Icarus Fallen (Crosscurrents) Hardcover – 15 Aug 2003
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She believes Europeans have lost the will for meaning as they now reject all interpretative frameworks. Although the heart's yearning can never be quenched, the fear of absolutes and ideology has understandably bred disillusionment. Rigidity of thought was indeed the cause of the persecutions, the wars, the Holocaust and the Gulag. Without a sense of purpose however, mankind embraces the vapid and fatuous as revealed in banal and clichéd discourse. Delsol calls it the "clandestine" ideology of our time, overt ideology having become taboo. This black market substitute is sickly sentimental, arbitrary and intolerant despite claims to the contrary.Read more ›
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The book poetically summarizes the West's contemporary condition and makes some timely claims: that "man" today in the First World tends to have his needs fulfilled but still feels a sense of emptiness and yearning for meaning; that our turning inward to ourselves--even through our various emancipatory models of progress--has led us not to satisfaction but to a continued feeling of lostness; that existence needs an object beyond itself, paradoxically, to give itself meaning. After stating the problem rather repetitively (but again, poetically and astutely enough to hold a reader's attention and even perhaps gain his/her assent), the author reveals her "solution": we must realize that religion or other social systems of meaning will return, but cannot return in their traditional forms if they want to keep pomo mankind interested; that there must be a return of existential personal responsibility for the future and a willingness to take risks on behalf of belief/the absolute; that we must accept uncertainty and the world's contingency; that we must return to the notion of the valuable life as a daily struggle toward that which is not yet, and will never be, realized; that barbarity is always just under the surface of any happy society we create; that the "man of vigilance" must take over from the "man of Progress." The man of vigilance knows "he owes a debt to the world"; vigilance "is the state of mind of care-givers who can never entirely heal, can never entirely eradicate illness and evil, but untiringly keep threats at bay" (227).
All of this earns a "you go, girl" from me, but the last chapters reveal where all of this is going, and it's not good. What Delsol seems to arrive at is a kind of neo-Emersonianism or even a strong-man theory, where the secular, self-reliant individual acts according to his "moral" conscience in the absolute absence of "any extrinsic authority or any objective 'good.'" The more one looks at it, the scarier this poetic meditation becomes. Ironically, Delsol does not seem to realize--or does realize and is very cleverly obfuscating the fact--that rejecting the Enlightenment and advocating a Nietzschean ethics puts her firmly in the postmodernist camp. Delsol's rejection of universals of any kind in favor of individual conscience, however, does indeed distance her from the Enlightenment fathers, who believed (for example, in the construction of U.S. federalism) that the strong man must operate within social checks and balances--or inevitably turn tyrannical. This study ends up a confusing jumble of postmodernist politics, pragmatist ethics, and conservative values, and seems to be a part of a radical turn in French theory that talks like American conservativism but smells like European fascism.
Arguing that meaning is found outside of the self in ideas, ideals or values, the author believes Europeans have lost the will for it as they now reject all interpretative frameworks like religion, politics and economics. Fear of absolutes and ideology has understandably bred disillusionment. Rigidity of thought was indeed the cause of the persecutions, the wars, the Holocaust and the Gulag. The danger of democracy, on the other hand, is its multiplicity of opinions that are all equally valid. It is thus by nature averse to objective truths that would constrain certain behaviors. And without a sense of purpose, mankind embraces the vapid and fatuous as revealed in banal and clichéd discourse. Delsol calls it the "clandestine" ideology of our time, overt ideology having become taboo. This black market substitute is arbitrary, sickly sentimental and intolerant despite claims to the contrary. It functions as code language for the European welfare state whose citizens remain adolescents that conflate desires with rights in a process called the "sacralization" of rights.
