Making a case for the vulgarity that has already triumphed (and possibly simply because it has already triumphed, considering it inevitable), Pattison endeavours to see its strenghts: “Vulgar pantheism is abysmally indiscriminate – or said another way, it is infinitely tolerant. The vulgar pantheist finds room in his universe for the atheist and the witchdoctor as well as the Pope and the rabbi. Professing no one religion, he accepts and rejects them all.” [The Triumph of Vulgarity, 27.]
This unqualified pluralism and tolerance is part of what Babbitt analysed as the “sham spirituality” of romanticism and modernity, and what orthodox Christians criticized as the sentimental watering down of the truths of their religion by liberal theology. [There is no implication here that I accept a literalist position of orthodox Christianity.] It is a phenomenon which through the subtle reinterpretations of countless leading thinkers, novelists and political ideologists gradually guided Western culture away from the objective dualisms of classicism and Christianity. It was supported by progressivist adaptations of ancient wisdom in the form of theosophy and of monistic vedanta in the streamlined form of the pop-gurus of the sixties, issuing today in the combined individualism and metaphysical impersonalism of New Age spirituality, to which I will return shortly. It can hardly be doubted that its love and its oneness were often as vague and as thin as – empty space.
To use Lasserre’s words about pantheism, postmodernism displayed an “insouciance supérieure de s’accorder avec soi-même, de s’astreindre à la conséquence, incapacité d’opter entre deux contradictoires, bien plus, complaisance satisfaite à prêter également à l’un et à l’autre son sentiment et son jugement, délices de penser dans une région si indéterminée et si fluide qu’il ne s’y saurait, à vrai dire, rencontrer de contradictions.” There was in postmodernism no longer any cooperative quest for the infinite, yet once again, shelter from the destruction threatened by the self-aggrandizement of desire was sought in a regressive state of alternating narcissism and self-extinction. And the experience of the irreducible irrationality and difference, of the resistance of the opaque, intractable elements of reality, and the resulting acceptance of ultimate irrationality, now had as a consequence that philosophy itself was given up. Like romanticism, postmodernism was “le plus profond dissolvant intellectuel. [Il donnait] une mystérieuse valeur métaphysique à toutes les libertés, à tous les relâchements, au bout desquels la pensée trouve sa propre décomposition.” [See the note about Lasserre’s book and page numbers above.] Its subjectless subjectivity no longer aspired to or claimed to be objective. The common world dissolved, there were many conflicting realities with no shared, underlying deep structure. In this multiverse, all relations were reduced to power.
Postmodernism’s subjectivism without a subject emerged in the wake of avant-garde modernist literature and art, which, ever since Proust and Joyce, under the influence of changing perceptions of space and time, dissolved the “bourgeois” subject and its character development, but nonetheless retained the subject in new distorted forms. In postmodernism, as for Heraclitus, men are really “flames” and things are really “processes”, there are “no transcendent values”, “all ideas are equally valid”; “the truth is infinite and comprehensive, not narrow and exclusive. The best religion is eclecticism taken to its limit.” Pattison’s description of pantheism holds in almost every detail for postmodernism. Postmodernism was indeed
“a garbage-pail philosophy, indiscriminately mixing scraps of everything. Fine distinctions between right and wrong, high and low, true and false, the worthy and unworthy, disappear in [postmodernism’s] tolerant and eclectic one that refuses to scorn any particular of the many. The [postmodernist] may be fascinated or bemused by the castes, religions, and ethics of a various world, but he denies to each in turn transcendent validity. There is no transcendent validity. There is only the swarming many…[Postmodernism] is necessarily vulgar because it rejects the transcendence from which refinement springs, because it delights in the noisy confusion of life, and because it sacrifices discrimination to eclecticism…it professes to include all philosophies, religions, and ideologies…[Postmodernism] naturally encompasses all the disparate energies loosed by the Romantic revolution. It embraces the mass…makes room for all paradoxical contraries, and reveres the energy of process.” [Op.cit., 23-5.]
