PAUL AND HELENE
FROM MY HELENE
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
For Helene, mere appearances, which she judged good or evil according to her prejudices at the moment, were almost everything. For fear of feeling diminished, she could not afford to entertain her own contradictions to understand the underlying crisis or hypocrisy of humankind, that perfection is impossible, that her ideal of herself did not and could not exist, that it was not really her ideal in the first place, but was merely a conventional reaction imposed on her by society’s dissatisfaction with the human condition, that of being born into the sin of individuality contrary to society’s falsifying ideals.
Helene’s saving grace was her respect for intelligence and creativity in others as expressions of the absolute power everyone worships in different forms. She had for herself the creativity and intelligence of a wild creature, a thing that she feared and endeavored to discipline by playing a contrived role lest she go stark raving mad. In fine, she was no narcissist as popularly defined; she was histrionic. The world was for her a stage, and she perceived herself as an actress upon it although she complained that she could not perceive herself as she really was. And she was a fine actress thereupon, a natural born saleswoman as long as she managed to repress her duplicity with faith in her product, which she placed, above all, on a pedestal. The Product no matter what she was selling was none other than Helene, whosoever she might really be.
Paul, on the other hand, withdrew inward to his grandiosity, hence is another sort of narcissist himself, a self-stimulating narcissist, an introverted narcissist, a true narcissist in the sense of the myth of Narcissus, the Bewildered or Confounded One. The classical Narcissus did not desperately crave approval, he did not need others to worship him. Indeed, he spurned the water nymphs and the echoes that would have allured him with their charms were it not for their imperfections. He would know no other but himself, so the pleasures of sexuality born of the need to propagate the species were absolutely introverted in him, to his ultimate doom.
In truth one really loves his self in others, so Narcissus lives on in us all, but not to his full extent. Tragically, no other but Narcissus, divided as an in-dividual, could reflect Narcissus hence the insoluble problem for him was that no other, which he vainly sought in his reflection in the pool, was good enough for him, because he himself was flawed; whenever he touched his own image, the image was distorted before his eyes.
If only he had placed his hopes in others, Narcissus would have been a male Madame Bovary, falling in love with his high hopes projected unto one woman after another, none of which would satisfy him, but at least the command to go forth and multiply would be fulfilled.
In the final analysis, that of his dissolution in the reflecting pool, the prophesy of the blind seer came true, that he would live as long as he did not know himself, for he perished when he discovered he was nothing without another besides himself. That is, the self alone is nothing at all.
Wherefore Paul’s grand experiment in unconditional love, which he thought was an intentional, philosophical endeavor, was his last unwitting attempt to save himself from his own doom, that is to say, from knowledge of the essence of his being, which was nothing without any relationship at all with another. According to his hypothesis based on the Doctrine of Hypocrisy or the underlying crisis of human beings, any other, the first woman he encountered who was willing, would be good enough to that end in itself.
That other for him was destined to be Helene, whom he by chance or by the wiles of the three fates who reside behind the moon met on Miami’s People Mover. Helene was perfect for his purpose despite her superficial flaws. Every friend has flaws, and every friend is free to have them, for the root of “friend” is “free.”
She happened to be the light of his life, a reincarnation of the flame of the Western World, and it was his good fortune that she was the only one who would put up with him.
Jean-Paul Sartre was looking for himself in The Family Idiot. His theme is that Gustave Flaubert, the so-called realist, had turned his imagination to the wrong end, to “Nothing” instead of “Existence” as the ground of “Being.” He opined that Flaubert, not wanting to engage in the existential struggle one way or the other, chose to merely criticize it; that is, he was a pacifist or coward instead of an activist like him.
Sartre diagnosed his dead patient as “pithiatic,” a neurotic disorder named after the hysterical antics of drugged Cretan nuns called Pythias used as oracles at Delphi in ancient times. Their shrieks were interpreted by Apollo’s priests into answers to questions put to them by leading figures concerned for their futures. Greek states banked their treasures at Delphi, and were wont to bankrupt the politico-religious center when funds were wanted for war.
Shall I win a war I want to wage? I might bribe a priest for a favorable answer. The wily priest would render the Pythia’s rant into an insipid, ambiguous poem, favorable to me or not depending on one’s prejudice, therefore my campaign is divinely sanctioned, and the oracle has an out in case I lose.
It is meet to recall that Sartre’s feminist “pythia,” Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the fascinating book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, declared that it was impossible to find an ethical system in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In The Second Sex, while discussing the “myth of the family,” she declares that “a woman’s body—and specifically the girl’s—is a ‘hysterical’ body in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between psychic life and its physiological realization.”
Everybody knows that women are hysterical and males are reasonable; how else would women have survived if they had not thrown fits to get their way and “civilize” men in the process?
Pithiatism has its passive and active aspect. The process if guided by an analyst may result in the “persuasive healing” of a troubled person by employing the power of suggestion to cultivate a positive or constructive mental attitude causing one to be proactive, to participate in world affairs.
That was the philosopher Jules de Gaultier’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He purged her of the arsenic she was taking, turned her around with some reasonable persuasion, nudging her in the right direction. She was, thought he, indeed exemplary of a social malady; she was its passive victim. The harm was not in the power of suggestion itself; one could make active use of it to effect a cure; wherefore he prescribed what he called Bovarysm as the solution to the culture’s misguided inclination. In short, Jules de Gaultier’s Bovarysm takes advantage of Madame Emma Bovary’s neurosis to prescribe a healthy response to the foolish romantic uneasiness of her time. Her neurotic tendency was in effect a betrayal of the Imagination.
On the other hand, a pithiatic subject might withdraw into a corner to brood and poison oneself with nihilism if not arsenic, as Flaubert was said to do. Not that he did not have a great deal of fun in his youth, travelling in 1848-1849 with his wealthy friend Maxime du Camp about North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, fighting off thieves, consorting with belly dancers, native girls, and prostitutes. Du Camp consequently produced what may be the world’s first travel photography book. Eventually Flaubert would brood at home in Rouen between trips to Paris, where he enjoyed himself one way or another. Yet his experience with humankind overall, and especially with his countrymen at the subjugation of France by Germany, gave him nothing to have faith in except nothing itself, which would be something if nothing actually exists. If not a nihilist, he was a cynic and skeptic. Flaubert, by the way, contracted syphilis in Beirut; that may help explain his negative attitude.
Many authors, neurotic or not, naturally sympathize with literary giants such as Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre, both of whom were rather realistic in their preoccupation with writing. Flaubert is celebrated as a Realist, a label he was not comfortable with, but he was really a frustrated romantic. Most people do mature to be more or less realistic, yet as idealistic children they were fond of popular romances and adventure stories, their imaginations captivated by heroes and villains and monsters.
Family influences matter, but family is not as deterministic of one’s fate as its enthusiasts believe. Indeed, the mythical nuclear family is a pious fraud, as can be seen by lifting the roofs off homes and peering into the virtual snake pits. Heredity largely determines an individual’s intelligence and temperament hence his fate, not the collection of traits found in a particular family. It was of little avail to our ancestors to exterminate the families of criminals, to burn down their homes, kill their livestock, and uproot their crops. Ridding society of the nuclear patriarchal family altogether might even benefit society according to some radicals.
Jean-Paul undoubtedly saw a bit of himself in Gustave while peering under his roof, albeit in a different light, inasmuch as he was pampered by the dominant male in his own household. The Family Idiot is unfinished hence inconclusive, but Sartre wanted to demonstrate among other things that a person’s family is in fact the determining factor in his or her life; hence he partly exonerates Flaubert and himself for faults.
The redundancy of his the ten-year, unfinished project may be in part due to Sartre’s use of a combination of aspirin and amphetamine that perked him up as he peered, like narcotized Narcissus, into a mirror of his own ‘hysteria.’ His autobiography, The Words, portrays his early struggle against insanity, a jihad that would lead to his existentialist affirmations.
His father died before he was two. He was a lonely, sad, and sickly child, half blind and wall-eyed, spoiled by his patriarchal grandfather, who treated his mother like a slave in chains. He did not have kids to play with so he escaped from the lack, reading trashy adventure novels supplied by his mother, books he preferred to the serious tomes of his grandfather’s large collection. In order to elicit praise for precocity, he pretended he liked authors such as the romantic/classical tragedian, Pierre Corneille.
“I was a fake child. I could feel my acts changing into gestures. Playacting robbed me of the world and of human beings. I saw only roles and props.”
Flaubert, on the other hand, had plenty of kids to play with; playacting was his favorite pastime; he wrote a play about satanic monster called Yuk: Flaubert evidently appeared to be a phony to Sartre.
Sartre called his escapism “death by ecstasy.”
Sartre started writing monster stories at age eight, letting his imagination run wild, and he soon realized that he himself was the toady monster he had imagined. He finally found some kids to play with when he went off to school, but the madness of writing to “forgive” his existence had already determined his arrogant and despairing manner of existing.
Both authors were profoundly influenced by war. Gustave Flaubert and his home in Rouen were left unscathed by the war between France and Germany of 1870-1871 except he was emotionally traumatized by the behavior of his “stupid” countrymen. For Sartre, World War II was an extremely unpleasant personal experience. His residence had been bombed after moving in, he had suffered being a prisoner of war, and so on, but being a member of the Resistance was worth it.
Sartre never forgave or “let go” of his existence. He endured it and survived the circumstances, and found consolation in philosophizing after the war in a basement jazz cellar. An American journalist asked a singer what people were doing there.
“Just existing,” she said.
Thus was the cradle laid for “Existentialism.” Existentialism was not a philosophy or ideology to begin with. The Existentialists denied they were Existentialists at first, and then accepted the label for convenience of being recognized as influential collaborators. Camus never embraced the tag because it was definitely absurd, as can be seen by the metaphysical jibber jabber about the difference between existence and being, and being and nothingness.
To just exist means the individual disregards socializing concepts as beings by placing existence before such being. Sartre like any bourgeoisie intellectual worth existing resented and despised bourgeoisie being. He leaned to the left, but abhorred Nazism and Stalinism.
There is no God to rely on: Man is responsible for himself. Nature does not care: life is absurd. Ethics are incoherent: ambiguity is the rule.
What choice is there but to exist as responsibly as one can?
What can a writer do?
Write to resist, write to free people including ourselves from mass hysteria.
THE GROTESQUE GOD AND THE TASTE OF SHIT
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Our frustrated realist, Gustave Flaubert, a romantic at heart, bitterly said that reality, meaning the way things really were from his perspective, tasted like shit. He contrived an imaginary reality to escape from his distasteful perception, a construction that Jean Paul Sartre, in his voluminous psychoanalysis of Flaubert,The Family Idiot, analyzed according to his Psychology of the Imaginary.
