Sunday, April 22, 2018

Soft Traditionalism at the University of Kansas

A new biography reveals John Senior (1923-99) of the University of Kansas as a ”soft” Traditionalist. The biography is by Francis Bethel, O.S.B., John Senior and the Restoration of Realism (Merrimack NH: Thomas More College Press, 2016).

During the 1950s, Senior was a “hard” Traditionalist, following René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. He then moved away from this position towards Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, and converted to Catholicism. He subsequently wrote two important books, The Death of Christian Culture (1978) and The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983).

Senior worked practically for the restoration of traditional Christian culture at the University of Kansas from 1967 to 1984. He and two others ran the “Pearson Integrated Humanities Program,” which ran very much against the spirit of the times by focusing on the reading and discussion of classic texts (taking notes during these discussions was not allowed) and stressing the traditional, the Christian, and the European. As well as reading and discussing, students took part in formal dinners and ballroom dancing, went star gazing and traveled to Europe. Many became Catholics. The program became ever more controversial, and was finally closed.

My attention was drawn to the book by a fine review by Christopher H. Owen in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Missing Dugin's attempt to understand

Alexander Dugin is one of seven interesting Russians followed by the Russian–American journalist Masha Gessen in The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017). The book is well written, as one would expect from the pen of a talented journalist who is a New York Times bestseller. It interweaves the familiar tale of the recent history of Russia with the lives of Gessen’s seven characters, chosen not because they are powerful and important or because they are representative “regular people,” but because “they are the people who try to understand” (p. 4). An excellent idea: there is much in Russia’s recent history that needs to be understood.

In the event, however, the book focuses mostly on the other characters, who are generally liberal and sometimes gay, and on the familiar tale of the rise and fall of Russian liberalism. Disappointingly little space is given to Dugin or to his attempt to understand. In fact, almost the only new information about him is what his first wife later remembered as his opening line: “Do you know when violets bloom on the lips?” (p. 20). The opportunity to understand how Dugin’s understandings fit in with recent Russian history is, sadly, missed.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Evola and the Anti-Christian Alt-Right

An interesting new article on “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right: The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics” by Matthew Rose has been published in First Things (03, 2018). Rose looks at the stances on Christianity of Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, and Alain de Benoist. The article is largely descriptive, and (predictably) takes a Christian view. Rose’s characterization of Evola as “avant-garde painter, occultist, sexologist, alpinist, and unreliable scholar of Eastern religions” is memorable, if not entirely fair.

Monday, February 12, 2018

More Ismaili Traditionalism

Ali Lakhani, whose article “Living the Ethics of One’s Faith: The Aga Khan’s Integral Vision” was discussed in an earlier post, has now expanded this article into a book, published by I.B.Tauris “in association with” the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. To what extent this indicates the approval of the Institute of Ismaili Studies or of the Ismaili leadership is unclear. On the one hand, the book carries the standard disclaimer found also in other books in the series, to the effect that “the Institute’s sole aim is to encourage original research and analysis of relevant issues” and that “opinions… must be understood as belonging to their authors alone.” On the other hand, the Institute of Ismaili Studies is the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

The book (pictured) is entitled Faith and Ethics: The Vision of the Ismaili Imamat. In fact, it is really about Lakhani’s understanding of the public declarations of the current imam, the Aga Khan, not of the vision of the Ismaili Imamat across time. The Ismaili sources used are almost exclusively the Aga Khan’s public speeches. Lakhani’s understanding of these follows the understanding of his earlier articles: much of the Ismaili faith is understood in Traditionalist terms. Thus “essential principles,” which the Aga Khan values, become “tradition,” and modernity, with which the Aga Khan has no real problem, becomes “modernism,” which can then be defined (citing Seyyed Hossein Nasr) as “that which is cut off from… immutable principles” (53). The Aga Khan thus appears to be taking the standard Traditionalist positon against modernity (modernism) in favor of Tradition (essential principles). The reinterpretation of the Aga Khan’s speeches can sometimes be even more strained, as (for example) when the Aga Khan’s use of the term “cynical” is glossed as meaning “faithless” (p. 56). Many would think that the two words mean different things.

