Umberto Eco and “Ur-Fascism”

Following on from my little article on René Guénon, one first observation is to see the almost constant connection between “traditionalist” thinkers and the “far-right”. Already in Guénon (via Jean Hani), I noticed the theme of the Papacy and the Two Swords, the hypertrophy of authority.

I found this quote from Umbert Eco, the Italian author of The Name of the Rose:

One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.

We are on dangerous ground. I traced the quote and found it in Five Moral Pieces. I have bought the Kindle edition, and will be reading it during the holidays. I need some context for this extraordinarily sweeping amalgamation of all currents of esoteric thinking. Above all, the Nazis persecuted the esoteric groups of which they disapproved. I have a considerable amount of esteem for the late Italian philosopher and author – for his common sense and criticism of mindless conspiracy theorising. It only takes a reading of Foucault’s Pendulum or the Prague Cemetery to understand his sceptical thought. A theme of Romanticism is of such appeal to me – that the Enlightenment, science and tolerance were good things, but needed the human element as the French Revolution became intolerant, violent and murderous.

In the Ur-Fascism chapter of the Five Moral Pieces, Eco is emphatic about Nazism having been anti-Christian and neo-pagan. He comments on Fascism’s lack of an ideology, of philosophy, its being a barrage of rhetoric – nothing more. Mussolini was an atheist and merely negotiated with the Church for convenience and pragmatic considerations. Nazism and Fascism built themselves on ideas that would make them appealing to their supporters. There have been many books written on the occult roots of Hitler’s ideology and his obsession with things like the Holy Grail (as he understood it). The Indiana Jones series of films shows this aspect in a theatrical way. Fascism in all its forms (outside Italy) was extremely versatile in its trappings.

Eco draws up a list of characteristics of what he called “ur-fascism”, of which the first is what I quoted above. Not all twelve characteristics are required for a political system to be “fascist”. Two names I brought up yesterday. Guénon kept out of politics for his entire life, effectively disappearing during the occupation of France from 1940 until 1944. Julius Evola was not an official member of Mussolini’s party, but his ideology was definitely fascist. When he found the Church too impotent, he would seek the State’s authority rather than rely on himself and others who valued their freedom.

Traditionalism comes in many different guises. Nowadays, we think of forms of Catholicism that have reacted from the modernisation of the liturgy and alignment with left-wing politics, Archbishop Lefebvre’s movement and those parts of that same movement that Pope John Paul II allowed back into the mainstream Church. In the early nineteenth century, traditionalism in its extreme form represented a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism. Thinkers of that tendency, which merged with the Romantic movement especially in France, saw the notion of a “primitive revelation” received by humanity at the dawn of history, long before the development of Judaism and the other world religions. The development of religions was in a way a break-up of this primordial tradition, and traditionalists felt called to restore this unity of revelation through syncretism – taking a bit of one religion and combining it with a piece of another. Bring out a synoptic of all these bits and pieces and you find the original truth. This process is mainly through the initiatic work of mystery schools. There is an appealing element of truth there, but we have to be careful. Dom Odo Casel, with his Kultmysterium, followed many of these traits, only to be bitterly opposed by the Jesuits.

The problem is found when we are told that this initial revelation, like God himself, is immutable. There is no progress or evolution or development. There is no advancement of learning. Eco put these words in the mouth of the sinister abbey librarian of the Name of the Rose! The trend of the late nineteenth century became New Age, and everything is mixed willy-nilly in the melting pot.

Reading Eco, I am unsure of the connection between traditionalism and fascism, except that the latter found the former useful to attract its adepts into the “cult”.

The second point is given:

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both the Fascists and the Nazis worshipped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject technology as the negation of traditional spiritual values. Nevertheless, although Nazism was proud of its industrial successes, its praise of modernity was only the superficial aspect of an ideology based on “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a condemnation of the capitalistic way of life, but mainly concerned a rejection of the spirit of 1789 (or of 1776, obviously). The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason were seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense, Ur-fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

I don’t like all of this, because Eco seems to go along with the nec plus ultra of market capitalism based on competition, the American ideology. Perhaps I am being too hard, because I have a lot to learn about this fellow from his writings. What is modernism? Many readers of this blog would point at Loisy, Tyrrell and the condemnation by Pius X. I would not see it so narrowly. Modernism seems rather to represent the idea of an inevitable straight historical line of progress with which religion must conform to keep its credibility. Guénon, like the orientals, saw history as cyclic. There is both evolution and devolution! Tyrrell was not really a modernist, but rather a Romantic who saw the need to re-humanise and / or re-spiritualise science and technology. Rome saw no need to make any distinctions! I find Romanticism appealing because it seeks to reconcile modern reason with traditional faith and spiritual experience.

Capitalism has also become a tool of tyranny in the hands of the billionaire elite now buying the world – and also of some attractive ideas in the early twentieth century about medieval corporations and “distributism”. I was intensely disappointed to see these beautiful and noble ideas monopolised by “far right-wing” people like International Third Position. The “dead rats” keep coming back again and again. Every way  l look for beauty and nobility, the “dead rats” got there first. They took something of appeal and made of it a caricature, a kitsch, something with its meaning hollowed out. That is what happened to New Age!

It seems best to live one’s life in obscurity, giving as few words or other symbols to what we hold dear for the good of the human soul. This is why mystery schools, including early Christianity under the disciplina arcani, kept everything secret and defensive in the face of persecution, hatred and stupidity. Jesus himself exhorted his disciples:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

What can I conclude? Not very much, except the age-old pearl of wisdom In medio stat virtus – strength is found in moderation. We are not going to be materialists simply because evil men used noble themes and philosophies to appeal to the masses. Those evil men were only interested in power, money and everything else they lusted after. They had (and have) no ideology or ideal. They will mix and match to sell their product. Alongside the political dangers, syncretism is dangerous. However, aspects of other religions can help and inspire us as Christians according to our own traditions and spiritual aspirations. Dom Bede Griffiths was perhaps an example of the living of the Christian message through Hindu culture. I read Umberto Eco as a challenge to certitude about which we should be less certain.

We have to keep our minds open and ready to change if we find ourselves mistaken. Let us open our souls to love, beauty and truth. We have to be transparent and beautiful – but wise to the evil that would turn our very beauty into death.

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