For a mind that is both lucid and endowed with a sense of the possible, rare indeed are the periods of human history that have been satisfying, far less delightful. The overall feeling one can have of ours, at the end of the twentieth, beginning of the twenty-first century, is of a nothingness – a nothingness full of noise and fury, pious preachings, empty promises, sociological statistics, piles of pseudo-culture, oodles of syrupy sentimentality, all of it against a backdrop of existential boredom (to espace from which anything goes).



Maybe it’s an empty space between two civilisations, maybe just a wornout space between one emptiness and another even emptier. We’ve just come out of the -isms, notably marxism and freudism, and of certain narrow frameworks set up by the human sciences. But it’s only to fall headlong into a pit of facility.


We’ve come to the end of the Highway of the West.


Before moving out on more complex roads, before trying to open up a more vivifying space, I propose a schematic lay-out of this Highway. In doing so, I have only one aim in mind: not to « write history », but to get us out of the daily din, situate us in longer perspectives.


Let’s proceed stage by stage.


It’s Plato and Aristotle who dictate and establish the discourse of the West: on the one hand, the idealist philosopher, the master of metaphysics, and, on the other, the inventor of systems and classifications. Western man is idealistic, or nothing, and he finds it hard to bear that nothing – he moves between idealist delirium and destructive nihilism. In order to construct an edifice of knowledge, he divides, dissects, classifies, categorizes. That division and classification can be useful, who would deny it. But, in time, they can become reductive, reality overflows them. That’s the case today. Aristotle’s systematics need revision. Any attempt to categorize reality starts off by being enlightening and enlivening, then, in time, inevitably, it enters a dead and deadening zone, because every age brings its load of experience that leads to new knowledge. This new experience, this new knowledge, no longer fit into the established frameworks. Comes a moment when the old schemes no longer function. Hence a blockage of intelligence. Today, without losing sight of Aristotle, we need to go out beyond the aristotelian system, gather new forces, conceive new intellectual and cultural space.


But don’t let’s get lost in the brushwood. Let’s keep the whole forest in view, keep the broad lines in sight. Let’s come back to our reading of intellectual and cultural history, so as really to disengage new space, and not just turn into, for example, « anti-aristotelians », neglecting other elements still hovering in the background.


On the fundamental Greek discourse was going to be grafted a religious (millenarist and moral) discourse, that of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, in the place of the platonic Idea is enthroned God, the one omnipotent and eternal Lord. In place of the dialectic between a human being lost in the obscurity of the cavern and the light of Ideas is set up a Creator-Creature paradigm. Everything is situated in a transcendental, hierarchical order, the Earth considered as a vale of tears, a place of necessary trial and suffering to as to deserve post-mortem eternal life beside the said Lord.


With the Renaissance, that is, the rediscovery of classical Greek thought, comes in a tide, a flood of mythology – all those gods and goddesses that were to encumber Western poetry for centuries. But with that mythology and its divine rhetoric came those dryads of the forest, those naiads of the springs, and hence a new vision of Nature, a recovery of panic contact with the Earth. At the Age of Discovery, this earth-contact, this nature-vision, is nourished and augmented by the presence of new spaces of joyance and projection. But look what happens. The opening space, the « New World », is immediately covered over by the belief-system of Christianity (the saintly nomenclature of the islands) and by the concepts of classicism (Golden Age, Arcadia…). Utopianism is born. The world gets lost in a golden, blood-edged cloud. On the ground, the lone traveller is confronted by strange things, by a Nature that drowns the compartments of his knowledge and thought: material, moral, political. The general movement will be one of indifference, destruction, imposition. But the « new matter » remains to be thought over. And will be, in lonely places, in isolation. But the movement that takes over from the Renaissance had other aims.


Modernity, as I see it, begins with Descartes, or rather with cartesianism (Descartes the individual is more complex). With Modernity, the paradigm is no longer Creator-creature as in the Middle Ages nor is it the bombastic Humanism of the Renaissance, it is Subject-Object. And with this subject-object model goes a project: to become the master and possessor of Nature. Descartes inaugurates a conception of the Subject that is not that of the Greek citizen, nor that of the Christian person. The conception of this modern Subject set over against the Object will become more and more stressed as modernity and modernism proceed and progress. Separated from the Object (immediate reality), the subject will become more and more subjectivised, wrapped in his/her fantasms, ending up in final phase on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Along with this, the object is more and more objectivised, reduced to material to be exploited. The Outside disappears more and more. Modern man doesn’t see a forest, far less live with it, what he sees is a quantity of future planks. He winds up sawing the branch on which he is seated. Modern man lives in a sterile environment, moving between traumas and nightmare. The End is written all over it.


