Faith in an age of isms

July 27, 2007

What links the Impressionists, Nazi myth- making and Douglas Adams' doomed sperm whale? Roger Griffin offers his 'big theory' of the 20th century, and a possible solution to our present-day woes

Our fearsome gods have only changed their names: they now rhyme with 'ism'." Thus spoke Carl Gustav Jung. He was well placed to make such an observation, having at one point been a fervent acolyte of Freudianism, before acquiring cultic status himself for the hippy autodidacts of cosmic truths and their own form of higher education. In the halcyon Sixties, backpackers travelling in exotic climes would often dip into his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections to become more aware of the mysterious patterns and synchronicities latent in their daily lives now that they had tuned in and dropped out of conventional reality.

Little did they suspect from the highly expurgated account of his life they were reading that their guru had once been deeply involved not just in occultism, mysticism and the search for psychological archetypes, but, at least before the Second World War, in Eurocentrism, Aryanism and a variant of racism that owed more to occultist speculation than to scientific inquiry. It was an itinerary that caused his ship of discovery to sail disturbingly close to the reefs and maelstroms of Nazism as a potential source of the spiritual rebirth of the West.

Jung's quest was one of myriad unique expeditions to find the source of the transcendent purpose and spirituality that seemed to have been draining from the world under the conditions of modern life ever since the 19th century. If "modernism" is used as an umbrella term for all such quests - the dialectical reaction to the soul-destroying impact of "modernity" - then these terms can help historians to throw into relief neglected patterns of interconnectedness and hidden layers of causation behind some of the most outstanding acts of creativity and chilling acts of destruction of the 20th century, an epoch that is quickly fading for a whole new generation.

Such sweeping statements smack of something that has become practically taboo within professional historiography: the grand récit , or "totalising metanarrative", that surreptitiously shapes and dictates the way reality is portrayed or history told, precluding a plurality of perspectives and thus ensnaring the mind in simplistic falsehoods.

What I offer here is indeed a metanarrative. However, it is a reflexive one. It is proposed not as a unique, all-embracing explanation, but as a potentially useful interpretive tool in all the human sciences concerned with the processes shaping the contemporary world. As the German historian of everyday life under the Nazis, Detlef Peukert, once reminded us: "If experience is to be understood at all [then historians] cannot do without synoptic interpretation", a bird's-eye view of the terrain where shapes and features that are invisible from the ground become discernible .

Paradoxically, the premise to the particular "synoptic interpretation" of modernity and modernism offered here is posited on a unique archaic event in the evolution of "man". This pivotal moment starts with the genesis of humanity itself, when human beings first emerged from their Edenic state of unreflexive consciousness to become aware not just of their nakedness, but of time, of death, of personal mortality. At that point "we" became homo sapiens sapiens , not just "knowing" but "knowing that we know".

According to the sociologist Peter Berger, the same reflexivity that liberated our species from evolutionary conditioning also brought with it the instinctive terror of nothingness and absurdity. The cure we have created to manage this terror so that it does not impede our capacity for survival is "culture".

One of the most vital functions of culture is to provide a stable source of what Berger calls "nomos", a self-transcending, supra-personal but imagined order that takes the sting out of death by imbuing all aspects of existence with "higher" and - relative to our own brief lives - "immortal" meaning and value. To live within an inherited nomos and the culture that underpins it thus banishes what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called "anomie", the acute sense of disorientation and despair deriving from the erosion or collapse of the belief in a cosmic principle of order.

A fully functional culture, no matter how irrational its cosmology or barbaric its customs by "enlightened" Western standards, thus sustains what Berger calls a "sacred canopy" of transcendence that acts as a permanent, life-giving fiction. Traditional cultures in their infinite variety shield the consciousness of their inhabitants from the devastating realisation of the nothingness that surrounds our brief lives and the paper-thin, fragile biosphere that is our unique habitat in the infinity of the cosmos. Through the aesthetic power of culture, existential pain - the dread of the void - is anaesthetised.

In Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , a sperm whale blessed and cursed with all-too-human reflexivity materialises improbably (he is the side effect of a spaceship's improbability drive engine) several miles above an alien planet and has only a minute or so to build up "a coherent picture of things" before he crashes to his fate. Operating in human collectives over aeons of unrecorded history, it was arguably the same impulse that provoked the whale's frenetic attempt to find meaning in his pathetically brief encounter with existence that generated the rituals, stories, holy incantations, customs and sacred artefacts transmitted through the millennia to assure social cohesion and keep a thousand different artificial, culturally constructed skies aloft.

