The Bacchae and Other Plays (Penguin Classics)

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The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

Ten Ways to Change Your God

“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” —Bob Dylan (1979)

1.Walking Cambridge’s Trinity Lane in 1894, Bertrand Russell had an epiphany concerning the ontological proof for God’s existence, becoming the unlikely convert effected by logical argumentation. In Russell’s essay “Why I Became a Philosopher,” included in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s anthology The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt, the logician explains how his ruminations turned to fervor, writing that “I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.’” An atheist had a brief conversion—of a sort.

Not exactly Saul being confronted with the light that (quoting Euripides’s The Bacchae) told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” or Augustin in his Confessions recounting that after a ghostly young voice told him to “Take up and read!”, he turned to Paul’s epistles. Russell’s conversion was a bit more abstract—of the head rather than the heart. In his flat-cap, tweed jacket, and herring-bone bowtie, he was converted not by the Holy Spirit, but by a deductive syllogism. Envision the co-author of Principia Mathematica, which rigorously reduced all of mathematics to logic, suddenly being moved by the spirit.

Derived by the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 Proslogion, the ontological argument holds that since existence must be a property of perfection, and God is a priori defined as a perfect being, than quod erat demonstrandum: God must exist. Russell explains this metaphysical trick in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Western Philosophy: a “Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if he does not He is not the best possible Being.”

From Aquinas to Rene Descartes, there is a venerable history of attempting to prove the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity, though as Nathan Schneider writes in God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, these arguments are “taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither.” In defense of Anselm, nobody in the 11th century doubted God’s existence, and such proofs weren’t designed to convince, but rather to glory in divinity. As a subsequent defense, his proof has endured in a manner that other proofs haven’t. Cosmology and evolution have overturned most others, making them seem primitive to the point of adorableness, but Anselm endures.

Still, the syllogism can’t help but seem like a bit of a magic trick, defining God into existence rather than establishing even what type of God we’re to believe in. Critics of Anselm maintain that existence isn’t a property in the same way that other qualities are. We can imagine all sorts of characters with all sorts of qualities, but that doesn’t mean that they have to exist. Defenders of Anselm would claim that God isn’t like any other character, since a perfect thing that doesn’t exist can’t be said to be a perfect thing, and God is a perfect thing Critics of that would say that it’s possible to conceive of a perfect city, but that doesn’t mean you can buy an Amtrak ticket there, nor would a benevolent God allow Penn Station to look as it does. As the puzzle-writer (and theist) Martin Gardner notes in his delightful The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, “I agree with the vast majority of thinkers who see the proof as no more than linguistic sleight-of-hand.”

Eventually Russell’s new faith diffused like incense from a swinging thurible. If philosophy got Russell into this mess, then it also got him out. Russell explains that Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason would “demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God.” But what faith had Russell gained on Trinity Lane? It wasn’t a belief in God whom that street was named after, nor was it the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What Russell’s faith was in, had always been in, and would always be in, was the power of reason, and in that he was unwavering.

David Hume, another of Russell’s antecedents, wrote in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” We’re going to believe what we’re going to (dis)believe, and we’ll concoct the reasons for it later. For his part, late in life, Russell was asked how he’d respond if upon death he was brought before God’s throne, and asked why he had dared not to believe? Russell said that he’d answer “Not enough evidence!”

2.According to mercurial family lore, when my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, August Hansmann, boarded a New York-bound steamship two years after the American Civil War and one year before his native Hanover would be subsumed into Prussia, he brought along with him a copy of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, denounced when it was printed in 1677 as “a book forged in hell…by the devil himself.” Like Spinoza, Hansmann was a Jew who lived among gentiles, and like Spinoza, he understood that being Other in a narrative not written by yourself had tragic consequences.

Born illegitimate, Hansmann was raised Jewish even though his father was Christian; a man who understood how being two things sometimes meant that you were seen as nothing, he also knew the strange freedom of how dictated faith is no faith at all. Similarly, Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew of converso background whose Portuguese ancestors practiced their Judaism in secret until Dutch freedom allowed them to reinvent their hidden faiths. Hansmann encountered Spinoza’s celebration of religious liberty, “where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things.” For the pious lens grinder, content to work by the tulip-lined canals of red-brick Amsterdam, religious truth can only be discovered without shackles, divinity only visible if you’re not compelled by Church or State.

