Another Review of Heaven on Earth

[I recently got another review of my book on millennialism, this time in an Indian journal. It’s quite favorable, but my favorite part is what he says about my footnotes, which were in many cases, my favorite part of writing the book.]

Subhashis Chattopadhyay, “Review of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, by Richard Landes,” (Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX Prabuddha Bharata, May 2017, pp. 480-82.

White supremacists including the historian Niall Ferguson (b.1964), the singer Steve Hofmeyr (b.1964) want the African continent to be a failed democracy. [?] Afrikaners are readying for the day when whites in South Africa’s metropolises will run to the hinterlands of South Africa for shelter. Many Afrikaners are convinced that doomsday is at hand, albeit, to be brought about by South Africa’s black majority. (See Benjamin Zand, ‘Afrikaners on the Edge’, Our World, BBC, 17 September 2016). In early 2016 Turkey witnessed one of its goriest coup attempts fuelled by Fethullah Gülen (b.1941). And India is reeling from suicide as explained in ‘Suicide Terrorism’ in the book under review (462-3) and other terrorist attacks including the one in Uri, Kashmir in September 2016. The ISIS shows no signs of letting up. All of these extremist movements are fuelled by millennialist ideologies. From the paranoid Afrikaner in his hinterland hideout to Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the present leader of Boko Haram, now incorporated into the ISIS, to the ISIS lone-wolves throughout the globe as discussed in ‘Internet Jihad’ (464),the popularity of ‘execution videos’ and to Pakistan’s ISIS, handlers controlling suicide bombers in India; each of them believes that their actions will finally win them heaven (430-7).

His desire for ‘heaven on earth’ needs to be studied to understand and end genocides. There are two ways to understand this deadly phenomenon of millennialism—one through literature and the other through meticulous historiography. Haruki Murakami in his Underground (2000), and IQ24 (2011) and Stephen King in his The Stand (1978) and Revival (2014) show the disastrous consequences of millennial or fundamentalist movements. Both know that neuroses and the need for certainties—Kantian categorical imperatives—lead to disasters. Haruki Murakami’s texts provide us with the literary perspective required for comprehending millennial frenzy. Murakami has recorded the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack in his Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2000). The gassing was fuelled by millennialism. Later Murakami studies the millennial, cultic mindset in his IQ84.

Richard Landes’s book is the historical counterpart of Murakami’s literary oeuvre. Landes’s constructs a historical matrix needed to understand our desire for utopias on earth from the ancient Egyptians till date in ‘Imperial Millennialism’ (149-84). Landes’s study of millennial longings is matched only by Richard Slotkin’s work on American exceptionalism. If one studies Murakami, Slotkin, and Landes synoptically then one understands how all utopias have as their inevitable telos, dystopic Orwellian worlds. Landes’s book under review performs its cultural work by making explicit the raison d’être for the existence of all sorts of cults and fanatics who believe that our/their time of reckoning is very near.

This history of absurdity is Landes’s subject. Landes’s magisterial history of the ideas of millennialism is indispensable to understand. For example, the ideological framework which helps ISIS gnaw away at Kantian categorical imperatives and thus casually annihilate ethnic groups like the Yazidis. World leaders, international studies’ experts, and even fundamentalists will benefit from reading the fourteenth chapter, ‘Enraged Millennialism’ (421-6). Landes identifies seven themes (433-5) which ‘now play a central role in this current round of Muslim apocalyptic discourse’ (433). This discourse is not different from the Nazi discourse about the Jews. Whereas the Nazis thought that Jews ‘secretly controlled the world’, Muslim apocalyptic writers think that Jews ‘ openly control the world’ (455).

Footnotes are not redundant if they are properly inserted within the main text. Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on American exceptionalism has copious and relevant footnotes that lead to other avenues of scholarship. They also prevent the need to constantly turn pages to look for endnotes. Every single footnote of Landes’s book is an eye-opener. See Landes’s footnote 136 on page 449 for understanding how contemporary Islam dreamt of ruling the world after the US and the erstwhile USSR’s demise. The French Revolution (1789–99) is the Western world’s classic example where a utopia turned into a dystopia. The French Revolution is taught with a lot of gusto. Landes’s threadbare [?] study of it in the ninth chapter, ‘Democratic Millennialism’ (250-87) is historiography at its best. The French Revolution is what Landes calls ‘a progressive demotic millennial movement’; dangerous since it was ‘inspired by a desire to perfect the world through egalitarian ideals’, which sought to ‘legislate the just society’ (250). Instead of a just society, we had butchery matched only by the English Puritan Interregnum’s determination to silence all dissent. This period in English history was another millennialist and disastrous phantasy.

That Hitler’s genocide is unique has been proven by Susan Neiman (b.1954) in Evil in Modern Thought (New Jersey: Princeton University, 2002) and by Sir Ian Kershaw (b.1943) in his research on the Nazis. The collusion between Christianity and the Nazis too has been documented, but not Hitler’s own religiosity. Landes breaks new ground when he speaks of Hitler’s religiosity’, which ‘continues to constitute a major problem for historians’ since most‘tend to view Hitler through a secular prism’ (365). Landes has contextualised Hitler’s rise and reign within the discourse of millennialist religious bigotry. Landes rightly questions among other issues Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) ‘a priori’ dismissal of ‘any link between Nazism and Christianity’ (366). Landes’ ‘Ariosophy and the Occult Origins of Nazism’ (367-9) is an original contribution to Holocaust Studies. ‘Genocidal Millennialism: Nazi Paranoia’ (353-88) should be read alongside the works of Susan Neiman. Neiman’s understanding of Nazi genocide from her Kantian, neo-Enlightenment position is found to be empirically robust by Landes’ research. Within genocide and Holocaust studies, both Neiman’s and Landes’ works along with the work of Bashabi Fraser (1954–) are cautionary and we ignore them at the cost of letting ‘Post-modern Millenialism’ (391-466) once again produce another Hitler, a cruel parody of Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’.

Landes’s book will be remembered as a cautionary work since millennial frenzies are not disappearing anytime soon. As Slotkin makes explicit Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, Landes makes explicit Murakami and King.

4 Responses to Another Review of Heaven on Earth

  1. Michael Caplan says:

    Just bought a copy a few days ago!

    • Richard Landes says:

      enjoy. if the first three conceptual chapters seem a bit dense, go straight to the case studies (chaps. 4-14).

  2. Walter Sobchak says:

    “White supremacists including the historian Niall Ferguson”

    I stopped there Ferguson’s wife is black. I don’t have time for stuff like that.

    • Subhasis Chattopadhyay says:

      @WSobchak , may be…but please read Ferguson. He thinks that African democracies would do well with white rule once again. If you want precise reference(s) I’ll get them for you. A Hindu man may have a Muslim wife or a Muslim man may have a Hindu wife but can hate the OTHER etc. Swift hated all but loved one etc. Thanks.

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