Updated: Mar 12, 2021
I am here to problematise your outlook—deal with it. This idea of problematisation, a sort of intellectual nagging-hag, crops up again and again today; why? The blame lies with Adorno; in particular, the statement: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He did not mean—as some neo-Nazis have it—that literally no poetry should be written in the wake of Auschwitz, nor did he mean, as a wet liberal might have it, that in the wake of mass murder we should refrain, as a moral duty, from poetry—although that is closer to what he was after. It is Adorno’s wider critique of mythology—represented by the above quote—that sustains a great many ideas commonly described as the fruits of postmodernism; so misdescribed because the right is primed against “the intellectual”, and France is the home of the intellectual par excellence—hence she gets the blame for every contemporary left-wing idea, usually grouped under the collective name “postmodernism”.
Adorno went straight to the root of the West—forget the nonsense about “our Judeo-Christian legacy” spewed by conservative think tanks—he started with Odysseus; a patriarchal, feudal landlord whose heroic journey was the quintessence of the West. But I get ahead of myself: Adorno liked the Enlightenment; he thought that it was a fine thing that it had done away with traditions, blood, and superstitions and, above all, the mythology of the past. There was, however, one problem: the Enlightenment had created its own mythology, a mythology of technical and scientific achievement. Adorno’s statement about poetry and Auschwitz was not just about Hitler’s quasi-poetic use of German; he was perturbed by the fact that orchestras played classical music on site—that is, basically, German music—as the camps operated; for Adorno, the totality of Western culture was implicated. Holistic in his thought, for Adorno the techno-scientific sensibility that led to Auschwitz was gestalt with Goethe and Bach; it all came out of a shared conceit. The heroic chemist is, after all, a man who works in emulation of Faust—and just what has the heroic chemist formulated today; and what will it be used for?
Thus, for Adorno, the final myth to abolish was the myth of progress and Enlightenment itself; it was the myth that hid within the abolition of myth—quite a dialectical notion. It followed, therefore, that what was required from the partisans of Enlightenment was total critique—total problematisation—of the cultural substrate that underpinned Western technological and scientific progress—including the myth of “progress”, every technical advance really refining human relations as products or things. Let us take Goethe as an example. He is Germany’s Shakespeare; one of the last geniuses: lawyer, playwright, scientist, poet—the complete man. He also, in his novel Elective Affinities, suggested that real progress and development in a small town required one single leader, a leader who acted in an unimpeded manner; in addition, it would be useful if the schoolchildren were drilled in a military way and exercised outdoors regularly. I think we can all see where this could go, taken beyond a single town. It needs to be problematised, no?
It is Adorno’s approach that underlies the left’s turn to what classical liberals call “irrationalism” or “anti-scientific thought”; it is not that this mode of investigation is anti-scientific per se, it is just against the network of assumptions that happen to underpin aspects of the scientific enterprise. Hence, from about 1968, with help from Herbert Marcuse, large sections of Western academia have expressed views that classical liberals—particularly mystified Anglo-Saxons—see as irrationalism and anti-Enlightenment: “The left are just like the Nazis in their nature worship,” puffs an exasperated Dawkins-type. As usual, the English are merely behind the Germans in thought; it is Adorno who had taken the most comprehensive steps to protect what Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and company would consider “the Enlightenment”.
The left does not celebrate indigenous ways of knowing, women, the environment, and so on as pagans or traditional societies did; they support these causes to complete the liberatory logic of Enlightenment—the final liberation of which must go beyond the scientific critique of traditions and particularities and strike at those elements of culture that lead science towards non-emancipatory and objectifying conclusions, such as IQ research. They want technology to be exercised within a sensibility that is non-mythic and non-heroic, without genius. As Marcuse observed, every day thousands of people jump into their cars to go to work and then get stuck in a traffic jam: their rational behaviour leads to an irrational outcome. The unreason within reason is what Adorno and Marcuse sought to critique, but they were not suggesting that intuition or instinct should replace reason; it is merely that, for them, real reason cannot ever lead to mythology or irrational results: there can only be movement towards emancipation, if the scientific research and technology produce non-emancipatory outcomes then these are, by definition, irrational.