An artist’s job, as jazz-dance master Luigi Facciuto once averred (may he rest in peace although his motto was Never Stop Moving) is to make shit smell good: “This shit just came to me out of nowhere,” he told his dancers after he moved, “and now it’s our job to make it smell good.” Still, given the materials employed, the result has scatological implications to critics with an acute sense of smell.
Flaubert’s Imaginary was ‘romantic’ to the extent that his flight from stinking, excremental reality was an heroic adventure into another, mysterious realm of his own fashion, a monstrous, grotesque realm. There was no room for Love in that kingdom; mystery vanished accordingly, for Love a secret does not abhor. He was haunted by the odor of the ordure in his sandbox, thus was motivated to leave his sense of taste and smell behind if not the substance itself, and embrace nothing, which he idolized as Nothing.
Nothing is absolute freedom: Nothing is freer than the freedom at the bottom of Sartre’s Existence, for freedom is always freedom from something or the other. Sartre, however, would leave us a shred of something to cling to, bare existence, while Flaubert would be free of everything altogether, in the perfect Form of forms: absolute vacancy.
Sartre pointed out that Flaubert attempted to believe in and therefore feel love by neurotic or “pithiatic” means: auto-suggestion. He asks, “Is there not, however, in the very act of composition a still unreal but more immediate gratification? Yes: a gratification of the desire to desire.”
He quotes Flaubert’s letter dated February 8, 1841: “I wrote love letters for the purpose of writing, not because I love. Yet I would like to delude myself that I do: I love, I believe while writing.”
“At stake for Gustave is the credibility of language: in what form will discourse—his own discourse—be most likely to engage the pithiatic adherence of the boy? His answer is precise: writing. The reasons for this are apparent: writing seems like a passage to action, like an extemalization as well as a composition. It is not a matter of copying ‘I love you’ a hundred times; that would be a schoolboy’s punishment. You must invent love, do something original, come up with passionately authentic phrases, put yourself in the position to recognize them from the inside. This means you must imagine you are in love…. Of course, on the surface the pithiatic aspect of the enterprise is undeniable: it isn’t only a game (it is also a game), it is a successful attempt, at least as far as his pen is concerned, at autosuggestion.”
A difference between lust and love is asserted. Sublime love is a cultivated emotion, a synthesis of feeling and judgment. It is a suggestion from without, introjected and reinforced within by imitative auto-suggestion.
Flaubert was hardly devoid of passion in his youth. We think he feared for his sanity when the Sibyl raved within him at Hecate’s crossroad. He resorted to Reason—which god-fearing religious scholars have identified with Being or Logos—to quash the hysterical passion he suffered, obsessively endeavoring to restrain the Dionysian dragoness with Apollonian virtue, compelled to do so until she was incinerated and there was nothing left but the restraint itself, the blinding light said to be the mystic source of wisdom for Teiresias, Apollo’s proverbially blind sage.
The vanishing point of Flaubert’s Imaginary was death, beyond which is infinity. Flaubert named his devil Yuk, who was the living end, the licentious god of the grotesque who exposes the human world as it really is: cursed by shit and rotting corpses. Satan loved God so much that he hated man and tempted him with the finite world, which is the death of man because everything finite must have an end. The factual world is evil; in fact, there can be no truth, beauty and goodness in fact. There is not enough antiseptic in the putrid world to rid it of its rottenness. So let the facts of science be damned if its facts taken alone would damn the human spirit. Prosperity is a help but is no utopia.
A psychoanalyst characteristically takes pause to examine not only the familial details of an analysand’s biography, but he would also carefully scrutinize the character of his patient’s relationships with friends during his impressionable youth. After all, a boy’s best friend is likely to leave a lifelong impression.
Young Gustave Flaubert’s best friend happened to be Alfred Le Poittevin (1816-1848), a pessimistic philosopher and poet who lived in Rouen, who was, incidentally, Guy de Maupassant’s nephew. Their mothers were also best friends.
Alfred and Gustave, together with their friend Ernest Chevalier, shared pipes and conversation on Sundays and Thursdays, and on school holidays, they practically saw each other every day in Rouen, where they loitered in cafes, swam, rowed, and played billiards. Flaubert eventually followed Alfred to Paris to study law. In his correspondence he wrote that he and Albert sometimes conversed for six hours at a time, discussing hothouse ideals to break the boredom. The young fellows were most profoundly influenced by the Romantic reaction to materialism, with its Gothic, aristocratic, and evolutionary predilections, the philosophical movement being neo-Kantian. Alfred, already a published poet and infatuated with Goethe and Spinoza, loved poetic impersonality, which elaborates historical ideals to which the poet surrenders his personality, becoming a literary channel for traditional development.
Gustave shared many of those ideals with Alfred; for example, the traditional idea of Satan expressed in Alfred’s romantic-revolt poem by that name. Indeed, Flaubert had been fascinated by Satan ever since he had discovered Byron, who with Shelley led the so-called Satanic School; the school was credited with an attitude somewhat like that of the Goths of our day, of impious, imperious pride, unduly preoccupied with the grotesque, with monstrous horrors and lewd subject matter, a decadent demeanor that psychiatrists would soon diagnose as evidence of evolutionary degeneracy, a sort moral insanity brought to the fore by crowded civilization’s foul air and other poisons, especially alcohol—absinthe concocted from wormwood was the devil’s favorite hallucinogenic drink in France.
Ah, rebellious youth! Flaubert was imbued with the attitude that a reconciliation of reality with ideality was impossible. Ultimately, the ugliness of reality presided over by Yuk wins out, an attitude in contrast to that of the Zoroastrians, whose god representing Good runs slightly ahead of its twin god representing Evil to extinguish the negating factor in the final moment.
Alfred, intrigued by the exotic Orient, penned ‘L’Orient,’ depicting a youth weary of “the black vapors of civilization.” In ‘Heure d’ angoisse,’ a poet crushed by despair in a faithless world doubts the reality of immortality and providence. ‘Ahasverus’ embodies a longing for death and annihilation. In ‘La foi,’ the loss of faith is regretted.
Flaubert would correspond in 1851 about his gang of “young rascals,” recounting how they inhabited a “strange world” of insanity and suicide. He said hopeless love and vain philosophy had rendered him gloomy. The boys created a grotesque character which they used to satirize conventional beliefs; not only materialism but romanticism as well. In one play a boy says, “Gothic architecture is fine, it’s so inspiring!” Garcon replies, “Yes, it is fine, and the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, too, and the Draggonades, and the Edict of Nantes too!”
He expressed his disdain for the bourgeois or town merchants in his 1839 school essay, ‘Les arts et le commerce,’ pleading for art set free from bourgeois ideology. “Has not the soul, too, its needs?” The commercial obsession of historical Carthage in particular seemed “monstrous and ferocious” to him. Even art for the sake of art he thought was vain at the time.
Flaubert conceived a nihilistic mystery play in 1838 where one would come face-to-face with the infinite: ‘Smahr—an Old Mystery Play.’ The play is obviously indebted to Goethe’s Faust, not to mention the literature of Byron and Quinet.
Smahr, an anchorite, is tempted by Satan, dressed as doctor of theology. They mount winged steeds to survey the world. Satan, demonstrating the nothingness of everything that is known, summoned Flaubert’s newly created god of the grotesque, Yuk, to explain life to him along the way. Yuk was disguised as a beautiful woman, an allegory for Truth. Smahr fell in love with her, but Satan loved her too. She turned out to be Yuk, who then preoccupied himself for awhile with persuading a married woman to give herself to every comer.
Yuk demonstrated to Smahr that life is a period filled with horrors such as bodies being devoured, blood raining down, orgies and the like. Smahr naturally craves power to preside over the world as it is for his own good, but his longing fills the world with death and destruction; alas, his desire is in vain because the power he wants has destroyed the very thing he longs for.
Yuk had initially been proud of his bravery, even joyful, but his plunge into the abysmal eventually made him feel fatally crushed in his finiteness by infinitude. All his knowledge, based on doubt, had been proved false and vain, empty. Yuk, emblematic of ressentiment embodied by the living No, then cries out that he alone is eternal, not even death can defeat him:
“I am reality, I am eternity, I am the power of ridicule, the grotesque, the ugly; I am what is, what has been and what shall be…. I am a whole eternity in myself….”
As the Sun sets on the dying universe, an angel would redeem Smahr, but Satan snatches the angel away. Yuk seizes the angel and rolls with her into the abyss, literally fucking her to death.
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. Gustave Flaubert
Dedicated to Sharon Stone
In The Family Idiot Sartre claims that for Gustav Flaubert, the novice playwright, writing was secondary to acting out his ideas, that the French Realist’s mature literature was born of the “thwarted vocation” of acting, and that he was an unconvincing actor, because “he acted so as to launch an appeal to being by exploiting the means at hand, that is, his very derealization.”
Sometimes the youth fascinated, disturbed, or won over his audience of friends and family when he played the part of a grotesque boy, an idiot, a giant, a saint and so on, but for the most part he was a bad actor; he was false, transparent, and irritating because he was writing his own plays, and doing so in bad faith, for he had no being of his own to speak of; he was simply attempting to negate a negative but had nothing real to work with.
The main thing here is that he is destined to incarnate a single character—for all his avatars resemble each other—not entirely his own character but the persona he wants to appear in the eyes of others, which we will describe in the next chapter. Thus his first vocation seems scarcely more than the simplest and most immediate reaction to his derealization; and I mean that this, as well as his constituted passivity and his pithiatism, would have served him if he had gone into the theater.
Young Gustave, in effect, was allowing himself, through self-cannibalization, to be vampirized by the characters he played:
And he [played his characters] all the more contentedly because he had discovered his true status as Master of the Unreal. In sum, he was reassured by judging himself instituted in advance, integrated by the society that refused him, and, fulfilled by his profession; he abandoned himself to his constituted passivity which would make him all his life the martyr of unreality…. He caricatures living people, in sum, in order to steal their being for a moment and know what it is to take pleasure in having an objective being. Surely he is not convinced that he is Papa Couilleres while he is doing him, or that this theft/possession (he becomes vampirized by the being he has stolen) could be accomplished without that pithiatism that generally characterizes constituted passivities.