She characterizes the morality of our time as one of complacency. The Good is considered to be that which gratifies, immediately and obviously. In reality the Good operates over the long term, so this notion restricts the imagination to a narrow spatio-temporal niche. And having rejected all frameworks, individuals have to formulate their own moral blueprint in the quest for self-fulfillment. This morality of complacency has deprived Europe of a system of ethics whilst promoting self-interest and subjectivity. Simultaneously, emotion & indignation have become the preferred channels to demonstrate morality which is usually negatively defined, in reaction to what people claim to despise. There's a type of piety expressed in hysterical fits of morality, particularly by artists and intellectuals. Its relativism, rage and selectivity betray it as mere posturing; it is moreover demonstrably contradictory in the way it clings to moral absolutes whilst affirming the omnipresence of relativism. Delsol considers it a vain, empty morality of despair and withdrawal. Others less kind might call it grotesque hypocrisy and crude projection.
Tolerance originally meant a willingness to endure that of which one disapproved. Now it encompasses active legitimization & encouragement of ideas & behaviors by the state. Emotion overrules truth when this vital distinction is ignored: Tolerance shown to people is a virtue but when extended to beliefs and behaviors that are manifestly evil it becomes cowardice and complicity in crime. An example is when European authorities fail to enforce the law by ignoring female circumcision amongst their immigrant communities. Worse still are those Western disciples of multiculturalism who approve of every sadistic practice based on the lie that "no culture is superior to any other." Enveloped in a smog of complacency, Europe pays lip-service to inclusion and equality whilst denying the reality of two societies: one of native Europeans and assimilated immigrants, the other of alienated immigrant populations concentrated in enclaves that are out-of-bound for law enforcers.
Because of the nature of reality, relativism has managed to confuse but failed to eliminate the moral conscience. Perceptions such as the difference between good & evil and truth & falsehood endure, as does the hope in the eternity of the divine. Delsol does not advocate a facile repudiation of the modern or blind regression to premodern forms of meaning, astutely observing: "The great difficulty will be to protect the gains of modernity while simultaneously struggling against its excesses. For taking a simplistic approach is always the first reflex, and the great temptation of this disappointed era could easily be complete rejection, a return to the besieged cocoon of a priori certitudes or purity-seeking fundamentalism which is just another form of utopian delusion."
Concluding with a call for increased vigilance, she urges the revival of our sense of responsibility. Her recommendations include a more direct engagement with life's fragility, accompanied by a constant critical examination of the contradictions of progress. Although no role for metaphysics or theology is explicitly suggested she believes that -- purged of its oppressive qualities -- religion would be a source of hope & inspiration and an effective guardian of the moral conscience. Correspondences between the thoughts of Delsol and those of Michael Polanyi expressed in Science, Faith And Society are close. Read together, the two texts almost magically complement one another.
Icarus Fallen has a foreword by Virgil Nemoianu, translator's preface and author's preface; the book concludes with bibliographic notes and an index. Unlike many prominent French philosophers that deliberately obfuscate, Delsol admirably elucidates with her descriptive clarity and elegance of style. Her book The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century makes an extraordinary contribution to the literature on the current predicament of the West.
In a very approximate nutshell, "Icarus Fallen" is about the evolution of Enlightenment ideals into what they are now, and the impacts those changes have on Western civilization. If this book doesn’t terrify the Western world for what it has become, nothing will.
For me there are, however, three distractions. First is the Forward by Virgil P. Nemoianu, which sounds like a partisan stab from the American political Right. If anyone needs to read this book, which is quite balanced, it is the American Left. Few copies will be read by liberals after Nemoianu’s second sentence. The next distraction is the publisher, ISI Books. ISI has published wonderful titles like this, and absurdities like "Darwin Day In America" with all the usual Creationist talking points that resonate with a scientifically illiterate public. This gives the impression ISI has a dogma to satisfy because with the small volumes they sell it’s not about the money. Lastly, Delsol herself bruises her image with her position on the natural world and popular responses to its demise. Instead of a measurable fact, it seems to be denied as, “Clearly a contemporary variant of pantheism.” Here she reads like the Church resistant to Copernicus. Could it be that the natural world is viewed less as a playground for Hippies, and more of a moral matter, perhaps for some, of God’s creation superior to market demands? All in all, this is a remarkable book, I hope everyone makes time to read.