The Personal Context and the First Experiences
The best way to provide a guide to my works is therefore to say a few words on their genesis, their premises, as well as on my intentions in writing them. If some autobiographical allusions are inevitable, they shall be reduced to the indispensable minimum and will serve especially to explain what is incidental in my works. In general, it behoves us to describe at this point what we may term my “personal equation”, not without first making some preliminary remarks.
Fichte has written that one professes a given philosophy according to what one is, and we know how “social conditioning”, individual background, and “position” have assumed an important place in a certain kind of contemporary criticism. We must express certain reservations about all of this. To exclusively adopt this kind of criticism can only be legitimate in the case where all a person thinks, believes, writes and does, has a purely individual character. This is indeed the case for almost all the authors of our time ; but that in no way means that there may not be more complex cases, in which this manner of seeing and explaining things is inadequate and superficial. A given “equation” or personal disposition may even serve solely as a condition, an occasional cause, as a means – contingent in itself – of expression for contents intrinsically superior to the individual (it is not even necessary that the latter even realise it).
To explain this further by a comparison : if one were to bombard a city, it is clear that on a practical level it would be best to employ people who, as individuals, have destructive tendencies rather than a humanitarian and philanthropic disposition ; in that case, the disposition of the first corresponds to the pre-established plan, without this giving any indication as to the possible higher character of the latter.
There is the part that the personal equation may sometimes have on the intellectual terrain, and on the spiritual domain itself. Be that as it may, with respect to the personal equation, two dispositions seem to characterise my nature. The first is an aspiration to transcendence, an aspiration which manifested itself from my early youth. From there, the detachment from the human, which has been mine for a long time. Some have suggested that this disposition came from a residual prenatal memory. That is also the feeling I had. The aspiration I have just mentioned only appeared in an authentic form once I had abandoned the plane of aesthetic and philosophical experiences. Yet, even beforehand, a person competent in these matters had been surprised to find in me, even were it but a seed, in that respect, an inner orientation which, generally, does not result from abstract speculation, but from a change of state caused by certain processes, to which I shall often have occasion to mention later on.
I could thus speak of a pre-existing tendency, or of a hidden heredity, which was revived by various influences throughout the course of my existence. It is from there that stems the fundamental autonomy of my development. It is probable that, at a given moment, two characters exerted a stimulating influence, imperceptible but real, upon me. But the fact that I only became aware of this after a number of years only proves that the influence in question was not something completely foreign to me. A natural detachment from the human, from the majority of things which, particularly in the affective domain, are considered normal, appeared in me from a very early age, I would say, especially at that age. As to the negative aspects, each time this disposition manifested itself in a confused manner, and only involved my individuality, it provoked in me a certain insensitivity and a certain coldness. But, in the domain that matters the most, it allowed me to directly recognise the unconditioned values which are completely alien to the manner of seeing and of feeling of my contemporaries.
We may qualify the second disposition as the tendency of a Kshatriya, to use a Hindu word. In India, the word designated a human type inclined to action and to affirmation, a “warrior” type, in the general sense, as opposed to the religious-sacerdotal or contemplative type of the Brahmana. This orientation was mine also, even if it only gradually became clearer. It may have originated from a second hidden heredity, from an obscure memory. In the first period of my life, this disposition manifested itself in a raw state, and provoked within me an excessive affirmation of the self, which was expressed in a speculative manner in the doctrine of power and of autarchy that I formulated. But it was also the existential basis which allowed me to perceive with absolute clarity the values and realities of another world, despite their anachronism, the world of a hierarchic, aristocratic and feudal civilisation. It also allowed me to rid myself of the existential basis of my immanent critique of transcendental idealism and to go beyond it by a theory of the Absolute Individual. Lastly, as a general mental disposition, it is the reason for my taste for clear and intransigent positions, a kind of intellectual intrepidity which expressed itself, outside of polemical attitudes, by coherence and logical rigour.
