Cohn, Norman

Tagged: Author | Critic

(1915-2007) UK linguistic scholar and historian, who remains best-known for his first work of significance, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957; exp 1961), a seminal study of medieval European millennial sects, which are here definitively anatomized in terms of their belief in an apocalyptic End of the World (see also Eschatology), which is normally signalled and led by Iconic figures who inspire underclasses to look for transformative betterment, always with the expectation of election to a redeemed new world. The complex and constantly-renewed links between millenarianism and the linear (rather than cyclical) Judeo-Christian narrative focused upon one true Religion – combined with Christianity's seemingly irresistible evangelism, with its missionary tendency to gain conversions through the scapegoating of the Other, whether on religious or ethnic grounds (see Taboo) – becomes the focus of Cohn's next seminal study, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1967) (see Holocaust; Race in SF).

Cohn's later work – as laid down in Europe's Inner Demons: An Inquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt (1975) and Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) – continued to explore the profound rootedness of the millennial expectations that poison the heartwood of the West. The dreams of Utopia and the nightmares of Dystopia that haunt our aspirations are, in the perspectives he offers, inherently shaped by this cultural dysfunction. Nor, he suggests, need it have been so. The dream of "a marvellous consummation" – he states in Cosmos, Chaos – involving the disposal of the wicked and the elevation of the elect, is not universal. "There have been great civilizations, some of them lasting thousands of years, that knew nothing of any such expectation." In this perspective, sf as a whole is a child of the West. [JC]

Norman Rufus Colin Cohn

born Dulwich [ie London]: 12 January 1915

died Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: 31 July 2007

works (selected)


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