Revolutionaries of the Soul (Quest 2014) is a collection of my essays and articles over the last twenty years or so, taken from Fortean Times, Quest Magazine, Lapis and other journals. The essays amount to potted biographies of many esoteric greats, from Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, to C.G. Jung and Dion Fortune. There are also pieces on Manly P. Hall, the brilliant historian of the occult James Webb, and the late Colin Wilson, as well as many others. The unintended result amounts to a brief history of modern esotericism – but I imagine I should leave that to the reader to decide. Here is an excerpt from my piece on Julius Evola, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in occult philosophy. I hope you enjoy it.
Julius Evola: Mussolini’s Mystic
In the late spring of 1980, Italians felt the return of a terrorist threat that for the previous decade had kept a low profile. Since the end of World War II and the rise of the cold war, neo-fascism had been a fact of life in Italian politics, the right-wing ideals of “tradition” and “order” seeming the only alternative to American domination or the threat of communism. In December 1969, the destabilizing tactics employed by the neo-fascists reached a new height with the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, a violent spark that ignited a wave of far-right terrorism. By the mid-1970s, however, the neo-fascist threat appeared to have faded, only to be replaced by its left-wing opposite when radical groups took to shattering university professors’ kneecaps for teaching the doctrines of “the establishment.” Their counterparts, however, were merely lying low, and on May 28, 1980, it was clear that they were back and ready for action. On that day, an Italian policeman Franco Evangelista – nicknamed “Serpico” after the legendary New York cop, for his success in arresting drug dealers – was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in Rome. Then, in June, a judge who had led an investigation into right-wing terrorist activities was murdered. But the major attack came last, on August 2, when a bomb in the Bologna railway station killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. Many of the victims, including children, were maimed horribly. Like the Omagh bombing and 9/11, the event punched a hole in the nation’s psyche – which was precisely what its authors intended.
Keeping to its “strategy of tension,” the group responsible for the blast kept its identity secret, yet the police had a good idea who to look for. Names were mentioned: Paolo Signorelli, Franco Frela, Claudio Mutti, Stefano delle Chiaie and others from the right-wing “usual suspects” list were questioned. And, when the investigation began to close in, several members of the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, an influential far-right group, fled the country for Britain. One man, however, whose name was mentioned by all, had no need to fear the police, as he had been dead for the last six years. But if a single person could be held accountable for the Bologna bombing, the dead man was a good candidate. His name was Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola, better known to his more recent English speaking readers as Baron Julius Evola, author of several books on magic, esotericism and the occult, as well as a withering attack of Western civilization, Revolt Against the Modern World (1934).
Born on May 19 1898 to a noble Sicilian family, Julius Evola was a bright but self-willed child who early on rebelled against his strict Catholic upbringing. This resentment against Christianity remained with him throughout his life, and fuelled a Nietzschean disdain for the “weak” and ignorant masses. Although he left university before earning a degree, a sense of precision and objectivity, a cold clarity and logic, came from his studies in industrial engineering. But it was the new movements in modern literature that had the most influence on Evola’s early years. In later life he was to become a staunch defender of tradition, but in his teens Evola came under the spell of the literary avant-garde, absorbing the work of writers like Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini. Papini introduced him to new ideas in art and fashion, as well as to the writings of Meister Eckhart and several Oriental sages. But the most influential discovery was the work of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose Futurist movement would later find favor with Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, a position Evola himself would occupy in years to come. Marinetti, who sang the praises of the modernity Evola would eventually come to despise, may seem an unlikely mentor for a philosopher whose polemics against the modern world would later guide several violent attacks on it. Yet Marinetti’s own fascistic sensibility – a virulent rejection of nature, a celebration of regimen and machine-like efficiency, and above all an embrace of speed and violence for their own sake – are in keeping with Evola’s character.
Marinetti’s Futurists scandalized the bourgeoisie with their penchant for avant-garde hooliganism and artistic thuggery, starting fights at art galleries, and shouting abuse at poetry readings, tactics that less cultured individuals would later employ against a variety of human targets. War, for Marinetti, was an aesthetic affair, and his reports from the Turkish front in World War I spoke of the “joy” of hearing “the machine guns screaming a breathelessness under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tum…” These and other brutal onomatopoeia informed Marinetti’s ideas of parole in libertia, “free words”, which later formed the basis of much of today’s rap and “performance poetry”.
