I find it very odd to be reading about hell in the news, in a story surrounding Donald Tusk of the EU saying: “I’ve been wondering what a special place in hell looks like for people who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely”. It has been rattling around the newspapers and social media sites on the internet, and has caused quite a sensation – in a world we would have thought had no interest in religious notions thought to have disappeared from modernity. The quote seems quite reasonable when faced with a political situation in the UK that is trying to make itself seem irrational and almost insane. The biblical and mythological notion of hell, Hades, Shoah, any number of names, still means something to our contemporaries, whether it be the traditional religious imagery of fires and torture chambers – or the idea of a person so closed in on himself that he becomes his own hell.
It does look as if our political figures are writhing around in agony, clutching at straws and fraught with delusions. Some journalists are astute enough to see the mal du siècle, not as a problem of the Irish backstop or other obstacles to the great new future of flying unicorns (another popular image from mythology) as something existential at the level of a nation or the current state of disillusionment in the western world. At less than two months from the date of Brexit (29th March), we all experience a feeling of anxiety, dread and revulsion. These feelings are multiplied by the prospects of a catastrophe falling on the UK, something akin to what happens in the event of a declaration of war like in September 1939. There is no need to list them here.
It is another element attesting the relevance of Romanticism in this early twenty-first century like two hundred years ago. We live in an era of Angst, of dread and unrelieved revulsion as the clock ticks and we await the prison Governor, the chaplain and the hangman. One supreme expression of this dread is the Dies irae in the Catholic Mass for the Dead. We fear the unknown, be it a future disembodied life that we can’t imagine or utter annihilation and disfigurement. I find it ironic that the flagship newspaper of “leavers” in the UK, the Daily Express, constantly refers to prophecies, conspiracy theories and everything that flies in the face of modern rationalism.
This theme of dread was as present in the age of Romanticism as when medieval friars and monks sang the newly composed Dies irae. We find it in the legend of Frankenstein as in Byron’s Darkness. The history of Christianity is profoundly marked by its alternation between eschatology and the Church by Law Established in Christendom. The UK has not lived in a state of dread since World War II and moments during the Cold War era. As a small boy in the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had nightmares about atomic bombs and all the dreadful ideas that filtered to me as my parents listened to the radio and watched television. Apart from that, our life in western Europe and the UK has been calm and routine. If something has been dreaded, the endgame never played out. Nothing was ever resolved.
Dread is not simply fear, but looking forward with anxiety, almost relishing the moment of resolution as when a condemned criminal faces execution. The famous novel of Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, has left a lasting impression on me. Dread sometimes goes in a pair with the nihilistic lust for annihilation. This novel intertwines a number of themes, fear and fanaticism among others like lust for the flesh, knowledge or even death. Lust and addiction become subjects of fanaticism, and people take themselves too seriously. When we go down that road, we live in fear and dread of something that will overturn our certitudes. Eco introduced humour and satire as the antidote to such fanaticism. The book by Aristotle had to be kept hidden because it gave legitimacy to humour.
Dread is our state of fear when we think about the future. Another element in this future is inevitability. We are up against something much stronger than ourselves, invincible and all-powerful. This is the case with death, but also with other events of our lives. It is interesting to note that much of the Christian tradition of asceticism has been dread-based. The Dies irae is an example, as are many texts from the middle-ages like sermons, books of devotion, allegorical poems and others. Dread is an emotion that can be easily used to control people through obedience. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as we read in the Psalms.
Søren Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest (1844) translated as The Concept of Anxiety or The Concept of Dread is a masterpiece on this subject. We find fear distinguished from anxiety because fear has a defined object, like being on the edge of a cliff or a tall building. On the other hand, dread or anxiety comes into play when we are responsible for our future through free will. Fear becomes dread when the person feels an impulse to throw himself off the cliff: it is an act of the free will. This fact of being able to choose causes us to dread. This is one of the greatest paradoxes of freedom. Kierkegaard had a most interesting theory of original sin in that Adam’s choice came from free choice. He would have suffered anxiety from this freedom and God’s commandment that he should not eat from the tree. Anxiety preceded the sin. The same anxiety is also a way to salvation, and becomes a signal of our freedom, self-awareness and responsibility. Only through experiencing anxiety do we become aware of our potential and true identity. Kierkegaard seems to have well understood the meaning of this emotion from the middle-ages to the Romantic era in philosophy, literature and theology. The meaning of dread began to be banalised in the nineteenth century in popular literature and entertainment. Our present use of the word dreadful is synonymous with very bad or serious, with terrible, frightful, horrible, grim, awful, dire, etc. For example, “Come quickly, because X has had a dreadful accident“. It reminds me of the way some people, especially Americans, use the word awesome in a meaning other than awe-inspiring.
