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December 01st 2011 print

Daryl McCann

The Millennial Psychosis

The customary bookends of human existence are the golden age or paradise of childhood and the private apocalypse that marks every individual’s End of Time. The intervening period, which comprises the balance of our lives, allows us to be productive and responsible adults. For the most part we muddle through life in a matter-of-fact way with our alarm clock switched to what Richard Landes calls Normal Time. In the midst of modernity, says Landes, Normal Time frequently allows for “the bourgeois joys of earned financial success, unpretentious love and family intimacy”. All solid and even worthy attainments, no doubt, but lacking the exhilaration of life experienced on Apocalyptic Time, in which “everything quickens, enlivens, coheres”. Appearing at the most extreme point in Landes’s millennialist continuum are the active cataclysmic agitators with their taste for both “sacred joy” and “sacred violence”, seeking right here and right now both paradise and the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.

The term millennialism has conventionally been used in the context of Jewish and Christian notions of a thousand-year Messiah-linked golden age. A premillennial Christian view locates the second coming immediately prior to a thousand years of peace and righteousness, a period of time when Satan, according to John of the Apocalypse, will be locked away for a thousand years. Conversely, postmillennialism has Christ’s return taking place at the culmination of the Great Peace. Traditional or mainstream Christian denominations, including Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Anglicanism, are often described as amillennial. St Augustine (354–430 AD) famously made the amillennial case. While acknowledging John of the Apocalypse’s notion of “a new heaven and a new earth”, Augustine considered it neither prudent nor productive to speculate on the timing of Judgment Day. As Landes summarises: 

He rejects the two most common options: neither say soon, for it can lead to disappointment and loss of faith; nor say later, for it discourages the faithful. Augustine’s solution: it can happen any time, and we cannot know when; live with the apocalypse at your shoulder. 

The problem for the historian, argues Landes, is that Augustinian-influenced scholars have obscured reality on the ground. A medievalist by training, Landes can recount the outbreak of any number of millennial incidents down through the ages. Although he agrees that St Augustine’s “radical agnostic” position on the proximity of the End of Time was “intellectually responsible”, the dominance of his position has created a scholastic impediment to uncovering the truth about our tumultuous past: “My quarrel with Augustine comes not with how he wants us to read the apocalyptic future, but how he and those who accept his approach read the Apocalypse-driven past.”                               

St Augustine, in the somewhat over-simplified terminology of Heaven on Earth, is an owl, a conservative creature “anxious of if not hostile to rapid change, suspicious of radical new ideas and approaches”. Owls, according to Landes, are frequently wise and yet there are times when their “reflexive” defence of the old order amounts to nothing more than a lack of imagination and “an unwillingness to question the prevailing paradigm”. Roosters, on the other hand, embody qualities that are the very antithesis of owls. Their underlying temperament is delusional optimism about the transformative capacity of human beings and terrestrial existence in general. Though he does not claim to be the first to introduce the expression “cognitive dissonance” into millennial studies, Landes acknowledges it as essential to understanding the horror that ensues when a millennial movement, especially an active cataclysmic one, collides (as it inexorably does) with reality: “Behind the exuberant embrace of the rooster lies a profound and deeply worrisome capability for violent intolerance.”

The extent of millennial-driven movements in history is little known to us, contends Landes, because such entities inevitably crash and burn. Moreover, the official story of their rise and fall has almost always been left to the roosters’ arch-enemies, the owls, to record. Owls are perfectly within their rights to depict the misery inflicted by their nemesis, but posterity is the loser when the (transient) persuasiveness and appeal of millennialists fail to appear in our archives. Landes labels much of our written history as vesperian; that is, blind-sided historians (bats) “working with owls’ documents”. Apart from the most blatant and obvious cases—for instance, the Xhosa Cattle-Slaying, the Melanesian Cargo Cults and the Chinese Taiping—“scholarly consensus” remains reluctant to recognise the millennial dimension of historical events.