The left today does not think it is being irrational; it is merely preserving what they consider to be the rational core of the Enlightenment: it is inconceivable for the left to believe that the Enlightenment could lead to non-emancipatory conclusions, such as inherent biological differences in autonomy within individuals—the reduction of a person to a thing or immutable category. Those people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and the classical liberals who defend “the Enlightenment” have chosen to ignore what Adorno noticed about half a century ago: Enlightenment science, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to non-emancipatory conclusions. The classical liberals equivocate and ignore what scientific research shows about race and sex differences; in this respect, their “irrational” left-wing opponents are more consistent.
The upshot of Adorno’s approach is that all music, literature, poetry, and so on must be chopped up—problematised—in order to neutralise its mythic potential; all so that, to put it crudely, some German boy at Gymnasium does not appear in the school production of Faust, become a chemist, and then invent Zyklon B in an atmosphere of rhythmic discipline regulated by occasional nights spent at a Bach concert. My aim with the previous sentence is to convey the organic nature of science, technology, and art and how these different aspects—particularly the rhythmic aspects—lead to the creation of science and technology. This is, in part, why the left hit the roof over Jordan Peterson, a fairly conventional conservative: he dragged Jung out into the public sphere. Jung! The arch-mythologiser! And, worse, Peterson mixed Jung and politics. No! Bad, puppy! Bad.
At this point I should pause to consider what we mean by “myth”, anyway. Mythology is the first form of knowledge and its acquisition is the realm of the poet-shaman, essentially the same role—although the poet has lost many aspects of the sacred in modernity, he is the modernised shaman. As the first form of knowledge, poetic myth belongs to culture not civilisation; culture is barbaric—poetry is barbaric, hence Adorno’s move to connect poetry, barbarism, and Auschwitz; and hence why he starts with the Odyssey, the foundational poem of the West, a poem that features much massacre. National Socialism was a self-conscious attempt at rebarbarisation, palingenesis, to be achieved, in part, through a poetic engagement with the world.
The poet-shaman understands the world through mimicry—through the masks so beloved by Jung, to wear the mask is to become what you wear. The poet-shaman acts as mirror to the cosmos; he becomes the Monad, his position is the same as the Buddha: his mind is a mirror; it can become anything—eventually even the mirror vanishes. This is why poetry is often associated with schizophrenia; the schizophrenic experiences ego collapse and the cosmos rushes at him—a high disorientation event: an event where he becomes the mirror and then there is no mirror at all, there just “is”. These events are consciously cultivated by shamans within various traditions; the schizophrenic experiences these events without any guide rails, hence his chronic disorganisation and alienation from society; a state not uncommon in poets. As for the users of DMT and LSD, they get the same experience—accounting for how some psychonauts swerve to the right, despite liberal proclivities, as they experience direct contact with divine order: “Far out, man! It’s just like there’s this thing, it’s so great I can’t see it or describe it, like, man….but, man, it’s like, you know.” “Yeah; I know, bro. I know.”
The myth is, then, what the poet-shaman brings back: a direct encounter with the rhythmic nature of the cosmos, with the heavenly order that operates behind the scenery—yes, it is exactly as you always suspected: the birds are angels, literally; they sing reality into existence. The myth compels and grants a society a meaningful existence; in its archaic form, it is a way to defeat enemies and heal the sick—since the shaman is in fact in direct communication with another plane of existence; whereas in mundane modernity, we might be moved by a well-executed poem or piece of music. As society develops, the myth becomes backgrounded to more precise and technical forms of knowledge and yet no society ever loses touch completely with this rhythmic relation to the cosmos; or, in material terms, beauty and tradition.
