January 8, 2010

The Last Reactionary

Note: This is a translation of a review by Jens Jessen of a German translation of Textos I. This review originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2004, edition of the German weekly Die Zeit.

Democracy is the taboo of the West. Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila ventures an attack.

There are writers who love him. His spirit breathes in the essays of Botho Strauss; the late Ernst Jünger cited him; George Steiner knows him; Martin Mosebach visited him. Gabriel García Márquez reportedly said that if he were not a Communist he would think like Nicolás Gómez Dávila. Many eyes light up when the conversation turns to him; but there are also people who regard the mere mention of him as a confession of fascism. All in all, the tracks which the Colombian philosopher left behind are not much clearer than the claw-prints of a tiny bird in the snow. Even he said of himself: “My convictions are the same as those of an old woman praying in the corner of a church.”

The literary form, which Gómez Dávila gave to his convictions, however, is anything but that of a whisper. They are cutting aphorisms, collected in five volumes from 1977 to 1992 and motivated by an overpowering hatred for modernity, such as has not been formulated since Nietzsche. But, it is not God he seeks to bury, but rather the modern belief that man can manage without God. Gómez Dávila is a Catholic writer with a singular zeal for the attack. Atheism, he says, does not make man free, but rather makes him a slave to the most absurd promises of salvation in this world. “There is no idiocy which modern man is not prepared to believe once he stops believing in Jesus Christ.”

That is a completely typical sentence. One can read him as a lament; but he also remains true as analysis, even if one does not share his Christian regret. Gómez Dávila is not interested in piety or devotion. His praise of the Church is venomous and is only meant as a contrast to the present. “One of the most important cultural achievements of the Church is to have created a climate unfavorable to economic activity.” One can feel the ease with which this sentence was formulated, but this ease feeds above all off the disdain for “economic activities.” Furthermore, the disdain draws its appeal, and its sting, from the awareness that today nothing is valued more than economic activity.

Shipwreck with Dignity

Gómez Dávila wants to irritate his contemporaries. But what does he want to achieve by that? It is not easy to define his intellectual profile. In the ideological cartography of the West, his type can no longer be found. Not by accident did Gómez Dávila, who up until his death in 1994 hardly ever left his hometown of Bogotá, carry out his critique of modernity from the edge of the western world. He saw himself as an “authentic reactionary.” That still does not make it easier for a contemporary public, which of a reactionary can barely imagine anything other than a fascist, or in the best case scenario, a monarchist. Gómez Dávila, however, is neither. The reactionary is for him not at all a political activist who wants to restore old conditions, but rather a “passenger who suffers shipwreck with dignity.” The reactionary is “that fool, who possesses the vanity to judge history, and the immorality to come to terms with it.”

Gómez Dávila does not want to do away with modernity—this he considers impossible. Rather, he wants to dispute the claim that modernity is completely natural, and thus leads to constant progress. “In order to heal the patient, which it wounded in the 19th century, industrial society had to numb his mind [to pain] in the 20th century.” Once more, so that it really hurts: “The price for industrial prosperity is a numbing of the mind.” In their readiness to enslave man for the sake of progress, he sees not the least difference between capitalism and communism. He is especially furious at the composure, with which the failure of the great totalitarian experiments of the 20th century is accepted, among which he would without doubt also count the German liberal market society. “The greatest modern error is not to proclaim that God died, but to believe that the devil has died.” And: “Modern man draws no lesson from catastrophes, but sees in them proofs of the universe’s shamelessness.”

For Gómez Dávila modern man is a being of monstrous irresponsibility, because he has overvalued himself. He feels like the master of his happiness. But, when it turns out that he was really the master of his unhappiness, he still does not doubt his goodness. In this illusion the two systems coincide. “Capitalism does not see itself as a bourgeois ideology, but as a construction of human reason; the Communist does not declare himself for the ideology of a class, but claims that the proletariat is the only representative of mankind.” Both systems, in short, believe in “a society in which man is ultimately the master of his destiny.”

The utopia of self-redemption is not at all limited to dictatorships. Even “democracy hopes for the redemption of man and arrogates to man that redeeming function.” The Vienna-based publisher, Karolinger Verlag, which has been releasing German translations of the aphorisms since 1986, has now also published a volume with longer texts (Texts is the succinct title). In this book Gómez Dávila attempts, with considerable energy, to demonstrate that even bourgeois-liberal democracies are not neutral to world views, but actually have as their basis an “anthropotheistic religion,” i.e. they secretly consider man God.

A preliminary empirical sign of this religion is the modern state’s hostility to traditional religions, which with its truth claims gets in democracy’s way. At its core, his argument is actually quite precise. It shows how scrupulous the reflections are which stand behind the bold aphorisms. His central thought is the remarkable willingness of citizens to accept the decisions of majorities over fundamental values and questions of conscience. This would be, if there existed a non-human God whose commands the citizens believed, completely incomprehensible. Truly divine commands must be removed from all earthly opinion. The intolerable limitation of individual freedom, which lies in the principle of majority rule, is also only acceptable, when the citizen supposes that in majority opinion a higher, quasi-divine reason is revealed. But why should this reason lie by the majority? Precisely this, says Gómez Dávila, is the core of democracy’s mystical faith, by which its pseudo-religious character can be recognized.

Freedom of Bribery

That, in addition, all forms of social policy which aim for equality and justice must presuppose an insight into the good equal to God’s, is almost self-evident; at least when one has agreed to Gómez Dávila’s way of thinking, which in dismaying fashion opposes all political institutions of the present day. Above all, he laments the loss of freedom in the modern state, “which wants to replace the social wholeness destroyed by the liberal and democratic mentality with its own wholeness.” In the end the police are “the only social structure in the classless society,” and: “Abuse of authority and bribery are in democratic times the last bastions of liberty.”

The reader will notice: With this philosopher one can build no state. His critique of the hidden dictatorial nature of democracy has an anarchical punch to it. But one must not in the least share his rebellious Catholicism to perceive the shocking truth of many of his diagnoses. He has a sharp eye for the dead end of “emancipatory” discourses (“The feminists are ridiculous; the anti-feminists are vulgar”), for the instrumentalization of culture (“It is time to ruin culture’s reputation, so that it is no longer profitable to subject it to the service of politics or industry”). Especially sharp is his insight into the democratically approved terror of mass taste (“Vulgar diversions and vulgar occupations are the only things for which one need not apologize”).

The greatness of Nicolás Gómez Dávila does not consist in finding some way out or in offering a vision for the future—all radical solutions are, for him, an abomination. That is why he also loves the fragment and abhors the system. His greatness lies in the force with which he shatters certainties and hopes where every doubt is long gone or frowned upon. Gómez Dávila is, as far as one can see, the only contemporary thinker, who in fact attacks existing taboos—the chief of which is, no doubt, democracy. He is, however, no revolutionary; he does not want to replace democracy. He is a reactionary, which means that he wants to arouse our suspicion. One could also say it with a word he would have abhorred: He wants the citizen to be of legal age,[1] to be responsible.

[1] He would have abhorred this word because the German adjective mündig ("of legal age") is an allusion to Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”

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