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.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

New article on Traditionalism in South American Literature and Academia

Just published (online first): Mark Sedgwick, “Guénonian Traditionalism in South American Literature and Academia,” International Journal of Latin American Religions. Online first https://doi.org/10.1007/s41603-021-00134-6. Free view (not download) available on https://rdcu.be/ckZ0Z

According to the abstract,

Perennialist or Guénonian Traditionalism is a global esoteric movement that is found in South America as it is in North America and Europe. Its major religious form, which is Sufi, is also found in South America, as is its major political form, which is on the Right. This article investigates what further impact Traditionalism has had in South America and finds that this has been primarily in Argentina’s literary and artistic milieu during the 1920s to 1940s and among philosophers and anthropologists in Argentina and Peru from the 1950s until today. The literary impact in Argentina is comparable to that which Traditionalism had in France at the same time but is more significant, perhaps because the period is so important for Spanish American literature. The academic impact in Argentina and Peru is comparable to the impact that Traditionalism had in the USA, at the same time, but differs in its disciplinary profile and religious forms. In the USA Traditionalists are found in departments of religious studies and Islamology and are often Sufis. In Argentina and Peru, there are few Sufis and more alternative religious forms. The difference, it is suggested, may reflect the special status of indigenous peoples in Peru, the historic strength of the Gurdjieff movement throughout Latin America, and differences in the structure of South American and North American universities.


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

New collection on Ivan Aguéli

Just published: Anarchist, Artist, Sufi: The Politics, Painting, and Esotericism of Ivan Aguéli, edited by Mark Sedgwick (Bloomsbury). 

14 chapters by 13 scholars, plus English translations of some of Aguéli's own writings. Sections on art (and anarchism) in Paris, Sufism in Cairo, and Traditionalism--influence on René Guénon. and Traditionalist theories of art. 

Chapter 13, "The significance of Ivan Aguéli for the Traditionalist movement," looks directly at Aguéli, Guénon, and later Traditionalists, but the chapters on Aguéli the Sufi will also be of interest to those who are interested in Traditionalism. And the chapters on Aguéli the Anarchist Artist place everything in a wider context.

And as the blurb says, the book shows that "Islam occupied a more central place in modern European intellectual history than is generally realized. [Aguéli's] life reflects several major modern intellectual, political, and cultural trends. This book is an important contribution to understanding how he came to Islam, the values and influences that informed his life, and-ultimately-the role he played in the modern Western reception of Islam."

The table of contents is:

1. Ivan Aguéli: politics, painting and esotericism, Mark Sedgwick (Aarhus University, Denmark)

Part I: Ivan Aguéli, the Anarchist Artist
2. Ivan Aguéli's life and work, Viveca Wessel (formerly Moderna Museet, Sweden)
3. Exploring the territories of the avant-garde: Ivan Aguéli and the institutions of his time, Annika Öhrner (Södertörn University, Sweden)
4. Ivan Aguéli the esotericist in reality and fiction, Per Faxneld (Södertörn University, Sweden)
5. Ivan Aguéli's monotheistic landscapes: From perspectival to solar logics, Simon Sorgenfrei (Södertörn University, Sweden)
6. Painting the sacred as an initiatic path: Art and Cubism in the eyes of Ivan Aguéli, Thierry Zarcone (CNRS, Paris, France)
7. “Kill the audience:” Ivan Aguéli's moralistic utopia of anarchism and Islam, Anthony T. Fiscella (Formerly Lund University, Sweden)

Part II: Ivan Aguéli the Sufi
8. Ivan Aguéli's second period in Egypt, 1902–09: The intellectual spheres around Il Convito/Al-Nadi, Paul-André Claudel (University of Nantes, France)
9. Sufi Teachings for pro-Islamic Politics: Ivan Aguéli and Il Convito, Alessandra Marchi (University of Cagliari, Italy)
10. Ivan Aguéli and the legacy of Emir Abdelkader, Iheb Guermazi (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
11. Ivan Aguéli's humanist vision: Islam, Sufism and universalism, Meir Hatina (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel)
12. Feminism and the Divine Feminine: An exploration of female elements in Ivan Aguéli and subsequent Traditionalist thought, Marcia Hermansen (Loyola University, USA)

