What I am about to say does not concern the ordinary man of our day. On the contrary, I have in mind the man who finds himself involved in today’s world, even at its most problematic and paroxysimal points; yet he does not belong inwardly to such a world, nor will he give in to it. He feels himself, in essence, as belonging to a different race from that of the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries. ~ Julius Evola.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Wyndham Lewis - Hulme of the Original Sin

The belief in the inherently flawed, wicked and imperfectible  nature of human beings as opposed to the view that we are born either good only to be corrupted by society or that we are born as infinitely malleable 'blank slates' has been often cited as a defining component of  genuinely rightist worldviews. As Peter Viereck has written: “Men are not born naturally free or good (Conservatives assume) but are naturally prone to anarchy, evil, and mutual destruction. What the Eighteenth-Century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau denounced as the “chains” that hinder man's “natural goodness,” are, for Burkeans, the props that make man good. These “chains” (society's traditional restrictions on the ego) fit man into a rooted, durable framework, without which ethical behaviour and responsible use of liberty are impossible. “ 1 

Here Wyndham Lewis, while discussing the poet and critic Thomas Ernest Hulme, gives a typically idiosyncratic account 2  of these antipodal views of human nature.

The importance of Original Sin, apart from its theological bearing, is that it puts man in his place. This can be explained in a few words, and I will do so.
Wyndham Lewis

There are two ways of regarding mankind. One is Mr. H.G. Wells' way, which is summed up in the title of one of his books, Men LikeGods. The other is that of the theologian, who, believing in a High God, has no very high opinion of Man. For the latter, Man is a pretty poor specimen, who requires a great deal of brushing up before you can make him at all presentable.

A famous French writer, called Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the 'father of European Socialism'- taught that Man was essentially good. Mr Wells, Mr. Shaw, and most people in fact in England believe that.

Christian theology teaches the opposite. For it, Man is essentially bad. But, in theology, there is a reason for Man being bad. He is bad because he 'fell'. The doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine, of course, of 'the Fall'.

You may believe that Man is bad without being a theologian. And then of course you mean something different by the term 'bad'. How much Hulme's terminology was theological I do not know. I should not have supposed it was very theological.

Now why everyone was so impressed with Hulme's discovery of the doctrine of Original Sin was because that doctrine contradicted the unpleasant idolatry of Man (which you do not have to be a theologian to get a bit sick of). It refuted the modernist uplift. It denied that man was remarkable in any way, much less 'like a god' or capable of unlimited 'advance'.
For many people who had definitely become queasy, after listening for a good many years to adulation of the mortal state – of man-in-the-raw – this theology acted as a tonic. The atmosphere had become fuggy with all the greasy incense to Mr. Everyman. And here was somebody who had the bright idea of throwing the window open. There the stars again! And even if the Star of Bethlehem was amongst them, well what matter!

T.E. Hulme
Some of those who were delighted, however, were theologians, more or less, themselves: though there is every reason to suppose they had never heard of Original Sin, else they wouldn't have made so much fuss about it when it was brought to their notice.
The notion of 'progress' is also involved, in this advertisement of Original Sin. And our world of 1937, is greatly agitated by the warfare of those who believe in 'progress', and those who do not. It is the principle of 'humanism' versus that of discipline and 'authority'. The doctrine of Original Sin has its uses quite outside of Christian doctrine.

When Mr. Baldwin, now Earl Baldwin, talks about the blessings of 'democracy', for instance, he is declaring himself a believer in progress and evolution. When Mussolini talks about the iron disciplines of the Roman soul – or Maurras says 'Je suis Romain, je suis humain' - he is declaring himself a believer in 'authority'. He is basing himself upon the past, instead of upon the future (which is where Mr. H.G. Wells's eye is ecstatically fixed). He is denying that the average man, left to himself, has a divine spark , which will eventually enable him to become a god (as thinks Mr. Wells, and as, in the main, the Anglo-Saxon is disposed to think).

All I can really tell you is that it was extremely original of this Mr. Hulme - especially living as he did in Mr. Polly's England to pick out this stuffy old doctrine of Original Sin and rub everybody's noses in it. He was a very rude and truculent man. He needed to be. And he greatly relished rubbing his countrymen's noses in the highly disobliging doctrine in question.

From Blasting and Bombadiering An Autobiography (1914 - 1926), Calder and Boyars Ltd. 1967

As the reader might suspect, Hulme did not simply restate the doctrine of Original Sin. For him the view of humanity as inherently 'bad' entails a rejection of Romanticism which he saw as at least partially responsible for the French Revolution, and a return to Classical 'hardness' in the arts and Classical virtues in life.   Hulme's (and Lewis') philosophy in this regard has been touched on  by Scottish literary historian David Daiches : “Hulme believed that 'man is by nature bad or limited, and can consequently only accomplish anything of value by disciplines, ethical, heroic or political,' and he saw one consequence of this belief as an abandonment of romantic optimism about the nature and potentialities of man.”
- Daiches, David (1962). "The New Criticism” in Time of Harvest, American Literature, 1910-1960. New York: Hill and Wang, p. 96.