The poet-shaman and the genius are synonymous—and are one and the same as an enlightened person, in the Buddhist sense. Genius is universal—as is the Monad—it is not a form of technical specialisation, it cannot be achieved through a division of labour; it is universal because the genius, like the shaman, can assume any shape he pleases—he can emulate any thing, so he becomes cosmic. Goethe was, therefore, a genius; his forays into various fields were not those of a dilettante, because he mirrored and emulated those fields completely. The genius is, in effect, a higher type of individual who has achieved their differentiation through the loss of their egoic particularity; namely, they are the harmony of the cosmos. This is very particularly a harmony because meaning comes about through recursive structures—the Bach fugue is a musical representation of meditation; it loops back round on itself, the watcher watching the watcher watching the watcher and so on ad infinitum. The meaning of the myth comes about through its isomorphism with the recursive cosmic reality; hence Helios drives his chariot across the sky again and again.
So we find that poets often reflect back images of the cosmos that they emulate, mimicry being the actor’s art; for example, Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, looked like an otter, because he was an otter. The general attitude can be summed up by two quotes from the letters of Ted Hughes: “As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.” This attitude, when it is acted out in politics, may conclude with a figure like Hitler, because Hitler was a master of the German language—not a top poet, but certainly good enough for purpose. As with many poets, he was undoubtedly possessed by a daemon that granted him flashes of brilliance and this explains his curious eyes—open and receptive to everything, in the mode of Wittgenstein and Blavatsky. Hitler continues to exercise a fascination because, unlike his rival warlord, Stalin, he had poetic ability. Stalin was a poet in Georgian, but he governed in bureaucratic Russian—as his second language, he was reluctant even to give a speech in Russian; hence he could never create a mythology, he was never really in tune with the people he governed.
We now see the full dimensions of Adorno’s critique, a critique which terminates in the contention that a state should never be ruled poetically; even Trump’s clipped tweets, with their koan-like rhythm, were too poetic for the current system to tolerate: the myth had to be liquidated—it had to be fragmented and lose its organic rhythm. Only non-rhythmic poetry allowed. Sad! Low energy! The consequences of demythologisation are found in everyday life in the West today: life is meaningless and attempts to think in a poetic or grand style are fragmented and reduced to atomised “facts” or criticised with moral language: “I’m gonna have to problematise that…”
Ultimately, insofar as this approach informs large sections of Western academia, it destroys anything meaningful or beautiful in life—anything sacred or religious, in fact. It also inhibits the ability of our peoples to make intuitive leaps or insights of genius into the natural world and the human condition. We see this in the way the “problematic approach” has expanded outwards to encompass the figure of Winston Churchill. Neo-Nazis will often flip the demonisation of Hitler onto Churchill and make him out to be a corrupt and cruel man; but they are mistaken.
Churchill and Hitler were identical personalities, the British mobilised Churchill because it took a tiger to catch a tiger; as with Hitler, Churchill was popularly regarded as “mad” by most of respectable British opinion. Hitler and Churchill were both examples of political genius: temperamental, moody, depressive, and artistic—both were painters. They were both masters of their respective languages and spoke to the hearts of their respective populations. Further, they were millennial thinkers: Churchill spoke of the Battle of Britain in the context of a British Empire that would last for a thousand years—Hitler spoke of a Thousand-Year Reich. Aside from this, both men were fairly callous when it came to casualties and enjoyed the adventure of warfare; and, indeed, Churchill expressed scepticism about the role of international Jewry in world politics. There is actually very little to distinguish the men as characters, aside from their birth and social status.
Today, we see the contemporary left keen to problematise Churchill, even though he was a force against fascism and, de facto, advanced the cause of the left. This is because, as with the mythology of Enlightenment and progress, the Churchill myth—though it is an anti-fascist myth—is still a myth, and therefore inherently reactionary; the content of the myth is irrelevant: the myth is stronger than the subjective content. It follows that the myth must be fragmented, broken up, and moralised. Yet the myth will reassert itself—it is life, it is reality, and it will come again: it is the mighty river.