From the Archives: Michael Tyldesley on the influence of Gilbert Durand

Gilbert Durand

Read Mike’s discussion of Durand, the imaginary, and the Traditionalist connection in full in Part II of his analysis of the development of Maffesoli’s thought, published back in 2012.

Gilbert Durand, although a prolific author and an important figure in French cultural anthropology, has had little translated into the English language. His key work, however – The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary – was published in an English version by Boombana Publications of Brisbane, Australia, in 1999, around the time of its twelfth French edition. This major study of myth, symbol and image, as Professor J.P.Clark calls it in his back cover comments, admits of no short summary. Aside from this dense masterpiece there appear to be only three other pieces of Durand’s work available to English-speaking readers.

One of these is an article on “The Implication of the Imaginary and Societies”, included in an edition of Current Sociology on “The Social Imaginary” (Vol. 41, No.2, 1993. Maffesoli was guest editor of this edition). Here Durand makes a number of points that are useful in understanding his thought, and thus, a fortiori, that of Maffesoli.

“The theory that serves as a framework for these methods and this research rests on the fundamental axiom […] according to which all human thought and activity are representation. […] This ensemble of past and possible representations in sapiens is what we call the ‘imaginary’  … [T]he imaginary is the ‘implicate order’ through which all understanding necessarily passes, and even all explanations  of individual or collective human behaviour as well. Thus for us, in the beginning there is no longer a logos annexed to the famous ego cogito, but a sermo mythicus depending on a collective, primordial cosmic ex-cogitamus.” (p.17. Durand is well aware that the term ‘implicate order’ derives from the work of the physicist David Bohm.)

Starting with these brief and sparse summarisations, Durand proceeds to lay down some markers about how he developed his approach and how it operates, in particular outlining his notion of the semantic basin – a concept which Maffesoli has, with generous acknowledgement, used in his own work.

A consideration of the third piece of English language work by Durand can build upon some of the impressions conveyed in our quotations from “The Social Imaginary” above. Entitled On the Disfigurement of the Image of Man in the West, this is a condensed version of the central portion of a lecture given at the Eranos conference in August 1969, and published in French that year in Eranos-38. Among those who worked on the condensation was James Hillman, and the copyright is noted as being that of the Analytical Psychology Club of New York. This beautifully-produced pamphlet was published in 1977 by Golgonooza Press of Ipswich, England, a publisher closely associated with the poet Kathleen Raine, to whom we shall return later. The whole concatenation of facts connected with this pamphlet signals that it derives from a background of Jungian and neo-Jungian psychology (more precisely, perhaps, we might highlight the school of Archetypal Psychology around James Hillman) and an intelligent but sympathetic interest in spiritual, perhaps even ‘occult’ issues.

Such an impression is rapidly reinforced by a reading of this text, which is strikingly acerbic about the mainstream of the Western intellectual and academic tradition. It points to three ‘metaphysical catastrophes’ that overtook the intellectual life of the West. The first was in the thirteenth century, when the Church established a temporal hegemony and the philosophy of Avicenna was replaced by that of Averroes. (Durand’s work in French shows that he was clearly following the lead of Henry Corbin here. See Durand 2003, pp. 74-5; p. 84. ) The second was the sixteenth century objectivism that emerged from reform movements ranging from Galileo to Descartes. The result of this was the giving of official status to the dualism of Western philosophy. The third catastrophe was the development of historicism in the nineteenth century, “which meant that man, having sacrificed everything to ‘history’ found himself more alienated than ever” (Durand 1977, p.4). These catastrophes resulted in the occlusion of man’s traditional image; it became clandestine and occult. So it had become “the first task of anthropological hermeneutics to study everything that was disregarded by official academic thought, or disdained as anti-philosophy” (ibid.). One might suggest that with CEAQ, which he founded at the Sorbonne in 1982, Maffesoli has shown some loyalty to this programme. In his 2004 book, Le rythme de la vie – and indeed elsewhere – Maffesoli writes with disdain of “official and institutionalised knowledge” (2004 p.128), a term recalling Durand’s pamphlet.

Durand’s 1977 pamphlet provides a vivid delineation of the two sides – official and unofficial – in the conflict between accepted academic thought and ‘anti-philosophy’ (which, one need hardly add, is for him the real repository of philosophy). If we go back far enough we find figures in whom the official and unofficial sides are united – Scotus Erigena, the Venerable Bede, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Albertus Magnus. Moving forward we find Descartes opposed by Angelus Silesius, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Pico de la Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino inter alia. In the age of Kant, the opposition included Goethe, Novalis, Hamann, William Blake, and – especially – Swedenborg. Among those pitted against Hegel we find Nerval, Schlegel, de Maistre and Eliphas Levi. In our day the official side includes Satre, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel and Ricoeur, opposed by the less official views of Mircea Eliade, Gaston Bachelard (Durand’s teacher), Jung, Fritjuof Schuon “and even Rudolf Steiner” (Durand 1977, p.5.)

If these listings are, for the sake of brevity, incomplete, they give a strong feel of where Durand’s sympathies lay. The more modern ‘official’ side has a strongly French feel, but it shows that Durand was not especially sympathetic to a set of figures that might be seen by other commentators as an alternative to, for instance, Anglo-American analytical philosophy.

Moreover, in the text we find Durand citing – approvingly, we might venture – material from the Traditionalist French writer René Guénon. In La Violence Totalitaire Maffesoli uses the phrase ‘reign of quantity’ several times. This is the title of one of Guénon’s most famous and influential books – the one, indeed, to which Durand refers. Although he uses the phrase Maffesoli does not explicitly refer to the author or the book (though in fairness, in several later books he does make reference to Guénon). With Guénon we are clearly in a very different intellectual territory than we were with Gyorgy Lukacs, Anton Pannekoek and the councilists. Perhaps in La Violence Totalitaire we see Maffesoli emerging from his earlier affiliations and maybe still not entirely sure of his ground. Guénon’s intellectual reputation and political affiliations would definitely put him on the ‘dark side’, even for rebel marxists of a councilist bent. This, along with the other points made, indicates the strong intellectual impact made on Maffesoli by Durand in the mid to late 1970s; hardly something Maffesoli has hidden.

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