So crucial is the sacred canopy to human society as a shield against primordial dread that the threat of its destruction frequently gave rise to what is known to anthropologists as a "revitalisation movement". Its purpose was not just the physical survival of its members, but the institution of a new death-defying and finitude-transcending canopy of higher meaning, a new nomos. In such a movement old and new elements of belief and ritual are syncretised in a process they term a "mazeway resynthesis", overseen by an inspired "propheta", or seer, whose followers might become the nucleus of a new society equipped with a new world-view. Seen in this way, the millenarian movements that grew up in the late Renaissance were symptomatic of the acute psychological tensions that accompanied the painful transition from "medieval" to "modern" Europe. Their fanatical belief in imminent salvation transfigured the experience of living in the "last days" of humanity into the certainty of the "rapture", of being taken up body and soul into a new heaven and a new earth.

It should now be clear why modernity, the force which, as one critic put it, "dashes traditional structures and lifeways to pieces", "sweeps away the sacred" and "undermines immemorial habits", has bred countless modernist initiatives to erect new sacred canopies. Some of these provided shelter to millions of "believers" when a mass movement was at its height, while others resemble tiny windbreakers or sand castles erected against a gale of anomie on a grey, wind-swept North Sea beach (the plays of Samuel Beckett or the films of Ingmar Bergman come to mind).

By the early 20th century, not only had the West's nomos been fragmented by modernity into a thousand shards, like the Snow Queen's "mirror of reason" in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but under the impact of secularisation most expeditions towards a higher reality now sought redemption and transcendence not beyond historical time, but within it. Heaven had been hauled into what astrologers call the sublunary sphere. Utopia had been temporalised. Human history had no longer to be endured, or even just recorded, but made, renewed through human agency to create a paradise on earth.

As a result of this unique cultural situation, the late 19th century witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of new aesthetic forms as, in their own unique ways, artists sought to re-inject deeper spirit or higher meaning into a life that threatened to be reduced to pure biological and material process, to brute facticity. Many of these deliberately sought sustenance in archetypal, archaic, "primitive" societies or pre-rational, mythic layers of consciousness: notably Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, the Fauves, the Expressionists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, Marcel Proust, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. The gods had indeed turned to "isms", all idols of a single polytheistic cult: "modernism".

The same urgent need to reinvest an increasingly disenchanted world with meaning, spirit and "magic" can be seen at work in every sphere of social thought and action in the early 20th century. Jung's search for psychoanalytical truths is just one of countless individual diagnoses of the spiritual state of the world and attempted revolutions in the world of ideas, producing a vogue for occultism and for the cult of biological Life known as vitalism for Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Wagner, and Freud.

The modernist rebellion against modernity's destructiveness was also palpable in utopian architecture and town planning, in revolutionary design principles, in the utopian projects of constructivists and futurists who dreamt of a hyper-technological fusion of "man and machine".

The revolt against a rising tide of nihilism was also a decisive factor in the growing concern of ruling and scientific elites with the spread of degeneracy, prompting a radical campaign of social or racial hygiene to flush out the rottenness at the core of modern society. In this case modernism took the form of scientism - yet another bid to find a cure for existing modernity and lay the foundations of an alternative modernity. The Victorian polymath Francis Galton went as far as looking to his new "science", eugenics - the selective breeding of a healthier, fitter human race - to provide the religion of the modern age.

By the 1900s modernism had become pandemic. Nor was it exclusively an avant garde or elite phenomenon. The impulse to sacrifice themselves for their country was lived out tragically in the catacombs of the First World War by millions of "ordinary soldiers". The widespread war fever and countless poems, private letters and speeches celebrating the spiritual purpose of the war testify to an instinctive longing for self-transcendence and regeneration inconceivable in the West today, healthily obsessed as it is with minimising the body bags. It was as a spokesman of this far more lethal modernist nationalism that the Irish nationalist leader Padraig Pearse had already declared in 1913: "Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood."

As the Christian-liberal-capitalist phase of European civilisation entered what appeared to many intellectuals and artists at the turn of the 20th century to be its endgame, a parallel process to cultural and social modernism had been taking place in politics. A variety of movements arose that drew on organic, "tribal" forms of nationalism or revolutionary socialism in their determination, in the words of the deeply modernist Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin, to "explode the continuum of history" and usher in a new redemptive era. When the most radical of these movements took power, they instinctively created what has been termed - on the basis of metaphors used by the ideologues and leaders themselves - "gardening states". Such regimes see it as their mission to plant, water, and fertilise the "healthy" institutions and members of society, but by the same token undertake to control its "pests" and root out human "weeds". Such draconian social gardening can be seen as the hallmark of a totalitarian state such as the Third Reich or Communist China, as opposed to authoritarian ones, such as General Franco's Spain or Admiral Horthy's Hungary, which were content to ensure traditional power structures continued under the protection of a modern state.

