Altizer: “America and the Death of God”

Thomas Altizer asked that I pass this along on here.

“America and the Death of God”

by Thomas J. J. Altizer

Our most revolutionary prophet, William Blake, in his first prophetic poem, America (1793), enacted the American Revolution as the initial realization of the death of God, the deity here named as Urizon, the preincarnate and alien God, whose death initiates apocalypse. This is the God whom Hegel named as Abstract Spirit and the “Bad Infinite,” a God not realized until the advent of the modern world, and who is the consequence of an absolute self-negation or self-emptying of the Godhead. Both Blake and Hegel enact the death of God, indeed Hegel and Blake are the first enactors of the death of God, a death that for each is an absolute self-negation or self-emptying, a self-negation that is the absolute source of all and everything. Hence the death of God is both genesis and apocalypse, or absolute beginning and absolute ending, the absolute beginning of all and everything, and the absolute consummation of everything. That consummation itself proceeds out of an original self-negation or self-emptying, one negating or emptying an original absolutely undifferentiated Godhead, and only this self-negation makes possible either apocalypse or the world itself.  Hegel is our most profoundly apocalyptic thinker, while Blake is our most totally apocalyptic visionary, each recover and renew a long lost apocalyptic ground, a ground that is the original ground of Christianity, one that is wholly transformed in the great body of Christianity, and only recovered in revolutionary movements, which are the most revolutionary movements in our history.

Both Blake and Hegel are profoundly Christian, but they are radical Christians, even atheistic Christians, who absolutely negate the given God, or who deeply and comprehensively realize that this God has absolutely negated itself, a self-negation that inaugurates the modern world. Each could know the French Revolution as the historical realization of the death of God, but Blake, at least in America, could know the American Revolution not only as the initial realization of the death of God, but as the inaugurator of absolute revolution. This is the deepest calling of America, one known to every deeply American seer, and actualized in that America which is the first secular nation, the first not only to separate Church and State, but to create a public realm that is a truly secular realm. This inspired an assault upon America by many European Christians, but Europeans have never been able to understand America, and the question can be genuinely asked if America has ever understood itself.

America, with the possible exception of Indonesia,  is the most pluralistic nation in the world, the one with the largest number of diverse minorities, and whose original aristocracy was the first aristocracy to be wholly transformed, and now only pale traces of it remain. Of course, America is the most Capitalistic nation, now serving as a model for a once revolutionary China, but American Capitalism is now inseparable from American Militarism, and if American military power now transcends world military power, this power is having an immense impact upon America, where no political leader dares resist it. Once it was common to look upon America as the new Rome, and while the American empire is not as powerful as was the Roman empire, the impact of America upon the world is possibly as great as was Rome’s, and not only in the pragmatic arena, but in a new and wholly new mass popular culture. America is the creator of that culture, and here one can see an all too concrete realization of the death of God, as depth itself is ended, or is now indistinguishable from surface, and just as American folk music and folk art are now disappearing, that is occurring throughout the world.

Innumerable thinkers have attempted to contend with the advent of a new mass culture and mass society, one that dawns in America and is rapidly extended throughout the world, and if only here America dominates the world. But is that culture inseparable from a vast economic and military power, so that the American empire is a truly new empire, as is fully manifest in the perspective of the Roman Empire, for Roman military power was a purely naked power, whereas American military power is disguised by its conjunction with our mass culture, and inevitably wholly disguised in the mass media. So in a fundamental sense American military power is invisible, but all the more powerful just because of that, for thereby it does not provoke ultimate resistance, and this despite the vast sums that are spent upon it, as a military totality has been created even in the absence of a military power or powers that could possibly contest it. Now this is very much like ancient Rome, and if that Rome had resisted imperialistic ventures it could possibly have survived, but can a genuine empire resist imperialism, which is certainly a primary question being asked of America today.

