Lure Of The Arcane/Book Review

Theodore Ziolkowski
The literature of cult and conspiracy
248pp. Johns Hopkins University Press. £26 (US $39.95).
978 1 4214 0958 0

Published: 11 June 2014
Devil Worship, from The Freemasons by Eugen Lennhoff, 1932 
Two million people bought Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol in the first week of its publication in 2009. Theodore Ziolkowski asks why, and takes the question seriously. If those who rushed to consume this tale of ancient mysteries and secret societies were not buying it for its sinuous prose, might their enthusiasm be due to what Ziolkowski describes as the lure of the arcane? The arcane – from Latin arca, signifying a chest in which something is locked away – describes both esoteric knowledge and the closed, clandestine groups that guard it, and it has intrigued writers and their audiences from the age of Greek tragedy to modern conspiracy thrillers. Ziolkowski’s study constitutes an erudite, thought-provoking argument for considering this literary engagement as a sub-genre in its own right; its evolution, like the evolution of the cults and lodges it depicts, reflecting both historical circumstance and a more fundamental human fascination.
It is hard to say how many Dan Brown fans considered themselves part of a tradition stretching back to Euripides’ Bacchae, but they would have been within their rights, Ziolkowski argues. Euripides, no less than Brown, set about exploiting a well-established public interest in cults, in his case the subversive threat of mystical cults in Athens during the fifth century BC. Unlike The Lost Symbol, however, Euripides’ Bacchae is concerned with the lure itself: the hunger to penetrate mysteries from which we’re excluded. The growing desire of the King’s son, Pentheus, to spy on the Dionysiac rites that are occupying Thebes womenfolk arises from their threat to established order, but also something much more profound: a voyeuristic craving. The result – his death, torn apart by his own mother while she is lost in Bacchic revelry – leaves us with a cult that is as dangerous as it is liberating. It is an ambivalence that will define literature’s response to its captivating, arcane cousin.
Euripides also makes explicit the relationship between sexual and intellectual transgression which remains unspoken in most literary treatment of the arcane. Yet there is a question mark over to what extent the wild Bacchae constitute a cult. For the ritualistic pomp and organizational hierarchy that make secret groups not just a threat to existing power, but an uncanny reflection of its practices, Ziolkowski turns to Apuleius’ second-century novel The Golden Ass. Like Pentheus, Apuleius’ hero, Lucius, is subject to an overwhelming attack of curiositas – this time a desire to see and practise sorcery. His own comeuppance is to inadvertently transform himself into an ass, but it is his subsequent journey which provides us with the only detailed account of a mystery cult surviving from antiquity. Lucius seeks entry into the cult of the goddess Isis. After Alexander’s troops had brought it west, straitlaced Rome drove the worship of Isis underground, but Apuleius takes advantage of a resurgent Egyptomania which led to a revival (one that was only supplanted by the more subversive mystery cult called Christianity). Lucius progresses ever closer towards the promised revelation through the tantalizing wrappings of truth: the white-robed processions, the mirrors, candles, and books written in ciphers. Clearly, the arcane takes work. It also, here, takes money: the hero’s need to keep investing in new accoutrements as he is guided towards an everreceding insight leaves it unclear whether this is an authentic record of conversion or a satire on the naive will to believe and belong.
It is with the Knights Templar, ten centuries later, that the arcane gets real teeth. Ziolkowski focuses on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, written in the early thirteenth century, in which the mystique of the Templars is first joined with that of the Holy Grail. It is a meeting of tropes that gives concrete, if enigmatic, form to the combination of chivalry and the esoteric that is central to the Order’s appeal. The Templars were established in 1129 as a small band of guards for Christians undertaking pilgrimages to Jerusalem, a private security contractor with the oaths of chastity and obedience appropriate to their holy task. This already intriguing combination of militarism and monasticism soon gave way to an equally mysterious, yet very real, power. The Templars’ legal and economic independence allowed the group to grow into a hugely wealthy financial organization, loaning money and transferring funds across Europe and beyond. Most dangerously for their reputation, it involved collaborating with Islamic counterparts such as the secret society of the Assassins. One aspect about the arcane that becomes clear over the course of Ziolkowski’s survey is that its threat is inseparable from that of the East. This was the case with the Asiatic Dionysus and Egyptian Isis, just as it will be a distinctly un-European fusion of Kabbalah, alchemy and Hermetic Egyptian writings that comes to define occult teachings from the Renaissance to the present day. The Templars’ interfaith collaboration, along with their immense, and immensely covetable, wealth, soon attracted the inevitable crackdown. By 1312, the Order had been persecuted out of reality and into the immortal realm of myth, but not before demonstrating how potent it can be when sacred secrets meet clandestine, geopolitical schemes.
