Peter Berard reads right-wing shit so you don't have to.
The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
Rating: One Star
“Traditionalism” is a thing among the far-right kids these days.
As I’ve written in a few places, seemingly all of them confuse “Tradition,” the mystical bundle of essential truths the original early-twentieth-century Traditionalists believed in, and “tradition,” i.e. whatever bits of the past a zoomer chud thinks is cool. And they’re not generally deep readers in any event. The only name amongst the Traditionalists they really check is that of Julius Evola, waving around copies of Revolt Against the Modern World like little totems, which, more than a text, the book — any book — is to them.
I thought it would be interesting to look more at some of the other Traditionalists from the early twentieth century, especially René Guénon, arguably the granddaddy of them all and a major influence on Evola. To the extent Evola is having a moment in the sun, Guénon lives in his shadow — put the search term “Rene Guenon” into the Wikipedia search bar, and Julius Evola’s article is the first result — and I wondered why that was.
Reading The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, arguably Guénon’s great Traditionalist statement (others say it’s other books — these folks are squabblers), does indeed shed some light on this question of Guénon’s twenty-first-century reception. From previous readings, I understood that Evola emphasized action in this world, where Guénon preached something closer to withdrawal — Evola the warrior-priest (wannabe) vs. Guénon the priest (wannabe, but closer than Evola got to his beau ideal). Evola got involved in fascism, recruited for the SS, and inspired terrorists during the Years of Lead; Guénon fucked off to Cairo for the war years and became a Sufi mystic. I also knew that Evola explicitly racialized Traditionalism much more than did Guénon, making Aryans the bearers of the sacred Tradition and Jews it’s traducer.
What I didn’t know before reading a full length Guénon work was how fucking boring he was. I wouldn’t call Evola an exciting writer. He would go on at length about all sorts of nonsense in Revolt, his later work amounts to edgy self-help, and he was no stranger to pedantry. But Guénon puts him in the shade, pedantry-wise, and does so in plodding, Aristotelian writing.
It’s worth remembering Guénon came out of the French right-wing Catholic milieu of his time, and Thomism — LARPing Thomas Aquinas’s application of Aristotelian thought to Christianity, just without the actual vital lived belief Aquinas brought to the picture — was big stuff with that crowd. Every term — quality, quantity, time, space, science, craft, art, etc., etc. — needs to be defined and redefined because our modern world is so fallen that we don’t know what terms mean anymore . . . but what Guénon mostly means in his redefinition is “the usual definition, but excluding stuff that aesthetically displeases me.”
The basic point of the book is that we are now in an “age of quantity,” where modernity and egalitarianism have made everything from personalities to consumer goods so standardized that nothing has unique qualities anymore. The Tradition — the one path to enlightenment handed down the ages from time immemorial to select bands of initiates — is the only thing that can save us from this fate, but probably not until the time cycle (borrowed from Hinduism) cycles down through this vulgar age and back to a golden age of spirituality and quality.
This reminds me of nothing so much, oddly enough, as something in the works of Orson Scott Card. In Card’s Alvin Maker series, the big enemy of the main character, Alvin, a mage based on Mormon founder Joseph Smith, is no less than the element of water. Alvin brings things together and raises them to their essences — water submerges and smooths everything out into sameness. Card relates how water constantly tries to kill Alvin, through drowning, waterborne disease, etc. But . . . like . . . Alvin is seventy-odd percent water! If water wants to kill him, why don’t his cells just do the deed?! The early Alvin Maker books are among Card’s better books before he started to suck/became more of an asshole, but you can see the lack of thoughtfulness and mental balance that helped bring Card low. You need water, along with the other three elements. You need entropy and even death for a balanced system where things grow.
Guénon is a little smarter than Card and so doesn’t come out and say quantity is unimportant or bad in and of itself. It’s just how modernity substitutes quantity for quality that is at issue. Still — as far as I’m concerned, quantity is a quality all its own. God favors the big battalions, as Voltaire put it. A fine (fewer molecules) point pierces better than a dull (more molecules) one. Quantitative changes make quality differences.
Blah blah, etc., etc. . . . this is the sort of talk we’re reduced to when dealing with Guénon: idiotic generalities dressed up in erudite clothes and put in the service of elitism. As I read, I found myself casting around for points of interest and finding very few. One I did find was the translator of this work, Lord Northbourne, who did his best with what was doubtless highly persnickety French. Northbourne was an Olympic medalist in rowing and the inventor of the phrase “organic farming” along with being a Traditionalist translator! If you’re wondering, the Northbourne lordship goes back to the 1790s when some relative was a bureaucrat/fundraiser for the king’s wars, not the mists of time, but that’s Traditionalism for you. All in all, a shit book, probably “better” than Evola — smarter, less racist — but duller.
Peter Berard is a writer, organizer and historian in Watertown, Mass. He is San Antonio Review’s book review editor.