The René Guénon Enigma, by Olavo de Carvalho
An author whose penname is “Sphinx” encloses an enigma and a subtle threat in his writings: any reader who is unable to decipher his enigma shall be devoured.
René Guénon’s works are indeed enigmatic. They contain a great paradox: on the one hand, the author demonstrates great contempt for the realm of time, of action, and of history— “manifestation,” as he calls it. Compared to the realm of eternity and of principles, manifestation is “nothing.” On the other hand, time, action, and history have a primary, explicit and continual goal: to hasten the advent of a “traditional restoration,” a goal that must be achieved within the horizon of time and of history.
In a strict logical sense, this is not contradictory at all. It simply illustrates a tension between two separate planes of discourse. The author himself, for whom the qualifier “shrewd” would be a gross understatement, was certainly not unaware of this tension. But instead of making it plain in his writings for all to see and allowing for its possible implications, he argues as though he were completely oblivious to it, stressing instead the total unity of his doctrine. Now, the doctrine’s written formulation is indeed impressive on account of its internal coherence; everything down to the smallest detail is consistent with the universal principles upon which the whole corpus is founded.
This body of teaching, moreover, encompasses such an enormous wealth and variety of perspectives that each could constitute a world of its own, a vast continent of knowledge (to say nothing of that knowledge’s consequent spiritual practices) big enough to completely absorb the most towering intellects for their entire lives, without any of them ever having the chance to unite those “continents” into a mapamundi of Guénon’s worldview as a whole.
If Guénon himself in no wise acknowledged the tension I mentioned earlier, much less do his main disciples, followers, admirers, and critics today. Instead they are enraptured by the all-encompassing vision of a unity of doctrine and practice—perfect unity in Guénon’s Doctrine of Unity—the same Guénon accentuated when he later adopted the Islamic name ‘Abd-el-Wahid Yahya, “John, Servant of the One.”
But with such a tension concealed from the reader’s sight, it becomes difficult to distinguish at what point in Guénon’s writings the “doctrine of the absolute” is to be understood in an unmistakeable, direct, and pure metaphysical sense, and when, in a scarcely noticeable way, it is intermingled with a plan of execution, an action to be carried out.
If the reader does take this tension seriously, he will also understand that because of the immeasurable distance between the eternal principles’ unchanging unity and the brittle, multi-faceted reality of the manifest world, the intended action is neither the only possible nor the only desirable one, but merely one possibility among many, not determined by any kind of cyclic fatality, but rather offered as one choice among many to the discretion of human freedom.
If, on the other hand, the tension slips from the reader’s awareness, cyclic determinism will prevail, and the Guenonian solution to the world’s ills, more than an inexorable fatality, will seem to be a grave duty, one whose call everyone who is “qualified,” all current and future members of the “intellectual elite,” must answer.
The Guenonian solution can be accurately summarized—the author himself having so often defined it—as the absorption of the West by the East. This absorption can take on two forms: a mild one, i.e., a “restoration of Western tradition” under the auspices of Eastern spiritual authorities, and a violent one, i.e., the East’s total occupation of the West—cultural, political, economic, and military.
René Guénon’s Catholic disciples would have us believe Guénon tried to bring about the mild alternative, as evidenced by the articles he published in the Catholic journal Regnabit, which do illustrate the author’s exceptionally deep understanding of Catholic symbolism. But history tells us something different: Guénon’s first contacts with Catholic milieus and his contributions to the journal Regnabit took place in 1925, while his biographers are unanimous in stating that the philosopher’s departure to Egypt, in 1930, marks the moment at which, having given up all hope in the restoration of the Catholic Church, he placed all his bets on the rise of Islam. What significant events in Catholic history, within the span of those five short years, could have been so significant as to convert an alleged champion of traditional Catholicism into the staunchest advocate of global Islamization? None, of course. Either Guénon turned on a dime, or his supposed efforts for a traditional Catholic restoration were nothing but a half-baked attempt, carried out more to alleviate the philosopher’s conscience than out of a genuine belief in the possibility of this restoration’s taking place. In either case, we are forced to conclude that, at least in the longest and most significant period of his life as a writer and mentor, René Guénon’s goal was none other than the East’s occupation of the West—specifically the Islamic East’s, in Guénon’s view the sole heir and only legitimate spokesman of all Eastern traditions.
Guénon actually confirmed this view in the most striking way. According to him, the starting point of “traditional action” was to form an “intellectual elite,” not only well versed in Eastern doctrines but also spiritually transfigured by participation in various initiation rituals of esoteric organizations that regularly came into contact with “legitimate tradition.” When his Swiss correspondent and admirer Frithjof Schuon, invested with the title sheikh of one of the most traditional tariqah (an esoteric organization), returned from Algeria in the early 1940s and, setting out to form an “intellectual elite,” as his master had envisioned it, proclaimed “I will Islamicize Europe,” Guénon did not hesitate to say that this was the first and only concrete result his ten-year effort had achieved.
René Guénon’s work follows two lines of argumentation: one, the exposition a universal metaphysical doctrine in which, according to the author, all the major religious traditions are contained; two, a set of general instructions for preparing and educating an “intellectual elite” whose aim will be to Islamicize the West, whether through subtle and discreet hegemonic pressures exerted upon the Catholic Church (a strategy that was quickly abandoned) or through total occupation. In either case, his work, considered sometimes apolitical, sometimes conservative to the core, clearly falls under the concept of the “revolutionary mentality” as I have defined it in my previous works: that is, the pursuit of a radical transformation of society or even of the entire world, to be carried out by means of a concentration of power.
Ignorance or neglect of the tension between these two thought processes causes the master’s disciples and admirers to believe that the second process is inevitably derived from the first. This in turn has even sincere Catholics end up catering to the project of global Islamization—whether they see it as the only path to spiritual redemption in the world and in Catholicism itself or have failed to clearly distinguish the very problematic tension between these two aspects of Guenonian teaching.
Guénon’s aim was, in short, nothing less than Islamicizing the West under the banner of a universal and metaphysical doctrine that transcended denominational boundaries, and doing it in such a way that the Islamization would, in the modern world’s present conditions, seem to be the only the only course of action in keeping with that universal doctrine. That’s how a teaching, at face value concerned only with eternity and supratemporal notions, became one of the most profound, effective, and devastating interventions ever before seen in the realm of history and politics. Since the tension between these two levels must needs pass through a web of ambiguities and stumbling blocks, if the reader fails to perceive and analyze it, nothing remains except for the Sphinx to devour him.
Olavo de Carvalho
Translation by Jules Lapprand