Virulent Fatalism: Modernity, Decadence, and Collapse

Base sexuality, sickness, religion, and intoxication entwine about each other in these texts, as withered creepers and roots might do as they cascaded into a chasm full of bats.

—Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation

These are the months of love; I’m seventeen, the time of hope and chimeras, as they say, and so, a child blessed by the hand of the Muse (how trivial that must seem), I’ve set out to express my good thoughts, my hopes, my feelings, the provinces of poets—I call all of this spring.

—Arthur Rimbaud, I Promise to Be Good: Letters of Rimbaud 

Maladaptation. “With what ghoulish glee, when it comes time to shovel him under, do we focus attention upon the “maladaptation” of the lone individual, the only true rebel in a rotten society!”1 Rather than being enslaved by and adapted to the reality system of collective expediency the rebel exposes himself to that dark impossibility of exit. There is no escape, only ever internal or external exile, a wandering and going under. Masking the spite filled hollows of one’s bitterness becomes the only challenge to corruption of life within a civilization bounded by its own illusions and delusions, the deliriums of its inescapable destiny in collapse. For the rebel they can only be secession, a slow or fast withdrawal from the collapsing void. As Miller would extemporize,

In the whirlpool of coming darkness and chaos-a veritable tohu-bohu-the poets of today are withdrawing, embalming themselves in a cryptic language which grows ever more and more unintelligible. And as they black out one by one, the countries which gave them birth plunge resolutely toward their doom. (10)

Poète maudit! Alfred de Vigny in his 1832 novel Stello, coined the term and would describe these daemonic creatures as “la race toujours maudite par les puissants de la terre” (The race that will always be cursed by the powerful ones of the earth!”). Such is the fate of those who blessed with the madness of seeing too much, of knowing too much, of having delved into the pits and black bile of a society’s toxic wastelands and spent their youth among the ruins and seasons in hell.

Winter is Coming…

In the recent HBO Miniseries based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series the phrase “Winter is coming…” resounds throughout the episodes as it moves methodically toward decadence, decline, and collapse into climacteric and political doom. As if echoing the state of our own world through the lens of Medieval fantasy Martin’s work has captured the desires and fears of our time for many readers and viewers of the television adaptation.

For me it’s not so much the subversive intent of such works as it is this sense of impending doom, an ominous sense that the pressure of an undefined and undefinable future is moving toward us like a train wreck that has already happened. We can see the lights as it heads toward us out of the depths of a dark tunnel, and hear its horns of warning, and yet we can do nothing about it but face the inevitability of it as it accelerates faster and faster toward us.

Fatalism. Predestination. Destiny. Doom. Such strange and unsettling terms for an anxiety that all this has been foreknown, planned out, set in stone: a temporal dimension of absolute time that seems to already see into that future the consequences of our civilization’s dire death pangs. But what’s behind the mask of all these terms, what truth do these notions of time as amor fati – a love of fate (Nietzsche) intend? Why have so many cultures invested so much time and effort into understanding the patterns of such terminal zones of collapse and destruction? And it does come to that, a study of the stars, of the influence of the rotations of ancient thought melded to the weavings and turnings of the heavens, of astrological significance, of the measured movements of time across the starry voids of the abyss above us. Cycles within cycles, spiraling, shaping, molding, modulating the world’s of men and earth, the folds of time’s intricate warp and woof as if the triune sisters of beginnings, middles, and ends – those Fates who sing of man’s tragic flaws and the downward plunge into chaos and despair were not a myth but a formidable truth about reality that could not be told of understood in any other manner.

In the ancient Norse and Germanic mythologies of the North from which much modern fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin’s works dip from those deep wells of memory, there is a dark time set in the future toward which the world moves: Ragnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in fire and water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, through regeneration and restoration of the pristine and purified natural realms devoid of the ruins and wastelands of human stain and evil, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors – a shadow of Adam and Eve.

One of the earliest of such myths of course is the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The first half of the story introduces Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. After Enkidu becomes civilized through sexual initiation with a harlot, he travels to Uruk, where he challenges Gilgamesh to a test of strength. Gilgamesh wins and the two become friends. Together, they make a six-day journey to the legendary Cedar Forest, where they plan to slay the Guardian, Humbaba the Terrible, and cut down the sacred Cedar. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.

In the second half of the epic, distress about Enkidu’s death causes Gilgamesh to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He eventually learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands”. However, because of his great building projects, his account of Siduri’s advice, and what the immortal man Utnapishtim told him about the Great Flood, Gilgamesh’s fame survived his death. His story has been translated into many languages, and in recent years has featured in works of popular fiction.