With what the manuals call Romanticism, there was a reaction. Subjective, as could only be expected. It’s the private person realising that he/she is deprived of everything. No world left to live in. Hence attempts sentimental or mythical to re-make contact with Nature. Only its most superficial and caricatural aspects will be retained: crazy displacements, madness and suicide, nostalgia for the Middle Ages… Romantic theatre, spectacle. But there were also more interesting aspects. Attempts to move out of the restrictive frameworks of modernistic science. The search for new means of expression. Most of them didn’t go far, and some failed miserably. But great failures can be a lot more interesting than a production line of little successes. That was the fate of Romanticism.


Romanticism was still in spate when Hegel, the last monumental philosopher, speaking from the University of Berlin, ushered in a new phase. For Hegel, who has the whole of Western philosophy in his head, the « Idea » is not « in the sky » or outside the cavern, it is in History. History is rational, within it Reason is on the march and it is about to reach its ultimate aim. Don’t read poems (his student friend, Hölderlin, was to end up mad in a tower at Tübingen), read the daily newspaper. The higher function of the mind is no longer art, it is the ability to conceptualize events. Progress, with a capital C, is born. The ultimate aim of this historical Progress will be seen in various ways according to local ideologies. In Prussia, it will be a Great State. Further East (the Marxist project) it will be a great state whose mission is to put an end to all States and usher in World Communism. In the West, it will be the Supermarket of Happiness for all. This progressivism will mark the nineteenth century and a good part of the 20th. It’s only recently that belief in it has waned. In the East, the ex-Marxist countries convert to the most brutal type of capitalism, this conversion being accompanied by an upsurge of ethnic and religious identity ideology. In the West, against a background of quiet despair, what forms is a socio-political condition I call the mediocracy.


So, no future?


It certainly looks more and more as if we’ve come to the end of History’s Highway. On the public platform, platitudes follow one another relentlessly, interrupted only by a disaster here and there: a Chernobyl to the left, an oil slick on the right. The media keep up a perpetual commentary, out to at least give the impression that something important is happening. Given such a situation, such a context, what is there, radically, to be done? Nothing at all? It’s a general feeling, if you’re not content to just to « have fun », or indulge in stupid violence, or wait for a space-ship to Mars. Yet, despite everything, despite the general state of things, the individual has innate faculties and energies. The only solution for him/her is to try for a resourcing, discover new sources of inspiration, set out on other paths of feeling. It is never easy, except in infantile forms. If only because of the fact that once you’ve left the Highway, it’s hard to find new bearings, discover elements of re-orientation.


Fortunately, at the end of the nineteenth century, some minds particularly acute and far-seeing had already asked themselves that question. They foresaw where the Highway of History was leading and began to sketch out the premisses of a new field of force. These figures I call intellectual nomads. It’s Nietzsche, wandering between Germany, Italy and France. It’s Rimbaud, moving even more and faster between France and Abyssinia via Indonesia. Neither believe in Progress: Nietzsche thinks in terms of cyclical time, and of the forward March of Time, Rimbaud says wryly: « Why couldn’t it take a turning? » « Stay faithful to the Earth », says Nietzsche, and Rimbaud: « If I have taste left for anything at all, it’s for earth and stones. » There you see the beginning of geopoetics, in a kind of mental geology and erratic geography. Everyone knows the tragic destiny of these two men. After leaving the Highway, the first intellectual nomads had trouble finding their way. They still had a weight of heredity on their backs. That’s the inside problem. On the outside, society did its utmost to thwart them and silence them, precisely because they opened a field different from the normal socio-political one. Later, of course, society would bring them back in, as symbols, as icons, as tourist attractions, while continuing complacently not to understand what they were after, far less implement it. Part of the task now is to analyze these minds, recognize whatever errors they may have made, prolong their itineraries, open up the new space they started to trace out.

Kenneth WHITE

(Extract from Le Plateau de l’Albatros, 1994)