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.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Wendell Berry, Soft Traditionalist

Photo from the New Yorker
Wendell Berry
(born 1934), the American writer and agrarian, has spent much of his life siding with the land against the industrial exploiters of the land, and of farmers, and of the American rural way of life. He has written essays and books, notably The Unsettling of America (1977), as well as poetry and novels, notably Nathan Coulter (1960). For some, he follows in the steps of Henry David Thoreau. In another way, he also follows in the steps of the English Traditionalist and environmentalist Lord Northbourne (1896-1982), who combined Traditionalist perspectives with the biodynamic theories of the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). 

In 2008, the Maryami-affiliated publisher World Wisdom Books published a collection of Lord Northbourne’s writings, and Berry wrote a foreword to it. In this he noted that Northbourne had aligned himself with René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Marco Pallis, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, and Martin Lings, and added “I have read the four last-named at length and have been strongly affected and influenced by them.” 

That Berry did not describe himself as affected and influenced by Guénon and Schuon makes sense: he generally keeps away from religion in his writings, as “religion is a far more difficult subject than agriculture,” as he wrote. Yet “those who take agriculture seriously enough and study it long enough will come to issues that will have to be recognized as religious.” 

What, then, was the influence of the Traditionalists on Berry? It is hard to say, as he does not often name them in his writings. He is certainly a “soft” Traditionalist, drawing on the body of Traditionalist thought without dedicating himself to it. He values quality and form over quantity, and is as critical of modernity as any Traditionalist, following Coomaraswamy (and before him Ruskin) in associating it with industrial civilization. In opposition to modern industrial civilization he places not tradition but the rural, but with reservations. 

In one essay he quotes at length a late-eighteenth-century Methodist minister describing the behavior of a group of men from Kentucky (where Berry was born and lives) who passed the time after dinner by fighting each other. “The significance of this bit of history is in its utter violence,” notes Berry. And not just the violence of the men fighting each other, but of the way they also fought the “Indians,” and also the way that they treated the land they were occupying—far more brutally than the Indians, or “the peasants of certain old agricultural societies, particularly in the Orient.” The difference was that the Indian and the peasant “belonged deeply and intricately to their places,” while Americans of European origin, did not belong in any place, and on the whole still do not. And from this results the environmental crisis, the loss of topsoil that Berry often laments, and the loss of the life properly lived.

My thanks to Travis Kitchens for drawing my attention to Berry.