No. 4: An Introduction to the Tower Society as Model of Neoreactionary Institution (Part 1)

Adam has a nice article up on his blog that I wanted to comment on, which in turn is a response to this article by Nick Steves over at the Reactivity Place, which, itself, is of course in turn a response to yet another article by Anissimov. On and on the causal chain extends, and who the original genius was who started us having this debate in the first place is an open question, Moldbug? “Natural Reactionaries,” that is, the Traditionalists of the established Alternative Right, who model their beliefs after writers like Julius Evola and René Guénon, the “Spenglerist, Homer fetishists,” if you will, seem to be taking increasing issue with that assertion, and instead appear keen to situate Neoreaction within their own established tradition (pun intended) of hard right social conservativism.

Brett Stevens, in this article, attempts to impose this sort of framing, reconceptaulizing Neoreaction in terms of his vision of “Futurist Traditionalism” and Eco-Fascism:

“My point to the DE/NeR was basically that if your philosophy is functionally similar to conservatism, and you don’t admit it, you’re avoiding the truth out of some personal pretense.”

Anissimov, at the height of the ridiculousness of #trannygate posted similar thoughts in an article here, saying, quite unequivocally: “Reactionary thought is socially conservative, neoreactionary thought is socially conservative. Both are socially conservative.”

The result of this discussion, which does not seem to be contained to only these particular articles by any means, but appears now to extend over the whole sphere of the Reactionary “Dark Enlightenment,” has been a serious consideration of whether or not Neoreactionary analysis, in the vein of Mencius Moldbug, should not ‘rebrand’ itself so as to distinguish itself from, what is generously conceded to be the more ‘actionable’ socially conservative Reaction of the Alternative Right.

For my own part, and I should be clear here, I do not self-consciously identify as a Neoreactionary per se, I arrived at Neoreaction through the process Steves characterizes as typical of “Menciism”: “But most of them [the Menciist Neoreactionaries] did not come to Reaction via the natural path. They were reasoned into it, i.e., reasoned out of their natural Liberalism (anti-conservatism) and into support for strong Reaction. Moreover they were reasoned into it using natural revelation and logic.”

By the time I was first introduced to Unqualified Reservations though I was beyond needing it. It was not through the persuasiveness of Moldbug, or any of the other classical writers or contemporary bloggers of the Dark Enlightenment for that matter, that I ultimately came around to the Neoreactionary worldview. No, it was Kant, Schiller and Goethe who led me here, and it’s because of them also that I’m so reticent to style myself explicitly as a Neoreactionary, for I see currently only the basic potential of Neoreaction to be elevated, as an intellectual community, to the standard they set. Nowhere do I meet with anything even approaching the realization of that potential however, and so, I bide my time.

The title of this blog, “Die Turmgesellschaft,” translates as “The Society of the Tower,” which is, to me, more the model that Reaction should seek to base itself off of. The Society of the Tower, for the uninitiated, is a pseudo-masonic fraternal organization into which the protagonist of Goethe’s second novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” is initiated at the close of the novel’s penultimate seventh book. As Jarno tells Wilhelm prior to his induction:

“It is right that a man who is making his first appearance in the world has a confident opinion of himself, that he believes he can acquire many advantages for himself, and that he attempts to make everything possible; but when his development has come to a certain stage, it is beneficial if he can learn to lose himself in a sizable group, to live for the sake of others, and to be forgetful of himself in an activity based on duty. Here for the first time he will come to know himself; for it is really in action that we may be compared with others.”

Characters from throughout the novel reappear during the ceremony initiating Wilhelm, who, unbeknownest to him, had really been watching him and, it is strongly suggested, actively guiding him the entire time, so as to direct him, silently, and in secret, to the end that was prepared for him long ago.

“The room where he now was appeared to have previously been a chapel; instead of an altar there was a large table covered with a green cloth at the top of some steps, and above this it seemed that a closed curtain was concealing a picture; at the sides there were beautifully fashioned bookcases which were sealed off by fine wire grating, as normally seen in libraries, only instead of books he saw many scrolls stacked up … Wilhelm went over and read the inscriptions on the scrolls. He was surprised to find Lothario’s, Jarno’s and his own “years of apprenticeship” set up there, among many others whose names were unknown to him.”