Part III: Ivan Aguéli and Traditionalism
13. The significance of Ivan Aguéli for the Traditionalist movement, Mark Sedgwick (Aarhus University, Denmark)
14. What is esotericism in art? Ivan Aguéli's art versus the Traditionalists' “traditional Art,” Patrick Ringgenberg (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)

Part IV: Writings by Ivan Aguéli
15. Letter from Paris
16. Letter from Ceylon
17. The Enemies of Islam
18. Pure Art
19. Universality in Islam

Bibliography
Index

The book is currently available only in hardback at £85 or $137.60 and on Kindle at £51.11 or $82.80, so get your library to order or it or wait for the paperback. And in the meantime you can read the introduction and bits of some other chapters on Google Books here.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

A new book from Louis Charbonneau-Lassay

Louis Charbonneau-Lassay
(1871-1946), a specialist in Christian symbolism, was a friend of René Guénon, whom he told about the Estoile Internelle, an Christian initiatic organisation that at one point interested the early Traditionalists.

In addition to the Charbonneau-Lassay archives (see earlier post here) we now have a reconstruction of his final great work, Le Vulnéraire du Christ: La mystérieuse emblématique des plaies du corps et du coeur de Jésus-Chris (Gutemberg, 2018), and in English translation, The Vulnerary of Christ: The Mysterious Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Jesus Christ (New York: Angelico Press, 2020). A vulnerary is, of course, something used in the cure of wounds. 

The Vulnerary has been reconstituted by Gauthier Pierozak, the manager of the invaluable René Guénon archive at www.index-rene-guenon.org.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Traditionalist sympathizer resigns as Brazilian Foreign Minister

Ernesto Araújo, probable Traditionalist sympathizer (see earlier post here), resigned as Brazilian foreign minister on March 29, 2021.

The resignation came as part of a major cabinet reshuffle and in response to growing criticism of Araújo's record, notably in connection with relations with China (and former President Trump) and thus with obtaining supplies of Covid vaccine.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

New book on Ivan Aguéli's impact on René Guénon

A new book, Ivan Aguéli: The Pearl upon the Crown by Oliver Fotros (which seems to be a pseudonym) argues that Ivan Aguéli's influence on René Guénon was far greater than is commonly realized, giving detailed comparisons from both men's writings, and asking why this influence has not been noticed before. The book, which is 110 pages long and self-published, is available from Amazon.

I think Fotros is probably more or less right, and I actually make a similar argument in my chapter on "The significance of Ivan Aguéli for the Traditionalist movement" in the forthcoming (in April) collective work on Aguéli, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi: The Politics, Painting, and Esotericism of Ivan Aguéli (Bloomsbury).

Monday, March 22, 2021

New book on Schuon's thought, including his views on Islam

Patrick Laude has just published a guide to Schuon's thought, Keys to the Beyond: Frithjof Schuon's Cross-Traditional Language of Transcendence (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020; $34.95). Laude, who is himself a Traditionalist, knows Schuon's thought well, and does a good job of explaining and synthesising it, though those without preparation may still find the book hard.

The book's first section has four chapters, starting with a chapter on "Ātman, Māyā and the Relatively Absolute," which explains Schuon's basic metaphysical framework. Then comes "The Avatāric Mystery," Schuon's understanding of "descent" in various contexts. "Upāya: Religion as Relatively Absolute" covers Schuon's understanding of religion as such, and "The Nature of Things and the Human Margin" covers esotericism

The following section consists of two chapters, "Trinitarian Metaphysics" and "Necessary Sufism and the Archetype of Islam." These deal with Schuon's understandings of Christianity and Islam

Then come three chapters on three special topics: "The Divine Feminine." "The Yin-Yang Perspective and Visual Metaphysics," and "The 'Tantric' Spiritualization of Sexuality."

Finally, a chapter on "Esoteric Ecumenism" indicates the place of Schuon within current academic approaches to religious pluralism

One of the most interesting chapters is that dealing with the difficult topic of Schuon's relationship with Islam. Laude's argument is that it is wrong to understand Schuon's thought in Sufi or Islamic terms, even if this is how Seyyed Hossein Nasr tends to see it. "The fact that Schuon himself led most of his adult life within the ritual forms of a particular tradition [Islam] does not in the least invalidate” the fact that on an esoteric and metaphysical level he was supra-confessional (p. 191). He emphasised that esotericism is independent of the various traditional forms (religions), and often critiqued "the intrinsic limitations of the perspectival and theological forms of Abrahamic religions" (193), including Islam.


