Review: Set the World on Fire
By Augustus Invictus
They say that you can only judge a piece of art by its internal consistency and integrity. The surreal work of Salvador Dali and the raw unreality of Picasso are abysmal by any standard which judges art according to its ability to encapsulate the direct appearance of the real world. Their status as masters was not earned by conforming to the expectations and standards of the public—British author Martin Amis has said that no artist worth anything cares about good taste, concerning public opinion. Rather, their status was earned by practicing their craft in accordance with their own set of principles, diligently and consistently. Their morality is their own, and if they are skillful, they allow themselves to be bound by their own rules, rather than ours. Through their artwork, we can see what the world might be like in other dimensions and realities. If we judge their work by the laws of our own world, we fail as the audience.
There is no rational way to understand a person like Augustus Invictus, or his meatgrinder of a political autobiography, Set the World on Fire, other than as a living piece of artwork. By contemporary morals of almost any common flavor, his history and campaign are appalling in some manner, from his LSD trips and poetic language to his unsqueamishness in proximity to White Nationalists, holocaust deniers, and other deplorable, hateful people. But beneath the alien religion and sexual promiscuity is an absoluteness in sincerity and seriousness in following the principles he holds, unmatched by even the most “moral” of contemporary, harmless, “good-guys.”
One gets the distinct impression that, had he been a Christian instead of a Thelemite, he may very well have been a Trappist monk, living out a celibate life in the desert somewhere.
Set the World on Fire takes its true form once this personality is understood. It is not the story of an eccentric Floridian lawyer and his failed campaign for political office; it is the story of a collision between absolute seriousness and the Kafka-esque world of American politics.
On its face, this is not a new story. Everyone seems to intuit the corrupting influence on the people who enter the poisoned world of politics, those who were not already the poison itself upon entry. We cheer when we think we find someone who is uncorruptible—like Bernie Sanders—and then we sigh and carry on when our hopes are dashed, either by failure, or by the revelation that their purity did not survive the collision. Every time, the candidate bends in the wind to preserve their career, or breaks under its power. Better luck next time; perhaps someone else will manage what no one else could. Maybe God-Emperor Trump will be “the one.”
What is new with Invictus is the proposed solution: burn down the weeds so a new crop can grow.
This rather simple solution is of course not entirely innovative, least of all on American soil. Jefferson’s famous—if somewhat hyperbolic—quote about needing a revolution every few decades to keep things running belies a seriousness in the American attitude on holding our government to account, and even recycling it on occasion. No patriot doesn’t know by heart that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Needless to say, the weeds do not approve of such measures. “The swamp,” as it has come to be known, has other ideas; such revolutionary measures are harmful and unnecessary. “A threat to our democracy,” as so many media drones have mouthed. Presumably in emulation of free citizens.
Invictus is the latest in a long line of unsuccessful revolutionaries, including Barry Goldwater and Ron Paul at higher levels of aspirational office. But Set the World on Fire takes the failure of the campaign and illustrates the nature of the weeds in action, of the swamp as an organism. Ron Paul’s emphasis on the Federal Reserve, interventionist foreign policies, etc missed the real mark, which is the mechanism which has built itself into our civic and economic system, and set itself against any possibility of revolutionary renewal, of the kind that the Founding Fathers believed to be critical for the preservation of our Republic (because it isn’t “our democracy”). Otherwise, the aggregation rent-seekers and other parasites in power will reach critical mass, and the creeping incursions on liberty can become outright dystopian.
In order for a Republic to function, it must be run by real people, and real people inevitably fall short of the universally appealing—and therefore, inconsistent—standards to which politicians are held in a multicultural democracy. An inconsistent standard of perfection rewards only liars, and the truth-tellers become a threat to all of the liars pretending to be sincere. Real people, even moral real people, have edges. Thus, in a large and multi-cultural democracy, the real person can be attacked simply by exposing them to all groups. Most will inevitably take issue with their aesthetic or political opinions, because only a two-faced liar could be seen as virtuous by a multitude of disparate groups with differing standards of the good. The result is an undermining of integrity itself, which is fast being enshrined into tradition in American politics.
Augustus Invictus is a real person, with a great number of sharp edges. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would not be offended by something he has said or done at some point. But the story of his collision with the Florida Libertarian Party, with Antifa, with his own religious order, and with the political system at large, is a story that has happened with real people of more conventional moral inclinations. Set the World on Fire tells this story with unprecedented self-disclosure, often at Invictus’ personal expense. This self-disclosure seems to be what was lacking in previous stories of would-be revolutionaries, and the key to the relevance of this one. If the weeds’ power over you lies in their ability to reveal your “true self” to the whole world, and only some small part of the world will agree with any authentic self, then no authenticity is possible, in politics or elsewhere. Self-disclosure breaks the spell of their power, but it comes at a high cost.
This is the system Invictus describes in his story. It may prove useful to other would-be aspirants to office, or weekend-warriors against “the swamp,” though it is unlikely that the public at large will recognize that we are presently at war until the war ceases to be a cold one, and such lessons become less useful. Whether or not America will have the strength to disentangle itself from the weeds is uncertain; there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. But if Set the World on Fire is any harbinger of the things to come, we can at least expect that the story will be an interesting one.