Friday, March 2, 2012

New Testament Apocalyptic Mythology & 20th Century Totalitarianisms

by Paul Berman

Lenin and his many heirs, together with Mussolini and his own heirs, all of them, left-wingers and right-wingers alike, spinning variations on a single impulse.  And Camus…had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and the 19th century and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death.  And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name.  It was not skepticism and doubt.  It was the ideal of submission.  It was submission to the kind of authority that liberal civilization had slowly undermined, and which the new movements wished to reestablish on a novel basis.  It was the ideal of the one, instead of the many.  The ideal of something godlike.  The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.  ‘Totalitarian’ was Mussolini’s word; and Mussolini spoke for all.

Each of the movements adopted the same set of rites and symbols to express that ideal: the crowds chanting en masse, the monumental architecture, the belief in personal renunciation, the insistence on unquestioning belief in preposterous doctrines.  Each of the movements chose its own monochrome symbol, representing the oneness of authority: red, brown, black.  Each of the movements donned the identical uniform, which was a shirt—red, brown, and black.  Each of the movements recounted a theory about history and mankind, which explained the movement’s goals and actions.  And each of those theories, in red, in brown, or in black, followed the contours of a single Ur-myth—in the 20th century, the deepest myth of all.  This was something else entirely—biblical, and not from the Old Testament, either.

I am not the first to stumble across that most powerful of modern myths or to comment on it.  Norman Cohn analyzed it in his classic study of the late Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium.  André Glucksmann returned to the same myth in his book about the end of the Cold War, Le XI◦ Commandment.  And yet—how to explain this?—a full recognition of the power and nature of that myth seems to have escaped the modern sensibility, as if, even now, we are blind to the reigning ideas of our own time.  The myth, in any case, is the one that you find in that strangest and most thrilling of writings, the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine.  There is a people of God, St. John tells us.  The people of God are under attack.  The attack comes from within.  It is a subversive attack mounted by the city dwellers of Babylon, who are wealthy and have access to things from around the world, which they trade—gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, linen, purple, silk, scarlet, thyme, ivory, precious wood, brass, iron, marble, cinnamon, odors, ointments, frankincense, wine, oil, flour, wheat, beasts, sheep, horses, chariots, not to mention slaves and the souls of men.

These city dwellers have sunk into abomination.  They have been polluted by the whore of Babylon.  (This story, too, has its sexual component.)  The pollution is spreading to the people of God.  Such is the attack from within.  There is also an attack from without—conducted from afar by the forces of Satan, who is worshipped at the synagogue of Satan.  But these attacks, from within and without, will be violently resisted.  The war of Armageddon will take place.  The subversive and polluted city dwellers of Babylon will be exterminated, together with all their abominations.  The Satanic forces from the mystic beyond will be fended off.  The destruction will be horrifying.  Yet there is nothing to fear: the destruction will last only an hour.  Afterward, when the extermination is complete, the reign of Christ will be established and will endure a thousand years.  And the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.

Such was the Ur-myth…

…But the full myth in its modern version, the story of Babylon and Armageddon as a complete narrative and not just as a set of startling images suitable for poets, came into its own only in the years after the First World War, and not as poetry or literature but as political theory.  The great theoreticians of the new 20th century political movements, one theoretician after another, labored hard at refashioning the myth, and each new theoretician produced a version that looked utterly unlike everyone else’s.  Yet as Glucksmann has shown, every one of those modern versions of the ancient Ur-myth kept more or less rigorously to the general shape and texture of the biblical original.

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined.  They were the proletariat or the Russian masses (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the children of the Roman wolf (for Mussolini’s Fascists); or the Spanish Catholics and the Warriors of Christ the King (for Franco’s Phalange); or the Aryan race (for the Nazis).  There were always subversive dwellers in Babylon who trade commodities from around the world and pollute society with their abominations.  They were the bourgeoisie and the kulaks (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the Freemasons and cosmopolitans (for the Fascists and Phalangists); and, sooner or later, they were always the Jews (for the Nazis, and in a lesser degree for the other fascists, and eventually for Stalin, too).