There is no doubt that there was a certain contradiction between the two predispositions, while the aspiration to the transcendent provoked within me a feeling of extraneousness to reality, and, in my youth, a kind of desire of liberation or escape, which was not without mystical inclinations, the Kshatriya disposition inclined me to action, to the free affirmation of the self. It may be that the fundamental existential task of my entire life has been to mitigate these two tendencies. I only managed to accomplish this, and thereby avoid a breakdown once I had consciously seized the essence of both of these tendencies on a higher level. On the terrain of ideas, their synthesis is at the base of the formulation I gave to “traditionalism” in my later works, as opposed to that of René Guénon and the guénonian current, more intellectualist and orientalising.
The dispositions which I have mentioned cannot be attributed to environmental influences or hereditary factors (in the common biological sense). I owe very little to my environment, to my education, and to my own blood. To a great extent, I have been opposed to the predominant tradition of the West – Christianity and Catholicism – as well as to contemporary civilisation, the democratic and materialist “modern world”, the dominant culture and mentality of the land where I was born, Italy, and, lastly, to my family environment. If any of these had any influence on me whatsoever, it was of an indirect, negative kind, which I reacted against.
That accounts for my “personal equation”. At the beginning of my adolescence, while I pursued technical and mathematical studies, a deep and natural interest in the experiences of thought and art grew within me. In my youth, after a period of reading adventure novels, I had the idea, along with a friend, to write a condensed history of philosophy. On the other hand, if I already felt attracted to such writers as Oscar Wilde and Gabriele D’Annunzio, my interest quickly spread from there to the ensemble of contemporary art and literature. I spent entire days in the library, maintaining a sustained but free regimen of reading.
What had a particular importance to me was the encounter with such thinkers as Nietzsche, Michelstaedter and Weininger. This only fuelled a fundamental tendency which I already possessed, even though it was first and foremost confused, and in part deformed, due to the mixture of positive and negative elements to be found in those authors. As far as Nietzsche is concerned, my encounter with him had two principal consequences.
First of all, an opposition to Christianity. Born into a Catholic family, this religion had never meant anything to me at all in its specific themes – the theory of sin and redemption, the doctrines of love, of divine sacrifice, of grace, deism and creationism – I felt it as absolutely alien, and it was thus that I continued to consider it, even when my point of view had ceased to be influenced by idealist immanentism. If I recognised later on that there may be some valid or “traditional” aspects in Catholicism, I only did so for intellectual reasons, through an obligation to objectivity, for the quid specificum of Christianity still evoked no response from my nature. As to Catholicism as a positive religion in general, I personally witnessed the deplorable effects of its dissolution into forms which were religious, sentimental, moralistic, and on the fringe of bourgeois society, and its total lack of interest in shedding light on the foundations of a true sacrality and of a superior ascesis, or the inner meaning of symbols, rites and the sacraments. The way which, as a supramundane and supernatural spirituality, surpasses profane modern thought and its prevarications, I thus had to open by myself outside of that tradition, after putting an end to those experiences in which an innate aspiration to transcendence had grafted itself onto a trunk which was at heart problematic and suspect, that of transcendental idealism.
The next point of encounter between Nietzsche and the second disposition I have mentioned, that of the Kshatriya, was his revolt against the bourgeois world and its petty morals, against moralism, democratism, and conformism, and his affirmation of principles of an aristocratic ethic and the values of the being who frees himself from all bonds and is a law unto himself. (Needless to say, Stirner also numbered among my first readings.) On the other hand, I was but little influenced by the Nietzschean doctrine of the Superman in its inferior aspects – those individualist, aesthetic, or biological ones which are relative to the exaltation of “life” and to which, both at that time as well as later, many have assimilated the Nietzschean message. What turned out to be more positive for me was the influence of Michelstaedter, a tragic figure of precocious philosophy, who was then almost unknown and whose thought brought out a stripped-down and extreme theory of “being”, of self-sufficiency and autonomy. But I shall return to that later. (As to the rest, I was friendly with a cousin of Michelstaedter’s who followed his ideas and came to the same end as him : he committed suicide.)