Already we see many of the themes that would resurface among many later myths in other lands, other songs and epics: the Great Leader, the Wild Man, and a Devil; Life, Death, Decay, Collapse, Floods… and, a sense of purification, regeneration, resurrection, and restoration of Order spontaneously out of Chaos, etc. Northrup Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism once spoke of this mythic worldview which repeats itself consistently throughout various countries, nationalities, and time periods from tribal to sophisticated societies with an almost eerie similarity:

The apocalyptic and demonic worlds, being structures of pure metaphorical identity, suggest the eternally unchanging, and lend themselves very readily to being projected existentially as heaven and hell, where there is continuous life but no process of life. The analogies of innocence and experience represent the adaptation of myth to nature: they give us, not the city and the garden as the final goal of human vision, but the process of building and planting. The fundamental form of process is cyclical movement, the alternation of success and decline, effort and repose, life and death which is the rhythm of process.2

This interplay between the emerging cultures of stasis, cities, and their enslavement of humans to a well-defined realm of authority and territory against the earlier hunter-gatherer societies and their nomadic existence within the natural and processual realms of wild nature have produced the varied forms and life patterns for human myth, ethos, and orientation since at least the Neolithic age if not sooner. Most of what we know of modernity has been for two hundred years defined against this past, these origin myths that guided humans for tens of thousands of years, and would become more and more relegated to the dustbin of prehistory and the slow evolving power of and emergence of Reason and Logic out of this primal sea of chaotic images and narrative soup of poetry and rhetoric.

One need only look back at Medieval historical accounts which are replete with the fused elements of ancient thought. The events in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British history are supposed to be contemporary with those of the Old Testament, and the sense of life under the law is present everywhere in King Lear. The same structural principle accounts for the use of astrology and other fatalistic machinery connected with the turning wheels of fate or fortune. Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed, and Troilus loses Criseyde because every five hundred years Jupiter and Saturn meet the crescent moon in Cancer and claim another victim. The tragic action of the fifth phase presents for the most part the tragedy of lost direction and lack of knowledge, not unlike the second phase except that the context is the world of adult experience. Oedipus Tyrannus belongs here, and all tragedies and tragic episodes which suggest the existential projection of fatalism, and, like much of the Book of Job, seem to raise metaphysical or theological questions rather than social or moral ones.

I’ve always been fascinated by the literature of crime, noir, and film noir which portrays the very core of modernity’s fatalism. The fatalism of noirs and the suggested futility of deliberation raise two separate issues that need to be distinguished. There is the more strictly philosophical question about the very possibility of action: conditions that must be fulfilled for something to count as an action, something I do, and not something that happens to me. It is that in the best noirs we are presented not merely with a form of life shadowed, as a matter of historical fact, by a growing, shared, heightened sense of fatalism and alienation, but we see what is, in effect, a partially worked-out picture of what it would be to live in such a world, a shared world not wedded to the notions of reflective individuals formulating plans for avowed purposes and then enacting causal powers to effect them. We don’t, that is, see only pictures of suffering victims, individuals overwhelmed by forces they cannot control, and so merely buffeted hither and yon. This is what individual characters fear and what they often find to be true (or at times would like to think in some self-serving contexts), but they still have to continue to live or lead a life, in some sense to plan and decide. They cannot, after all, just wait to see what will happen to them (although some male leads are so passive that it can seem that this is what they are trying to do), and this tension is the most interesting aspect of noirs.3

As Andrew Pepper understood it the astonishing thing about film noir just after WWII was that so many of the prominent noir directors were refugees from central Europe, and the bleak, fatalistic tone of so many of the films must have had something to do with their realization that the war and the holocaust had exposed the illusions in conventional views about the possible range of future events that could be directed by human intentions. Nothing and no one and no concerted action stopped or could have stopped (they seemed to reason) the horrors of those years. Those who escaped and survived did so by mere chance and so had to bear the burden of survivor guilt. One can even imagine many of these directors trying to teach American studios and film audiences that single lesson about the weakness and even futility of our attempts to direct the future rationally (in the face of the conventions of classic realist film and American optimism in general). (ibid.)

The ancient heroic cultures were foundational and base on sacrifice, blood oath, and law – the law of the tribe, council, King, etc.. In our time the foundational myths are under absolute suspicion, Law, Myth, Rites, and the whole gamut of trust in Leadership and Justice is under suspicion, corruption, and decay. We live rather in a post-law society, a world criminalized and criminalizing – founded not so much by a mythos, but by its unmaking.

We live in a moment not unlike that with one exception our war is economic, political, and an ongoing sense of terror that is pervasive in our lack of leadership, our polarization of Left-Right, the collapse of Washington into failure, society into racial civil-war, and the looming potential for the sciences to create monstrosities out of both our machines and ourselves through posthuman, inhuman, and transhuman ideologies. Philosophy itself would arise out of a war against fatalism and mythic forms of thought in Plato and his subsequent followers and enemies alike. Our own secular civilization would be based on the exclusion and transport of these ancient myths of origins, replaced by Reason and Logic and founding frameworks based on beginnings and contracts constructed by men not gods. Modernity would play itself out against the ancients and their mythic forms of thought and feeling. Early sociologists would term this secularization of society the demythologization of the human project, the erasure of those guiding epics and narratives based in gods, stars, and the deterministic notions of either structure or process, static or cyclic time. Yet, others have seen these very mythic forms emerge under new guises in the mask of various frameworks and concepts of the sciences themselves as functions underpinning the very logic and reasons of both philosophy and political thought to this day. That the ancient pagan mythos had been conveyed under the syncretic tendencies within the long Medieval reign of Catholicism and its Protestant heresies. That Modernity was itself a mythos and political theology shaped and designed by men whose very atheisms were subversive myth ridden narratives shaped by the undertow and shadow worlds of Christendom itself – the amalgamated heresies of ancient Greco-Roman and Hebraic civilization fused into a new mythology of Reason.

