its own fulfillment. “Thirdness,” one notes, participates in a type of closed religious symbolism, which classifies all precursor-doctrines, whether in fact they really were doctrines or not, as evanescent, as foreordained to vanish, but declares itself as final and unchangeable. Mimicking the Trinitarian theology of the Gospel, “Thirdness” also suggests what one could call a fulfillment-interpretation of a given doctrine’s own status. The ideologue has gazed into the prophetic glass of history and he sees there, standing revealed at the end of time, the image of himself, the living embodiment of doctrinal correctness.
Mirrors and their distorting effects figure prominently in Borges’ story, which turns on the discovery, first, of a spurious volume of an otherwise ordinary encyclopedia and, next, of a single volume from a full encyclopedic set dedicated rigorously to the description of a hitherto unknown and perversely attractive world incompatible with the actual world. All forty volumes of The Encyclopedia of Tlön later turn up and become a literary sensation. “Tlön,” the ideological new reality in the story, fascinates by its bloody character, its extremity of logical outrage, and its totalizing ambition. “Tlön” originated as a kind of intellectual prank cooked up by Eighteenth-Century Idealists (George Berkeley allegedly being one of them), but changed its quirkily experimental and innocuous character when a certain “ascetic millionaire” named Ezra Buckley took over the enterprise by suborning its authors and then decisively stamped it with his own irate “nihilism.” One notes that the name Buckley mirrors yet also distorts the name Berkeley, and that the name Ezra has prophetic overtones.
Borges identifies Buckley as a Southern slave-owner and militant atheist whose support of the project stipulated that, in elaborating the new artificial world, its fashioners would “make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ.” Buckley also insists that the agenda go forth in secret as a cabal, to be launched in public only when completed.
In The New Science of Politics (1951), Voegelin writes that an important effect of Christianity in the period between the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West and the High Middle Ages was the “de-divinization of existence.” What does this mean? For Jews and Christians, nature is Creation, but it is itself neither a divinity nor in any way a proper object for veneration. People should direct their worship lovingly to the transcendent God, whose non-interference in daily life guarantees freedom of conscience and self-responsibility, not to images or objects. Another effect of Christianity was to replace the mundane experience of the divine, symbolized by the elemental gods of polytheism, with experience of the divine as a transcendent ground or goal. Now in this goal, the imperfections of the natural world and the social order might be redeemed, but, importantly, not in this life, where only degrees of amelioration are possible. The Gospel, much more articulately than Pagan wisdom, tells men that they must reconcile themselves to the limitations inherent in existence. The Gospel, as Voegelin argues, devolved a new demand for the delay of gratification on human consciousness, from which stems the whole range of specifically Christian ethics and from the impatient reaction to which stems the whole range of Gnostic tantrums.
Voegelin argues for faith, which postpones certainty, and which incorporates doubt, as essential to normative Christianity. Uncertainty and doubt afflict some people, however, with terrific anxiety; and when, historically, these anxious parties could not fall back into pre-Christian forms, which had gradually disappeared, they availed themselves of “the Gnosis” that formed “an accompaniment of Christianity from its very beginnings.” Voegelin writes: “Gnostic speculation overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment.” The new Gnostic rebels against reality thought that they could, in other words, realize in this natural world, using the crooked timber of humanity, the perfection and redemption that Christianity postpones to the City of God; and that they could become gods themselves, deposing the Gospel deity, and annulling the patience that faith demands.
Voegelin notes that there is a Pagan Gnosis, a Jewish Gnosis, as well as a Christian Gnosis, but that, in each case, the reactive position defines itself initially and largely by its implacable enmity against the normative stance; the reactionary position, in Voegelin’s analysis, must be total, because the rebel against reality, determined to erect his second reality, can tolerate no vestige of that which he despises, lest it remind him of his petulant inadequacy. “The revolution of the Gnostics,” writes Voegelin, “has for its aim,” one at least among others, “the monopoly of existential representation.” It cannot abide challenges or alternatives to itself. In addition to this, the Gnostic assault on reality seeks “a change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society.” Finally, according to Voegelin, Gnostic agitation inclines its followers to conceive of existence as “a struggle by the world of darkness” wickedly to nip their own luminous “universality” in the bud. Borges’ “Tlön” qualifies as a Gnostic undertaking, in being a totalizing ersatz religion, or belief-system, locked in resentful hostility with every orthodox judgment and indeed at war with the structure of reality, which it seeks to transform.
