On Thursday, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Religion Jose Ānanda Josephson gave a lecture entitled “Dialectic of Darkness: the Magical Foundations of Critical Theory.”
The talk drew from several chapters of Josephson’s new book, The Dialectic of Darkness. The book touches on the evolution of spiritualism and occult circles into what we now think of as a critical theory of postmodernism. “I’m trying to argue that modernity was not a departure from the magical,” Josephson said.
In the 19th century, there was a revival of spiritualism and paganism, supplemented by new philosophical theories. Leading this movement was a German gathering called the “Cosmic Circle.” This eclectic group of mystics and philosophers decried the modern world as completely disenchanted. Josephson focused on Ludwig Klages, one of the more prominent members of the Circle.
Klages’ theory can be simplified as a “Franco-Frankfurt Frankenstein’s Monster,” a conglomeration of previous French and Germanic philosophies, with a dash of 19th century spiritualism. In fact, it was almost an “inversion of the Hegelian dialectic.” Unlike Hegel, Klage saw the emphasis placed on the “Geist,” or mind, as one of the greatest travesties in modernity. In fact, he called the Geist a “Widersacher der Seele,” or an enemy of the soul. He believed ascension of the Geist in human history “drew a wedge between the soul and the body.”
Klages preferred a “Bilderwelt,” or world of images, over a “Dingwelt,” or world of things. Klages was afraid that often, “we don’t see the tree for its character, but for its lumber.” The Bilderwelt consists of icons and bursts of mysterious and surprising beauty. Here, Klages enters what he calls “mystical philosophy.”
Klages based his theories on Heraclitus and his belief that “all things are in flux.” He believed that there was an “Elementarseele,” a basic soul, and that all things in the universe, animate or not, were alive. The overemphasis of the Geist and reason destroys the balance of the natural world. Klages used the term “logocentrism” to describe all that is wrong with reason.
The Cosmic Circle, in its hate for logocentrism, was pagan, anti-scientific and anti-philosophic. In fact, Klages believed that the logos is a “matricide of mother earth.” Klages took the idea of “mother earth” quite literally, and believed that the construction of the patriarchy destroyed the idea of a “magna mater.”
Klages wanted to get into touch with the magna mater again by recovering biocentrism and the idea of the “kosmische Rausch,” a mystical ecstasy of nature, which people
attempt to imitate through drug and alcohol use.
It would appear that Klages emphasized environmentalism, feminism, sexual fluidity and pacifism, but there was a dark side to his philosophy as well. Klages was a rampant anti-Semite and was especially prejudiced against the Jewish-American population. He often decried these individuals for being the personification of capitalism, rationalism and everything wrong with modernity. Josephson called this part of Klages’s philosophy “inexcusable” and explained that, for him, “that’s the most disgusting part of Klages.” The Cosmic Circle is also famous for reviving the swastika. Interestingly, the Circle used it as a gay rights symbol of phalluses approaching other phalluses.
Despite the offensive nature of many of Klages’ beliefs, his vigilance, along with that of the Circle, tied European mysticism to the emergence of critical theory.