This is Goethe at his most enigmatic, the introduction of the metafictional device of the scroll “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” (The German title “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” meaning literally “Apprenticeship Years”, or “Years of Apprenticeship”, in case that wasn’t clear) to this day remains a matter of great controversy among critics of the novel. Is this intended to be the very novel we have before us? Or something else?

Furthermore, there is the additional problem that there exists still an eighth book to the novel, and this most of all has proven to mystify scholars. Wilhelm joins the Society of the Tower in the final chapter of Book Seven, and here so many mysteries of his life seem to be laid bare to him, so many characters whose significance, and place in the order of the novel was not initially clear, are now revealed to both Wilhelm and the reader. It has all the makings of denouement, but, much the confusion of more or less everyone who has ever thought seriously upon the novel, it doesn’t prove to be so, there remains yet another book.

Readers of the 18th century novel, who bring with them the experience of having read “Tom Jones,” or “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who expect the almost absurd heights to which the fever pitch of joy the denouements of those books reach, somewhat thoughtlessly attribute a deliberately subversive motive to Goethe here, and are quick to designate the conclusion of Book Seven as a “false” denouement designed solely in order to confound the expectations of the reader. Goethe’s novel though must have another book, and it is for this reason that it’s wrong to say that Book Seven terminates in a false denouement.

As the novel that single-handedly ushers in the era of Post-Kantianism in literature and theory, Goethe’s Meister is grounded, undeniably, on the most fundamental level in the Critical Philosophy. It is the Transcendental Idealism at the center of the work which necessities not one, but two separate denouements:

“He exercises the human right of sovereignty in the art of appearance, and the more strictly he here distinguishes between the mine and the thine, the more carefully he separates shape from being, and the more self-dependence he is capable of giving to this shape, the more he will not merely extend the realm of Beauty but even secure the boundaries of Truth; for he cannot purify appearances from actuality without at the same time liberating actuality from appearance.”

— Friedrich Schiller, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” Twenty-Fifth Letter

Also misunderstood by critics is the passage from Book Five in which Goethe provides the reader his own definition of the Novel genre as contrasted with theatrical Tragedy.

For those unfamiliar, which I assume to be everyone, a brief history of Goethe’s work on the project is likely necessary at this point before we continue: “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” which was originally published in four volumes between 1795 and 1796, was first begun by Goethe many years previously under the title “Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission”. Goethe originally conceived of the novel as far back as 1775, making the idea of Meister contemporaneous with two other of Goethe’s most important literary productions, these being the dramas Faust I, which is likely already well known to English readers, and Egmont, a Shakespearean historical tragedy about the struggle of the Dutch under Spanish rule for their independence. The latter was not completed by Goethe until he was in Italy, during the summer of 1787, the former, not until sometime following Schiller’s death in 1805.

For a number of years during his first decade living in Weimar, November 1775 – September 1806, Goethe worked conscientiously, and also very, very slowly on Meister, but as was the case with every one of his literary projects during those years, the book’s completion seemed to continuously elude him. Not until the beginning of formal relations with Schiller in June of 1794 did Goethe finally find the impetus to transform the Theatrical Mission into “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” making it exactly contemporaneous with Schiller’s “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”.

“With great pleasure, I have read the manuscript [of “On the Aesthetic Education of Man] you sent me. I took it in a single draught. As a delicious drink, suitable to our nature, slips down the throat gratefully, and at once, while only on the tongue, gives evidence of its wholesome operation by the fine tone it imparts to the nervous system, thus were these letters agreeable and salutary to me. And how could it be otherwise, when I found that which I for a long time have thought true, what I either praised or wished to praise, set forth in so clear and noble a manner.”

-Goethe to Schiller, October 20th, 1794

I only say all this because Goethe’s definition of the Novel, I believe, as the very first thing he took it upon himself to write upon returning to Wilhelm Meister during this period, does not, as it is sometimes claimed, represent anything other than Goethe’s genuine view as to the nature of the Novel as an independent genre of poetry.

“In the novel as in the drama we see human nature and human action. The difference in the two types of literature is not merely in external form, nor in the fact that in the one genre the characters talk while in the other genre they are usually talked about. Unfortunately, many plays are novels in dialogue form, and it would not be impossible to write a play consisting of letters.