It seems to be more or less in the Romantic period that this word was in transition. Anxiety is nowadays usually the word given to describe a medical condition akin to depression. It is something I often feel without any rational basis. Certainly this consideration of freedom or choice is one of many keys to understanding this emotion and its basis in the sub-consciousness. Anxiety is one of the symptoms of Aspergers / autism (no, I am not “self-diagnosed”) and it can be quite debilitating at times. Doctors talk of panic attacks, and they can be completely baseless in terms of the normal reaction to a situation of danger. Pills from a doctor can help when it gets really bad! Thus anxiety is both a normal reaction to danger and something abnormal arising from some pathology.
I have read in some of the Facebook groups set up to help UK citizens living in Europe that some suffer from extreme anxiety because of the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and they don’t have all the paperwork needed to obtain settled status. It is not always easy to help, because many of the worries are unjustified or irrational. Nevertheless, the British Government is responsible for widespread human suffering, not to mention the effect on business and civil order, tolerance for foreigners and the general sliding of popular values into some kind of “acquired psychopathy” or ponerisation. These will certainly be considerations in a future court of law when our rogue politicians are brought to justice.
Finally, to get our own dread and Angst into perspective, there is a new Guardian article, A no-deal Brexit won’t result in a siege. The EU will be more clinical than that by Tom Kibasi. What this article basically says is that if a no-deal Brexit occurs, the consequences will not be dramatic as we currently imagine. First of all, the stories of chlorinated chicken and the health system going “American”, among others, are coming from the Government. It is a crude propaganda trick to force through a botched deal or even to call off Brexit altogether whilst controlling damage to political institutions. We members of the general public are the last to know about anything, and no one is going to tell us anything secret!
According to this article, dystopia just isn’t going to happen. Our anxiety is wrongly placed. If no-deal Brexit goes through, we might not even notice anything in the short term. I would be totally unjustified in fearing that I would not get to my Church’s Diocesan Synod because of the roads being gridlocked or ferries not running. I can travel between the UK and France because I have my British passport to go one way and my Carte de Séjour for getting back as more than a three-month tourist.
What would happen, according to Mr Kibasi, is that the EU would begin to eat the UK from within. Very rapidly, food prices would rise sharply as the pound sterling slumps. Living standards will go down radically. The EU would continue to open new opportunities for business outside the UK and would increasingly dismantle the country’s industry.
The problem with abandoning the rules of the international order is that you no longer enjoy their protection.
The UK would find it increasingly difficult to sell goods and services. Without earning the same amount of money as before, buying power goes down. The country was already weakened in the Thatcher era as manufacturing was run down. The EU can simply put exorbitant tariffs on British export goods to recover the £39 billion outstanding. One truly dreadful consequence would be the lot of the poorest and most vulnerable. Famine, as usual in history, would be a factor in a possibility of revolution.
In the mind of this journalist, the Government and the hardest right-wing ministers would know far more about the prospect of their country being slowly cannibalised and made into something like Germany in the 1930’s. They cannot afford no-deal Brexit and there is little chance of a deal (with the backstop the EU insists on) getting through. Only one possibility remains…
Supposing it all goes belly-up, my speculation is no better than anyone else’s. The political establishment has to implode and be replaced by something else. Aren’t we then going to be anxious about lots of foreign people coming in and feeding off our welfare state taking our jobs and driving up housing prices? I have no answers of my own, apart from my being less willing to believe everything I read on alt-right websites and Facebook one-liners. Whatever happens, we are faced with our own freedom, as persons and as societies, and we are responsible for our future and our present.
For our dread and anxiety, we can find peace through spiritual means, and through medicine if our suffering is acute. We need to be as self reliant as possible. I do hope that our present crisis, however it turns out, will spur us to seek to be whole human beings, free from lust, fanaticism and ideology – transformed by faith, reason and humanity. We need to read more and be less reliant on newspapers, television and social media. We need to study philosophy and discuss serious things with other people. Having our beliefs challenged is salutary, because it brings us to seek a new wholeness and sense of identity. Accepting challenge will give us the ability to be critical and make more right free choices. This is the drama of conversion, not only to a religion, but to one’s deepest self.