The word Gnostic occurs in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in connection with certain “heresiarchs of Uqbar.” Borges even gives, in his description of Buckley, the definition of the Gnostic split-consciousness: “He wanted to demonstrate to [the] nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.”
In accordance with the project’s cosmic antinomianism, the epistemology of “Tlön” attacks degree-zero concepts of the prevailing reality, like causality. For the metaphysicians of “Tlön,” then, “the world is not a concourse of objects in space,” which have a universal relation to one another along a temporal dimension, but rather the world “is a heterogeneous series of independent acts,” where an arbitrary difference is everything. On “Tlön,” it seems, “philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des als Ob,” through which intellectuals “do not seek for truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” Seeing in causality an intolerable necessity, these dialecticians would substitute for moral and natural consistency the heterogeneous acts of their preference, which can only mean the fiat of a dictator’s will careless about contradicting itself. The same dictator’s will makes use of the confusion of thinking that results from a constant deliberate misapplication of ordinary terms, often to mean the opposite of what they signify lexically, and by appeals to emotion and curiosity rather than to logic or evidence.
In this vein, the intellectuals of “Tlön” declare that, “the past has no reality.” Only the present has reality and its reality is, so to speak, borrowed from the future perfection toward which all activity in the present must be directed. Other aspects of “Tlön,” popular in journalism rather than in learned discussion, are its “transparent tigers and towers of blood,” which suggest that a type of bestial rapacity underlies the metaphysical gymnastics of the fabulous superstructure.
Astonishment, abolition of the past, appeal to extremes, disdain for the customary or the orderly: these features reveal themselves in all ideological discourse since the French Revolution. Once the glamour of the extreme takes hold on a society, the dearly achieved habitude of established order begins to disintegrate and the false second reality subdues standing judgment. In Borges’ story, publication of the Encyclopedia of Tlön swiftly corrodes settled life, as pamphleteering did in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and as propagandizing did in the Twentieth, using the modern means of communication. The emergent second reality of the “Orbis Tertius” conspiracy ceases to be an enigma or an oddity and turns nightmarish, as “contact [with the collective fantasy] and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world.” Says the narrator, commenting laconically on the usurpation, “Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön,” and a concocted history “has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood.”
These drastic alterations of the civic environment are quite familiar processes, with which even casual students of modern history will be familiar. Soon, the narrator says, “This world will be Tlön.” The fable of “Tlön” is not a fantastic one. From the perspective of its date of publication, the story is historical (the disintegrative process it describes had already occurred in France, Russia and Germany) and prognosticative: for the juggernaut of enthralling discourse – the dialectic of counter-intuitive propaganda – would continue its march. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” represents in a mete way the condition of the West at the present moment.
The Danish author Karen Blixen (1885-1962), writing under her pseudonym of Isak Dinesen, creates in her novella The Poet (published 1934) a story about the origins of the modern, thoroughly distorted notion of reason and its link to the revolutionary upheavals of society that began at the end of the Eighteenth Century with the French Revolution. The distortion of reason in the name of a spurious progress is the theme that amalgamates The Poet with the otherwise dissimilar Borges story. In neither the world of Blixen’s novella nor in our own world have the proliferating metastases of reason, their model venerated as a substitute-deity, ceased to afflict the social fabric. Blixen’s examination of the unitary origin of those metastases provides a valuable insight that readers can apply to their own understanding of the contemporary situation. Set in Denmark, a nation affected early and thoroughly by the Enlightenment, which also experienced the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, The Poet records the last years of Kamerraad or Privy Councilor Mathiesen, a retired diplomat in his fifties living the life of an aristocrat-grandee in provincial Hirschholm. He enjoys his social perch there among the respectful country folk and villagers. The time is the 1830s.
Voegelin can help readers to understand The Poet just as he can help them to understand “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin reminds those who attend to his argument that Gnosticism provided the driving force behind the emergence of the modern world, with its pattern of social arrangements that violently displaced those of the medieval period. “Gnosticism,” writes Voegelin, “effectively released human forces for the building of a civilization because on their fervent application to intramundane activity was put the premium of salvation,” that is, of self-salvation, in such a way that the result seems “experientially justified.” But this “justification” cannot withstand too much scrutiny, as the achievement, while real, owes itself in large part to the many victims that the stringently secular order, when accounting for itself, consigns to oblivion: “The death of the spirit is the price of progress,” as Voegelin writes: “The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of world-immanent salvation, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit.”
