Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Countess Satan: "Formulas Will Destroy the World and it is We Who Invent Them"

It has been about a quarter century since the West began to confront a new form of political expression--terrorist acts from members of non-governmental organizations intent on bringing change of one sort or another. Especially since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan terrorism from one or another Muslim sect has both fascinated and terrified the West. There is a legal aspect to modern terrorism in the hands of so-called religious communities. While Catholic political terrorism provided the basis for such conflict in England and Ireland during the last third of the 20th century, it has been Muslim warfare, intensified since 1993 and the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York, that marks the beginning of the 21st century. Most is directed toward a revolutionary goal--the establishment of a true and authentic rule of law society. Unfortunately, that rule of law society is grounded in Islam and shari'a. And it is mandatory. A sort of divine jus cogens, it tolerates some patience in the attainment of its goals, but increasingly appears to command positive and violent action. In a global order in which such social and political organizations are rare, and in which democratic ideals may impede the establishment of this sort of normative legal order, it becomes necessary to shock the population into the appropriate frame of mind. There is no more compelling shock than death--random ad delivered in mass quantities. Such is the necessary means, they might believe, to replace the immoral social and legal order that holds the world in its grip today and replace it by a universal upheaval that will usher in the new godly age.

Terror as a means to the ultimate authentically just and legitimate society--under law--has become a matter of state policy as well, at least in places like Iran. Thus, for example, I have suggested the institutionalization of Hojjetieh Society views on the use of terror to hasten the arrival of the Mahdi might shape not only the actions of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel, but also the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Larry Catá Backer, Iran’s’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Hojjatieh Society, and a Chaos Theory of International Relations Law at the End of the Day, July 14, 2006 ("The current Iranian President has suggested that it is possible to ground politics within a framework of preparation for the return of the Mahdi. He has also suggested, as have some adherents of organized groups within Shi’a Islam (including but not limited to the Hojjatieh Society) that it is possible to suggest an interpretation of that political framework that posits that it is in human hands (and perhaps the highest calling of humans) to focus all activity on actions that will create the conditions necessary for the return of the Mahdi. If such conditions include some sort of social, political, cultural or other forms of chaos, then the focus of state action becomes clear."). But it is not limited to the Muslim world. See Larry Catá Backer, Jerry Adams in Barcelona: On the Politics of Self Determination in Constitutional Systems, Law at the End of the Day June 8, 2006.

It is hard to remember that this sort of organized activity, and even this sort of purpose, is nothing new to the West. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, another great menace grabbed Western intellectual attention. For a time during that period, it was European revolutionary Nihilism that appeared to have an effect in many ways similar to those offered up by the current religious military campaigns against Western targets. And this basis for terror had attached to it the imagery of religion that we have come to attach without much question to the current crop of revolutionary terrorism by non-governmental actors. At the time, the movement was seen as largely Russian in origin, and anti-autocratic in objective. A. Palmieri, "Nihilism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XI, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911) (Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York) (describing "a Nihilist is one who bows to no authority and accepts no doctrine, however widespread, that is not supported by proof."). Among the great forces of this revolutionary movement--and the man credited (at the time by his opponents) with the progression of Nihilism from theory to terror, was Michael Bakunin (1814-76). The Catholic Encyclopedia thus pictured the man and his ideas:
Bakunin was extreme in his revolutionary theories. In the first number of "L'Alliance Internationale de la Démocratie Socialiste" founded by him in 1869, he openly professed Atheism and called for the abolition of marriage, property, and of all social and religious institutions. His advice, given in his "Revolutionary Catechism", was: "Be severe to yourself and severe to others. Suppress the sentiments of relationship, friendship, love, and gratitude. Have only one pleasure, one joy, one reward -- the triumph of the revolution. Night and day, have only one thought, the destruction of everything without pity. Be ready to die and ready to kill any one who opposes the triumph of your revolt." Bakunin thus opened the way tonihilistic terrorism. A. Palmieri, "Nihilism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XI, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911) (Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York)
The parallels to current descriptions of the current crop of enemies of the West are apparent. See Ruel Marc Gerecht, The Gospel According to Osama bin Laden, The Atlantic Online, Jan. 2002 (discussing, in part, Osama bin Laden, The Encyclopedia of Afghan Jihad, the "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" and the ).

There is a profound literary response to this sort of project as well. A sense of the similarities, and the power of religious imagery in terror warfare is nicely resurrected for us by Guy de Maupassant, He was a well known writer, especially of short stories, in France, at the end of the 19th century. "During the 1880s Maupassant created some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. In tone, his tales were marked by precision of style and a range of expression. Although his stories range from moving drama to sometimes bizarre comedy, it is his macabre horror stories that have received much attention." Guy de Maupassant.

