Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

First there was revolution. And then there was counter-revolution. Therefore, reaction follows what it is reacting to. It is a negation, a lack. It is defined by what it is not, as a shadow is to the light.

This is a simple analysis and, I’d argue, overly simplistic, if not entirely false. It is the narrative reactionaries have been telling about themselves for a couple of centuries. It is also the narrative that Mark Lilla repeats in his recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind, which is a useful survey, summary, and synthesis of modern ideological history but not essentially original in framing.

The problem is the reactionary mind is not a modern invention. Many arguments could be made about when it first emerged. For example, I’d place it firmly in the Axial Age or, better  yet, in that earliest of dark ages when the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed and the Jaynesian bicameral mind was lost. Reactionaries, indeed, are reacting to revolution but what they are reacting to is a revolution of the mind that is millennia old.

By the time Plato came up with his authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy, the reactionary mind had already been developing for some time. That was the era when, as Julian Jaynes points out, lament rang out across many populations of the silence, loss, or abandonment of the divine. Nostalgia in one of its most potent form was born.

As with Corey Robin, Mark Lilla is right to mark out nostalgia as an expression of the reactionary. But focusing too much on that can be a red herring. Robin is better than Lilla in pointing out that reactionaries can co-opt almost anything, even radical utopianism or revolution itself.

That is where my own thoughts come in. The modern reactionary mind initially took shape not after the early modern revolutionary period but during it — maybe before it, depending on when one defines the beginning of that period. The reactionary mind as a modern phenomenon was well on its way at least by the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution, although some consider the Peasants’ Revolt an incipient form of this societal shift through conflict and class war.

The point is that the French Revolution was late to the game. That reactionaries finally found their voice following that is not entirely relevant to understanding the reactionary mind and its historical development. What the French Revolution does help us with is in showing another example of how reaction arose within the revolution itself, co-opting it as happened with the American Revolution (related to the rarely acknowledged fact that the American Revolution was a precedent for what followed, including large-scale destruction and violence).

Thomas Paine demonstrates the connections well, but his example also serves to show the complex relationship of reaction to revolution. He was a radical in the American Revolution and his radicalism was profound in its democratic vision. When he was welcomed into the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, he actually sat on the right side with the moderate reformers. It was actually his radicalism for democracy that made him moderate or aligned with more moderate forces.

What Paine specifically advocated was a democratic constitution and leniency to the king, rather than violent despotism and violent vengeance. The Jacobins are called radicals but in reality they were reactionaries or at least the leadership was. They were using the same means that the monarchy had used in enforcing power and silencing opponents. So, the Jacobins, as is typical with reactionaries, wanted to create a new and improved version of the old order by ensuring a rigid hierarchy remained. They weren’t interested in democracy, that is for sure.

That is what Mark Lilla misses. The French reactionaries, like the American reactionaries, took over the revolution through political coup — and this happened during the revolution itself, not afterwards. In France, it happened by the Jacobins seizing power. But in the United States, the Federalists did it through an ironically unconstitutional Constitutional Convention and then afterward they crushed the ongoing revolution.

The relationship between revolution and reaction is entangled. If this isn’t understood, it is likely that the reactionary mind itself can’t be understood. This creates a trap for the mind, in not understanding history we dangerously don’t understand ourselves.

Reactionaries aren’t limited to those other people, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. The potential for reaction exists within all of us. A surprising number of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anarchists fell under the sway of early 20th century fascism. The same pattern is seen today with left-wingers who almost unconsciously become fascinated with or drawn toward reactionary thought, often with the rationalization of studying the enemy but it is clear with some that it is more than mere curiosity. The reactionary mind is dangerous for the very reason we see it as something other.

The confusion in all of this is that the reactionary mind is chameleon-like. I’ve come to call them Faceless Men, based on Game of Thrones. Reactionaries rarely present themselves as reactionaries. That means that anyone, under the right conditions, can get pulled into the mindset without realizing it. Reaction is simply an expression of fear an anxiety, once it fully takes hold. The human mind gets weird under high levels of stress (Keith Payne examines one angle on this by way of inequality, in his book The Broken Ladder). It really is that simple.

