304. Romanticism, religion and populism
Instead of the word ‘religion’ I would here prefer to use the word ‘godservice’ but while in literal translation that word exists in Dutch (‘godsdienst’) and German (‘Gottesdienst’), it does not, alas, exist in English. I have defined religion as offering transcendence, a connection to something bigger than oneself, but that need not be God, in vertical transcendence. Transcendence can be horizontal, in feeling connected to something in this world, such as nature, or posterity, or an ideology.
In this blog, I have adopted, as is customary, three forms of romanticism. First, putting feelings above reason. Second, feeling connected to something bigger than oneself. Third, the romantic hero transgressing boundaries, being a discoverer, genius artist or scientist, or a master criminal.
Godservice, in contrast with religion, offers all three. God is beyond reason, you belong to the whole of divine creation, and you expect to cross, in death, the boundary between existence on earth and that in heaven. Religion offers the transcendence, but not necessarily the discounting of reason, nor the transgression of boundaries.
The three forms of romanticism do not all apply equally to all forms of godservice. In the Islam, the Shia can live with reason next to God, for the Sunni that is blasphemy. Thus the Sunni is purer, more ‘pristine’ as someone said, and therefore more attractive to those reaching out for the absolute in vertical transcendence. Better fodder for fanaticism.
Seen in this way, godservice is the mother of all romanticism. Perhaps people are now lured by other manifestations of romanticism because they have lost godservice.
The Nazi’s also did well in combining in one package all three forms of romanticism. Putting feelings of racial supremacy above reason. Belonging to the whole of the nation (‘Das Volk’, the people), united under its leader. Transgressing boundaries of humanity in the lustful aggression of the fascist.
The communists did not do quite so well. They did offer a belonging to the great, international, inevitable, inexorable, march of history towards a communist utopia. They did offer the transgression of the violent purging of capitalists and revisionists. But they made the mistake of not putting feelings above reason but, on the contrary, putting up their march as the march of reason. In that it was closer to the Enlightenment than to Romanticism. However, along the way, revolutionary zeal and fanatic ideology managed to make up for that.
The Cultural Revolution in China, between 1966 and 1976, offered the complete package, in being taken up in a transcendent revolutionary movement, transcending boundaries, uprooting the relics of old , carried along by rhetoric and zealotry, yielding ‘a world of enchantment, mesmerisation, and danger, one that combined a sense of infinite possibilities and hopes with a sense of danger and threat … that gave urgency and potency.’[ii]
President Trump isn’t quite there yet. He is making headway in putting feelings above truth and reason. He offers the emotion of belonging to the nation of a privileged people to be made great again, united under his leadership. He is doing an excellent performance in transgressing a number of boundaries, of coherence, truthtelling, receptiveness to criticism, separation of private interests from politics, and acceptance of judicial verdicts in the rule of law.
One cannot accuse him of fascism. But who knows what will happen when he mobilizes his constituency, in defence against movements to depose him that are now gathering force. Or when some attack or crisis is taken to warrant martial law and purges. That is what Hitler did, with the fire of the Reichstag building. Please note that I am not now comparing Trump with Hitler but imagining what might happen.ii Ian Johnson, ‘China: The virtues of the awful convulsion’, New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016, p. 70.