That being the case, Heaven on Earth signifies a most astonishing slap in the face to “scholarly consensus”. Landes’s interpretation of the French Revolution is as good an example as any: 

For the French Revolution, the millennial hope lay not in scripture, but in Rousseau’s theories of freedom and the general will. The popular voice, once freed, would express the “general will”, the desire of all … It was a religious belief that the people, once freed, were incorruptible.[emphasis added]  

The Reign of Reason degenerated into a Reign of Terror not least because the revolutionaries assumed their anti-Christian secularism (that is to say, their so-called rationalism) safeguarded them from millennial madness. This faith in “reason” was unfounded. For example, Immanuel Kant’s belief that a paradise of sorts would be “almost inevitable” with the advent of “freedom” was not only a religious sentiment, but also clearly irrational. More irrational, it might be argued, than the Laws of Moses and the Christian notion of Original Sin that the revolutionaries vainly attempted to lay to rest. During the exhilaration, panic, paranoia and disillusionment of the revolutionary moment, Robespierre entered Apocalyptic Time. As a result, the “moral genius” of 1789, whilst attempting to bludgeon into existence a Golden Age of Reason, became the “moral monster” of 1794. Landes reminds us that this whole bloodthirsty spectacle followed a similar pattern of behaviour exhibited during the more explicitly millennial Münster Rebellion of 1534–35.     

Landes’s exposé on Karl Marx’s millennialism also resonates. For Marx and every other young soul on fire, 1848 was supposed to be a cataclysmic moment in which “the whole destiny of humanity was at stake”. The young revolutionaries of Europe were charged with the crazy belief that the French Revolution failed not because it had “become a victim of excess and self-destructive paranoia”, but rather that it did not go far enough and abolish private property: “No longer did the key to bliss lie in the breaking of aristocratic bondage and inaugurating an egalitarian law code, but in ridding everyone of the wretched behaviour that comes with property ownership.” Landes contends that Marx’s success as a radical journalist and author in those dispiriting post-1848 years owed much to his talent for conveniently discovering the secret laws of history and, as a result, sustaining the faith of his traumatised comrades. Marx’s “breakthrough” kept the apocalyptic fantasy of the Forty-Eighters alive even when all and sundry had re-entered Normal Time. Thus, Marx’s malicious (and incessant) derision of “utopian socialism” amounted to nothing more than the pot calling the kettle black.                     

Heaven on Earth gainfully re-defines Lenin as a Bakunist. Landes persuasively argues that Lenin did not seize power in October 1917 simply to spark an international revolution. From the moment he arrived at the Finland Station in April, Lenin was gripped by a cataclysmic mania. It is in the light of this that the economic and political policy of War Communism (1918–21), along with the Red Terror, need to be re-evaluated. Lenin and his apologists have always explained away the fanaticism and barbarism of the Bolshevik regime as reactive and temporary measures intended only to defend the victory of October, and yet there is more than enough proof to suggest this was not the case at all. Landes quotes Trotsky from 1924: “I recall very clearly that in the first period, at Smolnyi, at meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars, Lenin invariably repeated that we shall have socialism in half a year and become the mightiest state.” Having been to the mountain, metaphorically speaking, and spied “the egalitarian messianic world to come”, Lenin was willing and able “to sacrifice rivers of blood” to protect his delusion, becoming in the process something more terrifying than a madman on the loose. He possessed, as Landes says, all the best reasons to do all the worst things.

The harrowing tale of Maoism, especially with regards to the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76), has a similar configuration. As with the case of Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion a century earlier, Mao Zedong remained intent on establishing his own version of the “Great Peace”. The popular energy and brilliance of a peasantry unshackled by the Great Leap Forward were supposed to deliver to China a thousand-year golden age. Instead they resulted in the deaths of 30 to 40 million innocents, eclipsing the 20 to 35 million who died on account of Hong Xiuquan’s millennial war. Unlike Hong, Mao never claimed the messianic title of “God’s Chinese Son” or “Jesus’s Younger Brother”, although the song “The East is Red”, the de facto anthem of the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, does refer to Mao as “the people’s great saviour”. Landes has every right to admonish the reluctance of critics to countenance a connection between modern revolutionary movements and millennialism on the say-so of revolutionaries who define themselves as “secular”. Accordingly, for Landes the terms “millenarianism” and “millennialism” are interchangeable. The phenomenon is not just Christian or Jewish but pan-religious and secular as well, and the refusal to appreciate that on the part of scholars can have disastrous consequences.                                         

The Third Reich represents one more episode of millennial psychosis. Somehow the Little Corporal managed to persuade the German people experiencing an “unbearable disappointment” in the aftermath of the Great War that he was their Messianic Führer. The hard part was not so much Hitler convincing them they were in the midst of apocalyptic times, but that he understood “the apocalyptic scenario” by which they would “come out triumphant”. And the millennial nature of that triumph was crystal clear to every German: 

Hence in the German language, Tausendjähriges Reich means literally “millennial kingdom,” and all earlier uses of the term referred to Christian millennial movements, as in the considerable literature on “chiasmus” at the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries in Germany. And when the Nazi ideologues developed their notions of the Third Reich as a millennial kingdom, they knew precisely to what they referred. 