We need to develop intellectual, ideological, and psychological defenses against the reactionary mind. None of us are born with an immunity. But before we can do that, we have to learn how to identify the pattern of thought and behavior, to discern its incipient forms and the development that follows, to recognize the conditions and causes that make it possible.

This leads to me to another thought. Philip K. Dick has the notion of God in the Gutter. Let me decontextualize it from the monotheistic tradition of deus absconditus. Any powerful ‘god’ that rules over us, over our minds our society, such a ‘god’ is always hidden. And its ability to remain hidden is what I call symbolic conflation, a method of deception, obfuscation, and most importantly misdirection. That is the source of its power. That is also what makes it hard to analyze. Someone like Mark Lilla is taking the reactionary mind at face value, how it presents itself. That is problematic for obvious reasons. Corey Robin is more effective in peeling away the mask to see what is behind.

That is what we all need to be doing in these reactionary times. Lets start rummaging around in the gutter, looking below our normal line of vision, looking through the garbage or what appears to be garbage. But let’s do so with great care. There are both treasures to be found and traps to fall into. So, we should move forward with curiosity and eyes wide open.

God in the Gutter, Jesus in Disguise

Apparently, I’m having an ongoing conversation with Carl McColman.  He wrote a new post responding to my mention of Philip K. Dick’s “God in the gutter”.

From the Wilderness to Mount Tabor

[…]  Steele is a fan of author Philip K. Dick, and has presented me with this concept of “God in the gutter” which derive’s from Dick’s work. It reminds me of a book I read many years ago called In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey. It’s been years since I read it and so my memory may be less than stellar here, but I recall the book as an honest look at the lives of pimps and prostitutes, strippers and drag queens, and others who typically are not shown much hospitality by “polite” religion. The “mystical” bit in the subtitle doesn’t refer to contemplation so much as to the reality of God’s presence even when God is hidden — and, heaven knows, there are plenty of layers of hiddenness in the sexual underworld. And of course, grace happens, even in the lives of those who have been rejected by the mainstream, and that was the point of this book. But I suppose when we’re talking about grace, we have to be careful here. We can say “Yes, God is present in the lives of sex workers” and it has a rather paternalistic and maybe even smugly superior ring to it: the unstated other half of that sentiment being: “… and as soon as they clean up their act, they’ll be welcome at our church.” Which is just about what the older brother of the prodigal son would say.  […]

And my response that I posted in the comments section of that post:

I’m reminded of various stories of God in disguise.  The moral of the story being we should treat every person even those we deem lowly because they may be more than their appearance.  Often in the story, the person who does good for the humble is rewarded, but reward isn’t the reason to good.

I prefer phrasing as PKD does with his “God in the gutter”.  There is nothing to be gained by realizing God is in the gutter besides the realization itself.  Seeing God is it’s own reward, but God often seems only glimpsed in our periphery.  The moment we try to grasp the divine it’s gone.  All the forms of religion can just end up as more idols to be falsely worshipped.

I see God at the edge of where moral judgements aren’t so clear.  For this reason, I sometimes think the Trickster is more helpful in understanding the divine.  Many stories of Jesus and other saviors show elements of the Trickster and I think that is a key to understanding the nature of the divine.  Scatalogical humor along with reversals are very common in Trickster stories.

However, in mainstream Christianity, the Trickster elements have been purged from Jesus and projected onto the Devil or else simply exclusded.  The Trickster stories tell us about suffering and ignorance, and so they touch very closely upon our everyday experience. 

Jesus doesn’t simply pull us up from our misery.  Jesus took physical form to meet us on our level.  In fact, some stories claim that Jesus went even further down and entered Hell.  Many saviors descend to the underworld.  If God would descend to Hell, he surely would be present amongst those exluded from “polite” society. 

Isn’t that one of the most central teachings of Jesus’ message?