The boy had something to gain by his playacting, which was tantamount to throwing hysterical fits:
But for the de-realized child, an absenteeist, the character is none other than his persona created and guaranteed by the benevolence of the Other: protected by an invisible armor, he offers himself up to the blows of fate, exhibiting, without taking responsibility for it, the pre-established transposition of his absurdity and misfortune. In his theatrical experience the child finds irresponsibility, submission, happy and compensated vassalage; the guarantee of the imaginary by a sovereign will, by the necessity of connections, by tradition and universal consent; a priori knowledge of his being-for-others, the ambiguity of fatum, the justification of pathos that is, not just of his excessive gesticulation but of his constituted passivity, which, by forbidding hint action, encourages him to abandon himself to what he is and to show his passions through gestures; pithiatic belief, never total but consolidated by that of others; the ability really to feel what he expresses . The child finds all this in his theatrical experience as long as it remains in the immediate realm of un-reflected spontaneity, in other words, as long as he produces himself on stage, moved only by the need to escape from his insubstantial and tedious persona by replacing it with the being of a character.
Good play actors, then, are disposed to passivity and pithiatism, in contrast to Sartre, who is an activist because he participates in socialist activism. That is, play actors are receptive to the influence of suggestion, which makes them convincing imitators, or performing hysterics.
I personally note that a Freudian psychologist, a regular sex fiend or “cunt-hound” who professed psychology at the New School and who loved to seduce beautiful aspiring actresses, recruited me when I was an acting student at HB Studio into one of his group therapy sessions on the Upper West Side. After several drinks at a bar on Broadway, where I first met him, he posited that “actors are the most neurotic of all people, mainly hysterical, which makes my group therapy sessions a lot of fun.” He claimed that acting is “a masochistic profession.” Ironically, he confessed in group therapy that he was obsessed with or possessed by Sharon Stone, and that she often appeared in his dreams as a dominatrix with a foot-long black dildo with which she painfully sodomized him.
Now Sigmund Freud, in his ‘Fourth Lecture on The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis’ (1910), noted in the context of thwarted development that:
(The sexual impulses) appear in opposed pairs, as active and passive. The most important representatives of this group are the pleasure in afflicting pain (sadism) with its passive opposite (masochism) and active and passive exhibition pleasure. From the first of these later pairs splits off the curiosity for knowledge, as from the latter the impulse toward artistic and theatrical representation…. Every process of development brings with it the germ of pathological dispositions in so far as it may be inhibited, delayed, or incompletely carried out. This holds for the sexual function, with its many complications. It is not smoothly completed in all individuals, and may leave behind either abnormalities or disposition to later diseases by the way of later falling back or regression.
Flaubert liked playacting, and found writing alone somewhat troublesome because he was loath to confine his imagination to the written word. The family potentate would eventually send him off to law school, to which he was indifferent, to say the least, although he found the precise, unsentimental objective language of the law attractive, in comparison to the wild, romantic urging of his youth.
While on vacation at home, he suffered a nervous breakdown or crisis, accompanied by temporary paralysis, an event said to be a nervous disease; the ‘stroke’ may have been, for all we know, an epileptic seizure although clear signs of epilepsy were not apparent.
These attacks, absent the usual signs of epilepsy, recurred throughout his life whenever he was under considerable stress. If his abnormal motor or sensory affects, whatever they might have been, were psychogenic, today they might be considered as evidence of a psychosomatic “conversion disorder,” along the lines of ‘classical’ hysteria, provided they were preceded by stress, not faked, not medically or culturally determined, not limited merely to pain or sexual dysfunction, and not falling within the context of some other somatic disorder or mental illness. Incidentally, the symptoms of conversion hysteria in the West are of a different type than those found in the East despite the requirement of cultural indeterminism.
Epileptic phenomena, as Sartre well knew, were once believed to be symptomatic of hysteria. Hysteria was called a “protean” affliction because it could mimic or fake the symptoms of many physical diseases. Studies of hysterics had demonstrated that hysteria is a performance with a purpose—primary and secondary gains are to be had.
When we examine the photographs of hysterical performances taken at Salpetriere Hospital, we believe our own starlets would have gained appreciative Off Broadway audiences there in those days. There were also male hysterics at Salpetriere, just as Dionysus appeared at Delphi while it was ruled by Apollo, but the command performances were naturally given by pithiatic women inasmuch as females traditionally had the “wandering wombs” associated with irrational or immoral behavior, while men were customarily the repositories of reason, which logically justified their might as a moral right by virtue of their will to power.
Pierre Andre Brouillet’s‘Una lecon Clinique a la Salpetriere’
(A painting Sigmund Freud kept in his office).
The “Queen of Hysterics,” Blanch Wittman,
Faints into the arms of Joseph Babinski
Like witches of old, who were usually impoverished women who practiced the magical arts of witchcraft as a trade, the new witchdoctors took up diagnosing and casting curative spells as a business. Instead of burning witches at the stake, and chaining womb-wandering hysterics to prison walls, they would endeavor to disenchant them of their maladies with their persuasive powers of reasonable talk and positive suggestion, perhaps after the demons possessing the hapless patients came forth and revealed themselves during hypnotic spells, courses of free association, or during couched confessions for which no penance was exacted. And, like the witches of old, hysterics performed well at the suggestion of their inquisitors, confessing their sins, particularly those of a sexual nature; otherwise, the prognosis would be “incurable”; that is, if they did not perform as indirectly directed, they would be cast into the hopeless ward from hell.
The fallacious arguments has been made by some good doctors that, if hysterical behavior is a performance, then performers are hysterics. For them, the hysterical performances confirmed that histrionics, or pretending to be someone else, is a masochistic art. In fine, hysteria was an invention, or rather a new name for an old disguise, and the enthusiasm or spirited prepossession of the “scientific” doctors, who were themselves frequently subject to the hysteria they had unwittingly induced, had a financial motive; to wit, to corner the market from the so-called charlatans and quacks who plied their ancient trade with potions, mesmerism, sympathetic magic, hypnotic spells and the like.
Witchcraft like psychoanalysis was not without its financial rewards, and lifted many a witch out of dire poverty. We refer to The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches In the County of Lancaster With the Arraignement and Triall of Nineteene notorious WITCHES, at the Assizes and generall Gaole deliuerie, holden at the Castle of LANCASTER, vpon Munday, the seuenteenth of August last, 1612…. by Thomas Potts, Esq., who was clerk of the court and present for the trials. Seventeen of the women were found guilty. The Introduction and Notes, from which we quote below, were written by Thomas Crowley, Esq.
A common story emerged from witness and the confessions of the accused, of vengeful witches being accosted by and entering into deals with a devil named Tibbe or Fancie, appearing perhaps as a boy, black cat, brown dog, or hare and such. The witches were most likely engaged in a competitive business of selling unorthodox spells, curses or blessings, and dealing in “contraband” i.e. magic images, the likes of which have historically produced considerable income to legitimate religions besides those forbidding graven images.
Whether it be with witches as it is said to be with a much maligned branch of a certain profession, that it needs two of its members in a district to make its exercise profitable, it is not for me to say; but it is seldom found that competition is accompanied by any very amicable feeling in the competitors, or by a disposition to underrate the value of the merchandize which each has to offer for sale.
Accordingly, great was the rivalry, constant the feuds, and unintermitting the respective criminations of the Erictho and Canidia of Pendle, who had opened shops for the vending of similar contraband commodities, and were called upon to decry each other’s stock, as well as to magnify their own. Each ‘gave her little senate laws,’ and had her own party (or tail, according to modern phraseology) in the Forest. Some looked up to and patronized one, and some the other. If old Demdike could boast that she had Tibb as a familiar, old Chattox was not without her Fancy. If the former had skill in waxen images, the latter could dig up the scalps of the dead, and make their teeth serviceable to her unhallowed purposes.
In the anxiety which each felt to outvie the other, and to secure the greater share of the general custom of a not very extended or very lucrative market, each would wish to be represented as more death-dealing, destructive, and powerful than her neighbour; and she who could number up the most goodly assortment of damage done to man and beast, whether real or not was quite immaterial, as long as the draught was spiced and flavoured to suit the general taste, stood the best chance of obtaining a monopoly.
It is a curious fact, that the son-in-law of one of these two individuals, and whose wife was herself executed as a witch, paid to the other a yearly rent, on an express covenant that she should exempt him from her charms and witchcrafts. Where the possession of a commission from the powers of darkness was thus eagerly and ostentatiously paraded, every death, the cause of which was not perfectly obvious, whether it ended in a sudden termination or a slow and gradual decline, would be placed to the general account of one of the two (to use Master Potts’s description,) “agents for the devil in those parts,” as the party responsible for these unclaimed dividends of mortality.
Did a cow go mad, or was a horse unaccountably afflicted with the staggers, the same solution was always at hand to clear negligence and save the trouble of inquiry; and so far from modestly disclaiming these atrocities, the only struggle on the parts of Mothers Demdike and Chattox would be which should first appropriate them.
And in all this it must not be forgotten that their own credulity was at least as great as the credulity of their neighbours, and that each had the power in question was so much an admitted point, that she had long ceased, in all probability, to entertain any doubts on the subject. With this general conviction on one hand, and a sincere persuasion on the other, it would be surprising if, in the course of a few years, the scandalous chronicle of Pendle had not accumulated a corpus delicti against them, which only required that ‘one of his Majesties Justices in these parts, a very religious honest gentleman, painful in the service of his country,’ should work the materials into shape, and make the gruel thick and slab.’”
In Dr. Whitaker’s astonishment that Margaret Johnson should make the confession she appears to have done, in a clear case of imposture, few of his readers will be disposed to participate, who are at all conversant with the trials of reputed witches in this country. Confessions were so common on those occasions, that there is, I believe, not a single instance of any great number of persons being convicted of witchcraft at one time, some of whom did not make a confession of guilt. Nor is there anything extraordinary in that circumstance, when it is remembered that many of them sincerely believed in the existence of the powers attributed to them; and others, aged and of weak understanding, were, in a measure, coerced by the strong persuasion of their guilt, which all around them manifested, into an acquiescence in the truth of the accusation. In many cases the confessions were made in the hope, and no doubt with the promise, seldom performed, that a respite from punishment would be eventually granted. In other instances, there is as little doubt, that they were the final results of irritation, agony, and despair.
The confessions are generally composed of “such stuff as dreams are made of,” and what they report to have occurred, might either proceed, when there was no intention to fabricate, from intertwining the fantastic threads which sometimes stream upon the waking senses from the land of shadows, or be caused by those ocular hallucinations of which medical science has supplied full and satisfactory solution. There is no argument which so long maintained its ground in support of witchcraft as that which was founded on the confessions referred to. It was the last plank clung to by many a witch-believing lawyer and divine. And yet there is none which will less bear critical scrutiny and examination, or the fallacy of which can more easily be shown, if any particular reported confession is taken as a test and subjected to a searching analysis and inquiry.”
The trial of the Samlesbury witches, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, forms a curious episode in Potts’s Discoverie. A Priest or Jesuit, of the name of Thomson, alias Southworth, had tutored the principal evidence, Grace Sowerbuts, a girl of the age of fourteen, but who had not the same instinctive genius for perjury as Jennet Device, to accuse the three persons above mentioned of having bewitched her; “so that,” as the indictment [lvii] runs, “by means thereof her body wasted and consumed.”
