By indulging myself in the writings of Renzo Novatore, Italy’s most well-known exponent of individualist/egoist and nihilist anarchism, I came to notice a theme across these writings. Throughout his literary work, Novatore frequently used the term “pagan” or “paganism” as a way of describing the spirit of his ideas. I am fairly convinced that this was in practice probably a poetic affectation, on the grounds that Novatore was an atheist who, by his own terms, opposed religion. Then again, the terms in which he opposed religion are, much like Max Stirner and others before him, rather blatantly conditioned by the Christian understanding of what religion is. But beyond that, as a Pagan who is definitely interested in Novatore’s philosophy, and arguably aligns with it, I think I would derive some intellectual pleasure from examining the way Novatore talks about Paganism. And so, to further indulge myself, that’s what I’m going to do.
In The Expropriator, Novatore describes the titular archetype as “singing playful songs of beauty”. In Beyond the Two Anarchies, he describes his own mind as a “passionate, pagan mind” which he likens to that of an uninhibited poet, after passionately declaring the shattering of all -archies before egoistic self-exaltation. In A “Female”, Novatore talked about a woman giving herself over to a loving embrace and her body becoming a “Harp of voluptuousness” seized by a “pagan fire”, and further a “hymn of intoxication sung beyond good and evil”. In Anarchist Individualism in the Social Revolution, he describes the ethical part of Individualism as amoral, wild, furious, warlike, and rooted in “the phosphorescent perianth of pagan nature”, and later says that “pagan nature” “placed a Prometheus in the mind of every mortal human being and a Hercules in the brain of every thinker” and that this same heroic impetus was later condemned by “morality”. In In The Circle of Life, he praised “this vigorous creature” who blossomed through the “pagan mystery” of homerically tragic art which he took to be a symbol of “sublime heroic beauty”. In Towards the Creative Nothing, Novatore condemned Christianity for “killing” the joy of the earth he attributed to Paganism and setting itself against “the dionysian spirit of our pagan ancestors”, while also lauding the gaze of the “pagan poet” and the preservation of “pagan will”. In In Defence of Heroic and Expropriating Anarchism, Novatore briefly refers to the Italian anarcho-communist Errico Malatesta as someone “who cannot be accused of having a pagan, Dionysian, Nietzschean concept of anarchism”, presumably to mean that Malatesta opposes his form of anarchism.
We can see from this that, although Novatore probably wasn’t a religious man, he clearly regarded some idea of Paganism as a core part of his concept of anarchism as opposed to certain others. It’s easy enough to understand this as an aesthetic quality, or at most a flamboyant extension of Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Christian worldview. But even in the context of the latter, what does it tell us?
There seems to be a lot of emphasis on “the dionysian” in Novatore’s writings, and that itself is often expressly linked to Nietzsche. In I Am Also A Nihilist, Novatore says the following:
But I don’t yearn for Nirvana, any more than I long for Schopenhauer’s desperate and powerless pessimism, which is a worse thing than the violent renunciation of life itself. Mine is an enthusiastic and dionysian pessimism, like a flame that sets my vital exuberance ablaze, that mocks at any theoretical, scientific or moral prison.
Here Novatore invokes “the dionysian” in order to distinguish his own brand of pessimism from the pessimism he perceives of Arthur Schopenhauer. Novatore’s pessimism and nihilism is a doctrine of the negation of every social order which, in this negation, allows egoistic self-consciousness to truly freely and mutually develop without being bound to any conceptual prisons. That basic conception of nihilism would echo the nihilism that was developed in Russia during the 19th century. Central here, though, is the “dionysian” part. What do we derive from this?
Of course, I’m sure we all know about Dionysus. Dionysus is usually understood as a god of wine and drunkenness, but is more broadly a chthonic god, a god of death and rebirth, a god of ecstasy, festivity, and intoxication, a father of liberation through whom his worshippers could transgress the boundaries of society and everyday consciousness in order to commune with the divine. Dionysus was worshipped in intoxicating mysteries, festivals involving phallicism, and ecstatic ceremonies of ritual death and rebirth, and in Rome he was the center of a plebeian republican cult and thus a patron god for the masses who were subjugated by the Roman ruling class. The way Novatore invokes Dionysus may have some link to the way Friedrich Nietzsche talks about him, and in fact the very idea of “dionysian pessimism” was born from Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s concept of “dionysian pessimism” was, to put it simply, a pessimism that justified life rather than abhorred it (the latter, of course, being Schopenhauer’s school of pessimism). This justification comes from life itself, even at its most terrible, ambiguous, and mendacious, without the belief in progress or even reason to undergird that affirmation of life. In other contexts, for Nietzsche, the “Dionysian” seems to denote a fundamentally tragic outlook in life.