There is also a parallel between Rome and America in the religious arena, imperial Rome was the site of a large number of dynamic religious bodies including Christianity, just as America is the site of such bodies, and in Rome these bodies underwent enormous transformations, and most of all Christianity itself, undergoing a total transformation unparalled by any other religion in the world. Now Catholicism truly becomes Roman Catholicism, but is a comparable transformation occurring in our world, and could this be occurring in the context of the death of an old religion, as occurred in ancient Rome? Surely the death of God in the modern world is comparable to the twilight of the gods in the ancient world, Wagner realized this profoundly, but if America is the original site of the death of God, could that be essential to American destiny, even if that is now most hidden in that destiny? America is perhaps the most religious nation in the industrial world, but we know all too little about this, for whereas deep and comprehensive studies occur of the American economy, there is very little study of contemporary religious life, and no in depth studies of it at all, it is as though an absolute prohibition of inquiry has been enforced here.

American literature is perhaps the arena in which such an inquiry could now most decisively occur, and it is vitally important to attend to what is most unique here, what is vitally and most distinctively American. Moby Dick is an apt site for such an investigation, for it is our most American epic, and also the first mythical novel, a truly fundamental breakthrough, and if the White Whale is the most powerful figure in American literature, it is truly a horror religiosus, and one profoundly enacting the death of God. Moby Dick is truly a Urizen in the American world, and a Urizen perhaps here undergoing an ultimate and final death, but is that really possible in the context of this novel, or in the context of America itself? Now if Moby Dick truly is the American epic, is this an epic revolving about the death of God, a death of God that Blake could enact as the origin of America, and one dominating American literature as it does no other literature? It is surely paradoxical that such a seemingly conservative nation as America could produce such a radical literature, and this is true of its greatest literature, as is true of no other nation.

Eugene O’Neill is commonly accepted as the greatest American dramatist, and his major plays are enactments of the death of God in numerous arenas, plays that can be understood as our most nihilistic dramas, and yet they are deeply and even uniquely American. O’Neill is genuinely a revolutionary dramatist, perhaps the most revolutionary of all dramatists apart from Shakespeare, yet he is a Catholic dramatist, but only as a radical Catholic, and a radical Catholic opening himself to our underworld, creating an American inferno comprehending Here Comes Everybody, as most purely occurring in The Iceman Cometh. But this play can finally be understood as a purgatory rather than an inferno, even if a nihilistic purgatory, which is perhaps the only purgatory which could be real in a genuinely American world. Certainly O’Neill is deeply American, and a European intending to study America, could do no better than to study O’Neill. But is O’Neill truly representative of American literature as a whole, or of a deeper American literature?

Insofar as we accept Moby Dick as the American epic, we can become open to a distinctively American wildness or wilderness, a wilderness that deeply shaped America, giving it a uniquely American identity, an identity that is continually renewed in American literature. So it is that the fiction of Henry James, perhaps the most sophisticated of all fiction, could be understood as a sublimation of an American wilderness, but one only possible by way of that wilderness. James Baldwin, another sophisticated American novelist, once declared that the Gothic cathedrals are not part of his past, and this could be said by virtually any American, for America is truly a desert insofar as it is so isolated from the actualities of history. So it is that American Gothic is a truly ironic American architecture, one wholly artificial and false as a Gothic architecture, but one despite this fully pragmatic, and thus fully functional. Accordingly, Heidegger could reach the judgment, in the conclusion of Introduction to Metaphysics, that America and Soviet Russia are metaphysically identical, for here time as history as vanished from human life.

Nothing is more revealing about America than a distinctively American religion, and if America is the most religious of all industrial nations, its religious life is more diverse than that of any other nation, for if only because of the immense emigration to America, virtually every religion in the world has found a home in America. Not only did America initiate the separation of  Church and State, it inaugurated the first truly secular culture, and only in America has religion existed in an integral relation with secular culture, thus leading not only to deep conflict, but to a deep religious absorption of secular culture, or a distinctly American idolatry. Such an idolatry can be observed in that mass advertising created by America, one in which wholly empty and vacuous images create a totally empty language, but one truly effective in that very emptiness, one creating empty but all consuming desire. There is something deeply American in mass advertising, a peculiarly American pragmatic power, one either truly demonic or wholly amoral, and one that could only occur in a deeply anonymous world, a nameless world which itself is peculiarly American.