“The chief object,” says Sir Walter Scott, “in this imposture, was doubtless the advantage and promotion of the Catholic cause, as the patient would have been in due time exorcised and the fiend dispossessed, by the same priest who had taught her to counterfeit the fits. Revenge against the women, who had become proselytes to the Church of England, was probably an additional motive.” But the imposture broke down, from the inability of the principal witness to support the scheme of deception. Unsuccessful, however, as it proved, the time was well chosen, the groundwork excellently laid, the evidence industriously got up, and it must ever deserve a prominent place in the history—a history, how delightful when it shall be written in the spirit of philosophy and with due application of research—of human fraud and imposture.”
This wicked attempt on the part of this priest, or Jesuit, Thompson, alias Southworth, to murder the three persons whose trial is next reported, by suborning a child of the family to accuse them of what, in the excited state of the public mind at the time, was almost certain to consign them to a public execution, has few parallels in the annals of atrocity.
The plot was defeated, and the lives of the persons accused, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, saved, by no sagacity of the judge or wisdom of the jury, but by the effect of one simple question, wrung from the intended victims on the verge of anticipated condemnation, and which, natural as it might appear, was one the felicity of which Garrow or Erskine might have envied. It demolished, like Ithuriel’s spear, the whole fabric of imposture, and laid it open even to the comprehension of Sir Edward Bromley and Master Thomas Potts.
Then as today the stigmata or signs of hysteria would increase in number as the profession progressed. Naturally it would behoove the best modern neurologists to become psychiatrists and treat the most affluent women, many of whom if not all were neurotic due to their discontent with patriarchal civilization, making of some of them a good example of the virtues of prolonged psychiatric treatment. Some patient patients would be so utterly convinced by the results of their submission to professional authority that they would take up the practice themselves; others, conscious of the fact that they were “faking it,” found scant relief from the maladies suffered.
Flaubert’s performance, Sartre believed, was staged to gain enough sympathy to get out of law school, first of all, and then to do whatever he wanted. Mission accomplished: his father was convinced Flaubert’s constitution would not tolerate a regular life; he was withdrawn from school and supported by his family’s considerable resources. It was after this crisis, which most people would have written off as mildly traumatic at most, that he supposedly found himself able to write at length, albeit painstakingly, sometimes working on a single page for an entire week in a scientific effort to find just the right, harmonious yet unsentimental words to perfect it.
Hysteria, by the way, can be so broad as to encompass all sorts of disorders. Now an obsessive-compulsive person might protect himself from the shitty world by confining it to things that must be touched and warding off its pollution by repetitious hand-washing.
Flaubert, hypothetically, totalized the world at his writing desk, warding off its pollution with a clinical representation or purist style of writing. In other words, his writing distanced him from the dirty world as he condensed what he thought about it into words, tortuously molding the crap into concrete constructions—everything was under control in that bloody wrestling arena. In Walter Pater’s words, he was the “martyr of style.”
Neither technique nor artist should be noticed in fine art. Flaubert finally managed to lose himself in brilliantly depicted details, to paint himself out of his picture of Madame Bovary; there he would perfect his unreality in a disappearing act; to wit, become untouchable or Nothing. Only Nothing is perfect and permanent; that would be his form of hysterical paralysis within which his artistic convulsions were performed. And that was no easy accomplishment for a rebellious subject raised in the vague, emotional effusions of French High Romanticism with all its affectations in the form of incomplete words—words are merely symbolic, indicative of potential action, impotent in themselves.
From the age of fourteen, he is quite explicit about his dissatisfaction with the written word, a dissatisfaction that will persist at least until the crisis of 1844; the written word is clearly inadequate as it can render neither feelings, sensations, nor ecstasies. This denunciation is his recurrent subject, and, as we know, the deepest reasons for it lie elsewhere; but if he slips it into most of his early works from the age of fourteen on, it is as an occasional yet crucial motif. He was forbidden the career of actor; hence, words were deprived of their ordinary accompanying gestures, mimicry, and intonation; they were suddenly mutilated, became little more than inert scaffolding how could he give them back their former fullness? Deprived of his old sound tools, he had to replace them by crude, mute instruments which, because they were not heated by his breath, would never express his animating pathos. Of course, he would read his text aloud, interpret it, giving a singular aspect to the universal vocable through the timbre of his voice, and hence would be able on rare occasions to preserve the illusion that he was giving birth to it by expectoration. But he knew very well that reading is not acting. Even the ludic aspect of literature has nothing to do with acting. Above all, writing for unknown readers is an attempt to captivate and seduce them by defenseless graphemes, which they interpret as they like. He is vulnerable with nothing in his hands, nothing in his pockets; the writer traces his scrawl and goes away, leaving it to the most malevolent inspection.
Despite Sartre’s analysis, we see nothing neurotic or abnormal in Flaubert’s reluctant progression from an oral to written mode of communication; the reduction of thought to objective texts, the invention of writing, accounts for the “progress” of civilization.
As Neil Postman has pointed out, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), a medium is a suggestive metaphor, and the particular form of a medium helps define the truth—a medium has an epistemological function. For example, “today’s news” was a creation of the telegraph. We still think of the brain as a tablet on which personal experience is recorded, and as a calculating and decisional machine; today we think of it as a personal computer linked by one device or another to the Internet “Cloud” in which we have our heads.
Nicholas Carr asks us if Google is making us stupid. Postman believes our regression from words to pictorial images as a mode of communication is filling our heads with dangerous nonsense and rendering us silly. Still, we associate the truth with the printed page or its facsimile, which constitutes a reorientation of thought from the oral mode. Our laws are written; therefore our lawyers do not have to be wise; being well briefed is sufficient. Oral testimony is still preferred as being a truer to the mind of the witness, but we more strongly believe in the authority of writing. “The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify of refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character.”
However that may be, to exist is to exist in print, as Lewis Mumford noted, which makes a far greater impression than actual events and releases people from the domination of immediate and local circumstances. Sartre himself said he wrote to free people—no doubt beginning with himself. Maybe we should all take up writing at greater length.
THE ULTIMATE ABSURDITY OF GOD’S SUICIDE
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
If god is eternal, then his suicide would be the ultimate logical absurdity. If god can not destroy himself, then he is not omnipotent or all-powerful. If god committed suicide, he would not exist, hence he would not be eternal. Given the logical contradictions of god’s supposed attributes, a reasonable man has good cause to opine that it is impossible for an eternal and omnipotent god to exist.
Yet many are those who would be at least hypothetically at one with an impossible god – they might write the logical absurdity off as another “one of God’s mysteries.” Consider this excerpt from a December 1876 article in Fyodor Dostoevsky The Diary of a Writer:”I cannot be happy except in the Harmony with the great all…. I consider the comedy perpetrated by nature altogether stupid… Humiliating for me to deign to play it…. I condemn that nature which… brought me into being in order to suffer – I condemn it to be annihilated with me.”
The disillusioned speaker obviously desires something besides the harmony, say, of a fifth on the major scale, say between the notes C and G. He rather wants to be atoned with or be at one with a universal One; he would be absorbed by an One of which the world he hates is not a part; for, if it were a part, the tragi-comic world would persist. Such an undifferentiated One would of course be a static infinite void, an eternal nothingness similar to absolute space. The nebulous qualities of absolute space are similar to the theological definitions of God: Absolute Space = God – a fact not lost on the early metaphysicians of modern physics.
Of course the reasoning of our death-wishing author is absurd. There is no identity lacking a relationship, whether or not it is a harmonious one. Further, the suicide leaves the very thing he protests behind – the world persists. The same may be said of the virtual suicide of the ascetic who protests against vanity, claiming that all things of this world pass, therefore it is vain to place confidence in them: the world however persists long after the protestant perishes, which leads us to ask whether or not his heaven, whatever the imagined contents of its absolute space may be, is actually the Vanity of vanities.
Methinks the impossible god represents the will to power, the will to persist forever, something which most of us would not mind doing provided that we did not suffer too much. If no such god exists, men are left to their own relative devices and powers: they are their own gods, petty gods or demi-gods, so to speak. Confronted with relative existence, with the apparent fact that everything perishes and that every living being dies, a few individuals will always manage to reason themselves to death. After thinking on the matter for awhile, they conclude that they might as well face the terrifying truth now, that life is absurd, and take advantage of the ultimate exercise of their relative power, the power to destroy themselves.
Instead of avoiding reality and wasting time with one futile diversion after another, instead of leading an absurd life in a godless universe with a world deaf to their need for eternal life, some folks are disposed to dispense with themselves forthwith; not necessarily because they despaired, but simply because, like President Clinton, they could if they would. Forsaking all else except their love for efficiency, self-destruction seemed to be the reasonable thing to do. Why waste valuable time? And, in his self-sacrifice of his self to his self, at least a man would courageously prove that he, judge and victim, has the power of life and death over himself, and is in fact the god so many people are in need of.
There are a number of men in our midst for whom life on earth is insufficient yet not insufferable providing they have sufficient leisure to gradually reason themselves to death. Logic-chopping suicide is self-murder by gradual mental amputation. Many logical suicidal fanatics never get around to actually killing themselves, preferring an extended virtual suicide to the real thing. Some of them are too preoccupied with philosophy as a preparation for death, or with writing novels about suicidal protagonists, to take their own lives that seriously.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said that his life was tormented by the question of God’s existence. That question is obviously the thorn in the side of several of his characters, who are as salt in their creator’s wound. And those of us who appreciate the works of Dostoevsky if not his personal suffering are glad of that. We are not afraid of his doubts. Even those who consider the question personally irrelevant have been amused by the characters for whom the subject is crucial.
Dostoevsky reasoned on the pressing issues of his day in The Diary of a Writer- the Diary was initially a column in the Citizen but later an independent periodical. Of course the eternal and omnipotent god was dying in those days and the number of people who believe in the immortality of the son of man – meaning the ideal man abstracted from men – was on the wane.
“If faith in immortality is so necessary to the human being,” speculated Dostoevsky in the Diary, “that without it he comes to the point of killing himself, it must be the normal state of humanity. Since this is the case, the immortality of the soul exists without any doubt.”
Of course that argument was hardly the end of Dostoevsky epic internal combat. The speculation itself is specious. Evidence is ample that faith in immortality is not necessary for the human being to persist. Many people believe that life ends with the death of the body and that no soul survives et cetera; and many of them have even rejoiced at the supposed finality of each life; yet they did not go hang themselves, and many lead happy lives. We must also note here that suicide would be impossible if the soul really were immortal; in that case, all suicide attempts would be futile – Hamlet was troubled by that possibility.