A question that arises is who Lakhani is trying to convince of what. Sometimes it seems that he is trying to show that the Ismaili faith is a traditional one, that it is in order for a Traditionalist to be an Ismaili, rather as Alexander Dugin once wrote a book to show that it is in order for a Traditionalist to be a Russian Orthodox Christian. Sometimes it also seems that he is trying to convince Ismailis that their imam is (more or less) a Traditionalist. This is not a view that is supported by my own understanding of the Ismaili faith or my own reading of the Aga Khan’s speeches. How many Ismailis will be convinced by it remains to be seen.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New articles on Ivan Aguéli

A special issue of Aura: Tidskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet was published at the end of 2017 with four articles on Ivan Aguéli—all in Aguéli’s native Swedish, unfortunately for those who do not know Swedish. 2017 was the one hundredth anniversary of Aguéli's death.

First, in “Målare, mystiker, muslim–Ivan Aguéli 1869-1917” (Painter, mystic, Muslim: Ivan Aguéli 1869-1917), Simon Sorgenfrei provides a short account of Aguéli’s life. Then, in “Den stora estetiska ingivelsen: Om Ivan Aguélis Swedenborgläsningar” (The great aesthetic submission: On Ivan Aguéli’s reading of Swedenborg), Sorgenfrei looks at Swedenborg’s influence on Aguéli. He first establishes how Aguéli encountered the writings of Swedenborg, and then looks at their early impact. Even in 1894 in the Mazas prison in Paris, Aguéli had taken to heart Swedenborg’s understanding of the absolute oneness of God to the point where he wrote to a friend of “faith in a highest being who is above all, Allah” and added that “monotheism is the essence of Christ's teaching, so important that the believing Muslim is more Christian than most Christians.” Swedenborg makes a somewhat similar point in Vera Christiana Religio, though less emphatically, without placing Muslims above Christians. Here, perhaps, is one root of Aguéli’s later conversion to Islam, the reasons for which remain unclear. Aguéli himself wrote shortly before his death, in a letter cited by Sorgenfrei, that he found Ibn Arabi and Lao Tse through Swedenborg.

On another topic, in investigating the general relationship between esotericism and art, Sorgenfrei draws attention to the title of a book by the Swedish scholar Kjell Espmark, Att översätta själen: en huvudlinje i modern poesi - från Baudelaire till surrealismen (To translate the soul: A central line in modern poetry, from Baudelaire to surrealism). Yes, that is one good way of looking at the artistic thought of the period.

Then Annika Ohrner’s “Hilma af Klint och Ivan Aguéli. Andlighet och konstens rum” (Hilma of Klint and Ivan Aguéli: Spirituality and the artistic space) also looks at the influence of esoteric thought on the painting of both Aguéli and his contemporary Hilma af Klint, another Swedish painter who also drew on esotericism, and even on Swedenborg. Ohrner also compares the subsequent reception of the two artists’ work. She does not investigate Swedenborg in particular. For Aguéli, she thinks, the key text is his own “L’art pur” in La Gnose, which expresses a classic Platonic view of the relationship between the material and the spiritual. One of the surprises in the article is that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire told Aguéli that he "stuck by" ("håller styft på") Aguéli's metaphysics, as expressed in his articles in La Gnose. Interesting that Apollinaire was evidently reading Guénon's journal.

Fianlly, “Den fiktive Aguéli: Identifikationsobjekt och projektionsyta för unga manliga konvertiter till islam” (The fictional Aguéli: Object of identification and projection surface for young male converts to Islam), by Susanne Olsson and Simon Sorgenfrei, looks at the impact of Aguéli on Swedish converts to Islam—or actually more at the impact of the works of the Swedish novelist Torbjörn Säfve, whose 1981 novel Ivan Aguéli: En roman om frihet (Ivan Aguéli: A novel about freedom) had a major impact on some of Olsson and Sorgenfrei's interviewees. Säfve himself was inspired by his own vision of Aguéli as anarchist, freethinker and Muslim, himself converted to Islam on that basis, and naturally enough portrays Aguéli and Islam in this way. Some converts learn later that Säfve’s version of Aguéli differs from that found in the historical sources, and also find that Islam is not all about anarchistic freethinking. This leads to the alternative function of Aguéli in Sweden today, as a model for integrating the Swedish and Islamic identities that are drifting every further apart, not as a symbol of the counter-culture.