Religious Individualisation and Nationalism in Modern Europe Through the Lens of Alternative Spirituality and Western Esotericism (1823-1939)
My project at the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt focuses on the complex interplay between religious individualisation, nationalism, and alternative spirituality in modern Europe. I intend to carry out my research by focusing on four case studies based on four exemplary figures of European history: the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), the Italian political activist Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). They are significant for my project for a number of reasons: All of them have developed forms of nationalist discourse in their works and therefore clearly belong to the history of European nationalism. At the same time, not only the three poets (Mickiewicz, Yeats, and Pessoa) have acquired the status of major figures in the national literatures of their respective countries, but all of them have been used as sources and icons for the consolidation of national identity. A specific iconography has been constructed based on their personae, which is still present today in their respective countries in the form of public monuments, popular images, and even touris-tic merchandising. On the other hand, they are all also deeply connected to the his-tory of alternative spirituality, and more specifically of Western esotericism. In all four, there is an attempt to adapt old paradigms of prophetism, messianism, and millenarianism to the political situation of their countries. These paradigms are a powerful source of inspiration for their nationalist discourses as they can be used to justify the idea of a special mission bestowed by God or higher spiritual authorities on the nation to which they belong.
Religious individualisation, nationalism, and alternative spirituality have all been the object of extensive scholarly research, but less attention has been given to the interactions between them. Nationalism and religious individualisation seem to fall on the opposite ends of socio-cultural dynamics because the former puts emphasis on the importance of a collective identity whereas the latter sees a shift of religious legitimacy from a collective, institutional setting to a private, personal one. The working hypothesis of my project is that alternative spirituality is precisely the vehicle that has made the seemingly opposed phenomena of nationalism and religious individualisation enter into a strange but historically significant dialogue. This appears to be related to the fact that nationalism, understood not as a factor of secularization but rather of transformation of religion in a post-Enlightenment context, has tended to construct forms of collective identity that were alternative, but still related, to those of traditional religion. Nationalism could therefore use the anti-institutional, anti-dogmatic rhetoric of alternative spirituality to challenge traditional religious forms and institutions. In the context of alternative spirituality, religious symbols, ideas, and practices, could be restructured and given new shape within the patterns of nationalist discourses. Alternative spirituality has generally offered a convenient space for the production of a large variety of symbolic systems, which, although often presented as primordial and traditional, were the result of the syncretistic creativity of individuals and small groups. It is in this sense that religious individualisation and nationalism may have ended up being allies, or at least strange bedfellows, even when their driving forces were apparently leading them in opposite directions. The destructuring of religious collective identities operated by alternative spirituality would then be not only compatible with, but also functional to, the restructuring of collective identities operated by nationalism.
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt