Julius Evola – or, tiger riding for dummies
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 paroxysmal 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. — Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (1961), Baron Julius Evola, Introduction.
We’ve all felt a bit like this, haven’t we? This is the adolescent feeling that returns on a quiet day in the office when Mark comes in wearing that shirt again while Rushana talks about the sofa she’s going to buy on the weekend, and Sarah — bless Sarah — is chattering on like a macaque about playing ping pong with our counterparts at Morgan Macdonald.
Everything so comfortable, so soothing, and yet so annoying. We go from the air conditioned office to Pret A Manger for a delicately wrapped crayfish sandwich before riding an air conditioned train listening to Calvin Harris back to our homes where we can watch hour-upon-hour of streaming romantic comedies if we are a woman or hour-upon-hour of pornography if we are a man.
It’s all so deodorised, so safe, so pleasurable — so dead.
Julius Evola would not be surprised that contemporary Western societies are enamoured with stories about zombies, vampires, and sadomasochistic soft pornography.
He would take us in with raised eyebrow, tighten his facial muscles on his monocle, and smirk at us.
“They watch these films because they are the walking dead. The walking dead in Paris, London, and Berlin. They fantasise about sexualised violence because their men are so effeminate, so decadent, that they have no push at all. And the women are so far gone in their animal pleasures they want to be beaten just so they can pretend that they feel alive — or just to feel something.”
Well, I don’t know Evola would say this. But I have more than a sneaking suspicion.
This is an essay about Evola, but I’ll spare the biographical details save to say he was Italian, an aristocrat, and a dissident fascist.
He was a dissident fascist because his views on life and politics were idiosyncratic enough to anger both the Italian fascists and the National Socialists.
As for the rest, well, you all know Wikipedia, you bovine conformists.
Evola is currently a fasces to beat Steve Bannon with. Apparently, Bannon mentioned Evola in a political talk a while back, and the journalists are taking this as evidence Bannon is a blackshirt.
Whether or not this is true and what exactly Bannon said about Evola is not my concern. The significance lies in the fact that Evola had been brought up by the media at all. He also seems to be a hit with the alt-right and neo-reactionaries — and, of course, he was always a hit with the neo-fascists.
So, why Evola? Why now?
A brief warning: At some point in this article I will write “Ebola” for “Evola”. My copy editing is lazy, and I will probably miss it. The very fact this slip is possible, and that Evola’s name is a letter away from a hell plague discovered long after his death that periodically threatens to slough off the surly bonds of Africa and sluice through Western countries is in itself in keeping with the Baron’s bloody, esoteric philosophy.
Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul
The title makes this book sound suspiciously like a self-help title: Black is the New Black: How Italian fascism can organise your love, life and work in under thirty days.
But it’s not.
It’s quite the opposite. A self-help book aims to show an atomised consumer how to become a more productive, happy (whatever that means), and well-balanced little utilitarian unit using the latest gimcrack ideas from psychology — or whichever social science is popular this week.
This very much not Evola. At all.
What is Evola interested in then? The answer comes from the musical Fiddler on the Roof — obviously.
As the milkman Tevye sings in the opening number:
“Tradition, tradition… Tradition. Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Tradition, the Tradition that has been lost in modernity, is what Evola lives for.
For Evola, Tradition (capital ‘T’) is a transcendental, hierarchical condition that takes many different civilizational and historical forms.
An illustration: If one thinks about the mediaeval knight and samurai warrior one quickly realises that these chaps had little in common in their costume, ways of making war, and religion. And yet, we can see there is a similarity in their warrior ethic and chivalry.
These are Traditional fellows.
But all that is Traditional has been wiped away by capitalism, revolution, secularism, liberalism, communism, socialism, industrialisation, democracy, the middle class, the working class, bureaucrats, feminism, two global mechanised wars, science, the Enlightenment — by every movement that seeks to level down human experience to the mundane, the democratic, and the materialistic as opposed to the vital, elitist, and spiritual.
Yes, Evola is the original Italian Taliban.
Evola asks the question: What is a Traditional person to do standing among the ruins at a time when every bastion of Traditionalism has been stormed, ransacked, and looted?
His despair is profound. This is not mere conservatism. Evola does not look to the bourgeoisie for salvation. The bourgeoisie did away with the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie championed democracy, and liberalism — and for Evola this is merely a dialectic that works towards communism.
An Evola-ite would look at Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Lenin and see them as two parts in the same dialectical movement — both revolutionary egalitarians of different sorts, both determined to uproot and destroy long-standing traditions. The tools — Marxian socialism and neo-liberalism — differ, but the movement is the same.