In the novel it is primarily ways of thinking and events that are to be presented; in the drama characters and deeds. The novel must move slowly, and the sentiments of the leading character must hold back, in whatever way this may be done, the forward momentum of the whole towards its fulfilment. Drama is to move rapidly, and the main character must press on towards the end, and only be delayed. The novel hero must be passive, or at least not in a high degree active; effect and action are expected from the dramatic hero. Grandison, Clarissa, Pamela, the Vicar of Wakefield, even Tom Jones himself are, if not passive in their effect, nonetheless characters of a retarding kind, and all the events are so to speak modelled according to their dispositions. In drama the hero does not model anything according to his own personality, everything resists him, and he either moves the obstacles out of his way or else is overcome by them.

It was also agreed that chance could be allowed to have its part in the novel, but that it must always be directed and guided by the dispositions of the characters; on the other hand that fate which urges people on, without their assistance, through disconnected outward circumstance to an unforeseen catastrophe, only has a place in drama; that chance may be allowed to give rise to solemn, serious situations, but never to tragic ones; that fate on the other hand must always be terrible, and that it becomes tragic in the highest sense, when it brings together deeds that are guilty and innocent and independent of each other into an unfortunate linkage.”

What critics have found themselves hard pressed to account for here is that characters like Tom Jones and Dr. Primrose are described as being “passive,” in what sense? They appear on the contrary to be quite active, resolving upon courses of action, travelling about, getting themselves into trouble and ironical hardship, “passive” seems entirely the wrong word to apply to them, and consequently, Goethe’s definition of the Novel is frequently dismissed as somehow or other being ‘ironic’ by critics of Wilhelm Meister.

Considered in light of Schiller’s aesthetics however, passivity here refers to the transcendental passivity of the mind’s sensuous impulse, as opposed to the transcendental activity of the formal impulse:

“The first impulse furnishes cases, the other gives laws: laws for every judgement where knowledge is concerned, laws for every volition where it is a question of action.”

What Goethe’s definition intends to articulate is that the protagonist of the novel, Wilhelm Meister, acts as does the mind’s sensuousness, transcendentally, within the whole complex of the novel. The protagonist furnishes cases, or matter. The novel then represents a judgement, a synonym for which is thought, and all judgements consist on the one hand in content or matter, and, on the other, in the form our rationality imposes upon such matter so as to establish a definite relationship. By way of analogy, consider outer space, the content, which is to say, stars and planets, is related in a definite order by form, ie, the absolutely empty negativity of the void of space.

The protagonist of the novel, through what he experiences as his life, provides to the mind matter, matter which, it should be stated, does not contain within itself any order (ie fate) independent of the one given to it by us. These experiences are shaped, they’re ordered into a definite sequence of episodes, conversations, experiences etc.

If the protagonist acts as the passive impulse of the novel, where does the locus of activity lie then? When Goethe speaks of the ‘whole’ being ‘fulfilled,’ what does he have in mind? What provides the novel its shape? This is where the Society of the Tower comes into play, and in so doing, raises a seemingly endless number of complex questions which defy any easy answer.

Book Seven of Wilhelm Meister represents only the perfection of passivity, Book Eight represents the fulfilment of the whole, the perfection of activity. And when it comes to questions of whether of not the Society of the Tower has exercised a control over the development of his life, consider again the meta-fictional Scroll of Apprenticeship. A few things stand out, firstly, that Goethe makes a point of saying that the library of the Tower consists of scrolls, rather than proper books. Secondly, that the scroll cannot itself be identical to the novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” because after Wilhelm himself reads his scroll at the very beginning of Book Eight, there is still an entire book still to go, and thus, we must question that his scroll and the novel are one in the same, as it does not predict his future afterall:

“Wilhelm was sufficiently prepared, his position had already been revealed to him in lively terms, his friends had not exactly been sparing of him, and even if he did unroll the parchment with a certain haste, he nonetheless became more and more composed the further he read. He found the detailed story of his life depicted in large, sharp outlines; neither isolated events nor limited feelings confused his vision; general observations of a loving nature gave him pointers without putting him to shame, and for the first time he saw his own picture outside himself, admittedly not as in a mirror, a second self, but as in a portrait, another self: we do not admit to all the traits, it is true, but we are pleased that a thoughtful mind and a great talent should have wished to portray us in this way, that a picture of what we were still remains and that it can last longer than we ourselves.”

… (To be continued)