The subversive dwellers in Babylon were always aided by Satanic forces from beyond, and the Satanic forces were always pressing on the people of God from all sides.  They were the forces of capitalist encirclement (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the pincer pressure of Soviet and American technology, squeezing the life out of Germany (in Heidegger’s Nazi interpretation); or the international Jewish conspiracy (again for the Nazis).  Yet, no matter how putrid and oppressive was the present, the reign of God always beckoned in the future.  It was going to be the Age of the Proletariat (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the resurrected Roman Empire (for the Fascists); or explicitly the Reign of Christ the King (for the Spanish Phalange); or the Third Reich, meaning the resurrected Roman Empire in a blond Aryan version (for the Nazis).

The coming reign was always going to be pure—a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations.  It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis).  Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years—that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.  And the structure of that purified, unchanging, eternal reign was always going to be the same.  It was going to be the one-party state (for the Bolsheviks, the Fascists, the Phalange, and the Nazis)—a society whose very structure ruled out any challenge to its own shape and direction, a society that had achieved the final unity of mankind.  And every one of those states was governed in the same fashion, by a great living symbol, who was the Leader.

The Leader was a superman.  He was a genius beyond all geniuses.  He was the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanor, was visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality.  For the Leader embodied a more than human force.  He wielded the force of History (for the Bolsheviks and Communists); or the force of God (for the Catholic Fascists); or the force of the biological race (for the Nazis).  And, because this person exercised power that was more than human, he was exempt from the rules of moral behavior, and he showed his exemption, therefore his divinelike quality, precisely by acting in ways that were shocking.

Lenin was the original model of such a Leader—Lenin, who wrote pamphlets and philosophical tracts with the confidence of a man who believes the secrets of the universe to be at his fingertips, and who established a weird new religion with Karl Marx as god, and who, after his death, was embalmed like a pharaoh and worshipped by the masses.  But Il Duce was no less a superman.  Stalin was a colossus.  About Hitler, Heidegger, bug-eyed, said, ‘But look at his hands.’

Those leaders were gods, every one of them.  There was a god like that in every movement and in every country, someone deranged, virile, all-powerful, a god who thrilled his worshipful followers, a hero with blood on his hands, someone freed of the humiliating limitations of ordinary morality, someone who could gaze on life and death with blasé equanimity, someone who put no value on life, who could order mass executions for no reason at all, or for the flimsiest of reasons.  For the Leader was always a nihilist, a Nechaev, a Stavrogin from The Devils—except no longer on a tiny scale, marginal, ridiculous, and contemptible.  On the contrary, in the 20th century, Nechaevs and Stavrogins popped up in every country of continental Europe, and took power, and commanded armies and police forces and popular movements.  And every one of those Leaders behaved as God behaves, dealing out what God deals out, which is death.

For, in each version of the myth, before the Reign of God could be achieved, there was always going to be the war of Armageddon—the all-exterminating bloodbath.  This war, in its global reach and its murderousness, was going to resemble the First World War.  It was going to be the Class War (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the Crusade (for the Fascists); or the race war (for the Nazis).  It was going to be a pitiless war—a war on the model of the Battle of Verdun, delivering death on an industrial basis.  A war of extinction.  ‘Viva la Muerte!’ cried one of Franco’s generals.  For death was victory, in the new imagination.

Those several European movements announced many highly imaginative programs for human betterment, and those imaginative programs were always, in their full-scale versions, impractical—programs for the whole of society that could never be put into effect.  But death was practical.  Death was the only revolutionary achievement that could actually be delivered.  The unity of mankind, the reign of purity and the eternal—those goals were out of reach, in any conventional or real-world respect.  But unity, purity, and eternity were readily in hand, in the form of mass death.  So the Leader issued his orders.  ‘And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…’
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