Voegelin here thinks, of course, not only about the vanity in so-called progress, but also about the murders that pave the way to the progressivist triumph – the regicides, slaughters, and killing-fields, all in the name of a radiant future – and to the constriction of life in the name of rationality that accompany the victory.
Blixen’s narrative reveals that, despite the benign, careerist-bureaucratic impression generated by his awareness of rank and his priggishness, Mathiesen had, in his youth, participated in “the fatal and restless times” of “the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon.” This little remark-in-passing implies much: not least that Mathiesen must share culpability for the slaughter and mayhem of the great European disruption beginning in 1789, to whose demonism he seems, however pettily, to have contributed. After his youthful ardor in hopes of remaking the world, Mathiesen had resided for a period at Weimar, where he met Goethe. To that genius, writes Blixen, Mathiesen might have applied the term “superman… if the word had been invented.” The story subtly implies that Goethe found Mathiesen nothing more than a nuisance, but Mathiesen, oblivious to the snub, still thinks of himself secretly as “a superman in miniature,” on the adored model.
One might say, with support from Voegelin’s analysis of modernity, that Mathiesen believes his own activities to have redeemed him, elevating him in rank to a dignitary of public service, whose résumé then renders him a fit object of rewards and entitlements; but the agitation in which Blixen says he once took part has addled his thinking, leaving him a self-absorbed prig, without a genuine critical perception. The reference to the “superman” fits perfectly with Voegelin’s argument that the Gnostic, in rebellion against everything contained in the idea of God, wishes to become God. Blixen’s Mathiesen thus resembles Borges’ Buckley.
Blixen’s story also calls Mathiesen “a rearranger of existence” in a context that implies of the man that he is capable of lying to himself about reality, even as he meddles in it, seeking Godlike to alter it. He cannot see the destruction that his good intentions unleash. So considered, the Kamerraad has more than a little in common with his decadent friend, Count Augustus, a hashish addict with whom Mathiesen discusses G. W. F. Hegel. Mathiesen has undertaken two human projects at Hirschholm, a place with a history of aristocratic decadence and madness. The first project is his grooming of an artistically precocious peasant-lad, Anders Kube, to be a poet; Mathiesen has secured Kube a petty office in the district and acts to him as a Macaenas towards a protégé. The second project is his de facto guardianship of a young widow of Italian origin who had married Mathiesen’s Hirschholm friend, the district pharmacist. The friend, many years older than his bride, died at Hamburg while returning with his bride from Naples. After scheming to marry Kube to the widow, Mathiesen changes his mind and decides that, despite his being more than twice the woman’s age, he, rather than the poet, shall have her to wed.
Mathiesen perversely reasons his way, so he deludes himself, to every item on his schedule, and even to every capricious change of his mind. His notion of an orderly world entirely subject to manipulations of reason makes no room, however, for elements of reality that Blixen has already highlighted from the opening sentences of the tale. The scandal of King Christian VII, “a sort of Caligula in miniature,” and his young English queen, Carolina Mathilda, took place there. Mathilda took a lover, her doctor, whom Blixen calls “a reckless revolutionary tyrant,” whose egocentric indiscretion led to his execution and to the queen’s exile to Hirschholm, where she died insane.
Libido, not reason, moves the Privy Councilor, but this should surprise no one, as the will to power is an invariant of Gnosticism, wherever it appears.
Blixen piles up her themes: the deformation of Eros into libido, rebellious tyranny, psychic distortion, self-delusion, and reason as a dictator’s mendacious trope of his own nihilistic flamboyance. The self-absorbed Mathiesen, abetted by the unwillingness of the fawning locals to say to him that the emperor has no clothes, blithely treats people as so many chits in a solitary game over which he presides as the undisputed master. It has escaped Mathiesen entirely that by putting his two protégés in propinquity, he will have enflamed the Eros whose fire he imagines himself, in a Promethean conceit, to control. Yet the rebellion of the proletariat, when it comes, represents no triumph of moral restoration. Blixen possesses the acumen to see, hence also to show, that the dehumanizing scheme of the tyrant morally deforms everyone within his influence and so sets the stage for an even higher degree of depravity, as when the bestialized oppressed rise in resentment against their oppressor-manipulator.