The de Maupassant story that comes to mind is "Countess Satan" (The Classical Library, HTML Edition copyright 2001)." The story is simple (all quotes are from id.): in a Paris salon, the conversation turns to "dynamite, the social revolution, Nihilism, and even those who cared least about politics had something to say." Several people have something to say, but all conversation stops to hear the tale of Jules de C--'s description of his meeting with "Bakounine." Having fallen in love with the Countess Nisoka W--, nicknamed Countess Satan, he sought to attach himself to her. Though physically ugly, she was satanic: "she loved evil for the sake of evil. She rejoiced in other people's vices; she liked to sow the seed of evil in order to see it flourish. . . . It was not enough for her to corrupt individuals, she only did that to keep her hand in; what she wished to do was corrupt the masses." The temptation to become the lover of such a person was too much for Jules to resist. And the means appeared quite simple: "the only thing I had to do was show myself more perverted and satanic than she was herself. And so I played the devil." And the road to evil lay in the construction of theory and the manipulation of action through belief in others. "The so-called men of action only turn the handle of the miltrailleuse which we have loaded. Formulas will destroy the world, and it is we who invent them."

And in this way Jules is introduced to the idea of Bakunin: Countess Satan describes Bakinin's activities with both approval and disappointment. "At best, Bakounine would become an incendiary, and burn down cities. And what is that, I ask you? Bah! . . . He wants a prompter." And it is for this task that she cultivated Jules, resisting his more amorous advances. "She meant to make me Bakouine's prompter, or, at any rate that is what she said. But o doubt she reserved the right to herself. . . . to prompt the prompter, and my passion for her, which she purposely left unsatisfied, assured her of that power over me."

Now the set up is complete. Conflations of sexual and political tensions, of the contradictions of revolution and gender hierarchies, of the self destructive characteristics of members of the Western elite, who delight in supporting the sources of their destruction as a social and political class. And the nihilism as a form of religious perversion, as understood at the time: a desire to overturn the normative socio-political order in favor of another. Nihilism is presented here as an inversion of the social order. As Satanism is, in the eyes of then contemporary Christians as the mirror reverse of Christianity--as its inversion-- so the terror of revolutionary nihilism is the inverse of the ordered society it seeks to displace. As Jules relates it: "I became a sort of Western Prophet, a mystic charmer who was ready to nihilize the Latin races, the Saint Paul of the new religion of nothingness."

Thus we are set for the meeting of prophet and deity. And de Maupassant produces the exhilaration of bathos. This is bathos on all of the levels important to society in the late 19th century. Bakunin's house was "common" as that term was understood in the late 19th century as coarse, lacking in refinement and taste. Bakunin himself was physically common as well--fat and ugly. And that physicality touched an important nerve--he physically expressed his foreignness and thus also his cultural and temperamental inferiority: his physical features "proclaimed the Tartar, the old Turanian blood which produced the Attilas, the Genghis-Khans, the Tamerlanes. . . . The man was certainly not a European. . . a scion of the atheistic hordes who have several times already overrun Europe, and who, instead of ideas of progress, have Nihilism buried in their hearts."

Thus exposed, the alien Asiatic hordes attempt again a conquest of the West. But this time they use ideas instead of soldiers, and would induce the West to offer itself for conquest by its own hand. Jules professed astonishment: "for I had not expected that the majesty of a whole race could be revived in a man." And with the surprise came the abandonment of love. Now exposed for what he was, Bakunin's agent in the West, the Countess Satan, is revealed for what she must be, a "silly child" with little understanding of "the profoundness of that horrible philosophy which was hidden under his material activity." For it was not Jules but Bakunin who played the role of prophet--"it was not only from instinct but also from theory that he urged a nation on to Nihilism." Though much of his theory was derivative, and de Maupassant describes the derivation in Jule's narrative of his self revelation, "but all that Bakounine wanted was to overthrow the actual order of things, no matter by what means, and to replace social concentration by a universal upheaval." This was, for Jules, a Tartar's dream. Its institutionalization produced the initial shock troops of "true Nihilism, whose object is nothing less than to destroy the Western world."

From this revelation, Jules can do little more than run. And so he abandons both lover and prophet. Now done, he orders the opening of another bottle of champagne, "and make the cork pop! It will, at any rate, remind us of the day when we ourselves shall be blown up with dynamite."

Thus ends the story of Countess Satan. The story reminds us that the contemporary Western world, consumed with terrorism, has both witnessed this before and survived it. The story reminds us of the ease with which the West both encourages and detests the agents of its destruction. It reminds us the ways in which such forces are constructed as alien--on racial, religious or other terms. It reminds us of the sexualization of terrorism as an old form of resistance. See Backer, Larry Cata, "Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia," Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005. And it suggests the ways in which terrorism spawns a fear that is naturalized within the culture. And it ends with a reminder that the acts of terror, the activity one sees, is ultimately far less threatening than the "philosophy hidden under his material activity." Countess Satan.

As we continue to confront the current war, for have no doubt it is a war, it is important to contextualize both the combatants and the nature of the conflict. Though the casualties of war are counted in bodies and damage to physical property, the focus of the war is neither the destruction of bodies nor property. And the battlefield is not the site of acts of terror, but the pages of the media, the writings of intellectuals, and the turnings of culture. In the 19th century, Guy de Maupassant provides one set of cultural reactions to this complex struggle. It will be interesting to see how the cultural products of the early 21st century will provide a window onto the construction of the foundations for the legitimacy of the legal order to emerge triumphant from the current conflict.

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