When the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism, many secretly practiced the mitzvoth, venerating the Sabbath, abjuring treyf, and kissing mezuzah’s surreptitiously concealed within the ceramic blue slipper of the Virgin. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in The Battle for God, these were people who “had been forced to assimilate to a…culture that did not resonate with their inner selves.” When finally able to practice their religion in Holland, many of them then discovered that the Judaism of the rabbis was not the same Judaism that they’d imagined, and so they chose to be something else, something completely new —neither Jewish or Christian, but rather nothing. Armstrong writes that such persecution ironically led to the “first declarations of secularism and atheism in Europe.”

Many of those slurred as swinish Marranos found it more honest to live by the dictates of their own reason. Spinoza was the most famous, condemned by his synagogue for writing things like “I say that all things are in God and move in God,” holding that nature is equivalent with the Lord, so that either nothing is God or everything is. Such pantheism is what made some condemn Spinoza as an atheist, and others such as Russell later describe him as a “God-intoxicated man” who saw holiness in every fallen leaf and gurgling creek, his very name, whether “Baruch” or “Benedict” meaning “blessed.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity, asks if he can “be considered…a Jewish thinker?” She argues that his universalism derives from the Mosaic covenant, the monotheism of the Shema extended so that God is Everything. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity. On that steamer crossing the Atlantic, Hansmann may have read that “freedom [can] be granted without prejudice…but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish.” My great-great grandfather lived his life as a Jew, but the attraction he saw in Spinoza was that each individual could decide for themselves whether to be Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or nothing.

Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood. And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all.

That such things are even possible—to be of no religion—is due in no small part to Spinoza’s sacrifice, his congregation having excommunicated him by extinguishing each individual light in the synagogue until the assembled dwelled in darkness. From that expulsion, Spinoza was expected to find refuge among the Protestants—but he didn’t. I’ve a photo from the early years of the 20th century: August Hansmann surrounded by his secular, stolid, midwestern progeny, himself siting in the center with a thick black beard, and a kippah barely visible upon his head.

3.A long line of Spinoza’s ancestors, and my great-great-grandfather’s ancestors, would have concluded Pesach evenings with a “Next year in Jerusalem,” praying for the reestablishment of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century. Less known than the equally exuberant and plaintive Passover declaration is that, for a brief period in the fourth century, it seemed that the Temple might actually be restored, ironically by Rome’s last pagan emperor. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution.

His uncle was Rome’s first Christian emperor who conquered by the cross and who turned his Rome over to Christ. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome. He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Heinemann’s The Works of the Emperor Julian as having written “I feel awe of the gods, I love, I revere, I venerate them.”

In Julian’s panegyrics, one can smell the burning thyme and sage, feel the hot wax from votive candles, spy the blue moonlight filtered through pine trees in a midnight cedar grove. If Plutarch recorded the very heavens had once declared “the great god Pan is dead,” then Julian prayed for his return; if the oracles at Delphi and the Sibyllines had been silenced by the Nazarene, then the emperor wanted the divinations of those prophets to operate once again. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs.

Classicist Robin Lane Fox makes clear in Pagans and Christians that this wasn’t simple nostalgia. Fox explains that those who returned to paganism normally did so with “an accompanying philosophy” and that apostasy “always lead to a favor for some systematic belief.” The emperor’s conversion was a turning back combined with a the reformer’s desire for regeneration. In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied.

Julian the Apostate endures as cipher—duplicitous reactionary who’d see Christian Rome turn back, or tolerant visionary who theologically elevated paganism? Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity. The American rake and raconteur Gore Vidal repurposed the emperor as a queer hero of liberalism in his unusual 1964 novel Julian, having his protagonist humanely exclaim that “Truth is where ever man has glimpsed divinity.” Where some had seen those intimations in Golgotha’s sacrifice, the Apostate saw them in the oracles of Chaldea or the groves of Athena.

