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Dark Night of the World Soul by Jonathan Culbreath

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Dark Night of the World Soul

"Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" (1842), a 91×122 cm oil on canvas by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), located in the Tate, London.

Photo: Rocor, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx famously commented on the immense destructive capacities of capitalism, capacities that any self-respecting conservative should find revolting and inhuman. For, as Marx observes, the conservative or traditionalist instinct is itself deeply alien to the inherent dynamics of capitalist development. Indeed, “conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was…the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes.” But for capitalism, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

Since Marx’s time, capitalism has surely swept away even more of the relations by which it appeared to be characterized then, and it has gone on “revolutionizing the instruments of production,” with effects that have continued to uproot human lives at a scale beyond that imaginable by the early bourgeoisie. Indeed, capitalism continues to impose upon the collective psyche an experience of such unending, constant change, that change itself now appears to be utterly monotonous. So far have we come in the development of capitalist productive forces that the very possibility for change, the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of the whole social order, seems to have been absorbed into the system itself. We are stuck in a seemingly never-ending process of change.

The logic of the market, which guides the relations of production as they continue to develop, requires the progressive alienation of human beings from one another and the continued disintegration of the relations among them. Individual identities themselves, once upon a time determined more by fixed relations to society, to nature, and to God, are gradually decomposed and subject to a sort of schizophrenic uncertainty: so easily may one thing be exchanged for another under the logic and ideology of the market. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has observed how transgender ideology is just a late victim of this same decomposing force of capitalism. Ideologies themselves are becoming ever more irreconcilable and incommensurable, as the possibility of common ground becomes ever further out of reach. 

In other words, capitalism has wrought upon society a process of decomposition and decay that only continues and seems destined to continue unto the point where no identities, relations, ideologies, or other social forms can be certain of their own existence. They are exchanged and transmuted so many times over that they seem to progress inexorably towards an ultimate limit point, where they finally dissolve into a condition of infinitesimal atomization: a condition where nothing matters, nothing is distinct, nothing is important; where all things are trivial, meaningless, exchangeable, equivalent—in other words, total nihilism.

“Government Bureau” (1956), a 49.8 × 75.2 cm egg tempera on wood by George Tooker (1920–2011), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Photo: Regan Vercruysse, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

The shrill cries of protest one often hears in the public forum may in reality be nothing but the heart’s desperate and frantic attempt to find something to cling to, in a world where all that is solid melts into air. Identity politics, which is the purest expression of the hyper-individualistic anthropology of capitalism, is also the last gasp of the human heart’s desire for something other than the nothingness of nihilism—a nothingness towards which the same capitalism inevitably tends, at the limit-point of its development. From this perspective, the woke mob that so desperately clings to its self-made identities shares much with conservatism: both are resisting the inexorable decline into nihilism. They fear the void of perfect nothingness, where there will be nothing more for the heart to hang on to: no identities it may call its own, no ideological or religious creeds for it to adhere to, no communities of friendship and solidarity to welcome it home. The heart will have been totally, radically, and brutally cleansed of all attachments. 

From one point of view, this process is one that leads to crippling despair. Indeed, any self-respecting conservative who sees this history for what it really is should feel the temptation of despondency tugging painfully at his heart. I do not, of course, recommend despair to anyone; yet if the temptation is not felt, then I fear that conservatives do not truly understand the apocalyptic proportions of the decline which they are up against. The God of Genesis may have promised never again to send a flood upon the whole earth; but he did not promise not to send capitalism. 

There is a metaphysical, or perhaps theological, perspective that might help us to see in this same process of coming to nothing the emergence of a totally new opportunity, a reason for hope: the possible rise of a totally new traditionalism. In this, I take my cue from the Irish Catholic philosopher, William Desmond. In God and the Between, he writes that nihilism itself may be a necessary return to zero, a clearing of the slate, a cleansing of all attachments that formerly kept us in bondage to false gods or counterfeits of God. “Suppose,” Desmond writes, “in this there is both a deepening and a sifting: deepening, since we are thrown back on ourselves; sifting, in that we may be purged of impediments blocking our release to what is beyond us.” After all our desperate attempts to fashion ourselves autonomously, perhaps the collapse of all our self-made illusions into the blank void of nihilism is just the purgation we need to be reopened to the transcendence which we have lost, in this deeply secular age. Desmond continues:

Faced with the blank front of pointlessness, the ordeal returns us to a zero point. World, or self, or others do not vanish, but finding their immanent point forsaken, the point of it all must be sought again by us. Can return to zero resurrect a new perplexity, intensified by loss? Can it hollow out a purer space in which we can seek anew concerning the divine? Can it prepare a resurrected patience to ultimate transcendence, a new porosity to God?

Is this not the very process by which the great Christian mystics recommend we purify our hearts, in preparation for the revelation of the One who alone can fill them? The decline of the West towards nihilism may be nothing other than this ascetical purification on a civilizational scale, the preparation of the world for a new and higher mode of consciousness—mysticism, perhaps, or the rebirth of faith. 

Such a rebirth will not happen on its own, however. Something or someone must await at the end of history to wake the dead from their slumber. In this vein, it would be profitable to recall the prophetic words of the German jurist, Carl Schmitt, in a small book which he penned, entitled Roman Catholicism and Political Form. The Catholic Church emerges as a central player in Schmitt’s narrative of the coming apocalypse, which will be wrought by the hands of none other than capitalism. One detects in this narrative echoes of Marx’s own analysis of capital’s relentless dehumanization of the entire fabric of social reality; yet in stark contrast to Marx’s narrative, Schmitt portrays the Catholic Church as the one entity that can, when the moment is right, step in to restore a truly social and political form to a society that has been totally depoliticized by capitalism:

The domination of ‘capital’ behind the scenes is still no [political] form, though it can undermine an existing political form and make it an empty facade. Should it succeed, it will have ‘depoliticized’ the state completely. Should economic thinking succeed in realizing its utopian goal and in bringing about an absolutely unpolitical condition of human society, the Church would remain the only agency of political thinking and political form. Then the Church would have a stupendous monopoly: its hierarchy would be nearer the political domination of the world than in the Middle Ages.

Schmitt is here allowing himself to speculate on the worst-case scenario, where capitalism manages to ‘depoliticize’ everything, including nominally political institutions themselves. For Schmitt, the totally unpolitical condition of human society that would thereby be produced is equivalent to a nihilistic society, a world without meaning or purpose. One might further stipulate that it is only politics that, practically speaking, secures meaning and purpose in society. But when politics is emptied of its truly human content, being substituted for a merely economic and technological mode of thinking, the resulting condition can only be the emptiest shell of social reality. At this point, the hero stepping onto the scene at the opportune moment is none other than the Church, the last remaining agency of truly political form, to bestow its own form—a Christ form—upon a world that has been cleansed of all other attachments. 

What exactly this apocalyptic scenario would look like, it is impossible to tell. It is certainly a bleak scenario, in many ways the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of modernity. But in this bleakest of outcomes, this dark night of the World Soul, a light may yet shine in the apophatic darkness. An ancient and timeless life form will rear its head in the rubble of destruction wrought by the hands of progress, rising as it has always done from the tomb of civilizational decay. This is no longer conservatism, but something else: apocalyptic traditionalism. After all, there is no longer anything to conserve, or soon there will no longer be—but there is much to be reborn after death.

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. His writing has appeared in publications including The American Conservative, The Daily Caller, The Bellows, Crisis Magazine, and America Magazine. He may be followed on Twitter at @maestrojmc.