Randall Cherry and Ian Patterson's translation of Raoul Vaneigem's 1986 book Le Mouvement du libre-esprit -- published by Zone Books in 1994 as The Movement of the Free Spirit: General Considerations and Firsthand Testimony Concerning Some Brief Flowerings of Life in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and, Incidentally, Our Own Time -- is a crucial contribution to the development of the situationist movement in English-speaking countries such as our own. Predominantly Protestant, the United States needs a really good new book on the movement of the Free Spirit. "The first studies and publications of the supporters of the movement of the Free Spirit were the works of Protestants," Vaneigem writes in one of his many footnotes. Much like the relatively well-respected Freemasons, "[the supporters of the movement] were seen as antisacramental mystics, hostile to Rome and slandered by the Church."
As we reported in NOT BORED! #18 (December, 1990), there were at least two great books published in the late 1980s that indirectly concern the Brethren of the Free Spirit: Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces and Marc Shell's The End of Kinship. But the last books written in English that directly concern this obscure Medieval "heresy" -- Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, and Robert E. Lerner's The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the later Middle Ages -- were written or revised between 1957 and 1972, at a time when America had global enemies and local anti-communist wars to fight. Great changes, of course, came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, wiping out the "international communist menace." Seeing the importance of (the timing of) an English translation of The Movement of the Free Spirit, Vaneigem wrote a special preface for the American edition in March 1993. In it, he delivers to his readers this simple, stunning and memorable remark: "The Middle Ages were no more Christian than the late Eastern bloc was communist."
In addition to commentary, Vaneigem's book contains new translations of a great many texts that today constitute "the principal manifestations of the movement of the Free Spirit from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century." These translations of documents originally published in Latin, Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, German and English were done by Vaneigem himself. Written as a labor of love, "to do no more than satisfy a personal curiosity," The Movement of the Free Spirit nevertheless has an important function to fulfill. "I have tried here," Vaneigem writes toward the end of his book, "to pay homage to the alliance of pleasure and lucidity by rescuing from darkness and silence those who celebrated true life in a time when lies about its nature proliferated along with the violence of the repressed."
It is quite tempting to see The Movement of the Free Spirit as the book-length critique of religion that the Situationist International always needed and never produced. For Vaneigem's book doesn't simply concern the Middles Ages, the Renaissance and our own time, as its subtitle would suggest: it is in fact a kind of secret history of the world. Speaking about the first agricultural settlements in the Neolithic period, circa 7000 B.C.E., "when Paleolithic civilizations based on hunting, gathering and fishing were replaced by a communitarian organization founded on agriculture and trade," Vaneigem asserts the following:
It was at this point in human development that the fall from life into survival occurred. In place of a unitary mode of existence, slowly disengaging from nature without ever breaking with it, a society arose in which human beings, having become both their own enemy and the enemy of their fellow humans, saw the object of their actions turned against them. Instead of moving toward a human transcendence of the contradiction between a free life and the fight for survival that characterizes the animal kingdom, market civilization socialized both. The freedom of nature was sacrificed to a competitive struggle whose aim was no longer the brutal satisfaction of drives (which would now be satisfied in the form of a secret, shameful tribute to repressed animality), but rather the maintenance of a parasitic system [i.e., work] offering the social collectivity an abstract guarantee of survival: the exploitation of nature through man's exploitation of man.
In sum, this most unfortunate development "imposed a global inversion on the evolution of human life, just as this life was slowly disengaging itself from nature, like a child developing in the womb." It is from this pre-natal traumatization of human life, commonly known as "economic necessity," that stem humanity's collective historical neurosis, "all those eternal truths and sacred causes that have governed master and slave alike, truths and causes to which generations, born simply to live, have been wantonly sacrificed." More precisely, "the attribution of earthly effects to heavenly causes [religious belief] depended on the inversion and separation caused by labor, which represses pleasure and sets up a division between the intellectual and the manual."
In Vaneigem's secret history of the world, "the movement of the Free Spirit" -- which has its roots in a series of socio-economic developments that took place in the 11th and 12th centuries C.E. -- does not represent or refer to an easily identifiable grouping of heretics who had a thoroughly systematized "philosophy" or "doctrine." There are no Brethren of the Free Spirit here. There is only the movement of the Free Spirit; it is "among," "supported" or "propagated by" certain groups and individuals at certain times and places.
The very designation "Free Spirit" is vague, hard to pin down. Based on a line contained in one of Paul's epistles to the Corinthians -- "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" -- the name was, in Vaneigem's words, "seized by adherents of the movement of the Free Spirit, who would subvert [its] meaning and restore [it] to the clandestine life from which they came." Thus, the name "Free Spirit" -- and such officially-recognized Biblical phrases as "paradise," "innocence of pleasure," and "ecstasy" -- are part of a kind of elaborate disguise: "The movement disguising itself under the clerical name of the Free Spirit traced, beneath the filaments of everyday life, a path more secret and less tolerable than the alchemical magistracy and its degeneration into the genesis of the work of art." The path traced by the movement of the Free Spirit: toward "a new world in which the goods necessary for survival [are] held in common, property [is] abolished, and marriage, which reduce[s] women to an object of ownership, [is] done away with." Heaven on earth.