Far from banning the new faith, Julian declared that “By the gods I do not want the Galileans to be killed or beaten unjustly nor to suffer any other ill.” Julian was rather interested in monopolistic trust-busting, and in part that included funding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple that would have been destroyed by the emperor’s ancestors. The building of a Third Temple would be terminated when, as a Roman witness to the construction attempts wrote, “fearful balls of fire [broke]…out near the foundations…till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more.” The Christians attributed the disaster to God; the Jews and Romans to the Christians.

The desire for a pagan Rome would similarly end with Julian’s defeat on the battle fields of Persia, an emperor who longed to see old gods born again now forced to declare that “You have won, Galilean.” Hard to reverse an eclipse, and so, we supplicate on another mournful and deferred day—“Next year at Delphi.”

4.The titular character in Julian claims that “academics everywhere are forever attacking one another.” During the fourth century, the academic debates were theological, all of those schisms and heresies, excommunications and counter-excommunications between exotic groups with names like the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, the Arians and the Trinitarians. By the middle of Vidal’s 20th century, such disputations were just as rancorous, but theology was now subsumed into politics. Vidal’s own politics were strange, broadly left but with a sympathy afforded to the anti-establishmentarians of any ideological persuasion.

Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during a debate on ABC News scheduled to coincide with the 1968 Democratic convention; even the pyrotechnic rainbow of early television was unable to conceal the pure hatred between those two prep school grads. If the earliest years of Christianity saw bishops and monks moving between ever nuanced theological positions, than the 20th century was an era of political conversion, liberals becoming conservatives and conservatives becoming liberals, with Buckley’s magazine a fascinating case study in political apostasy.

Buckley’s politics were cradle-to-grave Republican conservatism, even as he garnered a reputation for expelling acolytes of both Ayn Rand and John Birch from the movement as if he was a medieval bishop overseeing a synod (they’ve long since found a way back in). Entering public life with his 1951 God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley understood better than most how ideology is theology by another name (even as I personally revile his politics). Into this midst, National Review was the stodgy, tweedy vanguard of the reactionary intelligentsia, defining a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”

The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left. Such were the subtleties of conversion that Wills could be both the author of Confessions of a Conservative and a journalist placed on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”

As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. For every Gary Wills, there’s a Norman Podhoretz, an Irving Kristol, a David Horowitz, a Christopher Hitchens. Leave it to the arm-chair Freudians to ascertain what Oedipal complex made those men of the left move towards the Big Daddy of right-wing politics, but what’s interesting are the ways in which they refashioned conservatism in a specifically leftist manner. Their migration was not from milquetoast Democratic liberalism, for they’d indeed been far to the left, several of them self-described Trotskyites. And as the Aztecs who became Catholic kept secretly worshiping their old gods, or as basilicas were built atop temples to Mithras, so too did those doctrines of “permanent revolution” find themselves smuggled into neoconservatism.

If politics is but religion by another means, than it’s the ideological conversion that strikes us as most scandalous. We’ve largely ceded the ground on the sacred—what could be less provocative than abandoning Presbyterianism for Methodism? But politics, that’s the thing that keeps us fuming for holy war, and we’re as titillated by stories of conversion as our ancestors were in tales of heresy and schism. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer observes, in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it?” Strange to think that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, and the man whom she will beat for the presidency was once a Democrat, but such are the vagaries of God and man, whether at Yale or anywhere else.

5.For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Buckley would write in 1977 that a “dry martini even at night is a straightforward invitation for instant relief from the vicissitudes of a long day,” and Vidal in his novel Kalki published a year later would rhapsodize about the “martini’s first comforting haze.” On the left or on the right, one thing WASPs concurred about (and though Buckley was technically Catholic he had the soul of an Episcopalian) was the cocktail hour. I’ve no idea if the two had been drinking before their infamous sparring on ABC, though the insults, homophobia, and violent threats make me suspicious.  

Better that they’d have followed the path of conversion that another prep school boy who moved in their social circles named John Cheever did: When on April 9, 1975 his brother checked him into New York’s Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, he never took another drink. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers. From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom.

Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is one of the most perfect distillations of how alcoholism will sneak up on a person, and he avoids the laudatory denials you see in a lesser writer like Charles Bukowski. With the repressed self-awareness that is the mocking curse of all true alcoholics, Cheever would write in his diary some two decades before he got sober that “When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand,” no doubt understanding how a single drink is too many since a dozen is never enough.