Jazz is commonly judged to be the most distinctively American art, and jazz has a deeply religious origin in spirituals and the blues, blues that are truly unique to America, one conjoining the impact of slavery and oppression. Nonetheless there is a deep joy in the blues, one deeply realized in jazz, and openly embodied in the great blues and jazz singers, singers who have had a universal impact, and a universal liberating impact. But this is a very strange liberation, one seemingly suppressing or dissolving all possibility of rebellion and revolt, as though jazz is the source of a true passivity, but one nevertheless inseparable from a genuine joy. While America claims to be an ultimate source of freedom, it has been more deeply scarred by slavery than any other nation, thereby incurring a peculiarly American guilt, and one as deep as anything else in the American soul. Is there a distinctively American atonement or purgation for this guilt, one deeply occurring in American literature, as perhaps most manifestly realized in the major novels of Faulkner, that deep son of the state most embroiled in slavery, and yet a state that produced more major literature than any other state?

Jazz itself can be thought of as a primal source of atonement, an atonement realized through the violence of jazz, a violence assuaging itself in its own actualization, as its assault upon us induces a deep calm, but a calm inseparable from assault. A pure expression of this is “The West End Blues” of Louis Armstrong, one creating a truly new sound, assaulting all that is simply given as jazz, and transfiguring it into a new ecstasy, a pure ecstasy consuming its hearer, but doing so only by effecting an actual purgation, and an actual purgation that can be understood as an atonement, and an actual atonement releasing us into a new life. Jazz is inseparable from festival, a festival that is inevitably a sacred festival, as are all the high moments of jazz, but thereby and therein these are atoning moments, moments impossible apart from an actual purgation. At this crucial point we can only speak of atonement itself, an atonement resisting all real theological understanding, yet an atonement that has given us perhaps our greatest art, and if only here painting and music are in full harmony with each other, a harmony that is echoed in jazz.

If we associate jazz with the death of God, and do so because jazz is so deeply American, then the death of God can be understood as realizing an ultimate joy, one that Nietzsche himself profoundly proclaimed, and did so while himself in a wholly broken condition. For the joy released by the death of God is wholly independent of the condition of its recipient, or can only be correlated with a broken condition, that very condition that Nietzsche associated with a slave morality, a morality only possible by way of the reversal of a noble morality. Is jazz only possible through a reversal of a noble morality, does its very advent depend upon an ultimate assault upon the high and the exalted, one shattering all sanctioned authority and status? Many conservatives associate such an assault with a new America, an America transcending an established law and order, and inaugurating the first anarchistic nation. While such an America cannot be discovered in a common or established America, it is present in a radical America, as manifest in much of the literature of America, and even in its more radical religious bodies.

This is the America that called Blake and many other radical Europeans, but an America that can only be recovered through rigorous historical study, or by an imaginative or religious rebirth, for this is an America that has become hidden from view, and truly silent apart from its underground expressions. Now that America is the most powerful nation in the world, it is thereby the most established of all nations, and the one most sanctioning all established authority and power, a sanctioning inevitably occurring through its own power, but an overwhelming power inevitably inducing rebellions against itself. Are such rebellions now occurring in America, and even occurring through a distinctively American realization of the death of God? Few have given attention to the question of a peculiarly American realization of the death of God, and perhaps the deepest inquiry into this question is in H.L. Mencken’s great book on the American language, wherein he demonstrates an absence in that language of a virtually universal linguistic and hierarchical distinction between high and low, a hierarchy wholly alien to the American language, and perhaps finally alien to a deeper America.