The movement of the Free Spirit is thus an instance of anti-mercantilist class struggle, not an instance of anti-clerical heresy against the Church. "The freedom of nature" and a great many earthly pleasures were already available to rich members and supporters of the Church. According to Vaneigem, "it was on the basis of the right to these pleasures, which the rich claimed for themselves and which the poor constantly demanded, that the movement of the Free Spirit founded its project of transcendence." The contradiction to be transcended was between wealthy contemplative, orthodox hermits and the "simple people" of the working class. But the Church has no meaning or jurisdiction whatsoever if the "world" ceases to be identified with religious forms; thus it had little choice but to insist that the movement of the Free Spirit was, like Catharism before it, a religious heresy. In this effort, the Church was helped by the tricky designation "Free Spirit," which paradoxically "reflected a wish to reduce things to spiritual terms -- which is of course the essence of all religion," as Vaneigem points out. "But the label, which placed the Free Spirit on the same shelf as heresies and pure ideas, was the despair of the ecclesiastical storekeepers: the mold did not fit, and because it bore the imprint of a reality that it could not contain, it broke."
What we are left with, then, is a uncanny and paradoxical situation in which "the Middles Ages seem closer to us, in their demand for immediacy, than the period that extended from the Renaissance to the [mid] 1960s, when every generation seemed to delude itself about its future history," Vaneigem concludes. "Well-being was the carrot that [modern society] dangled in front of itself, on the stick of future progress." The upheavals of 1968 have allowed the "forces of life" to "gradually become more distinguishable from what had once corrupted them." No doubt thinking of his first and best-known book, translated into English in 1983 as The Revolution of Everyday Life, Vaneigem notes soberly that "many observations that were considered ludicrous in 1967 have now become commonplace." Even so, we cannot find a "guide to the emancipation of all" in the simple reiteration of Free Spirit ideas, "because the dominant language has changed its vocabulary, and, with the collapse of religious power [in the nineteenth century], God has been eliminated, excreted through a cleansing purgative, only to be replaced by ideas that are even more constipating, and made of the same fecal matter." Indeed, all thinking bears the indelible shit-stain of survival. For Vaneigem, who is perhaps thinking here of the orientation debates conducted within the Situationist International in 1970, "the idea that reliance on the lucidity of the few will lead to freedom of all is so ingrained in new forms of slavery that the leaders are worn away up to their knees or even higher, revealing their true nature as truncated men."
What then is to be done? At the very least, we should re-acquaint ourselves with "the appropriation of language," which is for Vaneigem "both the labyrinth and the Ariadne's thread that lead to the heart of life, to the latencies that wait to be born in each of us, and which economic necessity paralyzes and corrupts with its universal negativity and its fundamental inhumanity." Significantly, the language appropriated by Vaneigem for and in The Movement of the Free Spirit is not that of genealogy or critique. It is a language with no name, one in which a thoroughly, gleefully atheistic, fifty-two-year-old man -- though an ex-international situationist, one of the "simple people" nevertheless -- "prays to God" upon the birth of his first child, a daughter.
"We are only just now realizing that bringing a child into the world is no longer simply a matter of reproducing intellectual and manual slaves," Vaneigem writes, somewhat vaguely, for he is talking about no one but himself. "A new consciousness is developing that sees every birth as the early stages of a creation that needs to be perfected, of a life to be saved before the closed universe of commodities stifles it in the polluted air of profitability." He looks at his child, and "prays" aloud that "I hope [survival] ceases to be a priority, as if surviving were necessary first in order to live." He sees that his child is nude, and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that "the nudity of Giles of Canter was a renewal of the innocence of childhood, so that the world could once again be ordered along the lines of satisfaction, not the parameters of duty." He looks at his daughter's naked vagina and is angered by the idea that -- in the inverted perspective of the market -- "Woman, except as mother or as pure object, is lascivious, useless and harmful, and arouses a horror of the feminine affecting even that part of femininity which male worshipers of the patriarchal and celestial menhir repress so thoroughly." He looks at the mother of his child, and realizes the most important lesson of all:
"The ultimate disgrace is aptly revealed in the title of 'Creator' applied to a God who has created [or fathered] from his own substance a universe in which his creatures, deprived of his resources, begin in a state of total deprivation and progress toward nothingness. A desert valley irrigated with tears is a rather pathetic creation. It is not difficult to understand how the men and women who tried to establish a paradise on earth, here and now, saw themselves as superior to God."
To which we can only say, Amen.
[Originally published in NOT BORED! #25, 1996.]