“These old men are mad,” as Fransine, the Italian girl, tells Kube in the moonlit gardens at La Liberté, the little house were she lives; “they want strange things of you.”
Mathiesen, concealed in the darkness, overhears. When Mathiesen and Kube cross paths, Kube shoots Mathiesen on impulse, with a bird rifle. It is not merely homicide, but a kind of regicide, and even a kind of deicide. Lying in his blood, the astonished Mathiesen wonders desperately how he might “control his world once more.” When Mathiesen crawls into sight of Fransine, he believes that she might still deliver him. Like “a maenad,” however, she tears loose a great stone and – saying to herself “puppets, sacred puppets” – finishes the job that Kube had begun.
In her compact system of nested metaphors, Blixen has reminded her readers that an inflated notion of rationality contributed to the bloody paroxysm of the French Revolution, and that the forces unleashed have metastasized murderously down through two-and-a-quarter centuries to our own blighted times. The schemes of little gods have made of the modern period, a resurgence of ancient brutality that it has been our penance to endure. Blixen grasps clearly the law of causality that the cabal in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” wants people to forget, the better that the cabal might rearrange reality according to its savage whims. Borges, too, understands modernity as demonic, and the deracinated masses, without the resource of faith, as highly prone to endorse novelty simply because, in its bland affluence, it experiences a painful boredom. Taken together, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and The Poet constitute an allegory of the actual modern catastrophe. They illustrate Voegelin’s paradoxical insight, from The New Science of Politics, that: “A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time – but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves,” and a society reaches this limit when “an activist sect that represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.”
As Voegelin writes, “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.”
The entire concatenation of themes from Borges, Blixen, and Voegelin appears in the current disposition of the West, in Europe and North America. A counterintuitive – one might as well say, Gnostic – economic theory, while permitting politicians to regard themselves as saviors of the people, has, after the tipping point late last year, rapidly destroyed wealth and productive capacity. Journalists casually refer to the sitting President of the United States as a god, as Newsweek editor Evan Thomas recently did. Liberal politicians in the American Congress and their counterparts in the European legislatures assume a holier-than-thou attitude that Voegelin would instantly recognize and that Blixen portrays nicely in her character of the Kamerraad. Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd are not as fashionable in appearance or as cultured, in some nominal way, as Blixen’s Mathiesen, but their comportment betrays an equivalent of conceit, self-righteousness, and ego-absorption. The same American chief executive whom fawning reporters evidently think of as a god has nominated to the Supreme Court a Helena-Blavatsky-like woman whose idea of jurisprudence travels under the name of “empathy.”
One definition of gnosis, the basis of Gnosticism, is the claim by a subject to possess knowledge by pure self-augury, without reference to the usual epistemological procedures. By this definition, the judicial nominee to the High Court is an exemplary Gnostic, but then so is every other prophet of the Novus Ordo who “identifies,” not with rights and obligations, with the actual order of a strenuously achieved civic life, but with race, ethnicity, or some other source of primitive participation mystique.
It is difficult to read the concluding paragraphs of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in light of the Obama regime’s anti-Constitutional, anti-reality crusade, which, as one breathes and writes, is altering American society beyond recognition – its proliferating “Czars” abolishing contracts and laws, transferring wealth arbitrarily and illegally, throwing people out of work, and its CEO making bizarre statements, such as the one uttered in Cairo calling the United States “one of the largest Muslim countries.” Contemporary American political parlance on the ascendant Left makes heavy use of the monosyllable “change,” which has assimilated a wide variety of political-chiliastic meanings. But practically speaking, this locution means destruction and annihilation of all things familiar. The swift deconstruction of the Constitutional dispensation is, in Voegelin’s words, an attempt at “a change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society,” with a vengeance.
Yes, God help us, this world is becoming Tlön.
P.S. In an earlier Brussels Journal contribution, I referred to the writer who signs his name Takuan Seiyo as “the writer who calls himself Sekiguchi.” I apologize to Takuan Seiyo, pleading the crush at the end of the semester, and my usual off-balance mentality, for the otherwise inexplicable and inexcusable error.