Conjunctions:46 Selected Subversions: Essays on the World at Large

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?

He could not precisely recall when it was that the two of them decided to study, entirely under their own auspices, the origins and progress of religion; to understand religion thoroughly—its history, that is, the real things that happened on earth in its name—perhaps so as to exorcise it as thoroughly. He did remember that the enterprise had ended, if not badly, at any rate quite far from its ostensible goal.

He could not recall precisely when they decided they wanted to learn about everything as if for the first time. To desire to explain everything, or to feel that everything was explainable, or at least to feel that if the explanation had been knowable they would not have been entirely surprised: this seemed natural, indeed irresistible. One morning he muttered to himself, as if it were the long-sought solution to a mystery: man is an explanation-seeking animal. And took the trouble to write it down.

“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.”

Can you remember when you began to know that you were living in a medieval world?

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.

To envision a history of religions. No religion; only religions. A history of incompatibilities. Crease marks, overlaps, torn stitches.

She told him that she wanted to give up everything—her job, her apartment, her books, and go to Rwanda to offer her services as some kind of paramedic in the wake of the massacres. He wondered if this was not a sort of madness.

He read a best-selling account of the Ebola virus, in which a vision was conjured up of an airborne form of the virus infecting large urban populations with stunning speed. It interfered with his sleep and made other considerations seem trivial.

“What is sacred is tangled.” In the lush world of multiple gods meanings are abundant and overlapping. The keepers of scattered shrines perpetuate alternate narratives. All histories are local. An odd-shaped stone memorializes a god’s visit. Signs like spiders demarcate off-limit zones. “What is sacred is almost garish.” “What is sacred is faded.” “What is sacred is almost black.” Dusty space preserved in jungle hut.

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 ...

Sinners on their pleasant mornings imagine a pagan world.

“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?

In late antiquity dreaming of the sandy plains of Plato. Sentences that are to be scaled, walked across, slept in.

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.

It was already becoming medieval. The light decays along the trade route. The young man traveling through a strange town in the border region spies on women turning into vampires. It is the world of Apuleius where any misfortune is plausible; you can speak the wrong language, practice the wrong custom, get invited to the wrong dinner party, lose your physical form. Remote approximation of credentials among social sets far from any imaginable center. The Balkans in late antiquity. A cowboy movie with no actors that anyone would recognize. No dictionaries: gestures as approximations of glossary.

Dispersed and contradictory genealogies. Border world of Thaïs (transfigured whore) or Thekla (tortured martyr). Bodies changing. Sentences describing bodies changing. Burning of sentences describing bodies changing.

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.

Scattered body parts restored to life and wholeness by word magic of Finnish shamans.

In the dark forest ...

To think that some British guy in the nineteenth century simply made up The Rapture.

The emergence of animals with unusual brain capacity—able to generate and (to a degree) retain thoughts—and subsequently their taking over an entire planet.

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.

The trial comes when the sun goes down.

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 ...”

When they were young, in the middle of the twentieth century, as early as the fifth or sixth grade, they took it that they understood the dynamics of political and religious persecution—so thoroughly they could play at it, reenact the show trial, the persecution of sorcery, the sessions of HUAC or the Spanish Inquisition. The heretic imprisoned, like Joan of Arc or the Bolshevik of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon; the heretic recanting, inwardly reversing himself; the young prosecutor fearing his own desires, egged on by fear to merciless rigor. To see through one’s own inability to see through one’s motives: like savoring the wall of a membrane.

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.

Street people in dreams move through walls to take possession of locked apartments.

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?

In their enthusiasm to roam the fields. Tear their clothes, or gather in the woods at night singing hymns, waiting for a fire from heaven. See them, at a later time, put on special clothes as they prepare to poison themselves into another dimension. Group suicide in suburban chambers. A motel room as a space capsule.

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.

The others make appalled war on devil worshippers. Rage and confusion of the villagers.

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. ...)

Intuiting that it must be for some sacrament that the blood of movie posters is spilled. Mexican wrestlers against the vampire army, the strangler’s curse. Children satanically abused on milk cartons. The horror of hidden driveways.

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 no trace can ever be found, enacted in the preternatural brevity of a rest period. “They fly, they transform themselves into a variety of creatures.”

Tape-recorded confessions in which syntax itself had been wedged open so that nothing could impede the flow of incriminating detail. A language consisting of nothing but incrimination, of self-incrimination.

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?

A family of killers live on the beach and make sacrificial fires at night. They drive off in their campers toward dawn. To aspire to be one of them, or to live in dread of them. Plot their extermination in a remorseless and well-planned campaign similar to the ancient raids on apostates. Mountain hideouts under siege by episcopal armies. South American religious colony to which the torture of prisoners was farmed out under the former regime. The burned compound of the Old Believers in Waco, or in Mussorgsky’s opera.

“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.

Final monotony of an imagination in love with catastrophe.

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

in old chronicles and wayside pamphlets, seasoned by the occasional intercepted radio broadcast. Or a remote recollection of scary dungeon scenes from drive-in movies, with cult members in cloaks chanting hymns to Satan while the sacrifice is readied, or Knights Templar risen from the dead out of mossy crypts.

Except that all these chronicles and movies only reflected much darker realities. What has happened is without exception worse than what has been imagined ...

That the Twin Towers at the moment of their destruction will look finally (in some unimaginable future imagination) like the illustration in an old Children’s Book of Bible Stories showing the walls of Jericho tumbling down at the sound of Joshua’s trumpets.

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.

Geoffrey O‘Brien’s poetry has been collected in Who Goes There (Dos Madres), The Blue Hill (Marsh Hawk), and Early Autumn (Salt). His books of prose include The Browser's Ecstasy (Counterpoint), The Phantom Empire (Norton), and Where Did Poetry Come From: Some Early Encounters (Marsh Hawk).