From that moment on, in the private and personal domain, an anti-bourgeois tendency informed my entire existence, even in its concrete aspects. Until the end, I have thus remained free of all the constraints of the society in which I have lived, a stranger to routine, be it professional, sentimental or familial. For example, in my youth, I made a point of not obtaining a diploma, even though I had almost completed the relevant studies. The idea of officially being a “doctor” or “professor”, for all intents and purposes, seemed intolerable to me, and yet later on, I would continually be attributed all sorts of titles which I did not possess. The Kshatriya would express solidarity on this subject with that member of an ancient Piedmontese family who paradoxally declared : “I divide the world into two categories : the nobility and those who have a diploma.”
Outside of those authors I have previously mentioned, I must note the influence exerted on me in my adolescence by the movement which, on the eve of the First World War and its early stages, circled around Giovanni Papini and the journals Leonardo and Lacerba, and later, in part, La Voce. This was the only true Sturm und Drang which our nation ever knew, under the impulse of forces allergic to the stifling climate of the petty-bourgeois Italy of the beginning of the twentieth century. Contrary to general opinion, I hold that it was only at that period that Papini had any real importance. He had opened up a breach. It is to him and his group that we owe for coming into contact with the most diverse and most interesting foreign movements of thought and of avant-garde art, which had the effect of a renewal and widening of horizons.
Aside from the aforementioned journals, there were initiatives such as the “Cultura dell’Anima” collection, which, directed by Papini, allowed the youth that we were to know about a series of writings both ancient and modern of a particular importance, and which thus indicated to us some paths to follow later on. Furthermore, it was also the “heroic” period of Futurism, which, for a time, was close to Papini’s Florentine group. But what gave us even more enthusiasm at that time was Papini himself ; paradoxal, polemical, individualist, iconoclastic and revolutionary, because despite the brilliant and sulphurous aspects of his writings, we thought that he took his work seriously. We enthusiastically joined his attack against official academic culture, against the great names, against the values and morals of bourgeois society, despite the unease which his neo-realist style inspired in us, and his airs of a Florentine boor transposed to the intellectual and polemical plane. We also believed in the sincerity and authenticity of what he had written in his autobiographical novel A Failure (Un Uomo Finito). The nihilism of that work, which spared only the bare individual, disdainful of all support and closed to all desire of escaping reality, could not help but make an impression on young people. It was only later that I would notice that what was involved was but an intellectualism without deep roots, not without a certain exhibitionism. It was thus to be expected that Papini would not maintain his stances, even if his later conversion to Catholicism must have been just as superficial as his previous attitudes, in the absence of a genuine spiritual crisis. That is what very clearly appears in his Life of Christ, to which Papini essentially owed his notoriety and material success.
In that book, there is nothing transfigured or transfiguring. We do not sense the slightest change in existential level ; the style is flat and nothing evokes the deep dimension of Catholicism and its myths. It is a banal, apologetic work, based on the most external, catechistic and sentimental bases of that faith. And yet it had been Papini who, beforehand, had introduced us youth to such mystics as Meister Eckhart, and sapiential writings which would have allowed one to discover entirely different horizons had there been a genuine overcoming, in the traditional sense, of anarchic and intellectualist individualism. On the other hand, it is an indication of the level of contemporary Catholicism and of our culture that such a mediocre work was considered a masterpiece and a great human testimony. But let us return to our subject.
Certain writers or artists of Papini’s circle would later, in one way or another, compromise and fall into line, considering as simple experiences of youth what they had done in that revolutionary period. In the domains of painting and music, the “reversions” and notorious conversions to neo-classicism were not long in coming. Thus, insofar as a general vision of life is concerned, I am not boasting but simply stating an objective fact when I say that I was the only one in the period of the Italian Sturm und Drang to hold firm and seek positive points of reference, without any sort of compromise with the world we had then rejected.
