Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

It was, of course, precisely the flattening of human experience wrought by this kind of profanization that had led avant-garde Western artists to long for the raw, dangerous energies they saw in their racialized, ethnicized, and sexualized “primitives” – or, to put it another way, to desire that which they demonized. And it is precisely this kind of profanization that modernist-era theologians like Tillich most disdained in the “de-demonized” liberal theology of the late 19th century. It is what led Tillich, like so many other modernists, to be fascinated by the cosmic depths of the “primitive” – whether in the art of the cultural Other or in that internal otherness explored by psychoanalysis – even while remaining fearful of it: an ambivalence well-evoked in the phrase, “divine demonic.”

In relation to political debate, profanization is the ideology of those who purport to engage in rational, pragmatic discussion, freed of the excessive passions of demonizers and perhaps even of demonizers-of-demonizers. This utopia of reasonable speakers, achieved through “de-demonization,” however, is hard to differentiate from that governed by the absolutized “monarch” of discourse, despite its stress on impersonal protocols of reasonable discourse. But it achieves its homogenizations in the same way – by banishment and stigmatization of irrational speakers, those first cast as demonizers and then demonized as such. It would not take much Freudian imagination to predict the inevitable return of the discursive repressed, the regression by would-be profanizers of political debate to forms of irrationality their de-demonizing élan purported to banish. As an American, I need look no further than the demonic rationality of the secular pragmatists who waged war on Vietnam, whose destructive fury, which proceeded from impeccably profane principles, knew almost no bounds.

In many ways, Tillich marks a culminating point in our journey to the Other Side. First, his portrayal of the demonization of existence — as coming from the same source as the sanctification of existence — fulfills the intuition we have continually come upon, of the deep affinity between I and Other, demon and god, while fiercely rejecting the reduction of the one to the other – for the demonic retains all its terrifying power despite, or even by virtue of, the recognition of this affinity. Second, while demonization is an “eruption,” as it was, in different ways, in Sartre, Picasso, and others, it is also inevitable, because the possibility of the dissociation of abyss and ground is inscribed in the nature of the cosmos. Third, Tillich’s portrayal of profanization illuminates the intimate connection between the surfacing and occlusion of the demonic, on the one hand, and the seemingly absolute, yet ever-collapsing border between the religious and the secular, on the other. The secular may be associated with the critique of the demonic as absolutized finite, as in Tillich’s attack on the “god of monarchial monotheism,” which could be understood as an attack on conventional, established religion – and could also lead to the eruption of the destructive demonic, perhaps in the pre-statist lumpen fascist mob; but it may also be associated with his portrayal of profanization – and the occlusion of the demonic, perhaps in the mediocrity of bourgeois art and politics. Fourth, the palpable terror and desire in the face of the “primitive” that one finds in his portrayals of non-European art inscribe his metaphysics of demonization in contexts of power, expressing both the prevailing relations of domination and the intuition that the tables could soon be turned.

And, finally, Tillich, like Heine, Picasso, and others, illuminates the crucial aesthetic role of demonization. Just as, in cultural modernism, primitivism was deeply linked with the seemingly opposite emphases on radical experimentation with form and technique, so, in Tillich’s theology, the latently demonic “abyss” is associated, perhaps identical, with divine creativity. Tillich’s portrayals of demonization provide the most self-conscious link between the diverse manifestations of the quintessential modernist “alliance,” between innovative creativity and primitivism, enshrining that alliance as the ultimate metaphysical reality – and tracing personal, social, and metaphysical catastrophe to its rupture. Indeed, Tillich may be read as modeling an entire metaphysics on the revitalization of Western cultural creativity in the early twentieth century through modernist primitivism.

Tillich may also be read as modeling an entire vision of true religious experience on the artistic breakthroughs that the boldest modernists achieved by drawing on “form-destroying eruptions.” His very first public lecture, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, portrays the Expressionist use of horror as making visible a “religious content which bursts open form, aspiring to form, this paradox being for most people incomprehensible and scandalous.”58 Tillich thus gives us a sort of theology of the avant-garde, precisely in its most disturbing, “demonic” versions; he celebrates it precisely for its service in the struggle against “de-demonization.” In short: faced with the charge “you’re demonizing!“, I dream of a young Tillich who would respond, “Thank God!”

Yet, I have just gone too far. Tarrying with the demonic in all its alterity cannot be fully embraced if it would not be denatured – either reified into an absolutized finite or, worse, “profanized.” And, sure enough, although I cannot fully develop this here, Tillich’s career moved slowly but surely away from the radical consequences of his early portrayals of demonization – perhaps inevitably given the features of those portrayals, perhaps even more inevitably for a German refugee from Nazism, and even more so for one on his way to a career as mid-century liberal America’s favorite theologian. Although Tillich has been accused of antinomianism by more traditionalist critics, he never, as far as I can determine, embraced the antinomian possibility lurking in his “divine demonic.” Tillich was no Georges Bataille.

Nonetheless, one consequence of Tillich’s metaphysics of the “demonic divine” is a “politics of risk” in which it is hard a priori to distinguish the demonic from its sacred other.59 This was a common problem faced by a number of the boldest thinkers of the early twentieth century, those who were most engaged by what Tillich called the relationship between “depth and form, abyss and ground.” This problem was particularly disturbing in the age of fascism – posing a challenge to which some responded in the most heroic ways, but others in the most horrifying ways, by embracing reified evil, and still others in disappointing ways, by embracing the bourgeois norms which they had begun life combating. In any case, the word “risk” appears again and again in Tillich’s political writings and may account for his later affinity for existentialism. It is the risk of engaging otherness and difference in the strong form of the twin drives to cherish demonization and to combat it, desiring its seductive power (like, for example, Heine) and dreading its terrors (like, for example, the Expressionists).

Tillich, like others who emerged from the crucible of avant-garde modernism, might well identify demonization, as well as the demonization-of-demonization, as the lifeblood of political engagement. The sense of alterity as irreducible, embodying a force that may well be hostile to existing form, may be the first, if dangerous step to recognizing the true stakes in any political struggle – even, or perhaps especially, when one recognizes that form-destroying force is also that which gives life to existing forms and may well be the reservoir of vitality from which new forms can be created.

Whether this stance, a sort of tragic existentialism, has retained its power in our time is for each person to decide, but if I’ve succeeded in reviving critical thinking about demonization, then that would be enough for this essay – and let the Devil take the hindmost.


Nathaniel Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor in Brown University’s Religious Studies Department. 


Published on February 21, 2016

58. Paul Tillich, ‘Sur l’idée d’une théologie de la culture’ (trans.) Nicole Grondin, in Tillich, La Dimension religieuse de la culture (Paris : Editions du Cerf, 1990).

59. See Louis C. Midgley, ‘Ultimate Concern and Politics: A Critical Examination of Paul Tillich’s Political Theology’, Western Political Quarterly, 20:1 (1967), 41-48.

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