‘Sacred Sociology: A French Approach to the Religious Dimension of Fascism’, Carlo Ginzburg, Leo Baeck Institute, London December 7 2004
Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘microhistories’ of belief-contagion (and of withcraft in particular) make him an enormous resource for students of hyperstition. The subject of Ginzburg’s lecture on Tuesday, held in the vaguely sinister atmosphere of the Leo Baeck Institute near Regents Park on, was the College de Sociologie, founded by Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris in Paris in 1937.
The College de Sociologie from the start envisaged its mission to involve not the provision of a sociology of the sacred but the invention of a sacred sociology. The College explicitly abandoned the aim of studying religion with academic detachment; its three founding members didn’t want to be scholars so much as participants in a revivified cult of the sacred. In this ambition, naturally, they broke from the positivist pretensions of sociology. The founder of the discipline, Emile Durkheim, together with his nephew, Marcel Mauss, had precisely thought that sociology would ultimately supercede religion. The dispassionate appreciation of Society as Sovereign would replace supernaturalist superstitions, providing a rational(ist) and non-sectarian base for social cohesion in a way that religions never could. Rejecting this rationalist religion, Bataille, Cailois and Leiris wanted the religion, but without the rationalism.
Here, then, the rejection of Enlightenment is all-but complete. Rationality is repudiated, demonized. It is made equivalent with a process of modernization that is seen to be ‘taking us away’ from something essential that was supposedly present in all other human groupings – especially primitive societies – but which has now been ‘lost’, and which can only be recovered by either opiating reason or jabbing it into submission with Dionysian phalluses.
Accordingly, Ginzburg positioned Bataille and the College as part of a ‘Catholic-Satanic’ lineage (I’m not making this up, honest) Counter-Enlightenment tradition. Significantly, in the case of the College de Sociologie this flight from reason specifically entailed a rejection of the Jewish rationalist tradition of which Durkheim was a firm adherent.
If – as is established in Jonathan Israel’s work – Spinoza is the Jewish-rationalist inventor-discoverer of radical enlightenment, the most obvious source of the counter-enlightenment trajectory that culminated in the College and its irrationalist successors in postmodernity has usually been taken to be Sade. But Ginzburg took one step back along that well-travelled route, returning to Voltaire. In Ginzburg’s narrative, Voltaire emerged as the pitvotal counter-enlightenment figure: a disappointed rationalist whose inability to square his knowledge of the natural world with rational ethical principles made him cry out in moral disgust for a theodicy.
What is prima facie odd in Voltaire’s turn from rationalism is its strange doubling of the logic of the disappointed theist. Like those idiotically chauvinistic religious believers who only begin to question their faith in the Demiurge-Jahweh only when a member of their family is struck ill, Voltaire was famously morally shocked by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Since Voltaire had dispensed with faith in the personal God, his moral outrage at the 1755 disaster could not make him atheistic – he already was. What it did was make him question his ‘faith’ in rationalism.
Voltaire, then, is perhaps the first case study of what will become, in Nietzschean postmodernity, a familiar psychopathology. Rational analysis rounds upon itself. The scalpel of analytic reason – the capacity to understand Nature and the principles which animate it – becomes a weapon of auto-laceration turned both against reason itself and its agent. Never fully extirpated (because never fully extirpatable), reason is lured into a hideous line of abolition.
(Later, Nietzsche will be the consummate artist of what he himself will call, in Beyond Good and Evil, the long, slow suicide of reason. The object of Nietzsche’s remark is, as always a religious thinker, Pascal. But, as ever, Nietzsche finds himself guilty of the very vices of which he accuses the theists. Hence the negative atheologies of those Nietszchean all-too Nietzschean cults of un-reason, deconstruction and postmodernity. But that is to jump ahead. Nietzsche cast a vast shadow over Ginzburg’s narrative, but featured only very fleetingly as a player within it.)
Traumatized by the Lisbon catastrophe, Voltaire becomes morbidly obsessed with nature’s amoral rapacity. When he surveys Nature, he confronts a Boschian Garden of Earthly Delights, a proto-Burroughsian universe of devourer-eat-devourer. The planet as charnel house. ‘Earth is a single battlefield.’ (The) Meat causes him revulsion. ‘Can anything be more horrible than to feed oneself on corpses?’
It is only a short step to Sade’s naturalization of cruelty. Since nothing is more natural than murder, ethics is a sentimental indulgence, an inevitably failed effort to provide solace for ourselves in a world of pitiless consumption and degradation. Sade’s arguments are so familiar – and Sadeanism, along with its successor Nietzscheanism, is so widely disseminated, so blanket accepted, both culturally and academically – that there is little point jumping on the grim hedonic treadmill of his thought again here now.
But the next figure in Ginzburg’s story is much less celebrated: Joseph de Maistre. Maistre was a theist who abominated the French Revolution but who nevertheless followed the logic of his faith by recognizing that its occurrence must be part of a divinely-ordained Necessity. Maistre is therefore in every sense the exemplary reactionary conservative.
What Maistre’s cold survey of ‘the universal law of violent destruction of human beings’ adds to Voltaire and Sade’s vision of earth as a charnel house is the notion of sacrifice. It is ritualized sacrifice which allows civil society to some degree contain the cosmic reality of Evil. While cruelty, for Sade, is distributed throughout the whole body politic, for Maistre, modern society manages to sublimate its destructive impulses by limiting its licensed practice to the work of two abject figures who occupy a liminal relation to the ‘ordinary’ human world their despised existence both protects and makes possible: the soldier and the hangman.
Ginzburg lingered with an obvious relish over Maistre’s astonishing, appalled-fascinated evocation of the hangman, the anti-social but socially-necessary psychopath and for Ginzburg, it is the combination of Sade and Maistre that makes possible, not only the flaneur-decadence and debauched tristesse of Baudelaire, but also Foucault’s studies of discipline and the carceral.
Between Baudelaire and Foucault lie Bataille and the College de Sociologie, but implicit in Ginzburg’s narrative was a total debunking of any claims that Bataille’s advocacy of cruelty, sacrifice and the transgressive was in any way ‘radical’. On the contrary, and as should be clear by now, the College’s withdrawal from reason, its conception of the cosmos as a gigantic cruelty machine, is part of a well-established reactionary tradition.
Bataille emerged in Ginzburg’s story as a figure frighteningly close to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man – a minor civil servant with fantasies that would be dangerous if they had any possibility of being enacted. Thankfully, they didn’t (‘Bataille was not a man of action,’ Ginzburg remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement). The story of Bataille’s ludicrous attempt to become a human sacrifice (he offered himself to three people, none of whom would kill him) is as comic as it is pathetic.
The connection between Bataille and fascism should by now be obvious: the same withdrawal from secularized modernity into a blood cult, the same ‘alphabet of unreason’ (Ballard). Naturally, it’s too quick, too crass, to say that Bataille was a fascist. But Ginzburg did more than enough to establish that it wasn’t for nothing that the Acephale group were accused of being ‘Surfascists’ (a name they themselves happily appropriated). The group had praised Hitler’s virile forthrightness and Bataille, Ginzburg said, had been bewitched by the phallic power of the Nazis. He sought, impossibly, tragically, to attain the ‘innocence of animals’, to sink into the porcine ignorance-bliss of a creature consciousness unburdened by intellect and reason.