As for me, my opinion on the existence of god is irrelevant to orthodoxy since I am not a licensed spiritual consultant; but that shall not stop me from giving it: I am moved to opine that human beings have a sort of “blind faith” in their persistence, a faith inherent in their will to live. The subsequent reasoning thereupon, the dogmas and doctrines, some of them quite beautiful, may be useful in rounding up the herd in a secure place, for misery loves company. After all, for the sake of social coherence it is convenient to construe certain dogma as if it were true.
Nonetheless, religious dogmas and doctrines, such as the doctrine that faith not works saves, appear to me to express more fear than faith. And those who persist in forcing their faith on others have more to fear than most; for instance, the old Jewish notion that it is just to hate missionaries, as if they were murderers, has merit inasmuch as to convert a Jew is to kill a Jew. I have heard it said that people must abide with a particular blind faith or the other. Universal skepticism towards all faiths, or the “godlessness” of those “demons” who refuse to participate in the conspiracies around the holy camp fires, is blamed for the ruination of the world. But the current evidence suggests that this world is not being brought to ruin by skeptics but rather by irrational fundamentalists who have fanatic faith in the Terrorist Almighty: Islamists, Zionists, the Christian Right and Company. They appear as regressives or “conservatives” who revert to the ancient, heroic way to immortality, in the mass suicide of war; for instance, the Greek heroes who sought immortality in killing enemies.
I have met a few truly faithful people; they had nothing whatsoever to prove to anyone at all; their fearless example in bearing witness through their works alone was proof enough to those who worked beside them.
Methinks morality whether it is distinctively religious or not is a sort of virtual suicide. People like myself used to drink religiously in ancient times, then gave it up. In my case, I developed an extra-dry sense of humor when I deserted the tavern-churches and took up writing interminable screeds in cheaper and cheaper garrets. I became a virtual ascetic, abandoning all but one or two of those activities some refer to as “sins.” After all these years of doing without, I might be Leaving Las Vegas with one last blast – if I survive, at least I will have to make good money to keep up with my bad habits. Pending that return to the sweet life, I must reiterate that morality as I know it is a sort of suicide – one would hope for the sake of the species. It is said that a man who conquers himself – a congery of habits – is the most powerful man of all. An ascetic who conquers himself might reason, Why wait? Why not end it all now? Why not exercise the ultimate power and actually be a god?
One of my favorite virtual characters of the logical-suicide type is Dostoevsky Kirilov, the protagonist in The Possessed who fancied that Christ did not find himself in Paradise after his suicide-by-mankind, but had lived and died for a falsehood or illusion.
“It has always surprised me,” said Kirilov, “that everybody goes on living…. If there’s no God, then I’m God…. If God exists, then the whole will is His and I can do nothing. If he doesn’t exist, then all will is mine and I must exercise my own will, my free will…. ”
That is, If God does not exist, everything depends on us. To be truly independent, kill God and become God. If God is eternal, becoming God would realize eternal life – the Power that men worship – on Earth, at least for the time being. Why then commit suicide? Because, or so the perverse reasoning goes, the most glorious exercise of the newly found fearless freedom is to sacrifice it. Again, Why? Out of love for humanity, of course, the son of man, the ideal man, provides humankind with a lesson – his suicide is pedagogical. The ideal man will by the last god to die for all the rest, and thus immortalize humankind on Earth. He is the grandest paranoid man, the most humiliated and exalted man on Earth, and by virtue of his self-martyrdom, the hypocrisy or underlying crisis of humankind will be resolved along with the embarrassing ambiguities, and everyone may become an enlightened god on Earth, or a Christ-Tsar. Humankind is now divine, is free at last! Thus the divine suicide sacrifices himself not to eliminate his own unhappiness, but to free all his neighbors out of love for them, wherefore they do not have to take the same fatal step providing by virtual suicide they take the metaphysical leap to his fearless faith. Kirilov is not suffering from an illusion: in the final analysis, he is deluded; no matter how impeccable his logic might be – and it is not – he has broken with reality. Intolerant of ambiguity, of the absurdity of particular contradictions to the universal, he would in madness rid himself of the ambiguous by reasoning himself to death. Logic is for application to a particular objective purpose or practice, and not for the destruction of the logician. In fine, Kirilov is unwholesome, or, if you will, insane.
“I can’t imagine,” Kirilov continues, “that there’s not one person on our planet who, having put an end to God and believing in his own free will, will dare to exercise that free will in the most important point. It would be like a pauper inheriting a bag full of money and not daring to put his hand into it, thinking himself too weak to own it…. I have an obligation to shoot myself because the supreme gesture of free will is to kill oneself…. I am the only one to do it without reason, just to establish my free will…. I must affirm my unbelief, for there’s nothing higher for me than the thought that there’s no God. The history of mankind is on my side. Man kept inventing God in order to live, so as not to have to kill himself. To this day, the history of mankind consists of just that. I am the first man in history to refuse to invent God. I want it to be known always…. Only one – the first one to realize it, that he’s God, must kill himself…. I’m terribly unhappy because I’m terribly afraid. Fear is the curse of man. But I shall establish my free will. It is my duty to make myself believe that I do not believe in God. I’ll be the first and the last, and that will open the door. And I’ll save them…. For three years I’ve searched for the attribute of my divinity and I’ve found it – my free will! This is all I have at my disposal to show my independence and the terrifying new freedom I have gained. Because this freedom is terrifying all right, I’m killing myself to demonstrate my independence and my new terrifying freedom!”
The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky titanic torment on the pressing question. No doubt it was homeopathic medicine for the impoverished author’s pain. It concluded with the announcement of a future life.
Kolya (a boy), asks, “Karamazov, is it true what religion says, that we shall rise from the dead, that we shall see one another again?”
“Certainly we shall see one another again, we shall joyfully tell one another what happened.”
The gospel of immortality and the dogma of an eternal god may be absurd but real; existence may be at once illusory and eternal; and a person can be both incredulous and convicted: “I doubt it, but I believe it despite myself.
The character typified by Kirilov, Stavrogin, Ivan, is defeated at the end of Dostoevsky gigantic literary combat with God and Vanity. We shall meet again. Suicide and madness are unnecessary, useless, for we shall enjoy immortality, be as the eternal god, gods ourselves, after death on this sphere.
Quoted: Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Possessed, Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew, New York: Signet 1962
Before the Neo-Luddite Convention
Dedicated to Mary Shelley
As recorded by David Arthur Walters
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce myself. I am a Frankenstein Monster.
I have overheard the gossip about me. It is misleading hearsay, so I will speak for myself. I will refer to these notes I have prepared, not because I have a defective memory, but because I fear my broken heart will distract me. I will try to be brief and concise, for I am only too familiar with the impatience of a crowd and its primitive need for simple solutions.
I will only address at this time the vicious rumor that since my story is about an artificial creature that has run amok, it is meant to warn modern man of the dangers of science and its rational technology. Some have gone so far to recommend not only a halt to scientific progress, but even the wholesale destruction of its creations. I am personally familiar with the horrible consequences of that irrational bias, and I say it is ultimately self-destructive. This becomes obvious to those who examine the monster chasers. Be that as it may, allow me to say a few things about myself. I’m sure my anecdotes will be of great import to those who sympathize with monsters, knowing that science is not at fault. Indeed, careful scientific analysis will reveal that a monster would develop into a valuable member of society if it were not for its incoherent members.
I have always wondered about my origins. I must admit that my early memories are fragmented. I think somebody loved me, but I don’t remember who. I was told my mother suddenly died when I was very little. I recall someone saying, much to my irritation: “He’s three years old!” I knew I was actually ancient, much older than that, maybe even immortal.
I remember I loved my father, but he couldn’t personally take care of me for long, so I was placed in a foster home. I was always looking for my father. I was sad, but I knew I was good because of the hurt I felt. It was then that I started to read, or at least to make up meanings for the symbols I saw in books, based upon what I had heard others say.
Since I was alone most of the time, much was left to my imagination, the fruit of my desire. I believed that if I learned the language of the giants I would no longer feel so abandoned.
My father’s intentions were always the best. He eventually remarried and came for me, but I was sorry to leave the foster home where I was allowed to run free. I was even given a quarter on Saturdays to see the triple feature downtown. But my step mother imposed limitations on me. She taught me that I was a bad boy and a liar subject to discipline. I was also accused of being a thief. The charge was that I had stolen another boy’s underpants at the swimming pool. I was thoroughly confused by these identifications, and I blamed the impositions on my father. I began to hate the creator who tolerated and supported the stifling atmosphere of my new home. That was when I started wondering who my real mother was, because surely she would know I was good and would love me always. So I ran away from my new home to find my origin. I believed in a feminine origin, my original mother, to whom I constantly prayed. I have been wandering the face of the earth ever since seeking her and therefore my own identity. Without her I am nothing but a vile jumble of rotting garbage.
I feel like I’ve been haphazardly thrown together, made up of many incongruous parts. I have longed so fervently for integrity, for truth! Others seemed to know who they were. Why not me? I tried the various techniques recommended, but they didn’t seem to work. The methods certainly didn’t sooth the discordant aching of my heart. I began to think that maybe the whole world was full of liars going around saying they knew who they were. Some of them said that there was even more to come after death; that I was to burn in hell if I didn’t do as they said. Oh no!
In any event, I didn’t give up. I kept seeking. Seeking a wife to make me whole: that’s the solution! After I ran away, many were the times I would peer into the windows of homes where I would see apparently happy families in their familiar activities. I would make my own home! I was desperate. I found a wife and made a home. Like my father, my intentions were the best, but the marriage was a puzzle of crazy quilt work that finally unravelled, leaving me in a stupid and painful stupor as always, stupid in that, in my clumsiness, I had crushed the very things I desired the most. I didn’t give up. As a man I was supposed to be a great leader. I tried it again with the same effect. I didn’t know what a home was or how to make one from scratch. I failed miserably, leaving behind me a trail of tears and regrets.
I can’t fathom why I keep meandering about this globe. I feel so useless, but I go on like a zombie. Who made me?
Why can’t I just end it all? What makes me tick? What is my fate? Who am I? What am I?
I’ve stopped looking around for that one woman who can make me right. There are occasions when I inadvertently glance at a woman and, when caught in the act, smile. But the women return my curiosity with a countenance of disgust as if the sight of me gives them cause to vomit. Am I so ugly? I peer into the mirror. I must be the horrible one nobody wants. Who made me this way? When I speak out loud this way, sometimes someone says something nice and encouraging, but they themselves do not want me. They say there is someone out there for everybody, but that someone is not me. Don’t worry, someone feeling guilty says, Jesus loves you (but I don’t). I have their sympathy but not their love.