From here we can see that Nietzsche’s influence on Novatore’s anarchism was far from subtle. It seems to me in fact that Novatore’s anarchism was very essentially a Nietzschean anarchism. But what exactly does it have to do with Dionysus himself, or with Paganism? Nietzsche in a certain sense did identify with a notion that he called “paganism” and regarded this worldview as superior to Christianity. But again, what was that for Nietzsche? I have to doubt that it meant much in the way of any concrete religious practice since, even if he liked to call himself a pagan, there’s no evidence of him having ever worshipped any gods or nature or partaken in pagan celebrations (in fact he seemed to regard devotional worship as foolish), but that’s ultimately beside the point.
“Paganism” for Nietzsche meant a conscious appreciation of that which is beyond good and evil, since the pagan gods in his observation were beyond good and evil. But it also seems to involve a “return” of sorts to the natural world, and to embrace nature even in its terrors and inclinations, either by living apart from civilization or by staying true to one’s “natural inclinations” – or, in a word, Wildness. In Twilight of the Idols, he says that “It is in our wild nature that we best recover from our un-nature, our spirituality” (“spirituality” here meaning “religious sensibility” as he understood it mostly in terms of Christianity). While Nietzsche tended to use the term “idol” in reference to moral ideals that he opposed, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra he mocked those who would destroy idols through the pronouncements of his character Zarathustra and also says that an image may not remain an image in the context of the authentic use of the will. It’s also possible to interpret the opening lines of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as Zarathustra’s “prayer” to the sun. Nietzsche believed that the earth was sacred in pre-monotheistic religions and that it should be regarded as sacred again, which Zarathrustra communicates by urging the lauding of that which is earthly and the rejection of the heavenly, and in The Antichrist he wrote that humans are not only animals but also that other animals shared “the same stage of perfection” with humans. In The Will To Power, Nietzsche explicitly refers to”pagans by faith”, describes their aim as being the “dismoralization” of the world, and prefers believing in Olympus instead of believing in the Crucifixion. In the same text he thought that the pagan cults of old were typified by sexuality, pleasure in appearance and deception, and joyful gratitude for life in itself and that this was the mark of good conscience.
In this sense, even though it’s difficult to regard him as what would in proper terms be a religious Pagan, it is beyond doubt that Nietzsche sought the revival of Paganism as a system of values insofar as he understood it. In such a context we may understand that Nietzsche’s anti-Christian transvaluation of values ultimately has this restoration in mind. I do suspect that Nietzsche’s conception is very influenced by the way the 19th century Enlightenment received “Paganism” as a more rational or humane religion compared to Christianity, though I would definitely insist that Nietzsche was not simply a “man of the Enlightenment” or a mere “man of his time”. Regardless, though, I will say that I do rather feel well-aligned to much of how Nietzsche talked about his idea of Paganism, in that he describes certain ideas that have been almost instinctual to me personally. I would say that this includes the idea of nature as actuality, the idea that prevailing systems of moralization tend to be ways of attacking or suppressing this nature, and the upholding of “wild nature” as a means of setting us free from moralization, as understand it to be communicated in Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist. His Dionyisan Pessimism is made further sense of in this context as well, and is made the more admirable and closer to instinct.
But back to Renzo Novatore, the man whose anarchism seems to be expressly modelled on Nietzsche’s philosophy as well as that of Max Stirner, and back to his “Paganism”. What do we derive from Novatore’s work? Returning to Towards the Creative Nothing, we see the sanctification or veneration of the earth or nature, which of course Christianity had suppressed, and we see essentially a recapitulation of Nietzsche’s conception of Paganism as based in the embrace of the full integrity of life. And yet unfortunately Novatore offers very little exposition compared to Nietzsche. It would seem that Novatore seems to have taken up Nietzsche’s idea of .
Yet we can also find certain pre-Christian parallels in Novatore’s about “libertarian aristocracy”, which when carefully considered seems very obviously not representative of any actual aristocratic hierarchy and instead perhaps something more like Stirner’s concept of the Union of Egoists. This “libertarian aristocracy” in any case consists of the outsiders who band together in their individualistic struggle against society. About a year ago I read Towards the Creative Nothing, and then, as I later read about Stanislaw Przybyszewski in Per Faxneld’s The Devil’s Party, I noticed a similar theme emerge in Przybyszewski’s depiction of Satan as the “dark aristocrat”, no doubt meaning him as the patron of rebels and outsiders who join his company for the pursuit of their own curiosity, pride, and instinct against society. The parallel that instantly emerged in my mind was none other than Odin, the king of the Norse/Germanic gods.