Certainly the death of God, or an actual death of God, dissolves or destroys all such hierarchy, and even if few Americans are aware of this, genuine conservatives know it all too well, and if modern conservatism was founded by Burke’s response to the French Revolution, modern conservatism is a deep reaction against a revolutionary Terror destroying all established law and order, a Terror that is an enactment of the death of God, as proclaimed on the banners of the revolutionary armies. Once the deepest political controversy in America was over the French Revolution, one giving birth to a distinctly American conservatism, and even if this has now been forgotten in America, American conservatism remains deeply bound to all established law and order, and precisely thereby is the most powerful opponent of all revolution. Little is more ironical in world history than the American Revolution, a revolution that many could identify as the very advent of freedom, but a revolution that many can now know as ending all possibility of revolution, and doing so with an apocalyptic finality.

Already the young Blake in America gave us an apocalyptic vision of the American Revolution, a Blake who was himself inspired by American revolutionaries, and even if that is inconceivable today, we can thereby understand how an ultimate reversal of America has indeed occurred. The visionary Blake actually envisioned how such an absolute reversal occurred in Christianity, one finally transforming the sovereignty of the Christian God into a Satanic sovereignty, as most decisively occurring in his illustrations to the Book of Job, but as most fully occurring in his penultimate epic, Milton. Thus that radical Milton who first fully envisioned Satan is truly reborn in Blake, and most reborn in Blake’s Milton, an epic giving us our purest vision of Satan, a Satan who is an absolute and universal negativity. Yet that negativity undergoes its own reversal in what Blake envisioned as “The Self-Annihilation of God,” a self-annihilation fully paralleling an Hegelian self-negation or self-emptying of God. And if this is an absolute atonement for both Blake and Hegel, it is an atonement that is a revolutionary atonement, and one absolutely transfiguring everything whatsoever.

Has America been given the promise of enacting such a revolutionary atonement, and could this occur through its very embodiment of the death of God, an embodiment already negatively or inversely enacted in Moby Dick? Is it really so very odd so to associate America and the death of God, and if we approach this question through a Blakean and Hegelian perspective, does that not give America an ultimate identity which otherwise is inexplicable? Of course, many would oppose all ultimate identity, and think it most ludicrous to give America an ultimate identity, that very America which is now a new Rome. But is not a new Rome an ultimate identity, and even an apocalyptic identity, it would surely be in continuity with the Book of Revelation, a book profoundly naming an old Rome, and a book perhaps harboring an apocalyptic naming of America? When one reflects upon the role that America has played in realizing a contemporary world of universal economic exploitation and a universal mass society and culture, it would not be odd to give America such a purely demonic identity.

Yet apocalyptically a demonic identity is inseparable from a salvific identity, the kingdom of darkness is inseparable from the kingdom of light, and absolute darkness only fully dawns in the wake of the advent of absolute light. Thus if America has a genuinely demonic apocalyptic identity that identity is inseparable from its very opposite, and if Blake is our most revolutionary apocalyptic visionary, at no point is that vision more fully manifest than in his vision of Satan. For in giving us our fullest vision of Satan, that very vision enacts the absolute necessity of Satan, and the absolute necessity of Satan for an absolute apocalypse. Even if he couldn’t fully face it, Nietzsche knew the absolute necessity of evil, a necessity for realizing an actual Eternal Recurrence, a necessity apart from which Eternal Recurrence could only be eternal return. Eternal Recurrence can be known as our purest vision of apocalypse, and Nietzsche is a purely apocalyptic thinker, at which point he is in genuine continuity with the apocalyptic Hegel. In both Nietzsche and Hegel, those thinkers who most profoundly enact the death of God,  there is an ultimate renewal of Joachism, that Joachism which is the deepest and most influential of all medieval heterodoxies, and above all so in its witness to the actual advent of the final Age of the Spirit.

