“Vast in Perversity”

This was one of the first books I purchased for my Kindle in 2008 and I've finally gotten around to finishing it. No one can accuse Mr. Burleigh of being light on details in Earthly Powers although I'm sure that he's accused of many things. (He probably wouldn't have it any other way.) Burleigh sets out to explore the "clash" between religion and politics from the French Revolution to World War I. The clashing often takes the form of strange mash-ups in which religions take on distinctly political forms or issues or when the politics takes on the manifestations of religion.

It's fascinating to see the Jacobins of the French Revolution create their own cleric-free religion handily called "The Cult of the Supreme Being" or a Roman Catholic priest get kicked out of the church for creating a political role for the Holy See. Some of the collisions between religion and politics Burleigh unearths are amusing - like the utopian socialist writer who imagines a world in which "fairies" cure the jilted of their broken-hearts. Others are just plain disturbing. Humans can't live without some sort of religion, Burleigh seems to be saying, even if we have to make up something truly bizarre to fill the gap.

Burleigh has done his research and has his views, some of which had me nodding my head such as "there is surely something mad about all-consuming political passions" and some that had me wondering what planet he inhabits. I don't care what it's "set beside', the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is not a "modest affaire". I don't know why Burleigh felt the need to do the written equivalent of a drive-by in referring to Beatrice Webb as "ghastly" but I admit to being as amused by that as by the phrase "harpy pawnbroker consort". I get the feeling that if someone declared this book “vast in perversity” (to quote the Vatican’s description of a work cited here) Michael Burleigh would be pleased indeed.

Burleigh isn’t shy about sharing his opinions but his quirky erudition made this worth the ride for me. I disagreed with many of Burleigh's "conclusions" but for me that's part of the enjoyment of reading a book like this - it's like having a debate with a very opinionate acquaintance. This is not an easy read and it is not for everyone. Burleigh loves obscure verbs and occasionally presents a quote in the original language without providing translation. (Why he does this sometimes and not others in the same language is a mystery.) This is an interesting book that does not transcend its topic. Recommended for those interested in the topic.

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