Ludwig Derleth, selected Proclamations

Ludwig Derleth was a strange figure, a man who wore only black, carried a mask of Napoleon wherever he went, ate exclusively by himself, and refused to speak to more than one person at a time. He hovered on the fringes of successive esoteric intellectual societies in early-twentieth-century Germany, most prominently the Munich Cosmic Circle and the circle around Stefan George, before leaving the country and, after exploring a religious vocation in Rome, ultimately dying in obscurity in Switzerland.

If he is little known today, however, like many of the members of these esoteric circles his influence appears disproportionate to his memory. In his younger days—as a letter from his own pen reveals—Hans Urs von Balthasar kept a mask of Derleth on the wall of his study, and the Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara cites Derleth as an influence on his own thinking. Though Balthasar later became disenchanted with Derleth’s “integralism”, he continued begrudgingly to respect the man as the immoderate formulator of a “Genghis Khan Catholicism”.

Derleth produced only two substantial works: the “Proklamationen” (“Proclamations”), a brief series of aphoristic pronouncements urging a draconic and warlike renewal of Catholicism executed in two somewhat different editions in 1904 and 1919, and the Frankish Koran, an enormous epic stretching to thousands of pages in its final form. In this post I present some very rough translations from the 1919 edition of the former, and a pdf of the complete German text, which is not otherwise available online.

To the modern reader, the “Proklamationen” appear as a disconcerting inverted image of the liberal Catholicism that has grown to dominate much of the mainstream of Catholic practice. Derleth’s Catholicism is a Christianity composed of all those things—and only those things—that this tendency excludes. Where liberal Catholics focus only on the Gospel’s consoling words to the detriment of whatever is uncomfortable, Derleth focuses monomaniacally on the images of contradiction, division, and pitiless regimentation, making of the Church a structure of domination that demands absolute obedience to “Christus Imperator Maximus”—a strange figure, “no god of war, but war itself”, that blurs disconcertingly into the images of human world-conquerors like Napoleon and Alexander. Where liberal Catholics prize comprehensibility, Derleth writes in a language that fuses the Bible with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, slipping at points into Latin, hyperbolically archaic, grandiose, and baroque—at times barely comprehensible—in an attempt to revive a “dark-religious” feeling of mystery.

Yet if Derleth demands total submission to Christ’s “supreme power”, it would still be a mistake to read the “Proklamationen”, as Richard Faber has done, as proto-Nazi. The objective of the boundless despotism of Christ appears as the abolition of all the worldly despotisms that can mirror it only poorly. At the same time that revolutionary politics is depicted as the surging “dark powers of Typhon”, Christ himself is made into an archetype of insurrection, the Marseillaise mingling discordantly with the Te Deum. Derleth’s cry against the politics of the masses remains fundamentally, and paradoxically, modernist—a contradiction that touches absurdity in his demand for a “Levée en masse pour l’élite”.

For the Jesuit Fr. Przywara, Derleth stood as the “black-Nietzschean” end-point of a tradition of annihilationist obedience flowing from St. Ignatius of Loyola. This is a tendency that intersects with political currents of dissidence on left and right. A good friend has highlighted the turn of the revolutionary communist Guy Lardreau towards radical Catholicism. The revolutionary function of discipline and obedience is one of the most obvious missing pieces of liberal politics, which organises itself through an atomic and aimless freedom. It finds its archetype—as leftist thinkers from Sorel to Gramsci have equally suggested—in the political form of the Church. Derleth appears as perhaps the purest and most direct distillation of this conceptual identity.

Derleth’s text is infused, however, with a sentiment of history drawing to its end—not in the apocalyptic sense of Luther, but in wearied exhaustion. The explosive language of the “Proklamationen” speaks, in this light, of an interior desperation: a search for anybody who can at last awaken in themselves the “final historical movement”. Derleth himself, of course, was frustrated in his search for an imaginary Church more despotic and more Roman than any before. Yet his continuous signals of contradiction, his relentless insistence on the most discomfiting and radical parts of the Christ narrative, are evocative—and may lead us to re-evaluate the precise function of religion and Catholicism as an impulse to new politics.

