Notes on Alain de Benoit, On Being a Pagan
Time and history
In the paganist conception of time the present is saturated with the past. Past, present, and future form a continuum, that “mutually feed and transform each other.” There is no such thing as nostalgia, it is simply a question of intensities. "The past is a dimension, a perspective."
Paganism accepts the doctrine of eternal return. Holderlin: "But there is no such thing as annihilation, and so the youth of the world must come back again, out of our decomposition."
This is distinct from the Judeo-Christian conception of time, which begins at Genesis, and ends with the Day of Judgement. Within this trajectory, human history is a glimmer, a fragment, of sinful decadence on the path to redemption. “History is nocturnal; it unfurls between the light of the Creation and the light of the end of time, between the ‘Garden of Eden’ and the Last Judgment.”
According to Benoist, “The terms ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ therefore do not hold the same meaning for us that they do in the Judeo-Christian problematic. In the pagan perspective the past is always future.”
The past can be strategically imposed on the present to influence the future. Benoist writes about the “luminous importance” of beginnings in Heidegger, of great, heroic beginnings that inaugurate destiny:
“In his Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger specifically examines the question of the "past." A people, he says, can triumph over the "darkening of the world" and its decline only if its sights are permanently set upon its destiny… In other words, it is necessary "to recapture the beginning of our historical -spiritual existence, in order to transform it into a new beginning. And Heidegger adds, "But we do not repeat a beginning by reducing it to something past and now known, which need merely be imitated; no, the beginning must be begun again more originally, with all the strangeness, darkness, insecurity that attend a true beginning." In fact "the beginning is there. It is not behind us as something that has been there a long time but it stands before us. The beginning has burst into our future. In the distance it pursues its greatness, a grandeur it is imperative we catch up with.’”
The Renaissance is an example of this. Because of how it reactivated Ancient Greece into the contemporary, the Renaissance was a literal rebirth.
Jean-Pierre Verant, on Ancient Greece, "the effort to remember the primary purpose of everything is not the construction of the individual past of a man who remembers, the construction of his individual time, but conversely what allows him to escape time."
[What allows him to escape time. Flashback to Museum of Ancient Technology in Athens: “Willingly I would burn to death were that the price for reaching the sun, for learning its size and its substance.”]
Benoist writes, ”[Neo-paganism] is the deliberate choice of a more authentic, harmonious, and powerful future – a choice that projects into the future, for new creations, the Eternal from which we came."
Benoist, “There is no need to 'believe' in Jupiter or Wotan – something that is, however, no more ridiculous than believing in Yahweh – to be a pagan. Contemporary paganism does not necessarily entail erecting altars to Apollo or reviving the worship of Odin. Instead, it implies looking behind religion and, according to a now classic itinerary, seeking for the 'mental equipment' that produced it, the inner world it reflects, and how the world it depicts is apprehended. In short, it consists of viewing the gods as 'centres of values' and the beliefs they generate as value systems: gods and beliefs may pass away, but the values remain."
Subject and object division
Judeo-Christianity inaugurates the “monotheistic break” which pre-empts the subject and object divide in much of Western philosophy. Yahweh is radically other, he is not of this world, a thought that creates a schism between this world and the divine.
Man, created in God’s image, is divorced from his environment, which pre-empts the alienation and disenchantment that has fuelled industrialisation.
Benoist writes, “In monotheistic thought, as a separate being, [Yahweh] is henceforth an object… The monotheistic break establishes the conditions for the non-communication of man and the world."
The monotheistic break establishes an absolute duality between the world and Yahweh, that extends to all aspects of human experience.
Christianity, "renders life foreign to itself."
In contrast to this, paganism rejects dualism, offering a framework that exists outside the interplay of opposites, and beyond the confines of a two-step oscillation. Paganism “rejects the choice.”
