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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reaction vs. the System, round one

Walter Benjamin begins his 1931 essay on German fascism with a quote from one of his favorite reactionary writers:

“Léon Daudet, the son of Alphonse Daudet and himself an important writer, as well as a leader of France’s Royalist party, once gave a report in his Action Française on the Salon d’Automobile – a report that concluded, in perhaps somewhat different words, with the equation: L’automobile, c’est la guerre.”

I’ve looked around for Daudet’s article. I haven’t found it. However, I understand why Benjamin, a collector of lines – of those moments in which thought seems to be utterly transformed into its primal element shock, as though an oracle had spoken – remembered Daudet’s report. It casts a prescient light over the system of which the automobile was as impressive a product as, say, some fossil by which a paleontologist maps, in shorthand, a geological epoch. The creature that left that fossil was at the convergence of conditions both sheerly geological and evolutionary; the automobile was at the convergence of conditions of production, changes wrought by the industrial system in the habits of the citizens of developed economies, and the underlying, subdued violence that existed as the cost for these changes and these lifestyles. Contrast Daudet’s sentence with the lines in Apollinaire’s Zone, which begins:

“À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin
Tu en as assez de vivre dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine
Ici même les automobiles ont l'air d'être anciennes.”

(In the end you are tired of this ancient world
Shepherdess, o Eiffel Tower the troop of bridges bleats this morning
You are finished with living in greek and roman antiquity
Here even the automobiles have an ancient air).

Chasing the pessimistic/reactionary tradition through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century is a rather mixed experience. On the one hand, the reactionary writers are great deliverers of thunderbolts. On the other hand, when they actually make a case for themselves, the eternal return of the ancien regime would require, even in their own eyes, the same kind of massive upheaval of the social order which is exactly their constant accusation against liberalism. In Maistre’s case, the moment of the reactionary revolution is taken care of, in a bizarre way, by Napoleon. Maistre’s opinion that the Bourbons could not re-establish themselves is consistent with seeing Napoleon as fulfilling, unconsciously, the task of creating the social conditions in which the Bourbons can return. But of course, the return of the Bourbons, however sweet was the black terror of the reactionary years from 1815 to 1830, proved in the end to be a disappointment, the gravestone over the ancien regime rather than its glorious resurrection. Even in Maistre, the contrast between mealy mouthed piety and the continuous stream of contempt seems to be doing more than stylistic work – it seems to be a reflection of the politics of resentment, a politics that takes the failure of its goal for granted, and contents itself with an infinite hunt for scapegoats. Leon Daudet was, in a sense, the endpoint of this tradition – marked, more genially, by Chesterton and Belloc in Britain. Daudet’s most famous book, the Stupid Nineteenth Century, begins with a recounting of a quarrel Daudet had with his great friend, the anti-semitic pamphleteer, Dumont, over a slap delivered by a rightwing parliamentarian to the head of the division, as Daudet puts it, of ‘sneaks’ during some session of the Chamber of Deputies. The face that received that slap was in its sixties, and Dumont disapproved – much to Daudet’s chagrin. Daudet was for slaps, for riots, for rallying rightwing collegians to storm surrealist openings and the like. In fact, the mixture of gesture and ink was, spiritually, close to the surrealists themselves, who did like a good riot or a resounding slap.

It is also close in spirit to the transformation of reactionary views into a kind of Punch and Judy show – it drains the politics from them in favor of the political gesture. The frustration of advocating for a total and unlikely change is relieved in a series of ever more violent tantrums. This direction of political action is typical of a reactionary program that existed in contradiction to the technoculture that it could only accept in terms of war. In terms, that is, of a systematic violence that would drain from politics anything but gesture, making politics into an endless series of heroic gestures – which is how the conservative revolutionaries gradually became fascists. It was a collusion of temperaments.
The turn to war counters the insistence, after the French Revolution, on the political goal of happiness, and it begins with Maistre. But why did the reactionary, pessimistic tradition turn to violence in the first place? The secret source of that turn is revealed by another French reactionary, Leon Bloy, who wrote an interesting section on the devil, in one of his baffling books, Le révélateur du globe: Christophe Colomb et sa béatification future. Bloy claims that Satan, the real Satan, doesn’t leer out at us from Dante, or from Faust:

“The notion of the devil is, of all modern things, the one that most lacks depth from having become literary. Certainly the demon of most poets wouldn’t even frighten children. I only know of one poetic Satan who is truly terrible. It is Baudelaire’s, precisely because he is sacrilege. All the others, including Dante’s, leave our souls tranquil and their threats make us shrug our shoulders, the slightly literary shoulders of the girls of the catechism of perseverance. But the true Satan which one know longer knows, the Satan of theology and of the mystic saints – the antagonist of the Woman and the tempter of Jesus – Christ – he is so monstrous that, if it were permitted to that monster to show himself as he is, in the supernatural nudity of non-love, the human rance and animality entire would scream once and fall dead…
The greatest force of Satan is the Irrevocable. The word fatalism, invented by the pride of so-called philosophers among men, is only an obscure translation of this horrifying attribute of the Prince of the Wicked and the Emperor of the Captives. God gards for himself his Providence, his Justice, his Mercy, and above all, the Right of Grace which is like the seal where his omnipotent Sovereignty is imprinted. He thus keeps as well the Irrevocability of Joy and leaves to Satan the irrevocability of Despair. The terrifying pale gate of the great American poet is opened on the two gulfs offered to our liberty.”

Bloy a couple of pages later accords Satan such power over human history – particularly of the modern era – that the reader is forced to read that Irrevocability back into human history, particularly of the modern era. Unconsciously, the pessimists premises do homage to the scope and scale of the great transformation – the industrial system and the market society become, in this perspective, supernatural events. Or, to a non-Christian eye, natural events – events that have the force that natural things once had – the weather, the fertility of the land, the changes of season, those markers of peasant life, are all radically humanized in the industrial system, where the coordinates of time are defined in terms of business cycles, working days, and the brief ages of technological innovation – the age of steam, the age of the auto, etc.

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