1968-69 at the Origins of my Interest in Millennialism

Richard Landes November, 1999


When people ask me how I got into millennial studies, I invariably go back to my year with the IHP (International Honors Program), with Daniel Lerner and Morton Gorden, going around the world studying "modernization" in the academic year 1968-69. I remember standing on a field near Delhi, looking at a market whose stalls and whose products could have been there at any point over the past ten centuries, trying to figure out how to get these people to join the modern world, to want modern products, to work for the money to purchase them. It took me all year to figure out that sometimes the reluctance of "Third World" countries to modernize was less from incompetence than from a choice not to engage in the path of a high maintenance culture, with its insatiable desires, its yawning solitudes, and its ever-quickening treadmill. But that realization only intensified for me the importance of understanding how a culture – the West – could have generated so problematic a social dynamic that, even with its accomplishments blandished in full glory, many cultures preferred to pass up. Whence our ceaseless drives? How could we have created a path where so few followed, even when offered the blueprint? What motivated us in a period where the results were still far from clear?

This brought me back to the lectures of Ramila Tapar and the Hindu notions of karma and reincarnation. Here I found the antithesis of the western religious notions. Here, the injustices of the social and psychological world were explained by how we behaved in our past lives, our good or bad karma. There was no reason to change the current social system – life here was a direct expression of cosmic harmonies. In the west we find, rather, a sense that the social world is out of kilter, that the wrong people and evil forces dominate in the universe, and that at some point in the future – soon hopefully – all the injustices of this world would be righted. As opposed to this profound Hindu acceptance, western Europe manifested, already in the Middle Ages (a period that our textbooks, like Rostow’s, told us was "traditional," similar to India today), a restless messianism, a recurrent social mysticism that sought to replace this world of injustice with an egalitarian society where everyone works, and all get to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, unmolested. "They shall turn their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, neither shall they study war any more. But each shall sit under his fig and vine and none shall disturb them" (Micah 4:1-4). By the end of the year, I was convinced that messianic expectations (millennialism) lay at the heart of European developments; that they began in the supposedly traditional period of our history – "the Middle Ages" – and that any future study I conducted would approach matters from this angle.

What I did not know at the time was that I was travelling around the world at the height of the most powerful wave of global millennialism since World War II, and probably the most powerful peace-time wave of global millennialism ever – the 60’s. Retrospectively, I have come to understand that the 60s, with its counterculture, its social ideals of egalitarianism and communal relations, its radical and rebellious behavior, reached its peak in the year of the student uprisings 1968 (Prague, Columbia, Paris, Mexico City, Warsaw, Poland) and had its last flowering at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. I know that much of my understanding of millennialism – its apocalyptic hopes and disappointments – comes from having lived through a millennial moment.

Now that I know much more about millennialism, I suspect even my original point of departure. I know how much the "subterranean" world of popular culture (really, the "subtextual") differs from the "official version." (Many an apocalyptic tale can be told along the lines of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Who would base their reconstruction on the court’s version a week after the procession?) So I suspect that the version of reincarnation that I heard from my teachers was probably only part of the story, and that the iconoclastic, anti-caste bakhti movements that dot India’s history probably articulated other, more millennial myths. The kalpa may be infinitely long for the Brahmins, but for the lower castes, it may have a more finite length and be reaching its end in our very days.

For me, IHP proved to be the intellectual turning-point of my life. The exposure to other cultures, the powerful friendships I had that year – Jack Zammito, Ed Lebow, George Cooper, David Rubin – all turned my pre-Law-make-a-million-dollars-by-the-time-I’m-thirty career upside down, and threw me out tumbling into a world of cultural encounters that has never ceased to amaze and fascinate me ever since. I never cease to remember and treasure many moments from that year.

Richard Landes

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