Benoist writes, “The debate between polytheism and monotheism is not the old opposition between the intellectual and the tangible... it is not a question of choosing the tangible over the intellectual, any more than it is of choosing nature over history or culture. Nor is it a question of invoking any kind of 'feminine' security or womb of the earth-mother against the father of the 'celestial' worlds beyond. The paganism I am speaking of is situated within an entirely different problematic. It is not the choice that is inverse to the Judea-Christian choice. It rejects the choice."
Man as god
Benoist, "The monotheistic assertion is, first and foremost, a solemn prohibition against man establishing himself as a god."
The temptation of the serpent is to allow humanity to make its own moral judgements, rather than the absolute judgement of Yahweh. The serpent says: ”You will be like gods knowing both good and evil."
Benoist writes that man, while part of nature, possesses "super-nature,” which is essentially his ability to transform his environment (technology, cunning).
Judea-Christianity keeps this in check by establishing a strict moral code that “comes exclusively from the will of Yahweh and the prohibitions he has pronounced.”
Prohibitions: In the commandments, the imperative and the future tense are equivalent (quirk in the Hebrew language). So saying "you should" is confused with "it will be."
While the transgression of Eve in the Garden of Eden allowed her to distinguish between good and evil, “Now only Yahweh possesses this right.” He renders them into absolutes, and is the sole adjudicator, capable of administering punishments and rewards.
"Christianity," says Nietzsche, is "the most prodigal elaboration of the moral theme to which humanity has ever been subjected."
Because of its underlying attitude to human character and its fundamental innocence, paganism: "hypostatises in its beliefs all the ardor, intensity, and pulsation of life."
This is contrasted to monotheism: "Instead of pushing man to exceed himself, the monotheism of the bible consumes his vitality. He must impoverish and annihilate himself to give consistency to god. The deity becomes a kind of hemorrhaging of human nature."
Driving this self-annulation is the concept of guilt. In Judeo-Christianity, God achieves his permanence by binding himself to pain. "The best way for Yahweh to never be 'forgotten' is for him to inscribe himself in the human heart as a sign of unfulfillment, as suffering produced by sin."
This is contrasted to pagan innocence.
Benoist writes, “History is, in fact, the very mirror of life. It reflects an eternal tension governed by the heterogeneous and antagonistic nature of the different forces in play. In Paganism, the innocence of historical becoming thus responds to the innocence of man. When Nietszche speaks of the 'innocence of becoming' against what Judea-Christianity labels as guilty, he is creating a metaphor for a concept of time, which in the first place, opposes that of an irreversible time."
'The temple with no images.’ The Jewish ban on icons dictates a "flat rationality" where "reality should not be seen and constructed... it must be understood." A desert, uniform and indivisible.
Benoist questions whether branches of contemporary ideological phenomena such as "abstract painting, Freudianism, or Marxism" could be interpreted as "resurgences of a very ancient process that is perpetually moving from the universal to the particular, from the unity of the Law to the diversity of signs."
The Jewish faith is structured like a language, obsessed with the "sonorous echo" of the unsaid. This ancient attitude “[deposits] itself onto secular forms like sediment." It demands that language "describes without depicting" the codified complex that lies beyond appearance – "the world as cryptogram."
Two important shifts in Paganism:
- In paganism, good cannot be separated from evil
- Art is sacred
Depictions of gods are gods. "Insofar as men perpetually assume them of representation, [gods] have a full status of existence."
Mythos and logos
Judaism, "decharmed the world," forcing the sacred out of nature. The world is a lifeless desert. Industrialisation. Capitalism.
But according to Benoist, myth makes history, it "goes before history, attests to it and legitimises it... without mythical structures, no historical intelligence is possible."
In Judea-Christianity, the transition from mythos to logos activates "a set of process of desacralization... that in the space of a few centuries, following the secularisation of religious ideologies, fuelled a pure rationalism, a conception of the world as pure object, pure machine, pure matter, lacking gods and soul."