Can America truly be dissociated from such an advent? Surely its own visionaries have known it, as concretely manifest in the most American of all new religious movements, Mormonism and Christian Science, both of which enact an Age of the Spirit, even if in all too limited and narrow modes  So, too, Christian apocalyptic sects are apparently most powerful in America, and Christian apocalyptic visionaries appear again and again in America, and do so ever attracting new followers, for America more than any other nation is overwhelmed by Christian sects, and this is true even while American Catholic and Orthodox bodies are more vital than they are in any old world. Nothing so baffles the European as does the vitality of American religion, but if this very vitality can be associated with the death of God, then it can become understandable, and perhaps understandable even to the European, and as European theologians have noted, when God is dead, religion is everywhere. Certainly many Europeans are horrified by the demonic power of America, and if only as a demonic power American can be known as embodying the death of God, a death of God that may well be more universal in America than anywhere else, even if thereby most deeply disguised.

Let us return to the symbolic figure of Moby Dick, who can be understood as the deepest symbol of America, and here an America who actually kills God, even if that murder is at bottom a suicide, and a suicide that can be understood as either the death or the self-annihilation of God. Moby Dick is a truly prophetic book, and one envisioning not only a future but a present actuality, an actuality occurring in a deeper America, and one inseparable from everything that is genuinely American. Just as an absolute horror is actual here, a horror that is a horror religiosus, this is a horror that cannot be disjoined from a deeper America, nor disjoined from a deeper American destiny, a destiny called forth in the deepest American vision. A comparable horror is enacted in the dramas of O’Neil, whose greatest plays are our most horrible dramas, and just as these are commonly and critically accepted as our most American dramas,  they inevitably embody a uniquely American destiny, which is everything but the manifest destiny of the nineteenth century.

While there are those who think that tragedy is alien to America, the opposite would appear to be true in American literature itself, a literature astutely ignored by the populizers of America, for whom America is a pure innocence. Let us recall that the American Civil War was the first totally horrible war in history, and a war producing an all pervasive horror of war, one deeply and comprehensively transforming America. The horror of that war can be known as being renewed in the First Word War, a war initiating America as a truly world power, but a power soon destined to be engaged in futile and self-destructive wars. Subsequent to the Second World War, American wars have been truly ironic, their victories inevitably become defeats, just as while realizing the greatest military power in history, this power itself is inseparable from a deep American impotence which no one can understand. Why not employ the symbol of the death of God to explicate this condition? Cannot contemporary American power be likened to the dead or dying body of God which destroys everything in its wake?

Yes, the symbol of the death of God is our best symbol for explicating America, an America that is inevitably a tragic nation, and even is so in its very innocence, an innocence which is inevitably an innocence lost. Nowhere can this be observed more decisively than in American literature, perhaps the most confessional literature in the world, and one embodying more horror than any other literature. While American critics may be blind to this, European critics are not, and while we may be astounded that a Baudelaire could take American literature so seriously, Baudelaire knew the death of God more profoundly than any American.  Americans do know the death of God, as truly manifest in American literature, but they deeply veiled this from themselves until only recently, when the death of God exploded in America, even if this explosion was soon dissipated. That explosion was a fulfillment of a long American gestation, one occurring in American philosophy as well as in American literature, and even occurring in American historiography and sociology which are truly radical American ventures.

It is remarkable how America has so fully hidden its revolutionary identity from itself, while so commonly proclaiming a Utopian identity for itself, a Utopian identity that is the very opposite of a revolutionary identity, one wholly disguising American from itself. Yet an originally revolutionary America has become the most reactionary of all contemporary nations, and this is the context in which it can be liberating to understand America as an embodiment of the death of God, thereby identifying America as a revolutionary rather than a reactionary power. While the death of God can release profound and deadly reaction, as so deeply understood by Dostoyevsky, it also can be profoundly liberating, a liberation ultimately enacted by Nietzsche, and by Hegel, too. And if it is Hegel and Nietzsche who most profoundly understand a uniquely Western destiny, that destiny cannot be divorced from the death of God, and from the death of God as an ultimate and apocalyptic event.