Odin is repeatedly typecast as a god of war but was always much more complex than that. He was the leader and magician of the battlefield, but could also be thought of as a trickster similar to Loki, a god associated with death, at least chthonic enough to be called the lord of the gallows, the keeper of a certain share of the slain, a tireless seeker of wisdom looking for ways to overcome his fated demise at the battle of Ragnarok, and a god of ecstatic divine inspiration (which, to be fair, was still also associated with battle). More importantly he was not only the patron of kingship, he was the divine patron of outcasts or outlaws, and was sort of an outcast himself. In a Danish myth, he was said to have been exiled from Asgard for ten years for seducing and having sex with the daughter of a king, while in the Lokasenna Odin was referred to as “ergi” (basically “unmanly”) for his practice of seidr, a magickal art typically regarded by Norse society as strictly women’s business. Odin seemed to favour men and women regardless of social stature who distinguished themselves individually through their talents, which made them valuable to Odin in his struggle to prevail in Ragnarok. And of course, for all the times Odin is compared to Mercury by the Romans or to Zeus or Yahweh in modern times, Odin actually had much more in common with Dionysus than almost any other non-Germanic deity. After all, Odin was also worshipped in ecstatic rituals, sometimes involving the assumption of consciousness of wild nature, and Odin also had his own “mead of divine inspiration”.
In a very strange way I think that the ecstatic or intoxication-oriented vision of Paganism as philosophy of life can make for a fairly valuable way of grounding modern Paganism, though not necessarily. A friend remarks that Paganism must strive for the continual reintegration with the state of religious intoxication apparently found in animals. In their own way, though as non-Pagans, I’d say that people like Stanislaw Przybyszewski or Charles Baudelaire would probably sympathize with that idea. More to the point there is something similar in the historical sense of Paganism that kind of aligns with that idea. The pre-Orphic Dionysian Mysteries could be defined by such an idea, as does the state of consciousness attained by the Norse berserkers or ulfhednar. The Eleusinian Mysteries, which were a major part of Hellenic antiquity, involved the use of psychedelics in order to commune with the divine through intoxication. In Egypt, goddesses such as Mut, Bastet, or Bathory were sometimes worshipped in drunken ecstasies, while none other than the god Set was worshipped with offerings of wine. In the old Vedic religion of India, a substance called Soma was offered to the gods and ritually consumed in order to achieve awareness of the divine as well as magickal visions/powers. A similar ancient Iranian ritual involving a similar substance called Haoma was initially condemned by Zoroaster for its “drunkenness” before being modified as part of later Zoroastrian practice. The idea of ecstatic intoxication as a means of liberating consciousness seems to also be shared in the Japanese concept of seihan (“sacred transgression”) as applicable to festivals. In Greek mysteries, the whole idea of orgia was predicated on a similar sort of ecstatic freedom.
Nietzsche for his part aligned with a certain type of intoxication. Not drunkenness of course, but with the kind of intoxication attained through sex, dancing, or religious activities. He also seemed to regard the essential characteristic of art as Rausch, a German word that seems to mean something like “frenzy”, which for Nietzsche denoted a condition of pleasure that signified a feel of rapturous strength and even mastery. One can link to this some pre-Christian ideas of ecstasy such as the earlier mentioned Germanic and Vedic forms. Ludwig Klages claimed that Nietzsche’s understanding of Rausch was his discussion of “the ultimate Dionysian state of mind”, but this seems somewhat doubtful in light of the whole of Nietzsche’s work. Walter Benjamin had his own concept of Rausch which denoted a form of experience that neutralised separation between subject and object, which had been likened to an ancient experience of the cosmos. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again: what about Novatore? Rausch is not exactly located in Novatore’s work, and would instead have to be synthesized through some form of exegesis in light of the Nietzschean context. Still, with Novatore we may find in his heroic emphasis something of Nietzsche’s Rausch if only in imprecise spirit.
In the overall, we can summon from this indulgent inquiry a grounding idea of the experience of intoxication in the context of Paganism in the overall. Nietzsche’s “Paganism” amounts to a philosophy of the experiential embrace of life in itself, contextualised as a life-affirming pessimism that sees the chaotic tragedy of life as the basis of its actuality and value. Novatore essentially recapitulates this idea as an expression of nihilistic anarchism, albeit with exceptional rhetorical bombast. The value of this outlook on Paganism is the grounding of religiosity in a sort of communion with raw actuality as represented by nature, and, within nature, Darkness and the divine. That at least is how I relate to it.
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