In the 12th century, as the French began work on Notre Dame, the Khmer king Suryavarman II constructed what is still the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, 500 acres of walls, walks, peaks, passages and bas-reliefs. Like so many great works of architecture, Angkor Wat was full of symbolic meaning. Its measurements, from the initial approach across a bridge over the moat to the aediculated peaks of its five shikara, were determined by Hindu cosmology, and specifically by the need to prove that the current age of Suryavarman II was a return to the golden age. The sculptural program explicitly paralleled the king’s achievements with those of the Hindu pantheon, proving his devaraja (god-king) status.
Suryavarman II came to mind, when I was reading a review of the DVD Jesus Camp, a documentary about the indoctrination of far right Christianists, contemporary devarajas who try to convince people that they are ushering in a golden age, a return to a virtuous and glorious past, a time before abortion, infidelity, terrorism, drug addiction, delinquency, perversion and impiety.
But of course there wasn’t such a time ever. Ideologues idealize heaven but they also appeal to a virtuous, mythical past. The parallel between their use of future and past is hardly accidental, because they are made of the same stuffery. As they were at Angkor, although at least we got some timeless art and architecture out of it.
“Timeless” is an instrumental word here. Ideologies and belief systems – especially extremist/fundamentalist ones – tend to be static and thus profoundly ahistorical and more ominously, antihistorical. Not only do they point toward historic periods that never happened, their static, unchanging nature denies the whole dynamic process of life and human history. “Fundamentalism” of any brand is a longing for certainty, the kind of certainty children need to feel safe: the kind of certainty that makes adults infantile and dangerous. Morality and virtue can serve as goals that motivate individuals and thus can have historical agency, but the wingnuts reassign that agency to magical forces, thus relieving the individual of responsibility, rendering her or him infantile and dangerous.
History, and real life are uncertain, contingent, and full of complexity and contradiction.