Can anyone imagine how hard it is to even walk down the street in my state? Alone in my crude dwelling, I have good intentions, so I step out into the crowd smiling, but they are afraid to look at me, they walk right at me as if I didn’t exist. Oh, there’s one who actually sees me! But knowing I have caught his eye, he gives me a murderous look, a look that would turn the most ardent romantic into stone. This hate I feel is incomprehensible. I am enraged. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t rehearse mayhem in my mind. I hear remarks about a man who ran amok with an assault rifle, and wonder why people think that is so astonishing. I have been running from the mob for a long time now. I know what its members are capable of.
Nevertheless, I haven’t completely lost my sense of humor. One of the most comic features of the tragedy is that the mob would lynch a monster on sight, or burn, freeze, electrocute, gas or otherwise execute the execrable creature. I will hide in my cave until they are finished destroying each other, and then I will stand alone to have the last cruel laugh as my revenge, the last man living on the earth, howling with glee to the high heavens!
Much has originated from the brief intersection of our lives at the Internet Cafe on that sunny Sunday morning in Paradise some time ago. I remember you well. You asked me if I were a writer, and you revealed yourself as the same in a soft voice barely audible over the clickety-clacking of the surrounding keyboards.
I glanced at the sleeping fellow with purple hair on the couch and wondered what the hourly rack-rate might be for sleeping the cafe. I turned to you and remarked on the “spiritual” quality of our present premises. You returned with, “Yes, and despite the technology too.” To which I retorted, “The transmission of Truth doesn’t require a modem, and is apprehended by sleeping babies in the womb.”
You said you were not very sure of yourself as a writer, that your critics claim your prose is pretty bad politics. On the other hand, your poetry is evidently genuinely appreciated: you received an invitation to read it again at Barnes & Noble.
I was quick to counsel you from my amateur’s seat of authority. You may recall that I asked if poetry is where your Heart is, because that is where you must go to be free. I said I’d received a poem from my father of merely twelve lines that spoke twelve volumes. Your inevitable question followed, “Is he published?” I answered: “Well, a few of his poems have appeared in print and have won prizes, but that’s beside the point of his sixty-five years of polishing them, then stuffing them back into the trunk for future perfecting. After all, to begin with, the artist must be free of the awful market.”
My respect for entrunked poetry did not seem to impress you with a prospect for your immediate success, so I switched the subject to prose as follows. As you will recall, you did say, when I mentioned my father’s brevity, that you didn’t like wordy poems. I emphatically declared Creation itself to be poetry, and effused: “Good prose is a river singing the same song no matter where one stops by its banks to listen, a song of love that is worthy of infinite repetition.”
You were quiet then, but from the silence I thought I heard a plaintive, whispered cry, for a bridge to close the terrible heart-rending gap of alienation. I faintly felt a will striving to find the most direct path to communication.
Perhaps my thoughts and feelings were my own. Perhaps not. You were professedly thinking of something else at the time. You said you thought you were already old at thirty-something.
Ah, there it is again, I mused, the overriding fear of time – people over thirty don’t trust themselves. With that in mind, I wondered what more I could say on the spur of the moment. I presented to your ears a wee monologue on how I write, a subject of small apparent interest to you, but I went on nevertheless.
“I write free of time constraints because I know I am part of all that came and went and will come. I merely pass on the royal lines of my race,” I related. “That alone suffices for me, and if none care to read me, I am contented with writing for my muse alone, for writing is my transcendental meditation.”
You seemed to have had enough of my outpouring by then, as if in your quest for a personal solution you cared not to hear of mine. I’ve had the same feeling with advisors who are always eager to tell me how to run my shop. In any event, I liked you. You were obviously quite shy, so to be discreet rather than pushing for your phone number, I presented my card, and I promised that, if you would send me something of yours, then I would mail you something of mine.
I should have pressed you for your phone number. I heard nothing from you during yet another silent epoch in my life with strangers in paradise. I have so many words held for such a long time in abeyance that I am moved to jot these down. Perhaps your letter will come after all, then this reply will be almost completed when it arrives.
I continued on my way to the beach on that sunny day of our meeting. As you know, writers often write mentally when not actually writing – blind Milton used to cry out desperately in the night for his faithful wife to come and record his pent-up lines. As I strolled along, strange voices crowded out my own thoughts:
“We are the dead alive, the dead seen in your faces, the dead resurrected. We are those who were and who will become, We are history, and to know us is to know who you are. You think you are old, but we say you are much older than you think, for you are ancient. Listen to us. Raise the dead. We know you. You are somebody, the truth that has come true, so call on us and you will never be alone. Do you feel the fires of freedom? Then let your heart flame up to the heavens and cast its liberating light on the worldly signs below so that others can find the way. In the fierce heat you shall always find our voice and it shall be your precious voice of Love singing the song that weaves eternity. Welcome the fire coursing in your veins. Be the rhythm of your heart pumping liberty. And let that hand that records your passion be the loving hand that plucked Shelley’s heart from the crematory and carried it back to England in its little casket to Mary as she remembered his advice to follow her Heart.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely, David Arthur Walters
Epilogue: Six months after I drafted this letter, I encountered the young woman at a writer’s workshop. I was delighted to see her, and I wanted to give her my letter, which I had been carrying around in my briefcase for many weeks. I walked over and sat down by her and introduced myself as the man she had met at the Internet Cafe. She said nothing, got up and walked briskly to the other side of the room, and sat down with her back to me.
I am honored to receive your public remark criticizing my fine Internet essay, “GRAMMAR”.
I am unable to find your name listed in the Directory of Physicians. I suppose you are using a pseudonym or an alias, as is the practice of the Anony Mouse Family. Since I am unable to reach you after your indelicate grammatical operation, I am herewith framing your impertinent critical remark along with my impetuous response thereto:
“Although you obviously have talent as a writer, I think you could have said what you were trying to say in a much less pretentious manner. This was not at all easy to read, and I am a highly educated person who has occasionally been guilty of playing sesquipedalian myself. One of the tenets of good grammar is to avoid verbiage. If I may quote William Safire (THE grammar authority): ‘Many of us like to stretch the minds of our readers, introducing them to the big menu behind the list of daily word specials, but all too often we practive polysyllabicism because we want to show off. Lookame, I got this prodigious vocabulary.’ Choose the word that says precisely what you mean and your prose will be less cumbersome and much more readible (not to mention enjoyable). Good luck!” (sic)
First of all, I congratulate you on your dissimulation I mean “dissimulation” in the psychiatric sense: “the ability or tendency to appear normal when actually suffering from a disorder: a characteristic of the paranoic.” (American Heritage Dictionary).
That, together with your underlying pretention to the literary throne, conspicuously qualifies you to lay down your stethoscope and take up the pen that is, after you have improved your handwriting so that somebody can read it. Already, at this stage of your development, it is difficult to ascertain whether you are a pompous ass or a master of irony, an idiot-savant or a perfect mime, a complete fraud or a pernickety pedant. But one thing is clear: you might do a lot less damage as an author to reader’s minds than as a physician to their brains for, in the latter case, the injury would be irreversible.
In any event, your pursuit of grammatical glories might cure you of the great defect of High Education nowadays: the arrogant narrow-mindedness that makes you believe that, if you do not understand something, it must be someone else’s fault, namely, the author’s. This is really the common defect of bad toilet training: the studious student thinks his toilet is the only throne in town, that it raises him to the most exalted summit yet he does not know the true nature of his productions, so dizzy has he become, with his nose up in the air, breathing his own gas.
Therefore, if you are to progress to Grammar’s true realm, you must climb down from your toilet and broaden your education. You must descend from your imperial tripod and study your trivium at the real trivium, on the mean streets, particularly at the crossroads where robbers and thieves lurk. You must descend from your throne and examine the logjam you have created, then go beyond the putrid prejudices you have acquired at random.
For example, take your blind faith in William Safire as “THE grammar authority”. He is an authority in the narrow sense, however, as you should have gleaned from my brilliant essay, I speak of Grammar in the broadest sense, of the best that has ever been said about everything. I can include only one of Safire’s statements in that category: he said a fence should be erected around your state to keep the weirdoes therein.
No, Safire is not THE authority on grammar. Quite to the contrary. He is your created imposter. H.L. Mencken is the real authority. Since you are given to criticism, you might want to examine his distinction between bad and good critics, set forth in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ (THE AMERICAN SCENE).
The bad critic “writes because he is possessed by a passion to advance the enlightenment, to put down error and wrong, to disseminate some specific doctrine….This is true, it seems to me, only of bad critics, and its degree of truth increases in direct ratio to their badness….It is almost universally held that the thing is a brother to jurisprudence, advertising, laparotomy, chautaugua lecturing, and the art of the schoolmarm.”
On the other hand, “the motive of the good critic who is really worth reading…is not the motive of the pedagogue but the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world….Everything else is afterthought, mock-modesty, messianic delusion….”
Mencken goes on to speak of his criticism of one of my favorite authors, Theodore Dreiser, saying that he has little interest in Dreiser’s main ideas:
“What then, was my motive in writing about Dreiser so copiously? My motive…was simply to sort out and give coherence to the ideas of MR. MENCKEN and to put them into suave and ingratiating terms, and to disclose them with a flourish, and maybe with a phrase of pretty song, into the dense fog that blanketed the Republic.” (emphasis added)
Dense fog, indeed! In case it is still too dense, Doctor Cynica, Mencken means to say he used Dreiser’s writing as a perch from which to sing his own song. To further clarify this point, I refer you to Miguel de Unamuno’s short story about a physician who loved to write, ‘The Madness of Doctor Montarco’.
Doctor Montarco was a good medical practitioner, nay, almost a perfect one, who took up writing fantastic stories to relieve himself of the burden of prosaic pretentiousness, but his patients believed that a good doctor would confine his writings to medical subjects, that Doctor Montarco’s fantasies proved him incompetent to practive medicine, therefore they gradually deserted him. But the good doctor, despite the threat of imminent poverty for himself and his family, kept writing. His motto was ‘All or Nothing’. He would express himself in full or not at all. His writing of the thoughts people think but do not dare to express eventually landed him in a madhouse, where a Doctor Atienza speculated on whether Doctor Montarco was really mad or not.
“It wasn’t madness,” Doctor Atienza diagnosed. “But now they have succeeded in making it turn into madness. I have been reading his work since he has been here and I realize now that one of their mistakes was to take him for a man of ideas, a writer of ideas, when fundamentally he is no such thing. His ideas were a point of departure, mere raw material, and had as much importance in his writing as earth used by Valasquez in making the pigments had to do with his painting, or as the type of the stone Michelangelo used had to do with his ‘Moses'”
And thus, Doctor Cynica, I am using your bad criticism of my Grammar as grist for my own mill, as a platform to sing yet another song, despite the fact that you did not understand my song to Grammar, and chose to blame me for your misunderstanding.
I realize you might have believed you were honorably enaged in well-intentioned “constructive” criticism when you appended your Comment to my essay. Please know, then, that I fully sympathise with THE greatest grammarian, Mencken, on that very subject, which he pontificated upon in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ as follows:
“In all history there has never been, to my knowledge, a single practitioner of any art who, as a result of ‘constructive’ criticism, improved his work….I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actually interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write: that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman….Constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being schoolmastered, especially by imbeciles.”
Finally, in closing, I must say that I believe the above will be particularly instructive to you both in your effort to maintain your god-like status as a physician as well as your struggle to become an author. However, with that forewarning in mind, I adjure you, Abandon your physical practice for the metaphysical, make your independent bid for the Mad House, and let bad critics remain damned to the hell they live in.
David Arthur Walters
Miguel de Unamuno, ABEL SANCHEZ and other stories. Trans. Anthony Kerrigan, Chicago: Henry Regner, 1956
H.L. Mencken, THE AMERICAN SCENE, a Reader. Ed. Huntington Cairns, NY: Knopf. 1965
H.L. Mencken, TREATISE ON THE GODS, NY: Knopf, 1930
There is no logical progress toward Good except from prior Evil. To avoid saying Evil created the world, and Good is on the run from previous Nothing or Death, we might say Good was a priori, and propound a preordained Fall and then a gradual Recovery or Reconciliation. Or we might posit a Decline to the Final Conflict and then a Recovery. Or we might opine that Good and Evil are coeval twins, independent entities, which is quite logical according to Bayle’s famous old dictionary. But to claim that Good and Evil are one and the same is for all practical purposes absurd and shall get us nowhere. In any event, as far as the more primitive mind is concerned, there is hardly a difference between Good and Evil until the Prophet gives the Word and is backed up by the Sword.
Therefore as we progress along the continuous lifeline spun, extended, and cut by the Three Fates, namely, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, we might pause at some point to reflect on the difference between Good and Evil. Indeed, the difference arises from and continues shortly after birth with painfully self-defining encounters with limiting objects, i.e. evil objections to the exercise of the presumably good, the individual will. But alas, no matter where we discover ourselves along the line, Good and Evil are so intimately connected at each point it is difficult if not impossible to make a perfectly clear distinction between the Dynamic Duo except by some seemingly arbitrary decision upon which all people may never entirely agree. Hence in ultimate matters militarists insist war is inevitable; only war can decide great moral issues; violence is necessary for the improvement of our stock; a united nations or a united states of the world would be a great hindrance to moral progress and consequently be a great evil.
War, indeed: a history of terror, a record of crimes against humanity, an awful progress towards final peace through global terror, is necessary for moral improvement, just as each individual necessarily progresses to the final agony and eternal peace.
Despite ample evidence of a death instinct running contrary to the will to survive, we all would nevertheless live, and to such an extent that, no matter how miserable individuals are, whether poor or rich, in this life, some would take their individuality with them to the hereafter.
Swedenborg, when asked, “What is Love?” said, “Love is your life.” Life exists in discrete forms albeit in related individuals. The love of life over fear of death, the apparent dominance of Good over Evil, the overriding will to live, brings individuals into conflict, wherefore we are brought by both instinct and by custom into agreement among themselves as groups. Our love for one another is self-love based on fear and hatred of outsiders, outriders, enemies.
War is the ordinary response to organized violence. Since a group provides security to its members, the survival of the group is a great good. A definite territory is required to that end. As the community becomes settled, its empowering unity is praised and cultivated. Outsiders, strangers who threaten the settled community, constitute the demonic forces of evil. They are criminals, roving bands of outlaws, nomadic tribes who fall upon each other with a vengeance and who do not mind putting a village or town to the torch and sword every so often.
We observe in the struggle to organize for safety’s sake the rudimentary frontier being drawn between Good and Evil. A barrier is erected, a wall is built, an iron curtain forged; a lord draws his sword to make war for peace – a god or priest or lawyer whispers in his ear…
II. The Proverbial Difference between Good and Evil
Zoroaster, whose decisive gift to man was positive evil, a definite Devil independent of the one, infinitely good God, hated the predatory outlaws and unruly evil spirits, including the evil spirits in the sacred beverage he wanted banned. His priestly brothers in India despised the devils too; they also swore off the potent beverage in order to ritually bless it for the courageous warriors to prodigiously imbibe.
As Zoroaster contemplated the Fire in Afghanistan, his Aryan neighbors in India of the Hindu foundation chanted curses on those evil outlaws who failed to adopt the sacred rituals. Yet the Vedic priests retained a number of rebellious characters or characteristics within their original pantheon to represent their own protests; they adopted yet others more vulgar but quite popular to maintain their official authority. Thus did Hinduism developed into a rather tolerant umbrella over various religious cults.
For Zoroaster, however, the difference between Good and Evil was altogether clear cut: a holy war must be waged against relative evil along the lines of retributive justice. And regardless of the Devil’s purported independence and equality with his opposite, in the final analysis, the Liar shall fail.
Orthodox Zoroaster gave no quarter to Evil. He would have nothing to do with wishy-washy, hypocritical, ambivalent morality.
This notion of disparate Good and Evil evolved around the communal Fire. The cooks eventually officiated with their sacred utensils and rudimentary furniture. Thus around a campfire and god’s table was a commune forged for Good as evil savages and barbarians threaten Good. Although a settled community’s immediate livelihood is available, it must nevertheless wage a defensive war to take over the whole countryside, the nation, and even the world to guarantee its continued peace and prosperity. At the very least, a secure frontier must be established to stave off savages and barbarians.
The community “elects” a legitimate hero, a fighting prince or general who wears a crown with two horns to represent its unity and lead the way to victory. That great warlord resembles the bandit tribal chiefs he would conquer. Is he a god or a devil, or is he both? Is he crowned with the horns of good and evil, the powers of the divine beast?
Even almighty gods have been horned by man. Balaam, the Mesopotamian diviner, who, because he was admonished by his ass, blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them as commanded, described God as having towering horns like an ox. If gods have horns, then it follows that God’s sons would have horns as well.
III. Alexander, Son of God
Alexander the Great is the classic example of a real ideal man. He was depicted on a third-century B.C. coin with ram’s horns growing from beneath his curly locks.
Alexander demanded a prophecy from Delphi in 336 BCE:
“My son,” the prophetess cried, “thou art invincible!” wherefore the conqueror embarked on the arduous trek to India that resulted in the Hellenization of the East.
After mathematical laws of probability are devised, an adventurer still knows not precisely where he will fall along the bell-shaped curve: even the mathematical wizards who scientifically managed Long Term Capital Management’s highly leveraged portfolio were confronted by the least likely possibility, one that almost brought down the world banking system, so may everything else in the universe perish in time, for nothing and only nothing is permanent.
Our adventuresome hero may simply roll the sacred dice of the Vedic heroes and accept the consequences, perhaps a loss of property and wives, and banishment to the forest for so many years. Or he might have lots drawn from a three-legged bowl as was once done at Delphi in lieu of interpreting hysterical screams, he accepting a simple Yea or Nay, usually for or against war. Or he may embody chance as Fortune and beseech Her Fickleness for her favors. As at Delphi, he might consult the priests for their interpretation of some chance occurrence precedent to taking chances, for there is no such thing as an accident where God presides, and only ignorance makes providence seem accidental.
Alexander, like many enterprising peacemakers before him, was quite fond of oracles; therefore, after being declared Pharaoh at Memphis, he went out of his way to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to consult the oracle of ram-headed Ammon whom the Greeks supposedly identified with Zeus – some dissenting scholars insist the Greeks clearly distinguished the Egyptian Ammon from the Greek Zeus. Many reasons are supposed for his arduous trek into western Egypt to a temple where no Pharaoh had gone before. Aristotle’s pupil certainly did not associate the maxim ‘Know Thyself’ with a self humbled by immediate circumstances; quite to the contrary, he made a career of going out of the way to extend himself and his empire to boot.
Perhaps Pharaoh Alexander wanted to firmly establish his dominion on the Carthaginian frontier. Furthermore, it has been noted he wanted to outdo his heroic ancestors Perseus and Heracles who had visited the god before him. Moreover, some say Alexander suspected Zeus was his ideal father, not that he disrespected Philip, his real father. The priest at Siwa greeted him as the “son of Ammon” – but all pharaohs are by nature sons of God. Most likely Alexander wanted confirmation of his fondest dreams of conquest.
However that may be, the priests took the egg-shaped idol from the inner sanctum and paraded it around the temple in its sacred arc or boat. In the procession the priests were by chance moved to turn this way and that, and the motions were in turn interpreted. Alexander received the answer he craved, kept it secret, and continued on the royal road of fame and fortune, with either his fortune or godliness, or both, well assured.
IV. Making Peace with War
Persians in Alexander’s path who wanted out from under their present oriental tyrants naturally hailed him as their benefactor and peacemaker. After all, war had brought peace to the Greek states. Alexander had assumed his assassinated father’s office as Hegemon, or General of the Pan-Hellenic Corinthian League, with unlimited authority to conduct war against the Persians. Before proceeding, Alexander taught the Greek states a few lessons about loyalty to the League, which was waning somewhat with the death of his father, the great Phillip, who had taken up the peace-torch.
War with Persia had the intended effect: it united the Greeks; people love to hate and hate to love. An enemy abroad is needed to make peace at home and eventually abroad as well; people back home were sick and tired of internal bickering and infernal wars. But Alexander stretched the notion of Pan-Hellenism, which was, at least according to contemporary political philosophy, to be achieved by wreaking revenge on Persia for its invasion a century-and-a-half before. He generalized the notion to include conquered Persians as Hellenistic friends, drinking from the same loving cup as the Greeks instead of making them the exterminated and subjugated barbarians or slaves recommended by his teachers.
Setting aside his philosophy, what it might have been, in brackets in order to make a few toasts, the young hero adopted the exotic ways of Persia, including pretensions to divinity as well as the practice of “Oriental” cruelty. He was carried away by his egotism and by the Persian wine served from a great horn after the party was announced by sounding a horn. He enjoyed lounging around in a purple robe, slippers, and the horns of power, of virtuous, virile creation and raw, raging destruction.
Power, the absolute power worshiped by religion and politically distributed. Power was admired above all in those days, wherefore even conquered peoples eventually worshipped Alexander as an Ideal Hero if not as a god as they reflected on the bloody chaos he brought to the neighborhoods and the turmoil he left in his wake.