A pure rationality: Judea-Christian rationality is both one method of decoding among many methods, and the only method – it standardises rationality by virtue of its system.
Benoist continues to state that the Jewish decoding process (rationality) moves from universality to the particular, and in doing so; deduces from the absolute characteristics of the particular. Benoist says because of this habit, of deriving the particular from the absolute, biblical thinking risks homogenising difference, whereas other rationalities are more concerned with particularities and their inter-relationships.
Science and technology contain traces of religious and philosophical systems, and should not be super-imposed onto dissenting groups.
Yahweh, in the beginning, was a jealous god. One of many gods, a "monolatry."
Politics and anti-politics
Judeo-christianity insists on the primacy of law, and justice, above political and military affairs. It is resentful of human power because human power poses a threat to god. It resents politics because politics is the practice of human power.
According to Benoist, the Bible is the basis for all types of 'social revolution,' 'impassioned reaction against those on high' and ‘critical ideology.' This is because it wants to enact a levelling of all forms of power onto 'the desert of the absolute.' In the bible, the relationship with God "coincides with social justice."
"Yahweh is he who directs the subversive preaching of social apocalypse,” Benoist writes. The bible therefore "anticipates all forms of socialism."
Yahweh tells several stories in which the younger brother triumphs over the eldest, subverting "natural hierarchies" for synthetic reversals.
Benoist writes that it is not "the abuse of power that Yahweh condemns, but power itself." Human power is evil.
Benoist writes, ”The metaphysics of revenge, the ideology of resentment as source of the reversal of all values, as source of the substitution of the negative for the positive, finds its profound basis in this system."
In Paganism, that which is strong and beautiful is beloved by god. In Christianity, this is reversed. That which suffers is divine.
Politics is the practice of human power, therefore politics is evil. Benoist writes that politics includes "three presuppositions:"
- the relationship of command and obedience, which determines order.
- the relationship of public and private, which determines opinion.
- the relationship of friend and enemy, which determines struggle.
"A society without politics would be a society without order (anarchy) without opinion (slavery) and without struggle (death),” he concludes.
Paganism contains the assertion of "the primacy of politics." The elimination of politics is the elimination of freedom.
Nietszche: "The free man is a warrior." Freedom is something acquired.
Judea-Christianity seeks the elimination of difference, conflict, and contradiction. Benoist writes "Contradiction is the very motor of life; the desire to make it vanish is a death wish."
According to Beniost, struggle is "the framework of the universe." Heraclistus: "we must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and all things come into being and pass through strife."
European paganism, "rests on an antagonistic pluralism of values."
However, “As a result of its universalism, biblical thought rejects politics." Equally, monotheism cannot account for alterity. "Politics in made in conjunction with the Other, alterity is the very condition of politics." As such, Judea-Christianity pre-empts genocide because the evil of the other is absolute.
Christianity is the coalition of the weak against the strong. But paganism "does not reproach Christianity for defending the weak who are unjustly oppressed... it reproaches Christianity for not helping them become strong."
Politics, the practice of power, is condemned in the bible as undermining the authority of Yahweh, and is replaced by a council of moral adjudicators. In this scenario the weak form a coalition against the strong, united in a hatred of power.
The coalition demands a universality of men – the desert of the absolute – which pre-empts the genocidal tendencies exhibited by monotheism (convert or destroy, and to convert is to destroy). Dissent in this framework becomes pure evil and is liable to the highest punishment.
However, in the Pagan framework, politics is upheld as equivalent to human autonomy and freedom. Struggle and diversity occur as a result of the pluralistic quest for autonomy, which can lead to conflict. But to suppress that political activity is a far greater violence.
Nature and transcendentalism
Benoist identifies the coincidence of monotheism and the desert: “the desert is monotheistic.“ He quotes Renan: "There are monotheist races just as there are polytheist races, and the difference stems from an original diversity in the way they envision nature."
