Saturday, November 13, 2021

Extended article on Aguéli's Sufism and Humanism

The Israeli scholar Meir Hatina contributed a chapter on "Ivan Aguéli's humanist vision: Islam, Sufism and universalism" to the edited collection Anarchist, Artist, Sufi: The Politics, Painting, and Esotericism of Ivan Aguéli. He has now published an extended version of that chapter as "Turning to the East, Rescuing the West: Sufism and Humanism in Ivan Aguéli’s Thought" in the journal Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations. See

From the abstract:

Aguéli’s universal humanism, with Sufism as its main lever, is analysed and located within a transnational intellectual landscape through networks of people, ideas and print media. By attracting Western pilgrims, Sufism served as a nexus of cultural transfer from the Middle East to Europe, thus casting doubts on the prevailing paradigm of Western enlightenment as the backbone of global intellectual history. Sufism was presented by Aguéli as a spiritual philosophy that dealt with the liberation of man from materialism and selfishness. The article deals with a number of issues: How did Aguéli transform Islam and Sufism into a cosmopolitan vision? To what extent was his humanism nurtured by anarchist philosophy, which promoted a just society? Did Aguéli reconcile the anarchist perception of human beings as free creatures with the Sufi perception of total submission to a Sufi master?

Monday, October 18, 2021

Tavener and the Musica perennis

Several chapters in a new collection discuss the Traditionalism of Sir John Tavener (1944-2013), the acclaimed British musician who was a follower of Frithjof Schuon. It is Heart's Ease: Spirituality in the Music of John Tavener, edited by June Boyce-Tillman and Anne-Marie Forbes (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2020).

The collection consists of nine chapters and eight “interludes,” preludes or postludes, distinguished from the formal chapters by being more reflective and less academic, and often very short. The opening “prelude,” by Boyce-Tillman, sets the scene with a short biographical introduction to Tavener and his best-known work. This is followed by a chapter in which Stephen Roberts traces “Tavener’s Musical Theology of Religions,” working through Orthodoxy to arrive at Traditionalism. 

Then comes one of two chapters that deal at length with Tavener’s Traditionalism, “In Search of Truth: John Tavener’s Transition from Western Culture to Eastern Tradition” by Andrzej Kęsiak, a Polish theologian and musician who is currently working in the UK on a PhD thesis about Tavener. Kęsiak starts with Tavener’s rejection of modernism, follows through the “Search for Tradition” that led him to Orthodox Christianity, and ends with Traditionalism and the “Musica perennis,” Tavener’s application to music of Schuon’s understanding of the transcendent unity of religions.

Several further chapters deal with particular compositions: Tavener’s “Prayer to the Holy Trinity,” his “To a Child Dancing in the Wind,” his Requiem, and his “Three Hymns of George Herbert.” Then come three chapters dealing with particular issues: his “Search for an English Orthodox Musical Language”, “Sacred Silence,” and finally the use of his music in therapy. 

Of these chapters, the most important for those who are interested primarily in Traditionalism is the chapter on Tavener’s Requiem, written by Bart Seaton-Said, a practicing musician and former Anglican Franciscan. This is mostly a musical analysis, and shows how the Requiem is a “broadening of the parameters of sacred Christian art” and “manifests outwardly Schuon’s theme of the ‘transcendent unity of relations.’”

The book provides a useful study of Tavener’s music, and of the impact of Traditionalism on that music. Tavener’s project of discovering the Musica perennis is one of the most interesting recent developments of traditionalism, and – arguably – one of the most successful.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The later politics of Ivan Aguéli

We know more about the later politics of Ivan Aguéli than I thought. The Swedish journalist Eddie Råbock points to two passages, some notes from 1904 and some comments in a letter from 1917. In both cases, Aguéli had moved far from his early anarchism.

In 1904, Aguéli was calling for democracy under the control of the ulama, i.e. much same system that was meant to be introduced in Iran after the Islamic Revolution (the reality, perhaps predictably, did not quite correspond to the theory). In 1904, Aguéli was still something of a revolutionary, ending his note with "Fight capital through the agrarians, as the King of Italy does. Fight snobbery." The reference to the King of Italy is explained by Aguéli's engagement in Il Convito, which was pro-Italian as well as pro-Islamic. 