Vincent Garton

Proklamationen (1919) (pdf)

Continue reading “Ludwig Derleth, selected Proclamations”

The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth

The preeminent condition of the present time is aesthetic desperation: the search for the smallest piece of beautiful scrap, the most vanishing hint of a serious ideology, that has not yet been brutally subsumed, commoditised, disenchanted, and ground to dust. If I have been accused of fleeing into the ‘ruins’ of Christianity, such an action ought to be entirely unremarkable: in fact, for the Western mind at least, the entire world is more and more a ruin, and we inhabit it almost as ghosts.1 Mark Fisher cut to the heart of the matter: ‘Capitalism,’ one of his most famous and devastating passages observes, ‘is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’2 When everything solid dissolves into air, all that is left on the ground is ash.

This condition is not just a consequence of material forces, however, but the product of a specific and ongoing crisis in the perception of time. The ruination of the future, as Reinhart Koselleck first observed,3 began with its unwinding in the Reformation, where the onrush of the Apocalypse impinged increasingly upon the indefinite time of the liturgical calendar; it intensified with the unhinging of history from the future in the Enlightenment; and—we may add to Koselleck—it reached a new turn with the displacement of acceleration from the realm of political to technical phenomena in the nineteenth century. In short, where once the future stretched forwards indefinitely in repetition of the present and the immediate past, it became, first, radically distinguished from the past, then emptied of the fixed, apocalyptic content of early Protestant millenarianism, and finally displaced entirely from human control.

For Koselleck, the temporal predicament of the Enlightenment had inaugurated a modern era of ‘critique and crisis’—critique, because the abyss of the future rendered impermanent all human institutions; crisis, because it invited the Enlightenment intellectual, the philosophe, to hide the void with an ideal future of his own design, and the dissonance between these utopias and prevailing social realities introduced an unbearable gaping disjuncture in the ordering of politics that no institutional setting ever since designed has succeeded in closing. In this regard there was little to differentiate revolutionary from counterrevolutionary—politics had become a war for the future over the ashes of the past. A small-time conservative pamphleteer—one Edmund Burke—described his own destiny with reference to the horrific fate of the Hussite general Jan Žižka, whose skin was flayed and stretched over the drums that would beat the sound of war: Burke’s person was to be ground into the total war against revolution.4 Through this all there has run the feeling of a growing acceleration of events; and where in the early nineteenth century a figure such as Metternich could still see the task of politics as the reordering of time through managerial restraint of social acceleration, in 2018 politics has either given itself over to the fact of this acceleration—or adopted a standpoint far more classically Protestant in its gleeful apocalypticism.5

Grasping this history will shed light on what may seem a strange remark I made in Catholicism and the gravity of horror, viz.:

Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.

The question is this: How does one conceive the future? For enlightened man, the future was to be constructed, a supposition embodied in an endless proliferation of utopian schemes. A quite different answer, however, was provided at the start of the twentieth century by Georges Sorel.6 The future, Sorel saw, is the product of myth, of cosmic suppositions that ground and envelop what is merely human. To ‘construct the future’ is therefore to elaborate a myth. The significance of myth is not, in this sense, in its truth or falsehood, but in its social effects: to call the idea of the end of capitalism, as Sorel did, a myth was not to pass judgement on its propositional validity, but rather to point out what sort of effect it had.

This was not in itself a new idea, and it is all too easy to jump from this idea to the cynical notion of natural religion common to Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, who all see religion as an instrument to be gauged, manipulated, and engineered to produce the most salutary possible effects on society. Yet—and here was Sorel’s critique of the Maurrasian school of integralism, the decisive realisation that distinguished him from Nietzsche and all his predecessors—myth cannot be merely engineered. The fantasy of the speculative philosophe later identified by Koselleck was always just a fantasy, in its full pathological sense. Cynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth; the success of myth depends on the faithfulness of the mystagogue; and fully enlightened man, in fact, even when he imagines he has mastered his mythic ground, sprawls beneath the symbols of a greater myth, which he can barely perceive: the ‘illusion of progress’.

