CONJUNCTIONS:46, Spring 2006
A History of Religions
“What matters,” he wrote, “is not what things people think but the circumstances under which they think them.” So one should not write essays but rather works of fiction involving characters motivated to write essays. But aren’t all essays already written by fictional characters?
“The gene that makes the infant insistently ask, ‘Why?’ seems not to make him press for a more rigorous answer than might be invented on the spot. . . . The question then being whether there is a gene for doubt.”
Medieval is when you make it up from one day to the next, from one town to the next. Go down the road and a different history operates. Every town has a radius. In the gaps between radii are the zones where things get lost, waylaid.
A beautiful title: The Eternal Ones of the Dream. Later he learned that the Freudian psychologist who had written it committed suicide.
The name of a god is murmured....
“We had bodies then!” Or the image of it, refracted through Gautier, Louÿs, Flaubert, Anatole France: of oiled and perfumed bodies in smoky light, accompanied by the drone of reed flutes.
The Nile. Mud, serpent, library.
Can you remember when you first began to know that you were living in late antiquity?
Apertures in a winding rocky watchtower admit light.
A grain of clarity. It is possible to measure.
Ancient Mediterranean, seascape of lost Ionia. As if that geography were made of those ideas, rather than the other way around.
Where there is only presence. Saved from corruption.
Manuals of physical forms, physical behavior, physical punishments. The orgy and its distorted double, the tribunal.
They make systems and destroy systems. Make lists of them and burn them. Cutting edge of orthodoxy: a grammar of the world. Destruction of idols, more gradual disappearance of pagan philosophers. Augustine logically demolishing logical holes of paganism to make way for his new brand of illogic.
History trampled and after a thousand years partially reconstructed. A medieval world is one in which you start always at the beginning. Begin by assembling dispersed materials. Or finding out where they are. Or what places are said to exist.
Build on a basis of random distortions. Correct on a basis of rumor.
There can be no history because they have already changed it. The book consists of nothing but rewritings.
Mostly scraped off. Almost nothing not discarded in the process.
As for the motives for preserving . . .
This human prose—because made with blood and flesh—and bone certainly—grand history of storytelling that must obscure its own origin in order to exist at all.
History of concealments that reveals by obscuring.
These are potent enzymes, which digest prophecies.
Amid the immensity of the local.
This is war.
In the dark forest . . .
To think that some British guy in the nineteenth century simply made up The Rapture.
As if earth should be all hive or all anthill or all interconnected network of prairie-dog burrows.
On whose walls would be hung pictures of what had been displaced or exterminated.
A planet of trophies.
It is hard to be willing to become a child again. Learn new names for things and imagine a new history of the world, hidden until now. Free online offer from the World Institute of Eschatology (over four hundred thousand branches worldwide). The most ancient truth is always cracking open for the first time ever.
It’s self that discovers where it is, self transformed, self purified, self ripped apart and replaced by a new self, self shared with other likewise ripped-apart and reupholstered selves.
It begins to happen in the special meeting place, which can be any crypt, field, housing development.
“That’s where it’s at, / It’s all happening / Down in the basement....”
The evil children, the insouciant children, the defiant children, the indifferent children: it happens among them, as they begin to find themselves. As in an ancient savage German ballad concerning thorns, snakebites, marks of violation: “Years ago when we were children...”
What need to imagine what one has already been....
Guards and prisoners. This was just after the war that was kept hidden. Or that would have been, had it been possible.
The Witchcraft of Salem Village (a children’s book written by Shirley Jackson) served as a primer in hysteria and persecution for sixth graders, to be acted out in school hallways. Diabolist games of late childhood feeding off medieval arcanum obtained from the local library.
Knowledge of the dark. Knowledge in the dark.
A friend decided one night that she would give her money away to the poor. Her husband arranged quickly to have her held for observation in a psychiatric ward. As who would not?
We know them. Have dreamt of their fanes and caves, detention barracks and choir schools, neighborhood enclaves where they conspire against the unpersuaded, weeping in a rage that is like joy.
Afterward neither weeping nor raging but settling into a spic-and-span calm.
In the perfect ecstasy of fear become what one fears.
Religion and its double: which is the demon disguised as preacher or monk, devil who can quote scripture to his purpose, temptress in Grail legend disguised as holy woman so that by slipping her gown off (the crisis endlessly arrived at of a certain medieval literature), she can unleash erotic torment on emotionally unprepared questing knights.
No way to tell them apart but by secret sign or inward whisper, here where any sign may be counterfeited. (Slip among them by flashing the mark of the spider. . . .)
Living below street level that year—amid the fear of toxic industrial waste and harassment by street gangs—the milk cartons were like leaflets slipped under the door, designed to spread panic.
The memory of an age of witch trials remains grainy, a smeared photo of what was never really shown in clear light. In those days, psychological theories of recovered memory took the place of such manuals as the Malleus Maleficarum. Isolation rooms of convicted serial abusers. Conversion experiences at backwoods police stations. A schoolteacher imprisoned for torture sessions of which
Tape-recorded confessions in which syntax itself had been wedged open so that nothing could impede the flow of incriminating de-
Can you remember when you began to know you were living through the transition into a different era, of which (you asserted resentfully) you had not been warned? Can you remember anything at all?
“But this already happened....” Or has only begun. The burial of the future in the resurrection of the past. Wheel turning in reverse, that fearful creaking sound.
At Qumran, death penalty for apostasy while in a state of demonic possession. The preacher Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of the president of Venezuela on television. Underground Christian sects doing murderous battle with each other in rural China. Eastern Lightning (it sounds like a brand name for street heroin) posits a Chinese woman as the already returned Christ.
The spooked become demons, the cowed become spies, the state is corrupted by superstition, books are burned or buried, doctrinal study camps are established for children and parents alike, with guest visits from government officials to let the instructors know how warmly their activities are appreciated.... Flowers are strewn along the path....
I hear a voice murmuring in an easygoing drawl, “Now what are you getting all fired up about?”
I made it up. I confess. Patched it together out of these fragments lying around. But they are everywhere.
It is so tedious in the abyss. The only charm it has is from a distance, where its striations and crevasses acquire a certain abstract beauty.
This is nothing, this is fancy, the mere effluvium of much reading
Except that all these chronicles and movies only reflected much darker realities. What has happened is without exception worse than what has been imagined....
To have grown up in Troy, with its history, its traditions, its sense of permanence.
The great burnings, seared into archaic memory. Antimonuments. They provide a place for permanent absence.
Troy, mon amour.