Landes notes that only “the rare few go the distance, and acknowledge Nazism as a millennial religion”. Marxists and other materialists, for instance, are fundamentally incapable of making sense of history driven by religion. Christians, on the other hand, are understandably sensitive to the accusation that Nazism has its roots in their religion, even if Hitler’s idea of Jesus Christ—“the warrior on horseback with a sword issuing from his mouth, slaughtering the enemies of the Lord”—is somewhat at variance with what Landes terms “the more familiar forms of Christianity”.  

Perhaps the most contentious claim in Heaven on Earth is Landes’s assertion that the current global jihad is an apocalyptical millennial movement. What until very recently was “marginal discourse” has taken hold “at the centre of a major religious culture”. According to Landes, the owls of Islam have customarily downplayed the apocalyptic or messianic aspects of the faith, in much the same way St Augustine and his intellectual descendants have done with Christianity. In the chapter titled “Enraged Millennialism”, Landes explains the genesis of modern-day Islamic millennialism, a development that most Western academics and politicians have been totally incapable of decoding. For instance, Hamas, born out of the Muslin Brotherhood, is intent on something more globally ambitious than the destruction of Israel, however preposterous that might sound:           

Who among the founders of Hamas in 1988, as they penned their genocidal charter, would imagine that Christian pacifists would come to their defence, and crowds of infidels would march with their banners in the streets of European capitals in 2009 shouting “Allah Akhbar” and carrying signs reading “We are Hamas”? 

The idiocy of political correctness continues to encourage the murderous fantasies of active cataclysmic agents throughout the world, when all the time the West should be meeting their millennial madness with hard reality.     

One of the unanticipated twists in Heaven on Earth appears almost at the end. Landes correctly—and not unexpectedly given the subject of his work—identifies the Anthropogenic Global Warming movement as millennial in character. But then, to the astonishment of this reader, he rates it as more worthy than most. He is right, of course, to insist that Al Gore’s 2006 Inconvenient Truth “swept away all but the most dogged sceptics” but appears unaware that the “now-marginalized owls” are not so marginalised in 2011, and that Al Gore’s status as an apocalyptic prophet continues to diminish. The wave of credulity that once “consecrated” Gore and the IPCC with the joint Nobel Peace Prize is crashing. Perhaps Landes would profit from reading Donna Laframboise’s new book on the IPCC, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert. Then again, maybe the failure of judgment by a man who is expert at illuminating human folly corroborates the wider thesis pursued in Heaven on Earth. We are all capable of magical thinking.                             

Richard Landes’s book, with all its impressive if disquieting insights into the human condition, has the power to unsettle. Religion, as depicted in Heaven on Earth, frequently misleads and agitates those seeking deliverance from the fear, absurdity and futility that haunt our mortal existence. Unfortunately, the price for attaining a condition in which “everything quickens, enlivens, coheres” is too often heightened delusion and much, much worse. That said, all of the political movements that have forsworn conventional religion, the Jacobins, the communists, and the Nazis, turn out to be no less religious—and in their own way far more irrational—than those they so bitterly oppose.

Where to from here? Heaven on Earth has left me with an urge to reacquaint myself with the works of Augustine of Hippo. Part of his legacy might be a tradition of owlish scholarship that has critically underplayed the role of irrationality and psychosis in our history. Nevertheless, Augustine’s personal journey could hardly be described as owlish in the Landes sense of “suspicious of radical new ideas” or an “an unwillingness to question the prevailing paradigm”. After all, he did not live his entire life as a Christian. In a book drowning in the shrill voices of the unhinged and the damned, St Augustine strikes me as magnificently sane.       

Daryl McCann wrote on Mark Steyn’s After America in the November issue.