Postmodernism, in short, was a further secularized pantheism which no longer endeavoured to elevate or refine itself to monism, and it was evidence of the extent of the failure of such attempts under the circumstances of the modern world.
That postmodernism has produced extreme subjectivism without a subject is only seemingly paradoxical. In the contemporary fragmented mass-culture, the avant-garde of modernist literature and art which systematically sought to dissolve everything “bourgeois” was gradually reduced to nonsense as postmodernism programmatically removed the final barrier against the trivial and the popular. Yet many intellectuals tried hard to find ways to defend it all as the adequate contemporary form of cultural criticism.
Many rock musicians have drawn inspiration directly from Blake, the romantic arch-equivocator, and some have made recordings of his poems. The British trajectory from the culture of classicism and Christianity in its nineteenth-century version to the anti-essentialist, romantic kitsch satanism of today, from, say, Matthew Arnold, who upheld some objective values of classicism and Christianity in a Victorianized form based on a general liberal understanding of religion, over his pupil Walter Pater and Pater’s pupil Oscar Wilde, to Wilde’s pupil David Bowie, is clear and unambiguous. David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story (1999) was in many respects a representative, 600-page mise au point on the state Western culture as shaped by postmodernism and radical modernism. Pattison, and, for instance, the British philosopher Anthony O’Hear, express the increasingly common insight that popular culture is today the dominant culture – in America, it has even been considered the only culture. More interestingly, Pattison and O’Hear both claim that it is today also the most significant and original culture. [See O’Hear, After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward (1999).] By the analysis of the pantheistic revolution, it is possible to see also much of the dominant rational bourgeois culture as not only dialectically related to the romantic counterculture, but as itself largely defined by romanticism, not least in the optimistic shallowness of the understanding of man and his motives that has shaped classical liberal economic theory from Adam Smith to this day.
Almost all leading intellectuals, novelists, and artists are now themselves shaped by what was once the isolated subculture, and share a single imaginative and emotional universe. The trend in the postmodern and post-postmodern academia of yesterday and today (which has reached its fullest development in the United States, although it has there also produced a sometimes rather consistent reaction) to extol what is held to be some original and primitive pantheism and compare it unfavourably to the dualistic, patriarcal, exploiting, hierarchical, white, repressive, unequal, logocentric worldview of the Greeks, the Bible, and modern rationalism, can be analysed as a typical product of that exclusively modern phenomenon that is romantic pantheism. Deconstruction seems to have been at least partly driven by the yearning for the primitive sensual unity of romanticism, and this and other specifically philosophical formulations of poststructuralism and postmodernism in France, a mere continuation of the French romanticism as analysed by Lasserre, have been systematically and precisely traced to German sources by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, although they of course do not share Lasserre’s deeper analysis from a more strictly “classicist” perspective but are part of much of the underlying modern dynamic that he criticizes. [La pensée ’68. Essai sur l’anti-humanisme contemporain (1986).]
When seen as developed from its logical and historical roots in romantic pantheism, it is clear that all this is a worldview, precisely in its fragmented, kaleidoscopically changing, and inconsistent quality. For these characteristics are all ultimately “meaningful”, no matter how unconsciously they are manifested, as the actualization of what from the positions of classical reason can be seen to be the timeless potentiality of dissolution in chaos and of sophistry’s termination of thought. This potentiality could only be actualized in a dominant movement under the unique conditions provided by modern romantic pantheism.
Even if we can seemingly change worldviews every day – as the Protean personalities of postmodern culture changes identities, clothes, sex, and lifestyles – this very state of affairs can be shown logically and historically to be an expression or a consequence of the worldview of romanticized pantheism taken to the extreme of sophistic self-dissolution. This is not only a worldview; as Pattison insists, it is increasingly the worldview of contemporary liberal democracy. This worldview stands opposed in principle not only to original classicism, Christianity, and, mutatis mutandis, the other major cultural traditions of humanity properly understood, but also to an alternative understanding of modernity itself that affirms the partial truths of rationalism and romanticism as congruent with a discerning, creative form of traditionalism.