While we commonly think of modernity as fully dawning in the seventeenth century, and doing so through genuine political, social, economic, literary, philosophical and scientific revolutions, it is actually not until the nineteenth century that there is a full awareness and embodiment of the actuality of these revolutions, and only then is there an absolute break between an old world and a new world. Thus an actual language of the death of God is now released for the first time, and only now is the death of God either poetically or philosophically enacted, as occurs in the revolutionary work of Blake and Hegel. This is just the point at which Blake and Hegel are most openly revolutionary, for they are the first actually to speak or write of the death of God, which each understands as the advent of an absolute transformation, and a transformation transforming everything whatsoever.

America can be understood as the primal site of that transformation, or the primal public site, and if only for this reason American must be deeply disguised from itself, and wear the mask of a simple innocence. How appropriate that the ultimately revolutionary Blake should choose America as the point at which to inaugurate his own prophetic poetry and designs, thereby truly reversing the public image of America, and even calling forth the American Revolution as the ending of monarchic empire. Blake never returns to this image of America, and if no American prophet even approaches the revolutionary power of Blake, an ultimate disguise may well be necessary for a uniquely American destiny, and that destiny is clearly a universal destiny, as actually enacted in the uniquely American philosophy of Pragmatism. Here is a thinking that is truly American and truly universal at once, and if this is paralleled in a uniquely American drama, that is a drama centered in the death of God more than any other drama apart from Brecht and Beckett.

Can a contemporary America realize a uniquely American destiny? This is even now occurring if we identify that destiny with a truly anonymous and empty body, a body of no return because it has already wholly arrived, and a body that American prophets have enacted as a Great Sleep. While American destiny, as Henry Miller envisioned it, may well be an air-conditioned nightmare, that could be a realization of world destiny, and itself an apocalyptic enactment of the death of God. Is it, then, impossible to dissociate America and the death of God? Is it only America that can be envisioned as totally enacting the death of God, and is that truly America’s destiny, and America’s unique destiny? Dare we say Yes to this? Or is it possible to say No, and to say No with an actual and genuine conviction?

4 thoughts on “Altizer: “America and the Death of God”

  1. I am working my way through the Nielsen/Phillips contretemps in WITTGENSTEINIAN FIDEISM? I am about one-third of the way through. So far, and I have skimmed some portions, I have encountered no death of God references. Phillips denies Wittgensteinian fideism is a legitimate conception. Nielsen admits Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion, if it exists, is the biggest challenge he might face. Neither Altizer nor death of God is cited in the “Index.” I am hoping to find a better understanding of the legitimate distinction between philosophy and religion. Altizer gives me hope that it is hiding, but that seems unlikely in a struggle between God and Satan.

  2. Altizer’s misreading of jazz is astonishing here, though I wonder if this is not a creative misreading. Though jazz has undergone important transformations, the soul of jazz remains the enactment of improvisation–that ‘in the moment’ creation of idiomatic musical sound. Improvisation is liturgical and dramatic, and purgation is indeed one of its effects. If we allow Altizer his machinery, then the shift from O’Neill’s radical Catholicism to jazz visits the Mass upon the extemporaneous creation of music, along with the catharsis of terror and pity. Altizer is no stranger to kenosis, yet he misses the self-emptying of the jazz musician into the musical line that is the sine qua non of this art form. This self-annihilation of the artist should play right into Altizer’s hands, but he inexplicably avoids engagement.

    The purgatory, this genuine American purgatory in the enactment of jazz is indeed properly understood as ‘joy,’ the joy of music as it sanctifies time and space, at least the time and space where it is enacted, where it is performed and witnessed. It is less than clear how, regardless of how American jazz is, the death of God plays out in this music of kenosis and regeneration. Still, Altizer’s misreading is cryptically creative, as he is using jazz to cut a gap into American culture where he can locate an authentic American destiny. It is from the ‘new sound’ of jazz that America extemporizes its song of regenerating destiny, atonement with itself and its embrace of the corpus of God that lays on it, a warm blanket spread out like a patient etherized upon a table.

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