Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

VI. The Theology of Demonization

Having arrived with Picasso’s primitivism squarely in early twentieth century cultural radicalism, I turn to the resurgence of the demonic in the period’s theology, specifically in the early work of Paul Tillich. Although Tillich is somewhat forgotten today or, at best, seen as a relic of mid-century pluralism, his early work situated itself at the center of the cultural and political maelstroms of the period. In fact, Tillich’s early work provides something of a missing link among their whirling currents. Above all, for my purposes here, the early Tillich is important for his explicit association of the theological “demonic” with the cultural modernist “primitive.”

Indeed, much of Tillich’s early work can be read as a struggle with the theological challenge of the demonic, inscribing its reality at the deepest metaphysical level and elevating reflection on its ambivalence to the highest stature. Tillich describes the demonic, by turns, as a cataclysmically destabilizing “eruption”; as associated, perhaps identical, with the ultimate source of creativity; and as explaining the monstrous absolutization of finite forms – a set of portrayals that should suffice to mark Tillich as the theologian of cultural modernism. The multiplicity of roles of the demonic is captured in his delicious definition of it as the “form-destroying eruption of the creative abyss of things,” a phrase that needs to be read and re-read for its paradoxicality to be fully appreciated.42 A full understanding of the connection between these roles, however, requires a brief metaphysical excursus.

“In the depths of the divine, there is both a divine and a demonic.”43 Tillich portrays the primordial, dangerous intimacy between these opposites in complex and not always compatible ways, sometimes as a relationship between two forces, sometimes, and, in my view, more profoundly, as different configurations of the latently divergent features of a primordially undifferentiated “divine demonic in the ground of being.”44 Much of Tillich’s effort is to describe the process whereby the demonic becomes dissociated from that primordial state and appears as an autonomous Other to the divine, the process of demonization.

Tillich roots the metaphysics of demonization in a paradox about ultimate reality, situated at both the ontological and experiential levels. On the one hand, ultimate reality is the “Unconditioned” and can never be “reduced to form.” It is a vital force that “bursts form open,” and is thus “perceptible in the ecstatic, the overwhelming, and the dreadful.”45 No particular being, whether a creature, a word, or an institution, can fully express it. Particulars can only be “symbols” that “point” to the Unconditioned, or, in their best form, be that “through which” the “divine appears.”46 On the other hand, the Unconditioned gives rise to form and is itself “never formless.” It is thus both that which makes creation possible and which transcends all particular creatures. Religious experience, in which the “unconditional element” becomes a matter of “ultimate concern,” can thus only occur when the divine “appears in a concrete embodiment.”47

Consequently, mistaking a “concrete embodiment” for the “Unconditioned” – and, conversely, misperceiving the two as distinct – cannot be described as mere errors, but rather, as possibilities inscribed in the basic conditions of both human experience and divine ontology.

The possibility of the demonic is based on: first, that the sacred is at the same time the absolute support and the absolute demand, that it is depth and form, abyss [Abgrund] and ground [Grund]; and, second, that in the creature, these elements may separate. 48

While “living form” results from “the conjoined effect” of the two dimensions of “depth and form,” or “abyss and ground,” the demonic, by contrast, results from their dissociation – or their perverse combination. And when demonization occurs, danger lies at both poles: disintegrating disruption, on the one hand, monstrous reification, on the other.

Thus, at one extreme, the demonic emerges from the “isolation and formless eruption of the abyss,” the “form-destroying eruption of the creative basis of things.”49 Such an “eruption” can yield disharmonious, frightening, creations. For the Tillich of the 1920s, still the high era of the febrile fears and fantasies of modernist primitivism, a key example was the “art of primitive peoples and Asiatics,” which “disrupt[s] the organic form … violate[s] radically the organic coherence presented in nature … mocks all natural proportion.”50 In this art, the “organs of the will for power, such as hands, feet, teeth, eyes, and the organs of procreation, such as breasts, thighs, sex organs, are given a strength of expression which can mount to wild cruelty and orgiastic ecstasy.”51

Tillich’s obviously riveted, yet anxious, apprehension of the sexuality and power of this “demonic” is accompanied by a parallel ambivalence about the “primitive” within – for this art expresses “depths of reality which had, to be sure, escaped our consciousness, but in subconscious strata had never ceased to determine our existence,” depths also revealed by the “new psychology of the subconscious.”52 He later described the radical artistic movements most inflected by various forms of primitivism, such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, as similarly impelled by the desire to “look into the depths of reality, below any surface and any beautification of the surface and any organic unity,” to “see the elements of reality as fundamental powers of being out of which reality is constructed.” Due to the intimacy of the divine and the demonic, it is not surprising that this drive that Tillich earlier described as “demonic,” he later described as the “religious” dimension of such art.53 And whether “demonic” or “religious,” its overwhelming vitality is associated by the modernist European with the fears and fantasies evoked by the racialized and sexualized geography of the colonized world, as well as by the subterranean topography of the Other Side of the soul, then newly being explored by psychoanalysis, two of the regions of the desired “dark nether-world” evoked by Heine. In short, the demonic is situated in both the most intimate depths of the Self and the furthest reaches of the Other – destabilizing each term and its distinction from the other.

42. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic: A Contribution to the Interpretation of History’, (trans.) Elsa L. Tamley, in The Interpretation of History (New York: Scribner, 1936), 85.

43. Paul Tillich, ‘Philosophical Background of My Theology’, in Philosophical Writings (Berlin: De Gruyter 1989), 415.

44. Paul Tillich, ‘Philosophical Background of My Theology’, 415.

45. Paul Tillich, ‘Basic Principles of Religious Socialism’ (trans.) James L. Adams and Victor Nuovo, in Political Expectation (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 67.

46. Paul Tillich, ‘The Formative Power of Protestantism’ (trans.) James Luther Adams, in The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago,1948), 212.

47. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University, 1964), 28.

48. Paul Tillich, ‘Der Begriff des Dämonischen und seine Bedeutung für die systematische Theologie’, in Gesammelte Werke (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1970), VIII: 286. This somewhat free translation, which I have slightly modified, is taken from James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science and Religion (New York: Schocken, 1970), 230. I thank Kevin Goldberg for help with this passage.

49. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 85.

50. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 77-78.

51. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 78.

52. Paul Tillich, ‘The Demonic’, 77.

53. Paul Tillich, ‘Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art’, in Carl Michalson (ed.) Christianity and the Existentialists (New York: Scribner, 1956), 137.

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