This is why Evola is hard to grasp for people used to thinking about politics through the contemporary media narrative. He does not fit within the left-right dichotomy where most people live. For him all those streneuous, vein bursting arguments on Twitter between the Corbynistas and Mayites or Trumpers and Hillary-bots are merely a family squabble.
Evola is so Olympian that when he looks down on Democrats and Republicans or Labour and Conservatives he sees not two deadly rivals but one organism.
That organism disgusts him.
He wants to bring a highly polished riding boot down upon it with exceeding force.
But he can’t do it. Tradition is too weak.
Kali Yuga, not Cali Yoga
History is like a washing machine for Evola; it moves in cycles, and the bad news is that we have reached the dark ages.
Kali Yuga — a term taken from Hinduism — is where Evola sees the contemporary world.
It means “the age of vice”.
This is confounding, for Western societies are accustomed to think in terms of progress. Are not our cars better than three decades ago? Are not our drugs more potent? Are not women freer? Are not gays liberated? Have you seen Netflix? What about the Internet?
Evola quietly rolls his eyes at this so-called progress. It is true, he would concede, that we have developed many potent tricks.
Tricks are just tricks, though.
But modernity is really a solvent, which dissolves everything before us. The scientific method is powerful, but it is provisional — new evidence refines a theory decade-on-decade. Everyone is sceptical and provisional. This extends to our buildings, our disposable consumer products, and our inert one-night stands.
This is the Age of Aquarius, which is a fluid and formless state. The Internet itself embodies our formless age: a photo on Snapchat is there for a second before being wiped away. A drop down menu allows us to change our country location with a few clicks.
There’s nothing to be done, says Evola. He is not suggesting that Traditionalists form political parties or take direct action to halt Kali Yuga.
That type of thinking in itself is only possible in the age of Kali Yuga.
Evola is inviting us to participate a political mindset similar to a terminal cancer patient in preparation for death. This is why it is slightly ridiculous to worry that Steve Bannon is influenced by Evola. Evola’s philosophy regards Bannon and Trump as being rather muscular arms of Kali, not agents of salvation.
There is nothing to be done, even if the Trump administration was thoroughly convinced that Evola’s analysis was correct. The analysis itself precludes constructive action to undo the world as it stands.
If Kali Yuga had a herald it would be Nietzsche. This wild mountain man looked at utilitarian, scientific Victorianism and despaired. The search for truth that started with the Christian commandment not to lie spawned science, democracy, and socialism.
And also spawned the idea that underlies that trinity: nihilism.
So thorough going has the moral commitment to truth-telling been that Christianity ate itself. Homer praised wily Odysseus the outrageous liar, while Christian societies sought only the truth – and nothing but.
Now the pursuit of truth has liquefied its own foundations by questioning the moral imperative to truth: Christianity itself.
What is left is the scientific worldview (which by its very nature is open to revision), utilitarian politics (also capricious), and the pursuit of animal pleasures with no higher purpose.
This is nihilism. This is Kali Yuga.
Evola agrees with the Marxist Herbert Marcuse that even the secularised Christian religion of Marxism has ground to a halt. The proletariat have become bourgeois, the proletariat want an iPad – and they want it last week.
Marcuse and Evola saw the Soviet and capitalist worlds as head and tail to a common coin: the technocratic, planned, and bureaucratised system.
For Marcuse resistance to the system could come from marginalised racial groups, the lumpenproletariat, and the undeveloped world.
For Evola this is illusion. The revolution of Marcuse, the revolution of the ’68ers, is even more empty than the Bolshevik revolution; it is not carried out even to bring a new class to power.
It is destruction for the sake of destruction.
If we look at state of social institutions in the West that were subject to the ’60s social revolution we find Evola’s analysis vindicated. The family has collapsed, drug abuse (legal and illegal) is common, abortion legal, pornography commonplace, alcoholism unexceptional, overwork required, mindless consumerism venerated, and eating disorders almost required — a thousand pathologies blossom.
These are the flowers that were planted in the 60s by a generation whose revolution was the apotheosis of nihilism. It lacked the violent dignity and purity of the Bolsheviks and heralded a tacky social destruction so mundane it is barely evil.
Who are you, Baron Evola?
Nietzsche proposes one solution to the nihilist age: “Become what you are.” What he means by this is that people can give up the ‘I’ in their heads that is their entire identity.
In the Homeric epics, the protagonists are pulled about by gods whispering in their ears and tugging on their souls.
Christianity changed this and created the illusion that ‘I’ is in control of a human’s actions. But we do not really know where our ideas and thoughts come from. There is no ‘I’ in control of us. Our self-directed action is an illusion similar to a computer operating system that allows us to function but it is all to often confused with being ‘a person’.