Later, letters written in Spain during the general strike of 1917 show that his sympathies were by then definitely not with the revolutionaries, but rather with the king and central government.

These positions fit with the positions that René Guénon later took. Having the ulama in charge, especially, fits with the idea of the primacy of spiritual authority over temporal power.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

New English collection of work by Aguéli

A new book gives English translations of a selection of the writings on Islam of Ivan Aguéli. It is Ivan Aguéli: Sensation of Eternity: Selected Writings, edited by Oliver Fotros. ISBN 978-9151985091, $13.99 on Amazon.

The writings translated are

  • Notes on Islam (from L'Initiation, 1902)
  • Feminism (from Il Convito, 1904)
  • From La Gnose (1911):
    • Pages dedicated to Mercury (incl. Pure Art) 
    • Pages dedicated to the Sun 
    • Universality in Islam
    • Islam and Anthropomorphic Religions
    • Al Malamatiyyah
  • From L'Encyclopédie contemporaine illustrée:
    • On the principles of Architecture and Sculpturing (1912)
    • The 29th Exhibition of Le Salon des Independantes (1913)
    • La Section d’Or – the Exhibition at Gallery La Boétie (1913)
  • Others
    • On Western Art
    • On Europeans and Muslims
The writings from La Gnose were reprinted in French in the collection published by Archè in 1988, and Universality in Islam has now been translated twice into English, and Pure Art once, but all the other articles have never been reprinted, let alone translated. A major achievement for the study and understanding of Aguéli.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The National Bolsheviks as counter-cultural art

The Russian Traditionalist Alexander Dugin first came to prominence in the 1990s as one of the leaders of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP; Национал-большевистская партия). A new book covers these years remarkably well. It is Fabrizio Fenghi's It Will Be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press: 2020). The title cites an early NBP slogan sometimes cited by an artist who is now a member of Dugin's Eurasian Movement.

The book makes clear that the NBP should not be taken entirely seriously as a political party. Dugin was its ideologue, and its leading figure was the novelist Eduard Limonov (1943-2020). Fenghi's point of departure is Limonov's earlier fiction, especially his most famous novel, It's Me, Eddie (Это я — Эдичка), written in 1976 and published in 1979. This extremely counter-cultural novel was itself influenced by the New York punk scene, as Fenghi argues, and the NBP was in some ways the continuation of the novel. He uses interviews as well as textual sources to show that there was politics, but there was also music, art--especially performance art--and a lot of counter-culture. The NBP owed much of its success to its newspaper Limonka (Лимонка), which can be read as an alternative art and music magazine almost as easily as it can be read as a political newspaper. There was a specific NBP style of dress, and many NBP actions were close to performance art (which is one reason they were so effective). They were, suggests Fenghi, one of the inspirations of the actions of the later (and ideologically very different) group Pussy Riot.

Dugin, as is known, left the NBP in 1998. Fenghi suggests that this was because his and Limonov's political styles were so different. At one point he says that "Dugin and his followers were mostly interested in pursuing cultural and quasi-academic activities" while "Limonov wanted the party to become a ‘real political force,’ with activists who were directly involved in various forms of propaganda and mass mobilization” (p. 116). Later, however, he says that “Eurasianism aims at producing actual political change through mass manipulation” (p. 168), which I think is closer to the truth. Certainly there were different styles, and it might be argued that in the end Dugin was too serious about the content of his politics to keep company forever with Limonov. The Eurasian Movement was very different from the NBP. Fenghi does analyse the aesthetics of the Eurasian Movement  and there doubtless is an aesthetic, and some artists are indeed inspired by Eurasianism, but no-one could argue that the Eurasian Movement is primarily aesthetic or artistic, though it is still in some ways counter-cultural. Fenghi understands its importance in terms of the impact of Dugin's Foundations of Geopolitics (Основы Геополитики) and of the Eurasian Movement's massive internet presence.

The counter-cultural aesthetics of the NBP continued after Dugin left it, and to some extent still continue in the NBP's successor, Drugaya Rossiya (Другая Россия). It still includes artists and poets as well as fighters, despite its close engagement in the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine. 

Fenghi explains why he decides to avoid the discussions of what Fascism is and whether the NBP was fascist, and in this connection notes that in answering such questions it is important to pay attention to a group's relationship with power and with institutions, not just its published ideology. This is a good point.