New article on Traditionalism and the Far Right in Argentina

Just published (online first): Mark Sedgwick, "Traditionalism and the Far Right in Argentina," in Politics, Religion & Ideology, DOI 0.1080/21567689.2021.1904909

According to the abstract,

The Traditionalism of the French esoteric philosopher René Guénon and the Italian esoteric philosopher Julius Evola is important for the Far Right. Guénon’s Traditionalism is primarily religious, but has significant political implications, while Evola’s Traditionalism is primarily political, though retaining its religious grounding. It has been important for the Far Right in Europe, Russia, and North America. As this article shows, Traditionalism has also been important in Argentina, but in ways that differ from patterns observed elsewhere. This article distinguishes three phases in the Argentinian reception of Traditionalism, starting in the 1920s. Guénon was first received in the Argentinian ‘integralist’ Catholic milieu along with other anti-modernists like Jacques Maritain and Nikolai Berdyaev, and then at the Seminary of Paraná in the aftermath of the Tacuara movement. This is remarkable, as elsewhere it is Evola who has a political impact, not Guénon, and Guénon, who dismissed the Catholic Church, is generally ignored by Catholics. During a third phase, following global trends, Evola replaced Guénon, but in more marginal circles. These three phases show the importance of the interaction between transnational influences and national conditions, in this case the unusual position of the Catholic Church in Argentinian political life.

Print version due in volume 22, no. 2. 




Wednesday, January 06, 2021

New articles on the World of Islam Festival of 1976

A number of articles have been published recently dealing with the World of Islam Festival of 1976, held in London, financed mostly by the UAE, and presenting a very Traditionalist perspective of Islamic art, given the major roles played by Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

The most comprehensive article is Klas Grinell, "Framing Islam at the World of Islam Festival, London, 1976," Journal of Muslims in Europe 7, no. 1 (2018): 73–93. https://doi.org/10.1163/22117954-12341365. This (open-access) article is also the only article that fully discusses Traditionalist involvement and perspective. It describes the Festival and its organisation in detail, and identifies two problems with its underlying conception. One is that it understood Islamic art as a single essence ("an art form governed by a few esoteric and timeless principles"), rather than following normal academic practice that looks at art (including Islamic art) in terms of periods, styles, and so on. The other is that it excluded contemporary Islamic art; Islamic art was shown as traditional, in opposition to modernity--which is fine in Traditionalist terms--or alternatively as being "incompatible with contemporary British everyday life," which is more problematic in contemporary (Islamophobic) terms.

Grinell argues that the Festival has a continuing impact today. Even if academic scholars of art were never very impressed by the way the Festival was organized, this has had a lasting impact on museum curators. Grinell does not say which museums he is thinking of, but the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar immediately comes to mind. For the adverse reaction of academic scholars of art, Grinell cites an earlier article by Oleg Grabar, "Geometry and Ideology: The Festival of Islam and the Study of Islamic Art," in A Way Prepared, Essays on Islamic Culture in Honor of Richard Bayly Winder, ed. Farhad Kazemi and R. D. McChesney (New York: New York University Press, 1988), pp. 145-52. This has been republished and is also available online, at https://archnet.org/publications/5019.

A similar but less comprehensive article in French is Monia Abdallah, "World of Islam Festival (Londres 1976) : Naissance d’un nouveau paradigme pour les arts de l’Islam," Revue d'art canadienne / Canadian Art Review  39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-100. https://doi.org/10.7202/1026192ar. Abdallah broadly agrees with Grinell (or rather, Grinell follows Abdallah), and makes similar arguments.

Another article is Anneka Lenssen, "'Muslims to Take Over Institute for Contemporary Art:' The 1976 World of Islam Festival," Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 42, no. 1/2 (Summer/Winter 2008): 40-47. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23063541. Tis has a good discussion of the exhibition at the the Hayward Gallery.

One further article on the Festival does not engage in these discussions, but tells a good story: Rachel Ainsworth and Sarah Worden, “Jean Jenkins: Music and the 1976 World of Islam Festival,” Journal of Museum Ethnography 28 (2015): 184–197. www.jstor.org/stable/43915897.