Nietzsche wants to strip away the ‘I’.
In the nihilist age we can do with the ‘I’ and simply ‘be’, transcending and re-transcending ourselves for our ‘self’ never existed to begin with.
We are rivers of thought and must flow where we will.
For Evola, Nietzsche’s injunction is anarchic and will lead only to a new slavery, for if a person cannot first control their illusory ‘I’ then the losing of it will have no value.
Tradition provides this outer discipline. Tradition is embodied in hierarchy. Evola believes that the Muslim Ismaeli sect followed Nietzsche’s injunction, as embodied in their saying: “Nothing exists, everything is permitted.”
But it was only the higher members in the sect who implemented this saying. They could only do this after being forged in discipline, hierarchy, and a conviction that something (i.e. God) very much exists.
For Evola, the path away from nihilism requires people to first return to the archaic before transcending the contemporary nihilistic world.
At the sociological level people are wrapped up in illusionary individual identities, according to Evola.
We are categorised through market research, entertainment, education, work-life, and so on into a few utilitarian categories that are convenient for the nihilistic world’s administration.
This is the deindividualised individual. Contemporary societies are relentlessly atomised, anarchic, unconventional, and superficially novel — this is presented as individuality, as liberation
I would observe that it is this sociological identity, the mask imposed by society, that most people fall in love with. They are then disconcerted to find that they are not themselves. Hence the endless industry in ‘finding yourself’, a task that is futile for it is the infinite quest for a mask. This task is as illusive as seeking to finally extinguish sexual desire, or an addict having ‘just one last’ drink or hit.
The best illustration of these processes is that of Ernst Jünger, in his work Der Arbeiter. I can certainly agree with Jiinger when he says that these processes of the current world have caused the individual to be superseded by the “type,” together with an essential impoverishment of his traits and ways of life, and a dissolution of cultural, human, and personal values. In the vast majority of cases, the destruction is suffered passively: the man of today is the mere object of it. The result is an empty, mass-produced human type, marked by standardization and flat uniformity; a “mask” in the negative sense; an insignificant, multiple product. Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (1961), Baron Julius Evola
The flip side to this process is that man thus processed is ideal for our contemporary machine-centric wars.
Could Evola and Jünger conceive of anything more ugly than the drone strike? This technologically mediated, cowardly act is without valour and honour.
These are bloodthirsty men, but they want to draw blood with the white of the eyes visible.
Whether it’s a production line building iPhones or corpses, there is no difference for the nihilist. The techniques are the same. A spreadsheet tracks the efficiency.
And yet war — this is very much a fascist point — opens the possibility to escape nihilism, according to Evola. It is on the battlefield — even the contemporary techno-battlefield — that man “passes into a new form of exsitence”. Here there is an ‘objective’ and ‘lucid’ life where action is action, and the illusory ‘I’ has been banished.
The other words for this, though Evola does not use them, is regression to the animal state, with all the brutality attendant on that transition.
For Evola this is the ultimate ‘tiger ride’, and possibly only mountain climbing can offer a similar revelation. A moment that brings death before one and requires lucid action.
Cosmopolitans: We are everywhere and at home nowhere
The transcendent dimension may also become active in reaction to the processes responsible for a steady erosion of many ties to nature, leading to a rootless state. It is evident, for example, that the stay-at-home bourgeois lifestyle is increasingly and irreversibly affected by the progress of communication technology, opening up great expanses on land, sea, and air. Modern life takes place ever less in a protected, self-contained, qualitative, and organic environment: one is immersed in the entire world by new and rapid travel that can bring us to faraway lands and landscapes in little time. Hence, we tend toward a general cosmopolitanism as “world citizens” in a material and objective sense, not an ideological, much less a humanitarian one. At least the times of “provincialism” are over. Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (1961), Baron Julius Evola
Travel is a drug as far as Evola is concerned. We rush from Thailand to Japan to Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States. We lose ourselves, our pain — or rather we fail to lose either.
We have long been cosmopolitans. The Global Village is not new; it has only been enhanced as the Internet developed and air travel fell in price. And this is why the break in the cosmopolitan project represented by Brexit and Trump is so disturbing for many people, though an aristocrat such as Evola has little time for the smelly little nation.
An aristocrat owns estates. It was only with the French Revolution that people became anything so vulgar as nationalists. Evola would be sympathetic to the Norman aristocrats who invaded France from England to regain their great-grandfathers’ lands — not for anything so democratic and pathetic as the ‘nation’ of England.
