Don Quixote sets out alone as a man, a traveling knight, who in the spirit of the tale of chivalry wants to help the humble to what is their right…. Since he departs alone, the matter turns out relatively well, because when he comes to this famous inn and wants to be dubbed knight there, the innkeeper and his staff enter into Don Quixote’s tomfoolery and play the dubbing of a knight with him…. Then he returns home highly satisfied. [It] goes relatively well, as long as he is alone and others benevolently enter into the tomfoolery. So let the buffoon go; he is a buffoon!Eric Voegelin, “Hitler and the Germans”
Voegelin’s discourse on Don Quixote appears in a book titled Hitler and the Germans. This is no accident, for Hitler was Germany’s buffoon – posing as Germany’s savior. Buffoonish antics, in history, often entail serious consequences. Today we have a new set of buffoons, on the left and on the right. Therefore, nobody should be caught off guard by what is coming. But they will be caught of guard for the very simple reason that they have not been paying close attention. Everything “goes relatively well,” wrote Voegelin, “as long as … others benevolently enter into the tomfoolery.” We are beyond that now. Others are not “benevolently” entering into it. Quite the opposite.
When Don Quixote acquires Sancho Panza as a squire, Voegelin tells us that a “conversation” develops; for when Quixote goes off to fight windmills, Sancho warns him to be careful as they are only windmills and not giants. What does Don Quixote say to this? He basically drags Sancho Panza with him, and Sancho ends up joining in the madness. Why join in the madness? One might ask why the German people followed Hitler, or why various politicians in the United States, who are buffoons, are likewise followed? Over time the politician (as buffoon) draws people into his false reality. The very act of following a buffoon, and of being entertained by him, triggers a process akin to seduction. “He really is entertaining,” they say in the beginning. Then, after the passage of time, the public begins to believe in him; and they even vote for him.
There is a story I heard from a psychologist years ago. It was about a clinician who was treating a delusional patient immersed in an imaginary galactic empire. The psychologist began to enjoy his sessions with this imaginative patient; for the imaginary galactic empire was full of fascinating people and adventures. Over time the psychologist began to believe in his patient’s delusions; that is, until one day the patient announced that he was cured, thanked the doctor, and discontinued the treatment. The psychologist was devastated, for he had fallen into the delusion himself.
According to Voegelin, moral decline reflects a certain boredom with reality. This boredom, wrote Voegelin, produces a readiness “to fall in with a second reality … of a revolutionary type and … join in the intellectual playing … because it’s fun.” [p.242-243] So what you have in the case of Hitler and the Germans, or Karl Marx and the left, is a madman who devises an alternate reality (through a new way of political talking or writing); then, you get a host of people who prefer the false reality to real reality. In fact, says Voegelin, people readily become infatuated with the tomfoolery of the make-believe. In that case, the buffoon is no longer a buffoon. He then becomes venerated, if not worshipped.
What happens to the truth when the buffoon is believed, when the buffoon is trusted, when the buffoon rules the world (or America)? What then happens to the man who cares about the truth? Behind closed doors, the cynic says to the truthful man, “Your concern for truth is academic. This is politics, which depends entirely on lies. We rule the people with lies because the people will not believe in the truth. We even tell lies to our bosses in government because our bosses would dismiss us if we told them the truth. Besides, lies are more expedient for saving the country. If you told the truth, nobody would follow you and nobody would ever hire you. The truth has nothing to do with anything.”
This argument has been directly made – to me. It was made by a well-respected person with a long history of government service. It reflects the most fantastic fantasy of all. Here we find the highest level of madness. In Miguel de Cervantes book, Don Quixote, the buffoonish hero makes similar arguments. For example, he argues that if enough people believe in his tomfoolery, then this will nonetheless become the dominant social reality.
Voegelin added, “and whoever criticizes [this tomfoolery] … must then be punished.” This leads to Don Quixote’s second argument for a falsification of reality: “Books which are being printed by royal license and with the approval of those to whom they are submitted, and which are read with universal delight and applause by the great and small, poor and rich, learned and ignorant, plebians and gentlefolk – could they be lies and at the same time appear so much like the truth?”
In other words, if a lie succeeds, then who is left to say it is a lie? If a buffoon can mesmerize a crowd, and win that crowd to his buffoonery, and get them to participate in it, then the buffoon can become an authority in his own right. Voegelin noted: “Thus you have the condition of a totalitarian regime – where determinate ideologies are prescribed and propagated to those under subjection to the state, and which must therefore be OK.”
The allusions to Hitler throughout Voegelin’s text, are obvious; but we might plug any homespun American demagogue into that template. All the mad ideas we see prevailing today, from global warming and a jab in every arm, to narratives opposed to an honest election audit, are framed by lies. The same mendacity also attends the right-wingers – the Q-tards, the conspiracy freaks, the neo-Nazis, and even those who think Donald Trump is the Second Coming or that Mike Lindell has “Absolute Proof.”