He over-extended himself along with his empire. He failed to cultivate a successor; decades of civil war followed his death; the wonderful Hellenic civilization would eventually, like Alexander, exhaust itself in its far-flung extent, dissipating its energy, and paving the way for the Roman Empire with its universal city and citizenship instead of egoistic city-states resisting empire-at-large.
Alexander reportedly paused for a drink in Babylon on the return from India, and, wondering what could be done after all he had done, thought he might take over Arabia, bringing it the gift of a personal one-god to reign over their abstract sky-god. It was there, in Babylon, that he is said to have he met his maker shortly after quenching his thirst and complaining of severe abdominal pain. Perhaps he had a peculiar disease. Some four years after his death, gossip got about that Aristotle had him poisoned; his mother thought that was plausible. Alcohol was more likely his undoing. He acquired quite a reputation for hoisting his ancestor Heracles’ six-quart heroic drinking cup, even after his beloved protégé Hephaestion drank himself to death at a Dionysian festival three years prior. It was no dishonor for a hero to have a few drinks. Drinking was a long-standing heroic tradition to imbibe the sacred, empowering spirits religiously. Apollo had his mead; Dionysus showed up at Delphi with wine. Persian priests loved haoma. Centuries after Hindu priests swore off sacred soma, their apologists claimed it was non-toxic.
The Persians adopted Alexander, calling him the son of Darius. Egyptians said he was the son of the last Pharaoh, Nectanebo. The Buddhists adopted the Greek style from statues brought to India, and represented their Buddha in the likeness of Apollo. Christians used Alexander’s likeness for portraits of Jesus. He became a saint in Ethiopia. Rome called him “the Great,” and used him as the model for its aspirations.
V. Dhulqurnain’s Iron Curtain
So Islam made Alexander a prophet, although some imams disagree with the notion. In fact, many Muslims believe the Quranic hero Dhulqarnain (Two-horned One), who built the famous Iron Curtain of Islam to stave off the barbarous forces of Gog and Magog, was none other than Alexander the Great:
“They said: O Dhulqurnain! Gog and Magog make mischief in the land. May we then pay a tribute on condition that thou raise a barrier between us and them. He said… I will make a fortified barrier between you and them. Bring me blocks of iron. At length when he had filled up the space between the two mountains, he said, Blow.” (The Quran, Ch. 18, Trans. Muhammad Ali)
Dhulqurnain’s Iron Curtain became renowned as Alexander’s Wall, which presumably had a derbend or “derbent,” a “closed gate” or “defender of the pass” made of iron or in a mountain where iron is plentiful. The Turkish and Arab words for the Persian “derbent” mean “iron gate.” Several locations were considered, but eventually consensus settled on the town of Derbent located in Dagestan on the SW shore of the Caspian Sea. Derbent proudly bore the title of Bab al-Jihad, Gateway of Jihad. Situated at a crossroads of the Silk Road; it was a very important military center during the second period of Islamization of the North Caucasus that began in the tenth century. The remains of an impressive ancient wall and a fortress with beautiful iron gates and an iron door still exist there – there were 16 iron gates in the 18th century. The wall is near the eastern end of the Caucasus mountain range, which serves as a natural barrier between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, However, there are gaps along the end of the range and between it and the Caspian, so a wall was built to fill the gaps. The remains of the wall are about 50-miles long. The wall itself is 29-feet in height and 10-feet thick in places. Submarine research found the end of the wall was extended along from the coast about 400 meters. Thus were barbarians penned up north where they belonged.
Marco Polo’s book helped spread a garbled legend of Alexander’s Wall. Marco Polo’s Gog and Magog were contained by the Great Wall of China, but he mentions Alexander’s Wall in passing:
“When Alexander the Great attempted to advance northwards, he was unable to penetrate, by reason of the narrowness and difficulty of a certain pass, which on one side is washed by the sea, and is confined on the other by high mountains and woods, for the length of four miles; so that a very few men were capable of defending it against the whole world. Disappointed in this attempt, Alexander caused a great wall to be constructed at the entrance to the pass, and fortified it with towers, in order to restrain those who dwelt beyond it from giving him molestation. From its uncommon strength the pass obtained the name of the Gate of Iron, and Alexander is commonly said to have enclosed the Tartars between two mountains. It is not correct, however, to call the people Tartars.” (Travels of Marco Polo, NY: Dutton, 1954) “Tartars” were the Turkish or Mongolian invaders of the Middle Ages; local lore claims the wall was built not by Tartars but long before their arrival, to prevent incursions of Scythians into Persia.
Those details of Marco Polo’s famous account, dictated to and undoubtedly edited by a romantic writer in prison, do not jibe with Alexander’s character. No such impediment would impede Alexander the Great’s progress if he believed there was anything of value on the far side. Besides, if the great Alexander could not venture north because of a natural barrier, why bother to seal it off just because barbarians might trickle south after he was long gone?
Perhaps Marco Polo or Rustichello, his romantic prison scribe, combined several passes in one: there were a number of mountain peaks and narrow defiles and gorges on the way to India, and no doubt walls galore were built long before and after Alexander’s advent to save the world from Evil.
Nor does Polo’s account jibe with the “two mountains” of the Quran or his statement of “two mountains,” since the barrier at Derbent is between mountains and the sea, not between two mountains. Neither does the story jibe with the opinion that Alexander did not visit Derbent on his long trek east, nor does it jibe with the fact that the Derbent Wall on the Caspian Sea was built many centuries later during the Neo-Persian Sasanian Empire (AD 224-651).
VI. The Wrong Wall?
Most scholars believe the so-called Alexander’s Wall at Derbent is not really his, so why mention it? After all, even if we do not know of that particular wall, a wall is a wall no matter where or when it is placed and by whom; our wall is after all symbolic, is it not? As is the famous mountain pass, on the other side of which is Terra Incognita, the Unknown Land which is either Hell or Paradise. The Twin Peaks of the Horizon are the Horns of Good and Evil. Rising or setting between the Horns of the Primeval Bull, over the Gate to the Valley of the Eternal Garden, is the enlightening Sun or reflecting Moon. Maybe Sisyphus the sun-god has rolled a huge boulder down upon us, making our narrow defile the Valley of Death. What is this gap before us gaping and staking us apart from union? Will insurmountable mountains and redoubtable canyons forestall our communion until the horn blows down the wall on the Last Day, finally resolving our differences in Utopia?
Nevertheless, the right location of the Iron Curtain of Islam seems important, for everything has its time and place. The mistaken Derbent location is mentioned because Allah makes no mistakes, wherefore there must be a divine lesson in the human error. We may feel certain that the Iron Curtain of Islam is real as well as ideal hence presume the virtue of the legends and myths comprises a transcendental trail leading to the realization of the prophecy, that the problem of Good and Evil will be finally resolved in favor of Good.
For all we know, Derbent, Uzbekistan may have a role to play in the resolution. The remote village in the province of Surkhondaryo at the foot of a cliff off the main road M-39, lies along what is believed to be the path taken by Alexander northward of today’s Afghanistan, where Islamists take credit for breaching the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. The village appears to be a collection of small farms from the air, larger farms outlying, with sturdy Soviet-era buildings. We await word from trekkers as to the details on the ground, particularly the character of its inhabitants, who might guffaw at the theme of our movie treatment, that nuclear weapons secreted in caves nearby may be the seeds of a devastating nuclear war between the forces of Good and Evil.
VII. The Father of Good and Evil
Since preordained history makes no mistakes, wherefore nothing is an accident, and, according to modern scholars, there is truthful purport in ancient myths, we return to Dagestan’s Caspian Wall at Derbent to observe that the artificial wall with its iron gates was actually built long after Alexander’s time, by Koshrow I (531-579 AD), while king of the Sasanian Empire. Koshrow suppressed a terrible heresy known as Zurvanism, an attempt to reconcile Good and Evil by placing both under a mythological god called Zurvan, known in the abstract as Infinite Time. Zurvanism was the re-emergence of another, earlier heresy, confusing Good and Evil by placing a Father over them, which challenged Christianity in Europe after being put down in Persia: that is, the religion known as Manichaeism.
Mani (216-274) was a Gnostic who claimed to be Jesus’ apostle: he wanted to combine Zoroastrian, the official religion of the Neo-Persian Empire, with Christianity. King Bahram I, at the behest of the Zoroastrian priests, had Mani crucified and Manichaeism stifled in Persia.
Whereas Zoroaster’s main achievement was his clear-cut separation of Good and Evil, Mani confused the issue by making Zurvan the Father (and womb) of both, therefore God was made responsible for Evil, whereas orthodox Zoroastrianism kept Ormazd (Ahura Mazda) untainted by Ahriman (Angra Mainyu); Good and Evil were as different as night and day: they were separated by a gulf or Void. But Zurvanism (and Manichaeism before it) eliminated the empty barrier by making Zurvan the Father of Good and Evil, “two brothers in one womb.” Thereafter Ormazd dwelt in Light, and Ahriman dwelt in Darkness, their father Zurvan being neither light nor darkness, but prior to the two.
Koshrow, alerted by the priests, put Zurvanism down. Manichaeism must not be allowed to resurface and confuse Zoroaster’s dualistic distinction. The reputed evils of the dark side, the Devil’s cult of original Manichaeism, were recalled: offerings of herbs and the blood of slaughtered wolves; perverted sorcery; the praising of Ahriman; secret societies; chanting to demons; smearing the body with dead matter and excrement; failing to preach heaven and hell for virtue and vice; and so on.
After all, even without a devil-cult, if such a monotheistic heresy were allowed to continue, we would be left with the problem that, no matter where we discover ourselves along the line, Good and Evil are so intimately connected at each point it is difficult if not impossible to make a perfectly clear distinction between the Dynamic Duo. Alas, Zurvan, Infinite Time, still presides over the Lifeline, and, like a dog chasing its tail, we end where we began.
The texts scholars have attributed to Zoroaster are a few, mere fragments of the original canon; what remains are oral hymns eventually recorded in an obscure and ambiguous language, so there is plenty of room for heresy.
Before resuming our search for the Iron Curtain of Islam, we should consider these verses from Zoroaster’s Gathas (hymns):
“Thus are the primeval spirits who as a pair (combining their opposite strivings) and (yet each) independent in his action, have been formed (of old). (They are) a better thing, they two, and a worse, as to thought, as to word, and as to deed. And between these two let the wise acting choose aright. (Choose ye) not (as) the evil doers!” Yasna XXX.3, Max Muller
“But you, O ye Daevas, are all a seed from the Evil Mind. He who offers sacrifice to You the most is of the Lie-demon, and (he is a child) of perversion….” Yasna XXXII.3, Max Muller