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After Ecstasy

If spring comes, can winter be far behind? We are just concluding one of those rare hours when history could be viewed with something other than contempt. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia introduced a new movement of freedom, and demolished the cultural pessimism that confined such longings to people like us. The revolt in Libya, also animated by a democratic aspiration, exposed not only the depravity of a dictator but also the cravenness with which he was received in the wood-paneled precincts of some of the immensely important people of Washington, New York, and Cambridge. For a few months, the world seemed righter. For a few months, there was nothing stupid about hope. But now the rotten old arrangements are pushing back. With the permission of the West, Qaddafi is crushing the rebels in the east, and his war against political liberalization has given heart to other satraps in the region. The Saudis, whose freak-out is one of the primary strategic facts about the Middle East, have sent troops to Bahrain, to protect the Sunni autocrats against the Shia populace, and also against Iranian intrigue. In Egypt, there are murmurs of Mubarakism without Mubarak, as the ecstasy of Tahrir Square is succeeded by the banal and benign authoritarianism of a military that wants both political reform and its economic privileges. A sense of possibility is giving way to a sense of actuality—to a restored appreciation of the tenacity of power. And from far away, as if to complete the dystopian mood, comes the apocalypse in northeastern Japan, where thrice-shattered people wait for a meltdown.

The problem was the ecstasy. Again and again I have heard people speak of Tahrir Square in ecstatic terms, and I have no doubt that the exhilaration there was overwhelming; but a few sullen thoughts about the relation of ecstasy to politics are in order. Nietzsche, near the end of The Birth of Tragedy, remarked that ecstasy is the supremely anti-political emotion. States, he declared, are built by Apollo, who sagely affirms also the principium individuationis, whereas the excitements of Dionysus result “in a diminution of, in indifference to, indeed, in hostility to, the political instincts,” and recommend instead a secession from the world for the purpose of the reproduction of the excitements. Nietzsche took no note of the politics of ecstasy—of the epiphanic crowds that would soon become the main instrument of mass politics. Those crowds, of the left and the right, were where liberal individualism went to die, where public reason turned into public unreason. But Nietzsche’s intuition was correct: ecstasy wants more ecstasy. It fears the lessening of intensity, the end of the holiday from history, the return to the administration of the world. After ecstasy, chores? There are experiences so powerful and so pleasurable that they make their adepts dream only of repetition, which is a promise of infinity. But they also set such people up for crisis, by disarming them intellectually with bliss. A person who believes that he has been transformed is poorly prepared for the discovery that the transformation is not complete. It never is. For this reason, life after ecstasy is harder than life before ecstasy, in the way that life after the messiah (the Christian predicament) is harder than life before the messiah (the Jewish predicament).

Is there such a thing as liberal ecstasy? Of course not, you say: the liberal values are too complicated and patient and cerebral for a faith in a climax. This is so. And yet the crowd in Tahrir Square was a mob of liberals, even if some of them prayed five times a day. Its ecstasy was paradoxical: an ecstasy of rights, of individual dignity. Dionysian means, Apollonian ends. The crowd killed nobody. It followed no leader, kindled to no demagogue. And after its arousal was over, it cleaned up its mess. After ecstasy—brooms! Those brooms are one of the great liberal images of our time. They are the symbols of a meliorist revolution, which is the rarest revolution of all. But the brooms are gone now. And here is what happened afterward. In their anger over a love affair between a young Muslim woman and a young Christian man, Muslims burned a Coptic church in the village of Soul. When Christians demonstrated in protest against the crime, 13 people were killed and 140 people were injured. What, then, is different? It would appear that things after the ecstasy are just as they were before the ecstasy. Tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities in Egypt have been running high in recent years, sometimes culminating in violence; and those who do not wish to believe in Arab progress could derive some satisfaction from the sordid events in Soul. Egypt is “still Egypt,” isn’t it?

Of course it is. As I say, the transformation is never complete. (“I search for new beginnings,” Yehuda Amichai wrote, “and find only changes.”) The people who are liberated are the people who were oppressed. They have not been made new, they have been made free. The new can grow only out of the old, even as its contradiction; and there is always a period in the history of innovation, social, cultural, political, when the new and the old overlap, when they live together. The new Egypt and the old Egypt are equally real. What will determine the course of their relationship is political action by Egyptians, supported by friends of democracy everywhere. Change will be measured not by the recurrence of old outrages, but by the reaction to their recurrence—by new responses to old outrages. Mubarak had his uses for communal and confessional conflict in Egypt, but this time, after these disturbances, The New York Times reported that “thousands gathered peacefully in front of the state television headquarters on Wednesday to demand that the transitional government rebuild the church, prosecute the attackers, and pledge to improve conditions for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.” The other day a friend sent me affecting photos of Coptic demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The military is rebuilding the church. The outrage was old, but the response was new. In the consideration of societies in transition to democracy, in other words, we must keep our heads. This transition is not an event, it is an era. And democratization is essentially a policy of destabilization. There is no other way. What matters is not stability, what matters is progress. And what matters also is what America will or (more likely) will not do. In Tripoli and in Riyadh, the counterrevolution has begun, and it is unmoved by ecstasy.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.