Throughout history, the poets, the prophets and mystics have usually done a better job of predicting the future than pundits, politicians or scientists.The French mystic and thinker René Guénon, who was doing his best work nearly a century back, was one of them. Guénon laid out his notion that the modern world had deteriorated into a realm of pure materialism as a result of what he called the “Western deviation” from eternal truth. He called this the “reign of quantity”, and predicted its future collapse.But Guénon was not simply talking economics or politics. What was going on, he said, was something akin to a spiritual war, and as a Sufi Muslim he wasn’t shy about naming its antagonist. To this age, he wrote, “the word ‘Satanic’ can indeed be properly applied”.Presenting disorder as order and truth as lies — this, wrote Guénon, was the way that Satan rolled. The “more or less direct agents of the Adversary”, he explained, using the Biblical name for what Europeans would later come to call the Devil, always aimed to invert reality. Right is wrong, black is white, up is down, there is no truth, do what thou wilt: this has always been the Adversary’s line, and today it is prominent in all quarters.The heterodox Catholic philosopher Ivan Illich, who died in 2002, also believed we were living in the time of Anti-Christ, but for different reasons. For Illich, any claims that we lived in a “secular age” were nonsense.The modern West was still Christian, he said, but it had disastrously attempted to codify the spontaneous expressions of love which Christ had shown to be God’s desire for humanity within systems and institutions.First the Church, and then the supposedly “secular” liberal states which had succeeded it, had attempted to transmute Christian love into obligation and enforce it by law, thus twisting it into a new form of oppression.A decade or so before Illich was writing, the Jewish Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was also attending to the dark spiritual undercurrent of the age. He had a different interpretation of its source — or perhaps he was just using a different name.
In Howl, he identified the forward march of industrial modernity — and especially the hypocrisy and brutality of the American empire — with the pagan god Moloch, who demanded human sacrifice from his devotees:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! …
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
Ginsberg, it seemed, could also sense that the spirit of his age was not under human control, either out in the world or in his own soul and mind.
Usually this is easier to talk about in poetry or fiction, for the age doesn’t look kindly on anything which can’t be quantified. It can deal with Ginsberg, but it doesn’t want to talk about Moloch. It can just about cope with Christ if he has been brought down to our level — made into an activist or a defender of culture or a “cosmic” manifestation of the self — but it has nothing to say about Anti-Christ, who blows the whole story sky-high.
As for St Paul’s famous notion that the world is subject not only to nature but to “principalities and powers” which wish us ill.
Take, for example, the Silicon Valley philosopher Kevin Kelly’s pet notion that technology has its own mind and its own purpose: that through the web of what he calls “the technium”, something is using us to create itself.
Kelly sees technology growing into something self-aware and independent of its human creators, as he explained in his book What Technology Wants:
“It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.”