Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

IV. The Geography of Demonization

While I have up to this point treated demonization largely as a decontextualized process, as in the Freudian splitting mechanisms that stem from instinctual ambivalence in each person, or the Sartrean gaze that accounts for each person’s experience of demonization, actual experiences of demonization occur in historically specific contexts of power, especially at moments of a shift in power. An allegation of demonization in a political debate is often a bid to reverse the power relations in a discussion already pre-shaped by external social imbalances. At the level of global politics, of course, demonization may be most obviously found in European colonialism’s stance toward both the gods of the colonized and the colonized themselves. The horrors of genocide, enslavement, and expropriation which accompanied such demonizations need not be recited here, but the ghosts of those thus demonized should cast a long shadow over this essay. In literature, one need look no farther than Shakespeare’s Caliban (the “demi-Devil”), Sycorax (the witch and Devil’s consort), and Setebos (their demonized god), and the multiple colonial and anti-colonial re-readings and re-writings to which they have given rise, to contemplate some of the textual ambivalences, contradictions, and blindnesses of colonial discourses of demonization.

One of the best poets of the political geography of demonization was Heine, especially in his 1853 work, Gods in Exile, a work with a long cultural afterlife, most famously in Freud and Wagner.24 It portrays the fate of gods after the defeat of the political regimes that supported them. Heine’s essay, by turns tragic, joyous, ironic, fantastical, satirical, and wistful, answers to some of the key desiderata for which I am searching – the intransigence of the experience of demonization, the ambivalence which always attends the dialectics of demonization, and the situatedness of such phenomena in contexts of power.

Heine focuses on the demonization of the Greek and Roman gods by early Christianity, though in his preface he also draws attention to the much later indignities inflicted by European colonialism; one might also add the overt transformation of the biblical creator God into a deluded demon by the Gnostics. The early Christians saw the gods’ “statues and temples” not simply as “the object of empty worship and vain error,” but as “the fortresses of Satan”; they believed that the gods that the “statues represented” were “animated by a real existence,” that of “demons” – “this Devil Jupiter, this Deviless Diana, and this Arch-Deviless Venus.”25 The “triumph of Christ,” Heine tells us, forced these gods to “withdraw into the darkness of the nether-world,” either literally or socially.26 Drawing on a wide array of legends, rumors, and fictions, Heine describes the heterogeneous ways the gods sought refuge. Many fled to Egypt, taking on the form of animals,27 while others disguised themselves as common laborers.28 Jupiter, the most powerful of the gods, became a hermit on a remote island;29 Pluto, on the other hand, remained ruler of the Underworld, at the cost of his “diabolical transformation into Satan.”30

Demonization, in Heine’s portrayal, thus occurs on at least three levels: the level of ontology and values (the gods become “demons” and “devils”), politics (they are vanquished by the “triumph of Christ”), and geography (they live on in “exile”). This demonization has nothing to do with a rationalist debunking of gods – on the contrary, it preserves their existence as real, even if that reality, for Heine, is that of fantasy and imagination. Indeed, Heine’s portrayal of the preservation-and-banishment of the gods presents demonization as key to desire after Christ.

It is this effect of banishment as productive of desire, perhaps demonization generally as erotic provocation, that most intrigues Heine. In the “ruins of the temples, the ancient divinities indeed still live”; these “demons, keeping themselves hidden by day, come out of their lairs at night and take on a gracious form to lead astray unfortunate travelers and lay traps for the reckless!” The heroes of such stories are young knights who are “attracted by the beautiful demons and entwined in their deceptive nets.”31 The re-telling and analysis of the myth of Tannhäuser and the Venus-Mountain is the center of this work, a myth whose productive power for Heine had led him to write a rather more satirical version of it two decades earlier. Demonization in Heine is an act of power which banishes once-venerated deities, but the vicissitudes of power and counter-power, and the allure of the “dark nether-world,” re-creates and augments their libidinal appeal and imaginative charm.

Nonetheless, if Freud bypasses otherness into sameness, Heine bypasses bad otherness into good otherness (I oversimplify, of course). The whole conceit of Gods in Exile is the juxtaposition of the joys and beauties of the Greeks and their gods with the grim asceticism of Judeo-Christianity. After the “true God appeared with the cross,” the “fanatical iconoclasts, the black band of monks, destroyed the temples and cast a curse on the forbidden gods”32 – and yet “Venus, after the destruction of her temples, sought refuge in a mysterious mountain, where she leads a joyous life in the company of her most nimble sylvans and sylphs, her most appealing dryads and hamadryads,” whose sounds “entwine your heart and draw you to the enchanted mountain.”33 Heine’s Tannhäuser tarries with the “Arch-Deviless” Venus, but Heine makes clear the unattractiveness of the alternative to her demonic abode: “O Venus, my beautiful lady, your exquisite wine and tender kisses have sated my soul; I thirst for suffering … It is with thorns and not with roses that I now wish to crown my head.”34

We could not be farther here from the paralysis, shame, and domination of the Sartrean experience of living in the demonic “nether-world.” Heine has preserved the gods’ existence and celebrated the allure of demonization at the cost of bypassing its existential, psychological, and political terrors – some of whose travails he had expressed in an earlier work, the 1827 poem “The Gods of Greece,” in which the “vanquished gods” are portrayed as “pale cloud figures … transfigured by pain.”

Heine provides an important signpost on our journey – the notion that demonization can be imagined as somehow connected to the erotic, to beauty, to a potential source of revitalization for an ossified Europe, though only through political and cultural combat. In short, if we heed this signpost while remembering the terrors of demonization, we are well on our way to early twentieth century cultural modernism and its “primitivist” fascinations….

24. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil (Brussels: Alphonse Lebèque, 1853).

25. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 17.

26. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 50.

27. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 47-48.

28. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 47-48.

29. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 88-97.

30. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 79.

31. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 20.

32. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 49.

33. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 32-33.

34. Heinrich Heine, Les Dieux en exil, 35.

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