All through the Nineteenth Century in the midst of the prosperous emergence of rational civilization with its banks, industries, markets, etc. as the positive light side of an otherwise chaotic world there was a shadow realm of the Gothic, Decadent, and Nightmarish worlds of rebellious romantics and nihilists, outsiders who existed in the dark lairs or extremities of this emerging light world of Capital. Anarchists, Socialists, Renegades, Prophets, Madmen, Sexual deviants, Murders, Psychopaths, etc., all the scathing spite of a world of misfits who would reject this clock-work world of the new time-serving moneyed classes. Dissidents of every stripe would wander the subterranean layers, seekers of visions and change, prophets of doom and transformation, voices of the daemonic powers from below of revolt and anguish. So that this war between Light and Dark, a Manichean world of dichotomies would emerge in the literature of subversion and revolt and give voice to the age of suspicion we’ve all come to know all too well. One that is still very much with us even now.

I could take you through a short history of this, drop all the supposed important names and players in this strange thing we’ve become and are still becoming, but I want – at least not in this post. That’s a history that needs telling once again, but one that would be better served in fragments uncovering in more depth the twisted skein our tapestry of Modernity entails. This post is a mere prelude and uncovering not of the history but more of the conceptual framework of Modernity that is still with us. The ideas, concepts, and tendencies that shape us, mold us, modulate the very truth and mythos of our own times, influence our habits, thoughts, and behaviors. There are literally thousands of books on the notion of Modernity covering its beginnings, history, and all the various aspects of economics, politics, religion, philosophy, sex, mores, ethics, cultural milieu, and the underpinnings of thought and technics, mind and technology at the heart of it.

Above all Modernity is bound to art, technics, technology – and, technicity. Strangely its this love affair with knowledge, the sciences, and technicity that are in our own time taking on an ominous reversal in the equation of human history. For as many have perceived technology as a tool and prosthesis, a helpmate and extension of humanity to allow us to defend ourselves against a hostile cosmos and environment, carve out artificial climes, cities, and technical worlds which have been enabled us to leave the planet and enter the realms of space. All of this ingenuity and sublime power is now becoming a detriment to human wishes and aspirations: technology is now beginning to condition us, to replace us, to become independent and autonomous of us. Technology through the very power of art, technics, and technicity may in our century take on a strange and eerie life of its own, suddenly become intelligent and superior to its progenitor. And instead of being our handmaid we may actually become its slave and  helper as it exits and secedes from its human masters command and control.

Some have called this progress, improvement, change: the impetus and tendency at the core of Modernity. In the coming posts I want to explore the emergence, history, and great reversal ongoing in our time within Modernity. Some seek to do away with notions of progress and modernity altogether, to restore a former worldview and traditionalism. Is this possible? What would it mean? Or, have we already come too far for such nostalgic returns and restorations? Many speak of Sovereignty and Power, of the blind alleys that Modernity led humans into that brought us nothing but war, genocide, death, disease, famine, and the end game of a possible natural catastrophe in the coming centuries of  climacteric disaster and ruin. Others see all this as passé, a form of fear mongering and reactionary terror against the perceived power of change and progress, technical and social justice, etc. As it the future were a utopian box of gifts and we were just too dull to accept its challenges. Still others see that the past and future are both hopeless, that we are cut off in a futureless as well as historical timelessness and presentism, doomed to a “neoliberal” (I put it in quotes because the term has become so used that like a coin rubbed to death it is faceless and means nothing anymore) simulation in a void of economic and political austerity and stasis, closed off in a timeless void without a key to the Iron Prison. In my own regeneration of tradition I advocate for a reemergence  of occulture – the magical, Gnostic, Hermetic, and various world lore’s of local flavor and obscurity, allowing the underground traditions to merge with techno-commerical thematic in bringing about a new understanding of ancient thought and praxis kept out of the mainstream cultural hierarchies. All of these and tributary thoughts will be covered in the coming months…. stay tuned.

  1. Miller, Henry. Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud. New Directions; Revised ed. edition (January 17, 1962) (Page 9).
  2. Fyre, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism (Kindle Locations 2772-2777). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Pippin, Robert B.. Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (Page-Barbour Lectures) (Kindle Locations 355-357). University of Virginia Press. Kindle Edition.

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