Today’s installment of “A Day in a Read State” – the thirteenth – introduces Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary messianism in medieval and Reformation Europe and its bearing on modern totalitarian movements.
The title’s an eyeful, granted, but I was keen to find a well kept first edition stacked atop a column of used Harlequin romance novels unboxed for an upcoming Center For People In Need event.
I came to Cohn’s work about fifteen years ago, through Greil Marcus‘s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. In that work, Marcus draws upon the manifestations of medieval hysteria and Christian anarcho-negationists as forebears of, well, Dadaism and Johnny Rotten (John of Leyden, John Lydon, Lydon, Leyden, *poof* ) through the filter of a modern revolutionary sect, the Situationist International – several “members” of which use the arguments within Cohn’s Pursuit to challenge his thesis of millenarian upheaval as kindling and historical justification for modern totalitarian structures.
Contra Cohn’s thesis that Marxism manipulates the predominantly Northern European narrative of class struggle as eschatological drama, Guy Debord advances an argument of reversibility – that the murderous thieving hordes of peasants and subterranean populist incendiaries must avoid co-optation by totalitarian agents; that revolutionary class struggle may speak the language of religion in the past but must switch code – become autonomous – to avoid rebirth in an authoritarian milieu. Debord’s critique, from within his own revolutionary Marxism, gains a certain charge when viewed through the lens of James Scott‘s zomia. Absent the forces of state-making contemporary to (and subsequently, structured by) the lowland European micro-societies at the heart of Cohn’s millenarian mass movements, the outcome of these social experiments would be quite different indeed.
Ah, the infinity of Untaken Paths.
I haven’t gotten too deep into Cohn – had a few minutes to scan the Introductory, but it’s well-researched, well-paced, and almost novelistic in its treatment of these mass, psychic historical personae. It’s full of outsider cults, roaming bands of flagellants (has any historian termed one of these sects Euglenarians?), invisible sky cities, antichrist figures, pontifices vomiting bishops, engulfed earthly paradises, and the repeatedly invitiated dreams of proletarian liberation. Exactly the stuff of punk rock and Situationist cache.
The Chiliastic Fantastic: a chili shop devoted to dishes capturing the apocalyptic fervor of 4th century Christianity. Menu items include The Montanists of Hell (Adana kebap doused in ghost pepper sauce served over paprika rice,) Tertullian Soup (pure hot sauce with a fried egg on top,) and The Origen of the World (a dish of pure blue fire, to purify the soul.)
“I don’t need no hammer / I might get stammer / The man with the hammer / Don’t know him grammar.
Don’t need your enforcer / Don’t need a bushmaster / Just lend me your chopper, let me choppa them down”
Johnny Osbourne, “Lend Me Your Chopper”