Clearly, the arcane takes work
Did the Templars go underground only to re-emerge as the Freemasons? Whatever the Masons owe to monastic knights – or, indeed, the cult of Isis in which they have also found precedents – their greatest debt is to the Enlightenment. The first Grand Lodge was established in London in 1717, celebrating the not very esoteric values of fraternity, democracy and discussion. But, again, when the Church drove this bourgeois foible underground, it was a recipe for public curiosity. The first German lodge was established in 1737 but banned by the papacy the following year. By the end of the century, the German reading public was in thrall to a new literary genre: the Bundesroman or lodge novel. The lodge novel coincides with the Gothic tradition in England, but rather than centring on a demonic figure, the sinister buildings and dastardly plots belong to a secret society. It is not just the incorporation of “authentic documents” and evil black-robed monks that starts to feel familiar, but the sense of relish with which they are turned to commercial ends. The success of Friedrich Schiller’s Der Geisterseher (1789; The Ghost-Seer), the first lodge novel set in the European present, led the poet and philosopher to vow to “exploit this public taste and make as much money from it as I possibly can”. Meanwhile, the German Romantic writer Jean Paul came up with the alluring title for his novel Die unsichtbare Loge (1793; The Invisible Lodge), before having any idea what it might contain. As Ziolkowski demonstrates, a division opens up between those works aimed at a popular readership, where secret societies present a threat, and a more elite art, in which they are granted humanizing and philosophical purposes. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Mozart’s The Magic Flute are famous examples of the latter, created by two active lodge members.
Both literary approaches, suspicious and celebratory, were seized on in the revolutionary turmoil of the early nineteenth century. A spate of novels exploring what Ziolkowski terms “the secret societies of Romantic socialism” present a benign form of conspiracy: George Sand’s “Invisibles” in La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1844) seek to recover the utopian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution (a positive spin on the widespread belief that the Revolution itself was the work of the Illuminatis, a Bavarian offshoot of the Freemasons). In Charles Didier’s Rome souterraine (1833), the outlawed society of Carbonari live in underground chambers planning to take advantage of a papal conclave to incite their own emancipatory attack. But a shared fantasy can be discerned behind both the evil sects and liberating elites: that the fog of history might lift to reveal someone who knows what’s going on, a controlling power with intelligence and ability, distinct from both the unworthy aristocracy and the sullied revolutionaries. It is a fantasy that finds its masochistic culmination in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic hoax published anonymously in St Petersburg in 1903, but soon disseminated across Europe. An eye-opening “interlude” in Ziolkowski’s book, it is denied a larger place in the story as it provoked so little literary response from contemporary authors. Yet (tragic testimony to its power) it is this work, more than any other, that defines the aesthetics of the twentieth-century conspiracy theory: the one that, in a single move, turns the world upside down and makes it perfectly logical. Jews stand behind both capitalism and Communism, business and the media, the decline of religion and the corruption of government. Scales fall, old oppositions collapse, the general awfulness of modernity makes sense. It is a revelatory rush so effective that it doesn’t matter to what extent we take it as the literal truth (the opinion of, among others, Hitler and Henry Ford). If literature of the time didn’t fight back, it was because it knew it couldn’t compete.
When literature does eventually respond, it is with playfulness. An interim tradition, between the Protocols and Dan Brown, redeems the pleasures of the arcane with irony. The LSD-tinged meeting of metafiction and meta-conspiracy seen in the 1960s is, in part, a response to the dark side of straight conspiracy reflected in the Protocols. Its self-conscious mischief-making achieves literary credibility in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), exposing us to the shadowy Tristero, a secret underground postal delivery service. It is a paranoid melange revisited in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) (the Templar-allied Wallflower Order is attempting to root out a jazz-infused “virus” spreading dance crazes and black consciousness), and in less artful, more expansive form by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their collage of ancient sects, government agencies and hallucinatory ramblings, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) (“More important than Ulysses or Finnegans Wake”, according to Timothy Leary).
Ziolkowski ends at the pinnacle of this postmodern tradition, with Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), a “magisterial summation” of the literary arcane. Eco depicts three friends working for a publisher in Milan trying to hunt down the single secret behind all esoteric wisdom, “a blueprint that migrated from one conspiracy to another”. It is the literary counterpart to Ziolkowski’s own study, tugging at the thread that runs from ancient mystery cults to the Freemasons to the Protocols themselves. And what could fulfil this role at the heart of the arcane? The closest we come to an answer is that it concerns “telluric currents” of subterranean energy whose power would enable those who control them to take over the world. But, as with Apuleius, as with Pynchon, the ending is left open (was the whole thing just the product of a breakdown? And what curiositas drew us, as readers, along?). Ziolkowski quotes Eco: “the most powerful secret is a secret without a content”. In which case all the codes and cults, in literature as in history, might be there to disguise an absence, to sustain the unveiling indefinitely. But Ziolkowski’s exercise in genre-building has shown us that this is not a contentless tradition, but an accumulation of specific tools with which to recreate the frisson of intellectual discovery. If we do not ever reach the secret itself, at least we know where to begin looking: past the familiar and canonical, at the vanishing point of recorded history, and beyond the borders of the West.
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