In that period of my youth, I had personal relations with certain representatives of Futurism, given that it was practically the only avant-garde artistic movement in Italy. In particular, I was friendly with the painter Giacomo Balla, and I knew Marinetti. Even though I was principally interested in the matters of the spirit and in the vision of life, I also painted, for since childhood I had shown an innate disposition for drawing. However, I was not long in realising that, outside of its revolutionary aspect, the orientation of Futurism was little in accord with my inclinations. What bothered me in Futurism was, on the one hand, its sensualism, its lack of interiority, its noisome and exhibitionist side, its vulgar exaltation of life and instinct oddly mixed to that of machinism and to a kind of Americanism, and on the other, its penchant for the chauvinistic forms of nationalism.
As far as this last point is concerned, the divergence clearly appeared to me at the beginning of the First World War, due to the violent campaign led by the Futurists and the Lacerba group in favour of interventionism. It was inconceivable to me that all these people, to begin with Papini the iconoclast, could espouse, in such a light-hearted manner all the most tired patriotic slogans of the anti-Germanic propaganda, and could seriously imagine that this was a war for the defense of civilisation and freedom against the barbarian and the aggressor. Since I had not yet left Italy, I had only a vague idea of the hierarchic, feudal and traditional structures that remained in Central Europe and which had almost entirely disappeared in the other regions of Europe because of the ideas of 1789.
I knew nonetheless very precisely where my sympathies lay, and instead of a pacifist and neutralist abstention of Italy, I wished for intervention on the side of the Triple Alliance. It goes without saying that this way of seeing things was not in the slightest way influenced by an academic admiration for German Kultur – the “Herr Professor” sort of intellectualism – which, on the contrary, informed the neutralism of various bourgeois Italian intellectuals (including Benedetto Croce), who did not realise that the object of their admiration was something secondary and inferior with respect to the most essential tradition of those peoples, which was to be sought instead in their conception of the State, in the principles of order and discipline, in the Prussian ethic, in the clear and healthy social divisions which still existed, in spite of the revolution of the Third Estate and of Capitalism, which only had a partial effect.
I recall having written an article at that time in which I maintained that even were we to wage war on instead of fighting alongside Germany, we ought to do so by espousing German principles, and not in the name of nationalist and irredentist ideology, or the democratic, sentimental and hypocritical ideologies of the Allied propaganda. After reading that article, Marinetti told me verbatim : “Your ideas are further removed from my own than are those of an Eskimo.” Since that distant year of 1915, my attitude on the subject has remained unchanged and was only further consolidated by my first-hand knowledge of the realities of Central Europe.
On the other hand, the war seemed necessary to me as a purely revolutionary act. In the beginning, Papini’s group shared this idea – Italy had to wake up and renew itself by combat – and Marinetti had coined the famous phrase : “War – the world’s only hygiene.” But both of them gave in to motivations which I found inconsistent.
I took part in the war after following an accelerated training course for student artillery officers. I was first sent to the front lines in the mountains, near Asiego. I continued my studies as best I could. However, I did not draw from my experiences of war and of military life everything they might have given me in other circumstances, if only because I did not take part in any major military operation.
In the years following the war, having returned to Rome, my hometown, I went through a deep crisis. Having become an adult, I could stand even less the ordinary life to which I had returned, and the sense of the inconsistency and the vanity of the ambitions that are normally at the centre of human activity sharpened within me. The innate aspiration towards transcendence manifested itself within me in a confused though intense manner. In this context, I should evoke the effect of certain inner experiences I confronted, initially without precise technique and without being aware of the goal, with the aid of certain substances, not the most common narcotics, and whose use demands from most people that they overcome the natural repulsion of their organism and that they exercise a particular control over this last. In this way I approached forms of consciousness that are partially separated from the physical senses. I often passed close to the realm of visual hallucinations, and perhaps even to madness. Yet a fundamentally healthy constitution, the authentic nature of the impulse that had led me to these adventures and a spiritual fearlessness carried me further.