I have many more thoughts I could add, but that will have to do for the moment.  This topic is something that both fascinates me and touches upon my personal experience.  Many authors I read focus on these kinds of ideas: Philip K. Dick, Carl Jung, William S. Burroughs, Quentin S. Crisp, Jacques Vallee, John Keel, George P. Hansen, Patrick Harpur, Thomas S. Hibbs, Eric G. Wilson.  Et Cetera.  I plan on writing more posts exploring all of this in more detail.

Let me end with a quote I came across recently:

There is a certain stage of hopelessness in which one’s utter insignificance becomes almost a form of redemption. The infinite darkness and silence of the universe come into alignment with your own soul, like something unlocking. The misery has not disappeared, but now the endless night is radiant.

 ~ Quentin S. Crisp, “Troubled Joe” from All God’s Angels, Beware!

The Website of Unknowing: further thoughts

A while back, I wrote a post about a Christian blog.

And that blogger wrote a post about my post.

Here are my comments so far on that post:

My use of the word ‘tame’ certainly wasn’t an insult by any means. It might not have been the best word to describe the writings in this blog. Words such as ‘tame’ and ‘wild’ are relative.

My own sense of spirituality is informed by some more ‘wild’ thinkers: Carl Jung, Robert Anton Wilson, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. I’m also fond of many ‘tame’ thinkers, but it’s hard to say who is ‘tame’. Is Ken Wilber ‘tame’? Is Jiddu Krishnamurti ‘tame’? Certainly, Rumi isn’t ‘tame’.

Mysticism seems to be one of the most central themes of McColman’s blog. And an interest that I share. Any mystic worth their salt probably isn’t ‘tame’. But outwardly a mystic may appear ‘tame’.

Partly what I meant in labelling McColman as tame is more about the subject matter of this blog. This blog seems to have a very clearly defined focus and McColman doesn’t seem to stray from it. My own mind wanders far and wide. The difference maybe simply be a difference of personality.

Some people see the purpose of religion (specifically religious practice) as a way of taming the individual (taming the senses, the desires, the will, or the mind), a way of training, of elevating, of directing human aspiration towards lofty ideals.

I understand that perspective, but it doesn’t overly appeal to my own sensibility. I’m more of a “God in the gutter” kind of guy. I’d probably be happier if I were more tame (i.e., disciplined and focused), but as it is that isn’t the way my life is. To me, spirituality feels more like a hunger that can’t be sated.

I have little doubt that “Wicks’ mature, grounded spirituality is better suited for the long haul than Crowder’s colorful but miracle-hungry vision.” Even so, it’s just not my way to be cautiously concerned about the long haul. Not every path is easy, but every person has to follow their own path where ever it leads.

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By the way, my mentioning “God in the gutter” (or “God in the garbage”) is a reference to the writings of Philip K. Dick. I highly recommend Gabriel Mckee’s book ‘Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter’. This idea of Philip K. Dick’s is essentially the same as the theology of a hidden God. I wrote about it in a couple of blog posts.

However, the “God in the gutter” isn’t simply the idea of a hidden God. There is also an element of the Gnostic/Kabbalah notion of the divine fallen into the world. The divine, in this sense, isn’t tame, isn’t controllable. The divine is loose in the world and it’s probably to be found where ever you’re least likely to look for it.

This view of the divine reminds me of a vision of God Jung had as a child. It involved God sitting on a throne above a cathedral.

There is something about the interplay between destruction and creation that intrigues me. To Philip K. Dick, God has to fall into the world in order to remake the world. It’s a fecund vision of transformation.

There is a feeling of danger and forbidenness in this portrayal of God. This God isn’t just love and light. Maybe there is even a connection to the Hindu portrayal of Kali dancing on Shiva’s corpse. Anyways, it’s a view that doesn’t easily fit into traditional/mainstream Christian doctrine.

 – – –

As I was considering my second response, I did a few websearches.  Here are some interesting things I found:

A nice article by Gabriel McKee

And a Wikipedia article that uses Philip K. Dick as an example