At 19, Evola had an opportunity to test Marinetti’s theory when he joined the Italian army in the last days of the war. Although serving as an artillery officer at the Austrian front, Evola saw no action, yet the discipline, order and hierarchy of the military impressed him and left him unsuited for civilian life, with its muddling chaos and growing egalitarianism. It was then that he began his search for “transcendence”, first through drugs, then through a study of the occult.
These experiences seemed only to increase Evola’s sense of purposelessness and the idea of suicide came to dominate his consciousness, a morbid opinion made attractive through his interest in the brilliant but disturbed Austrian writer Otto Weininger. The Jewish Weininger wrote an influential book, Sex and Character (1903), in which he argued that man alone is a spiritual creature, yearning for the celestial heights, while woman, a denizen of the Earth, tries to trap him in her corrupting embrace: the archetype of the femme fatale. He also argued that the Jews as a race displayed distinctly “feminine” characteristics, most importantly a hatred of all things of a “higher” nature: hence Marx and his reduction of religion to the “opium fo the people.” An unhappy individual, obsessed with sex and his own Jewishness, Weininger committed suicide at 23, in a room in Vienna once occupied by Beethoven. His ideas about women and Jews, however, lived on in several minds, not the least of which was Evola’s.
A Buddhist text saved Evola from suicide, and the discovery of a new avant-garde movement gave him a sense of direction. Futurism, he came to believe, was vulgar and showy. But Dada, the new anti-art movement seeping across the border from Switzerland, struck him as more intellectual, as well as more ambitious. Dada seemed more than a mere art movement, something along the lines of a total reconstruction of the world, the need for which Evola had come to believe in passionately. It is also quite possible that in Dada’s leader, Tristan Tzara, Evola found a new role model: photographs of Evola displaying his elegant, smooth shave face, immaculate dress and imperious gaze – complete with monocle – are strikingly similar to Tzara. For the later advocate of tradition this is ironic, as Tzara, with his hunger for notoriety and scandal, would today more than likely be more at home on talk shows and Twitter, than in the workshops of anti-art.
Evola plunged into Dada, reading his poetry to the music of Schönberg, Satie and Bartok at the Cabaret Grotte dell’Augusteo, Rome’s version of Zürich’s infamous Cabaret Voltaire. He also took up painting, and exhibited his work in Rome, Milan, Lausanne and Berlin; today his “Inner Landscape at 10:30 am” still hangs in Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Evola also wrote an influential essay on abstract art, arguing that it is only in abstraction that the existence of an “eternal self” could be expressed – an indication, again, of his anti-natural, anti-earthly bias.
Yet Dada was not enough. Disgusted with the increasing commercialization of the avant-garde, in 1922 Evola abandoned painting and poetry. He now gave himself to philosophy, writing several books of an idealistic character in which he spelled out the metaphysics of the “absolute individual.” This boiled down to the doctrine that such an individual enjoyed “the ability to be unconditionally whatever he wants,” and that for him “the world is my representation.” For the nobly born Evola, this spiritual solipsism seems appropriate: it provided an ontological underpinning for his near-absolute lack of interest in other people.
This focus on the “unconditional” freedom of the self led to a still deeper study of occultism. Evola became involved with an Italian theosophical group, and wrote an introduction to a translation of the Tao Te Ching. A correspondence with Sir John Woodroffe – as Arthur Avalon, author of several works on Hindu philosophy – led to a fascination with Tantra, which surfaced in Evola’s books The Yoga of Power (1949) and The Metaphysics of Sex (1958) – this last also shows the influence of Weininger. Evola soon lost interest in theosophy, but not in the occult, and by the mid-1920s he had become involved in an esoteric society, the UR group, who looked at magic as “the science of the ego.” Formed around the occultist Arturo Reghini, editor of two influential occult journals, Atanòr and Ignis , the UR group embarked on a variety of esoteric investigations. Along with Tantra, Evola studied alchemy, Taoism and Buddhism. The link between these studies was the idea of “initiation”, the sense that through them Evola was participating in ancient initiatory practices, living manifestations of a lost, primal tradition.