His daughter Susan Cheever, herself a recovering alcoholic, notes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History that “My father’s drinking had destroyed his body, but it had also distorted his character—his soul. The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory.” The ancients called them spirits for a reason, and in their rejection there is a conversion of a very literal sort. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W., the founder of AA; its title is technically Alcoholics Anonymous, but members informally call it “The Big Book.” Past the uninspired yellow-and-blue cover of that tome, Cheever would have read stories where he’d have “found so many areas where we overlapped—not all the deeds, but the feelings of remorse and hopelessness. I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease.” And yet the treatment of that disease was akin to a spiritual transformation.

A tired debate whether Alcoholics Anonymous is scripture or not, but I’d argue that anything that so fully transforms the countenance of a person can’t but be a conversion, for as the Big Book says, “We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” I once was lost, and now I’m found, so on and so forth. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference.

6. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons. Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Augustine understood that we do bad things because bad things are fun—otherwise why would he write in Confessions “Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet.” What readers thrill to are the details, the rake’s regress from dens of iniquity, from gambling, drinking, and whoring to some new-found piety.

For Cheever’s Yankee ancestors, the New England Puritans in whose stead we’ve uneasily dwelled for the past four centuries, “election” was not a matter of personal choice, but rather grace imparted onto the unworthy human. Easy to see some issues of utility here, for when accumulation of wealth is read as evidence of God’s grace, and it’s also emphasized that the individual has no role in his own salvation, the inevitable result is spiritual disenchantment and marginalization. By the middle of the 18th century, some five generations after the first Pilgrim’s slipper graced Plymouth Rock, the Congregationalist pastors of New England attempted to suture the doubts of their flocks, coming up with “half-way covenants” and jeremiads against backsliding so as to preserve God’s bounty.

Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in 1738. Technically an Anglican priest, Whitfield was a confidant of George Wesley, the father of Methodism, and from that “hot” faith the preacher would draw a new vocabulary, dispelling John Calvin’s chill with the exhortation that sinners must be born again. Crowds of thousands were compelled to repent, for “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.” On the Eastern seaboard, the Englishman would preach from Salem to Savannah, more than 10,000 times, drawing massive crowds, even impressing that old blasphemer Benjamin Franklin at one Philadelphia revival (the scientist even donated money).

Such was the rhetorical style of what’s called the Great Awakening, when colonial Americans abandoned the staid sermons of the previous century in favor of this shaking, quaking, splitting, fitting preaching. Whitfield and Spinoza shared nothing in temperament, and yet one could imagine that the later might smile at the liberty that “established fractious sectarianism as its essential character,” as John Howard Smith writes in The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in American, 1725-1775. Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency.

So ecumenical was Whitfield’s evangelization that enslaved people came in droves to his revivals, those in bondage welcomed as subjects in Christ’s kingdom. Such was the esteem in which the reverend was held that upon his passing in 1770 a black poet from Cambridge named Phyllis Wheatly would regard the “happy saint” as a man whom “in strains of eloquence refin’d/[did] Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.” Whitfield’s religious charity, it should be said, was limited. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution.

Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Malcolm X writes in a gospel of both American pragmatism and American power, saying that “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against…I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Conversion can be a means of seizing power; conversion can be a means of reinvention.

Activist Audre Lorde famously wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and for a young Harlem ex-con born Malcolm Little, the Christianity of Wheatly and Whitfield would very much seem to be the domain of the plantation’s manor, so that conversion to a slave religion is no conversion at all. Mocking the very pieties of the society that Whitfield preached in, Malcolm X would declare “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm X’s life was an on-going narrative of conversion, of the desire to transform marginalization into power. As quoted by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the political leader said “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up.”

Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. Such is true even in the rejection of his surname for the free-floating signifier of “X,” identity transformed into a type of stark, almost algebraic, abstraction. If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. Though as Saladin Ambar reminds us in Malcolm X at Oxford Union, his “conversion was indeed religious, but it was also political,” with all which that implies.