Later, Benoist goes on to attack the position of spiritual immanence within nature, as opposed to transcendentalism, as "christian propaganda" against paganism. Benoist says that nature is the "face" of the world," but does not constitute its ultimate determination." For example, just because gods and man are continuous does not make them "spontaneously equal."
Benoist then describes the beginnings of a pagan metaphysics. Paganism poses as a postulate "the primacy of the Idea,” which is distinct from logos.
Benoist writes: "I reject all primarily naturalistic interpretations of the Indo-European religions, to seek out the 'core' not in the deification of the 'natural elements,' nor even in a series of historic events transfigured by myth, but purely and simply in an ideological system, a particular view of the world, which immediately gives meaning to all of its components. From this perspective, we could say that man 'creates' the world through the way he looks at it, that the soul 'forms itself' a body, that a collective view of the world 'forms' a society by 'informing' it, and so on. We find ourselves in a place that is the exact opposite of naturalism."
Nature is a “face,” a mask. Paganism offers a transcendentalism without duality, a continuity without equality.
Benoist summarises the pagan belief system: "In the first place is the transcendental unity of the cosmos, the continuity between God (or the gods) and the world – a world whose being is 'perfect' but not static, and which is the site of a permanent becoming in every direction, a God who renders the finite infinite, who encourages time and space to be thought of as infinite."
Opposites co-exit in a 'coincidence of opposites' ... God is the reconciliation of opposites (harmony), life is their mutual cohabitation. Heraclitus: "Everything is born of struggle."
The revelation is 'the non-existence' of opposites (like good and evil), the non-existence of 'irreducible' opposites implied by an absolute other and the dualism this inflicts on the world. This 'revelation' is what Europe "has been compelled to constantly hurl at the faceless face of Yahweh".
For Benoist, the non-existence of opposites is affirmed by the fact that they are reconciled by God (or gods.)
Citing long strings of pagan writers, Benoist captures the immanence of god – the god within and without. Rilke: "What will you do, God, when I die? ... Losing me, you lose your meaning."
Destiny is not the same as predestination. It is a struggle for freedom, the scope of which is determined by context. Deviations from destiny are equivalent to mediocracy. Destiny drives the struggle for honour.
Nietzsche: "to become master of the chaos one is; to compel one's chaos to become form."
A Neo-paganism also seeks to overcome naturalism due to the decrease of rural living.
It is not simply a return to carnal pleasures. Benoist writes "casual sexuality... is essentially indistinguishable from other forms of personality destruction."
Nietszche on Christianity in Europe: "It seems hardly possible to graft an alien myth on to a native tree with any lasting success, without damaging that tree beyond repair."
In order to make Christianity possible in pagan Europe, Christianity adapted itself – it creates the holy trinity and made God and Jesus equivalent. Only then could pagan minds accept it. It made god look like a European peasant, a shepard.
Benoist says that nihilism is a direct consequence of Christianity. "Nihilism results from the gradual unveiling of a doctrine that places life's centre of gravity outside of real life, and which is gradually and precisely unmasked as such."
We are passing through a "secularization" of Judea-Christianity.
With the christian god unmasked (nihilism), we are presented with the opportunity to resurrect new gods.
Later, "The role – innocent and terrible – of the poet therefore involves sensing the yearning of gods who are not yet awakened into awareness, calling them into existence by naming them, and engaging in a foundational dialogue with them, upon which all future dialogues will be created."
Junger: "One does not travel back in time to reconquer myth; one meets it again when the times tremble to their very foundations, beneath the empire of extreme danger."
A phrase that resonates, from Heidegger: "Freeing oneself from vengeance is to pass from resentment against time to the will that represents being in the Eternal Return of the Same, and becomes itself an advocate of the Circle."
To love a world "of the real." "A love of the real."
To love, says Rosset, a "world where nothing is foreseen and nothing is acted, where nothing is necessary, but where everything is possible."