An Analysis of Merriman's Dynamite Club and Anarchy in the 19th Century
John Merriman makes the point early in the Dynamite Club that there exists "a gossamer thread connecting…Islamist fundamentalists and Emile Henry's circle."
Merriman goes on to define that connection as being one of "social inequalities." But more to the heart of the matter, however, is the difference in ideologies -- ideologies that transcended the economic, political, and social realities of the 19th century. This paper will analyze the tug-of-war between old and new society in the 19th century, and show how anarchy became the ultimate expression of modern man's frustrated attempts to deal with the lost definition of his spiritual aspect, which, prior to the Enlightenment had at least supplied a kind of framework for social order.
A Conflict of Ideologies
No doubt the revolutionary ideology of the Romantic/Enlightenment era held some influence over the life of Emile Henry when he bombed the Hotel Terminus in Paris in 1894. Joseph Conrad shows his anarchist characters in The Secret Agent to be enamored of such doctrine -- to a degree. Fyodor Dostoevsky no less shows that the anarchistic elements in 19th century Russia were moved by a distinct ideology, framed by the ideals of the French Revolution, and espoused so violently in his masterworks Demons and Notes from Underground. What all three authors show is that anarchy in the late 19th century was the direct result of two cultures abrasively coming into contact like two tectonic plates grinding into one another. Like an earthquake, anarchy was the effect of this culture clash -- a clash that was nothing more than the old world against the new. It was, of course, a clash that had been going on for centuries -- since the end of the medieval age, in fact -- when Hamlet had stepped onto the stage and asked, "What is this quintessence of dust?"
The Age of Faith had had an answer for Hamlet -- the modern age had none, and its attempts to solve the puzzle would prove time and again inefficacious.
As Merriman himself indicates, the very terms with which we have come to identify terrorism were coined "during the most radical phase of the French Revolution."
More impressive still is the fact that one of the musical acts that night at the Terminus, when Emile Henry lit the fuse of his bomb, was a bit by Wagner -- a revolutionary himself (and a musician for whom the Neoclassicist Brahms had no love). The point illustrates the underlying cultural shift that was well in place at the end of the 19th century. Charles Ives would later go on to pen music that would utterly embody the seemingly schizophrenic attitude of society at large in the early 20th century with his ramming together of two melodies that produced a sound of discord and dissonance. Ives, of course, was looking for that perfect expression of modern man in terms of music.
Ives, however, questioned his ability: In his Essays before a Sonata, he asks: "How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?"
The question was more relevant to modern man than one might think: value as defined by the old world had been usurped by value as defined by the new -- through violent revolution. Wagner's operas were essentially blueprints of the revolution: "The Master Singers of Nuremburg" was a perfect example of how the new was to dispense with the old. Ironically, Wagner was on the program the night Henry decided to dispense with everything altogether. Just as Dostoevsky's Underground Man would writhe within himself over the sanity inherent in the order of the old world and the skepticism, paranoia, and doubt inherent in the new, Henry refused to submit to either the new mechanics or the old spirituality. Dostoevsky would call it, primarily, a spiritual problem. Conrad would agree. Its expression, of course, was anarchy.
Henry, the Anarchists, and Order
Merriman's description of Emile Henry is one that fits the order: "He blamed capitalism, religion, the army, and the state for the plight of the underclass, who struggled to get by as the rich lived it up…[He] felt dislocated, alienated, and angry. It made him a perfect recruit for anarchism."
What is important, here, is the role in which Merriman casts Henry: victim. Henry, like many others of his day, was one of the orphans of warring factions, left without home, without faith, without means. The constant revolution that plagued Paris from the 18th century on saw its foil in the erection of Sacre-Coeur, which "to staunch Catholics…[became] a point of intersection between heaven and earth" pleading on behalf of "a nation fallen from grace."
The Catholic Church, however, had seen its power diminish since the time of the Renaissance. Its doctrines were disputed openly: Rousseau had called for their abolishment -- and the separation of Church and State was viewed even by Catholics themselves like Alexis de Tocqueville as a noble enterprise full of promise and peace. The reality was that it was a kind of sickly compromise between the old world and the new -- an uncertain peace between two ideologies that promised to stay out of one another's hair. In every regard, it can be considered a failure -- for while the old world attempted to govern men's actions and lives according to the old spirituality, the new world attempted to govern men's actions and lives according to the "rights of man." The two were diametrically opposed. The old world lost out to Adam Smith's "division of labor" and the new social order -- capitalism.
None of it would have been possible, however, without the Peace of Westphalia, which essentially legitimized the Protestant ethos (politically), and effectively diminished the reign that the Church had held over public interest. With the Peace, the modern world inherited an era of philosophical inquiry that departed significantly from the orthodoxy of scholasticism found in medieval Thomistic philosophy. What the Peace offered politically was a new model of government that would effectively take hold around the world. John Elliott notes that Voltaire described the Celebrated peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War as having become 'the basis for all future treaties.' In other words, it marked the beginning of a new international order in which the European state system was henceforth to be regulated on the basis of a set of political arrangements made in the middle years of the seventeenth century and agreed by the leading European powers.
Pope Innocent X lamented these "realities," of course -- for they subverted the truths which the Roman Church strove to propagate -- namely that it was the only one, true religion. By not seeking pontifical approval, the signees of the Peace were resolved to set their differences aside -- differences that, in the eyes of the Pontiff, were not matters over which secular rulers should be acting as absolute judges. Essentially, the Pontiff saw the Peace as a ticking time-bomb that would erupt in the coming era of religious liberty.
Wagner, Nietzsche, and Shaw
And such a time-bomb it proved to be with the new social order, which was a stage set for violent conflict: it embodied all the elements that had been tearing Europe apart since the end of Christendom; moreover, it was viewed incorrectly by many of those who opposed it. Rather than seeing it as a war between the old and the new, it was seen (by men such as Wagner) as a war between Church and State. What represented Church in Wagner's Germany, however, had more to do with the State than the Church. Protestantism, after all, had separated itself from the Church -- it was no more truly Christian than the State which likewise washed its hands of old world spirituality.
Again, it is Wagner who illustrates the point most clearly. A passionate revolutionary himself, Wagner was not without religious sentiment: nonetheless, much like Emile Henry, Wagner was an orphan, cut off to some extent from the graces of the old world -- blaming all and sundry in the new:
The Christianity that Wagner found so repugnant is the essentially Protestant version that was the social underpinning of the high noon of capitalism in northern Europe and England where 'God is become Industry, which keeps the poor Christian worker alive only until celestial market conditions bring about the gracious necessity of releasing him into a better world.'
Thus, like many revolutionaries of the 19th century, the battle was waged according to the parameters of the arena: on a purely materialistic scale. The promise of Heaven had been sealed off with the closing of the old world -- the new demanded Heaven on Earth: and Marx had the solution (borrowed, of course,…