Such an interpretation chimes well with common preconceptions about the communist regimes in Russia, with its war on established religion and destruction of feudal and capitalist social structures, and the cult of technology and the new Soviet man and woman. However, it goes against the grain of many older assumptions concerning fascism to see it as on a par with Bolshevism as a major permutation of political modernism. Indeed, many historians have maintained that the Fascist fixation with the glories of Ancient Rome and the Nazi obsession with the Aryans were symptomatic of a reactionary flight from modernity, not a rush towards an "alternative modernity".

However, closer inspection reveals that fascism's assault on the status quo was conceived in what Marxist philosopher Peter Osborne calls a "rigorously futural" spirit. Just as Picasso drew inspiration from African masks and Gauguin from "primitive" life in the South Pacific, so fascism went back to the mythic origins of culture as the precondition for an alternative modernity and a "new order" re-embedded in time and space.

Thus there is no contradiction if one official portrait of Hitler depicted him as a medieval knight in full armour at the same time that the first motorways, displaying the latest principles of modernist design, planning and traffic management, were called "Adolf Hitler Roads". Along them would speed "Strength through Joy" cars (later rebranded as "Volkswagen") which, at the motorway interchange near Salzburg, would have driven past a group of gigantic neo classical statues towering above the central reservation. They were conceived by the sculptor Joseph Thorak not to express nostalgia for Ancient Greece, but rather the physical power and Faustian, culture-making drive of the Aryan race. The syncretism of old and new so conspicuously involved in the Nazi "mazeway" (what Hitler referred to as a Weltanschauung) helps explain why rationales for genocide forged by the Third Reich could just as well draw on scientistic variants of eugenics and racial hygiene as on mystic currents of neo-paganism.

It was fantasies of lost Nordic and Atlantean knowledge that inspired Hitler's second-in-command, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, to assemble a team of scholars to collect archaeological and anthropological evidence from as far away as Tibet for the supremacy of the Aryan master race. Yet there was nothing antiquarian or anti-modern about the Ahnenerbe, or "ancestral heritage" section of the SS he set up to do this. One of its leaders, Hermann Wirth, declared that under Hitler "the task of science is to proceed with its prophecy, to awaken. Like the morning dawn, it will light a new day." (The Ahnenerbe's finances were partially assured by a law that made it compulsory for all German bicycles to be fitted with a new type of reflector whose patent it had recently acquired.) Meanwhile armament manufacturers, rocket scientists and crematorium oven designers were enthusiastically dedicating their modern expertise to the fulfilment of the Nazi utopia, confident in the imminent triumph of Aryan supremacy over degeneracy. Not only had racism been modernised, but modernism had been bio-politicised.

The big picture outlined here thus postulates an antithetical but synergic relationship between modernity and modernism that hopefully sheds light on the totalitarian regimes, seismic political upheavals and mass exterminations of the 20th century. It also helps explain why religious extremism is now rampant in the world precisely at a time when secular materialism is being so rapidly globalised, threatening the millennial religions and cultures in its path. All over the planet, the "clash of civilisations" is not between Christianity and Islam, but between reassertions of religious faith and a globalising modernity. The US political theorist Benjamin Barber saw the battle-lines drawn between "Jihad" and "McWorld". But the universal need for new mazeways in order to revitalise a decadent world is bringing about surreal fusions of the two that defy conventional analysis. Islamists blow up trains using mobile phones and internet technology while the President of the United States lives out a self-appointed mission to fight "the Axis of Evil", which stems as much from born-again Christianity and medieval fantasies of Crusades against the Infidel as from the promptings of military intelligence. Modern holy warriors may well carry out a bomb outrage with an iPod of favourite tracks strung round their neck.

The last words of Douglas Adams's whale before he plunges to his death on an unknown planet are: "I wonder if it will be friends with me." What all faith communities, secular or religious, are going to have to decide before long on exclusively pragmatic grounds is whether human beings as a species, evolved or created, still have time to make friends with our planet. This would mean collectively deciding to live on it not as alien marauders, but in a state of planetary cohabitation. Teaching aspects of modern history with syllabuses informed by suitably big stories might recapture the minds of students young and old for new, modernist and genuinely humanist forms of humanism. It might even help prepare a new generation to become citizens of an alternative modernity, one neither genocidal nor unsustainable, dispensed by a new, benign form of "gardening state" at present beyond our imagination.

Roger Griffin is professor of modern history at Oxford Brookes University and co-editor of Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions . His latest book, Modernism and Fascism , is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £50.00.

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