7.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. Critic Harold Bloom writes in The American Religion that “the religious imagination, and the American Religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” America has always been the land of religious invention, for when consciences are not compelled, the result is a brilliant multitude of schisms, sects, denominations, cults, and communes. In his Essays, the French Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne quipped that “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Who, however, if given the choice between a worm or a god, would ever possibly pick the former? For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores.

Consider Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886 to former North Carolina slaves who lived amongst the Cherokee. Ali compiled into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America a series of ruminations, meditations, and revelations he had concerning what he called the “Moorish” origins of African-Americans. Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali writes that the “fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self. This is the uniting of the Holy Koran of Mecca for teaching and instructing all Moorish Americans.”

Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Such theurgy was popular in the 19th century, a melancholic era when the almost million dead from Antietam and Gettysburg called out to the living, who responded with séance and Ouija Board. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts in The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that “Many bereaved Americans…unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin…turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.” The 19th century saw mass conversions to a type of magic, a pseudo-empirical faith whose sacraments were technological—the photographing of ghostly ectoplasm, or the receipt of telegraphs from beyond the veil of perception.

Spiritualism wasn’t merely a general term for this phenomenon, but the name of an actual organized denomination (one that still exists). Drawing from 18th-century occultists like Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, the first Spiritualists emerged out of the rich soil of upstate New York, the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening (sequel to Whitfield’s First). Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being.

Peter Manseau writes in The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that “It was a time when rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement…Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies…The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances, which raised hopes of receiving messages from the great beyond.”

Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N.Y.; three siblings whom in 1848 claimed that they’d been contacted by spirits, including one named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who communicated in raps, knocks, and clicks. Decades later, Margaret Fox would admit that it was a hoax, since a “great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion.” Despite the seeming credulity of the movement’s adherents, Spiritualists were crucial reformers, with leaders like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. When the cause is good, perhaps it doesn’t matter which god’s vestments you wear.

And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. America’s dizzying diversity of faith confused young Smith, who asked “Who of all these parties are right, and how shall I know?” From the same upstate environs as the Fox Sisters, Smith was weened on a stew of evangelicalism and occultism, a child of the Second Great Awakening, who in those flinty woods of New York dreamt of finding shining golden tablets left by angels. Writing in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, scholar Fawn M. Brodie notes that for the New England and New York ancestors of Smith there was a “contempt for the established church which had permeated the Revolution, which had made the federal government completely secular, and which was in the end to divorce the church from the government of every state.”

Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Hero that there is a tendency of “Americans to make their nation sacred—to view its citizens as God’s chosen people.” Yet it was only Smith’s Mormons who so completely literalized such a view, for the Book of Mormon describes this as “a land which is choice above all other lands.” The effect was electrifying; Brodie writes: “In the New World’s freedom the church had disintegrated, its ceremonies had changed, and its stature had declined.” What remained was a vacuum in which individual minds could dream of new faiths. Spinoza would recognize such independence, his thin face framed by his curled wig, reflected back from the polished glow of one of Moroni’s tablets excavated from the cold ground of Palmyra, N.Y.

8.“In the beginning there was the Tao, and the Tao was God,” reads John 1:1 as translated in the Chinese Version Union bible commissioned by several Protestant denomination between 1890 and 1919. Appropriating the word “Tao” makes an intuitive sense, arguably closer to the Neo-Platonist language of “Logos” as the term is rendered in the koine Greek, than to the rather confusing terminology of “the Word” as it’s often translated in English.

Read cynically, this
bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make
Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes.
More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the
universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless
of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. Perhaps naïve, but
such a position might imply that conversion isn’t even a possibility, that all
which is needed in the way of ecumenicism is to place the right words with the
right concepts.

The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century. At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in 1907. Alopen was a representative of that massive eastern branch of Christianity slurred by medieval European Catholics as being “Nestorian,” after the bishop who precipitated their schism at a fifth-century church council (the theological differences are arcane, complicated, and for our purposes unimportant).

During those years of late antiquity, European Christendom was a backwater; before the turn of the first millennium the Catholicus of Baghdad would have been a far more important cleric than the Pope was, for as scholar Philip Jenkins explains in The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, the “particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm…For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with power representations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.”

In 635, Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs. And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva.