Are you angry with me now? If you want to go mad directly, there are plenty of ways to get there. Jump on any bandwagon and say goodbye to your sanity. The argument of Don Quixote, that his lie is noble and everyone therefore must believe, is the usual argument heard behind closed doors. According to Voegelin, “Don Quixote is no longer acting in good faith but, within his tomfoolery, consciously begins to lie.” [p. 245]
Once we participate in a lie we are forced to participate in its logic; and this logic always brings us to a paradox; for every lie is paradoxical from the standpoint of truth and reality, forcing man to adopt a faulty way of reasoning to get past the truth. We see this in all totalitarian regimes (e.g., in how they justify mass murder, or in the way they mock honesty). When a false reality is taken as real, language itself is corrupted, logic is corrupted, thinking is corrupted. Words are then used to distort reality rather than to clarify it – as we saw in General Mark Milley’s recent remarks before Congress. Oh yes! Milley referred to the break-in at Capitol Hill on January 6 as an assault by “thousands” to “overthrow the Constitution” because of “white rage.” General Milley, in that ugly outburst, gave himself away as a dangerous fantasist. According to Voegelin, “when loss of reality and lack of contact with reality occur … certain problems … of … paradox appear….” This is by no means a phenomenon of the left only – as noted earlier. One of the symptoms of this crisis is that words no longer signify realities, but refer to unrealities: “social justice,” “equality,” “white privilege,” “climate change,” “sexism,” “socialism.”
The breakdown of contact with reality – with the inner reality of the spiritual life – leads to a disintegrative process. It is not reality that disintegrates, but the fantasist. A loss of personality, of authenticity, of creativity, of clarity, occurs. Here we find the roots of modern narcissism. As some psychologists have asserted, narcissism is the “denial of the true self.” Voegelin pointed out, “If man doesn’t love this core, and thus his own self, he has lost contact with reality. This self-love, of course, is not the same as selfishness.”
For love to work, you have to have a self. That is why, the very apocalypse of Dr. Carl Jung was titled Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Here we find chapters on the ego, the shadow, the anima and animus, the sign of the fishes, the prophecies of Nostradamus, together with an inquiry into evil. Here the struggle against disintegration, against dissolution, against mankind’s destruction, is seen as epochal. [p. 164]
Yet here we find a paradox within the truth. Jung held that it was “extremely important to tell children fairytales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas (dogmas) into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness…. Failing this, their energy flows off into conscious contents which, normally, are not much emphasized, and intensifies them to pathological proportions. We then get apparently groundless phobias and obsessions – crazes, idiosyncrasies, hypochondriac ideas, and intellectual perversions suitably camouflaged in social, religious, or political garb.” [ p. 169]
How can this be?
The center of our being – our soul – does not lie in the ego, said Jung, “but outside it.” That which is true to reality, that which is authentic, does not flow from the despair and self-loathing of a distended ego. It is not self-hating and neurotic, like General Milley. His denunciation of the “racist insurrection” of January 6 is all ego, all ambition, all theater, all grandstanding. Milley is not a general. Milley is an actor. As such, he does not see off-stage; for the stage-lights are in his eyes.
As Voegelin emphasized, blindness toward reality is at the core of it all. The blind want, in Voegelin’s words, “to force something through somewhere, for example, a revolution. As a result, other people fall under the wheels, with disastrous consequences.” [ p. 253] Voegelin pointed to the work of the Austrian novelist, Heimito von Doderer and his novel The Demons. The possessed are not merely demonic. They are imbecilic. Doderer shows that one must not have “discussions with imbecility.” As Voegelin put it, “Faced with a corrupt society, all that’s possible is the boycott – the refusal to get involved with it – or its adequate representation in literature, that is, the transmogrification of imbecility into farce (which is not the same as satire).” [p. 256]
To indulge in satire for a moment, let us paraphrase Karl Kraus on Hitler vis-à-vis Mark Milley: “I can’t think of a thing to say about Milley.” Imagine if George Washington came back from the dead and strolled into the Pentagon. How would he behave toward “General” Milley? Can we imagine Washington speaking to Milley? Can we imagine him speaking of Milley? The mind reels at any juxtaposition of George Washington and Mark Milley. You cannot put them in the same room. You cannot have the one uttering the name of the other. No. George Washington would not condescend to a uniformed obscenity. Imagine Washington’s sarcasm if he ever deigned to speak to such a person: “Yes, General Milley, all white people are racists if you say so! – you crawling, cringing, toady!”
Self-loathing imbecility in a skin-sack must be held far from one’s nose. Doderer characterized a person of this type as “someone who wants to change the general situation because of the impossibility or untenability of his own position….” Doderer further stated, “A person who has been unable to endure himself becomes a revolutionary; then it is others who have to endure him.”
I once listened to a schizophrenic describe the joy of torturing cats to death, and in the next breath he lamented being barred from purchasing a handgun. As I lived in a small town, I had a conversation with the chief of police the next day. How much more justified are we to warn the chief of police about our psychologically disturbed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – General Mark Milley?
But Milley is only one madman out of many. And then there is that imbecile in the White House. How would George Washington address him? Doderer said there can be no “discussions with imbecility.” Voegelin wrote, “If the second [false] reality becomes dominant in a society, there is indeed … a community made up of members of that society. But such a society perpetrates the highest betrayal of humanity. And in this kind of society anyone who is not alienated from the first [real] reality can only commit high treason.” In other words, in a mad world the sane man is traitor.
Of course, the world is not entirely one thing or the other. The world is a mix of sanity and madness. As of this writing the world has tipped into madness; and many a madman are out there, telling you they have the answer, or they have the truth. Indeed, you should not believe in them; and you should not to be disappointed at their apparent fraudulence. Perhaps they were, as Don Quixote – unwitting frauds, sincere in their buffoonery. Yet they are all the more dangerous for being sincere.
Keep your head, if you can. It is going to be a wild ride.
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Notes and Links
Eric Voegelin, translated by Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell, Hitler and the Germans (University of Missouri Press, 1999).
Carl Jung, translated by R.F.C. Hull, Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self (Princeton University Press, 1979).