What is more, the illusion of progress is a myth that runs up far too easily against the limits of material production. Already a hundred years ago, Sorel could perceive that this illusion was out of joint with the reality of capitalist development. The determinants of industrial production tend not towards a linear progress up and away from the past—that preeminent, always-disappointed fantasy of liberalism—but to periods of decline and recovery, and finally to a strange recapitulation of the past, a recapturing of previous eras. Grounding himself in an eclectic mix of natural-scientific research, Marxian economics, and syndicalist theory, Sorel foresaw not the indefinite and universal intensification of industrial concentration, but a corresponding tendency of decentralisation, a strange return of the workshop and of the artisan in the context of capitalist technical progress. Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

With this the Enlightenment predicament comes to an end, and Sorel alights on the horizon of modern social thought, beyond which to think of modernity is itself impossible. The reintegration of the past into the future through the tendency of industrial development towards the circuitous recovery of history—what Sorel identified with Vico’s historical ricorso, the moment of renewal after decline—and the simultaneous reintegration of the future into the present through myth, which becomes identical with authentic natural religion, combine to dissociate the characteristic underlying basis of modernity. The horizon of modernity is the horizon of myth, and its line is broken by the temporally unanticipated dawn of something that—to the horror of liberal minds—looks very much premodern.

All this is to show, at the first and basic level, the importance of myth as the limit of modern social thought—but, more than that, it is also to suggest the importance of Christianity, which demands not just submission to a given prior, as Sorel conceives myth, but to the truth, and which in its fullest form counterposes itself more than any other religion in history to the world as a whole. For the moment, that world remains stuck in what looks like a last phase before ricorso, what Sorel termed decadence, and which Fisher identified with the condition of capitalist realism. It is remarkable, from a theological perspective, that this dispensation bears a close similarity to the ‘empty time’ of the final epoch of the Old Testament. In von Balthasar’s analysis, this empty time was a moment of baited breath, in which the Israelites searched desperately for some measure of recovery of the glory of the Lord with which they had had such immediate contact in the distant past: spreading their search across every different field, through introspective mysticism, through apocalypticism, through the desperate reiteration of blood-sacrifice, they sought to recover an aesthetic experience which seemed, terribly, to have disappeared.

Yet this moment was not, as they thought, entirely barren. Indeed, the unbearable night of empty expectation may in fact be pregnant with the light of a future only dimly imaginable: ‘“For that night” (illa enim nox, Wis 18.6) in which at about midnight the work of redemption and the work of annihilation took place simultaneously,’ says Balthasar, ‘this night remains impenetrable. It is absolute judgment, and—in the very heart of this—the incomprehensible superabundance of grace (Rom 5.15–21). It is the ever greater measure of humanity’s failure, which increases the blood-guilt beyond comprehension, and—therein—the ever greater measure of the mercy of God …’7 Here, however, we have entered the realm of theology proper, where secular social theory and the logic of natural religion must fall silent.

References

1 Or, as the Holy Father says, ‘Terra, domus nostra, in immensum sordium depositum magis magisque demutari videtur.’ Francis PP., Laudato sì (2015), §21.
2 M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009) p. 4.
3 R. Koselleck, trans. K. Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); id., Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988).
4 E. Burke, ‘A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, to a Noble Lord, …’, in The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir. In Three Volumes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), Vol. 2, p. 193.
5 See R. Jones, ‘1816 and the resumption of “ordinary history”’, The Journal of Modern European History 14 (2016), pp. 119–44; M. Siebert, ‘Linkola, Montana’, Jacobite (July 19, 2018).
6 I have discussed Sorel elsewhere, but Sorel’s Illusions of Progress and Reflections on Violence form the indispensable bedrock to an appreciation of his thought. Further exploration of these features of Sorel’s thought is forthcoming from myself and from Edmund Berger.
7 H. U. von Balthasar, trans. Brain McNeil C.R.V. and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. VI: Theology: The Old Covenant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 400.