These experiences were not without certain positive results, especially with respect to what was to happen to me afterwards. They provided me with points of reference which I would perhaps have had difficulty obtaining otherwise, including on the doctrinal plane, as to an understanding of the hidden face of certain forms of neo-spiritualism and contemporary so-called occultism. We shall return to this in due course.
However, the repercussions of these experiences only aggravated the crisis I mentioned earlier. In certain traditions, this is what is called “the bite of the serpent”. It is a need of intensity and the absolute to which any ordinary object seems inadequate. From thence also, a sort of “cupio dissolvi”, a tendency to disperse and to lose oneself. Things came to such a point that I decided to freely put an end to my life – I was then about twenty-three years old at the time. This problematic solution, the same which, though in a very different context, brought Weininger and Michelstaedter to catastrophe, was avoided thanks to something akin an illumination I had while reading an ancient Buddhist text (Majjhima Nikaya, 1, 1). It is the discourse in which the Buddha enumerates in ascending order the identifications from which the “noble son” on the path to Awakening must free himself. It consists of identification with the body, with feelings, with the elements, with nature, with the deities, with the Supreme, and so on, ever higher, towards absolute transcendence. The last term in the series, which corresponds to the supreme proof, is given by the idea of “extinction”. The text says : “He who perceives extinction as extinction, and having perceived extinction as extinction, thinks extinction, thinks of extinction, thinks “my extinction” and delights in extinction, I say that he does not understand extinction.” Suddenly a light flashed within me. I felt the tendency to disperse myself, to dissolve myself, was a fetter, an “ignorance”, in opposition to true freedom. A change must have occurred within me at that moment and I acquired the ability henceforth to resist all crises.
As an individual, for me the problem remained to control a force which had awakened and that could not be used up in ordinary activities. This force manifested itself by a tendency to push every experience to the end, to the extreme limit, to go further. A maxim by Simmel indicates the only solution in this situation : that to carry life to a maximum of intensity, which, thanks to a shift of polarity, leads to “more than life”. But it is not an easy undertaking. The problem, for me, did not disappear over time. In any case, I have been able to withstand the often exhausting tension, and the repercussions of this existential situation – here “existential” may be taken in the sense that the current that has made itself its standard-bearer (and which I only learned about much later) has given it : in that of existentiality as paradoxal coexistence as an act of the conditioned and the unconditioned, of which Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidegger have spoken. Insofar as any violent solution had been excluded by the aforementioned experience my orientation was essentially this : to seek to justify my existence by tasks and activities that did not have a purely individual character, or at least, seemed as such to me, and, insofar as possible, to question what is commonly known as fate, putting it to the test in everything that concerned my existence taken as a whole.
I have now spoken enough of personal factors. It would perhaps be useful to add a remark on the aforementioned experiences that I obtained with the help of external means. These means produce differing effects according to the individual disposition and the motivation that drives their use. Thus, alcohol, if it did enable experiences of an ecstatic and sacred order in the context of the Thracian Dionysian cult and other currents, also contributes to the dumbing down and spiritual anaesthesia of the regressive human types, which constitutes the vast majority of modern humanity, such as the North Americans. Amongst the contemporaries, outside of the cases cited by William James, the exceptional experiences obtained by Aldous Huxley with mescaline and that he assimilated to the fundamental experience of mysticism, have an obvious relationship with his preparation. Furthermore, the fact that these experiments began and ended in my youth proves that, in my case, they were nothing more than purely external means. I did not become their slave, and afterwards neither felt the need nor the desire; what I had been able to derive therefrom lasted naturally throughout the rest of life, because all of this had been linked to something pre-existing and innate.
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