The only solution travel offers is in its ecstatic speed. Here Evola is at one with Marinetti and the Futurist movement in art:
We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to run on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samoth-race (1910).
‘Le Figaro’, 20 February 1909, as quoted in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Appolonio, Thames and Hudson, London, 1973
And beyond travel is nature, but not the nature we find on the beach or on the forest cycle trails. The dichotomy between city and nature is artificial, according to Evola. For nature is itself corrupted by man:
In the end, the phase of nature for the plebeians arrives, with the breakout of the masses, the common people everywhere with or without their automobiles, the travel agencies, the dopolavori, and all the rest; nothing is spared. The naturists and nudists form the extreme of this phenomenon. The beaches — teeming insect-like with thousands and thousands of male and female bodies, offering to the glance an insipid, almost complete nudity — are another symptom. Still another is the assault on the mountains by cable cars, funiculars, chair lifts, and ski lifts. All this is part of the regime of final disintegration of our epoch. There is no point in dwelling on it. Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (1961), Baron Julius Evola
It is only by going beyond nature that nature — and indeed the city — can be transcendent for Evola. Film director Werner Herzog once described the jungle as “overwhelming, collective murder” — and this is the nature Evola believes can quicken the soul.
But the path cannot be the path that is marked as a path. Evola values the esoteric and the strange reversals. His thought is mirror thought, straightforward only in so far as it is crooked.
The city then is not the antithesis to nature. The city is nature itself — and the division between nature and the city are a nihilist mirage.
Science, what is thought was the highest knowledge in our society, is not knowledge at all, says Evola. We have been blinded by technology, which we confuse for science. And because technology is powerful and successful we worship science.
But science is mathematical abstraction; it is not real, even when it allows us to visit space and massacre bacteria. These achievements merely show that it works in the same way a good recipe works to produce a meal to fill the stomach, but that does not mean the recipe reflects a deeper truth about food.
Our societies take science as the arbiter and make scientists a priestly caste. But science parodies religion by introducing constant change.
Today’s hypothesis supported by evidence is tomorrow’s rubbish. The real test, not often considered, is not whether what science says is true but whether it works — whether the theory fits the evidence and vice versa.
And so what proclaims enlightenment merely adds to the commercialised and atomistic confusion that is the modern world.
So says Evola.
Withdrawal and affirmation
To depict Evola as a political thinker, as someone who wants to forge a party and a program, would be an error. There is no salvation for Evola in the political fray. A man may take sides for Islamism or against liberalism or vice versa, but this is no great concern. Both movements are already infected with modernity. One cannot step outside Kali Yuga.
Evola recommends detached action as the course for ‘aristocrats of the soul’ adrift in a time without hierarchy, order, and tradition. That marriage has become a legalised prostitution cannot be helped. The aristocrat makes his way as best he can with faith for the next turn on the cycle.
Death should be in the aristocrat’s mind. Memento Mori, remember you must die, but have faith that there will be a continuation. Evola says meditate on death and live an adventure, and he meant what he wrote. When the bombs fell during World War II, he went out for a stroll among the shrapnel and lost the use of his legs for the trouble.
Life for Evola, as for Nietzsche, is a constant affirmation. We adventure on with the knowledge passed down from Seneca that we may choose suicide at any moment. This is the comfort that helps make our life meaningful.
What then does Evola mean for politics? He offers a critique of everything held sacred in contemporary society: capitalism, socialism, liberalism, feminism, science, modern art, and on and on. There are few thinkers who so totally renounce modernity, the world made from around 1500 onwards in the West.
But there is no program forward. And in this respect Evola is not like a Lenin or a bin Laden. He is not an intellectual organiser. He counsels withdrawal, idiosyncratic risk, and self-purification along with resignation that the world will not be purified for many years to come.
His attraction for the alt-right, neo-reactionaries, and neo-fascists lies in his prescription rather than his cure (a cure is itself probably far too corrupted by modernity for Evola’s tastes).
That does not mean it is impossible to build a political program on Evola’s work – even if the program could not succeed and even if it was essentially whimsical. If such a program were to be written it would be so distant from all existing polities – except perhaps (and this is a big perhaps) for Taliban controlled areas – that it would seem incomprehensible to the masses.
Evola is, despite his tiger-like reputation, almost a pussycat. His aristocrats might climb mountains Reinhold Messner-style, but they are unlikely to seize power in a country.
Aristocrats of the soul ride the tiger best in mountain retreats with good wine and cheese to hand, or perhaps (and this is unkind) in their parents’ basement.
If Trump and his administration really were that influenced by Evola they would be deep in an Oregon forest building a wood cabin and praying to God.
The White House is not the right place to ride a tiger.