Sinologist Martin Palmer, writing in The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, argues that Alopen avoided “what many missionaries have tried to do—namely, make people adapt to a Western mind-set.” Rather, Alopen took “seriously the spiritual concerns of China.” Alopen was successful enough that some 150 years after his arrival, a limestone stele was engraved in both Mandarin and Syriac celebrating the history of Chinese Christianity. With a massive cross at the top of the Xi’an stele, it announced itself as a “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Rome.” During a period of anti-Buddhist persecution in the ninth century, when all “foreign” religions were banned, the stele was buried, and by 986 a visiting monk reported that “Christianity is extinct in China.”

Like Smith uncovering his golden tablets, workers in 1625 excavated the Xi’an stele, and recognizing it as Christian sent for Jesuits who were then operating as missionaries to the Ming Court. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1,000 years before. German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner supplied a Latin translation of the stele, enthusing in his China Illustrata that Xi’an’s rediscovery happened by God’s will “at this time when the preaching of the faith by way of the Jesuits pervaded China, so that old and new testimonies…would go forth…and so the truth of the Gospel would be clear to everyone.” But was it so clear, this strange gospel of the Tao?

Much of Kircher’s book was based on his colleague Fr. Mateo Ricci’s accounts of the Ming Court. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions. The Dominicans and Franciscans in China were disturbed by these accommodations, and by 1645 (some 35 years after Ricci had died) the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled against the Jesuits (though this was a process that went back and forth). Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, that we often have “followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.” Catholicism is not Taoism, and that’s to the integrity of both.

But Ricci’s attitude was a bold one, and in considering different beliefs, he was arguably a forerunner of pluralistic tolerance. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.  

9.In the painting, Sir Francis Dashwood —11th Baron le Despencer and Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762 to 1763—is depicted as if he was St. Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. In the corner is a silver platter, grapes and cherries tumbled onto the soil of this pastoral chapel, as if to remind the viewer of life’s mutability, “Vanity of vanity” and all the rest of it. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?—lay open slightly beyond the nobleman’s gaze, and with hand to breast, Dashwood contemplates what looks like a crucifix. But something is amiss in this portrait painted by Dashwood’s friend, that great notary of 18th-century foibles William Hogarth. The crucifix—it’s not Christ on the cross, but a miniature nude woman with her head thrown back. Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense.

If you happen to be an expert on 18th-century French pornography, you might notice that it’s not the gospels that lay open on cracked spine next to Dashwood, but a copy of Nicolas Chorier’s Elegantiae Latini sermonis; were you familiar with the intricacies of Westminster politics in the 1760s, you may have observed that rather than a golden, crescent halo above the baron’s head, it’s actually a cartoon of the Earl of Sandwich in lunar profile.

Already raised in the anti-Catholic environment of British high society, Dashwood’s disdain for religion was incubated during his roguish youth while on his fashionable Grand Tour of the continent—he was expelled from the Papal States. In the anonymously written 1779 Nocturnal Revels, a two-volume account of prostitution in London, the author claims that Dashwood “on his return to England, thought that a burlesque institution in the name of St. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity.”

To house his “Franciscans,” Dashwood purchased a former Cistercian Abby in Buckinghamshire that overlooked the Thames, and in dazzling stain-glass had inscribed above its entrance the famous slogan from the Abby of Thelema in Francois Rabelais’s 15th-century classic Gargantua and Pantagruel—“Do What Thou Wilt.” Its grounds were decorated with statues of Dionysius—Julian the Apostate’s revenge—and the gothic novelist (and son of a Prime Minister) Horace Walpole wrote that the “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church.” Within those gothic stone walls, Dashwood’s compatriots very much did do what they would, replacing sacramental wine with liquor, the host with feasting, and the Mass with their orgies. The Monks of Medenham Abby, founded upon a Walpurgis Night in 1752, initiated occasional worshipers including the respected jurist Robert Vansittart, John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich, the physician Benjamin Edward Bates II, the parliamentarian George Bubb Dodington, and in 1758 they hosted a colonial scientist named Benjamin Franklin (fresh from a Whitfield revival no doubt).

Such gatherings were not uncommon among the bored upper classes of European society; Black Masses were popular among French aristocrats into the 17th century, and in Britain punkish dens of obscenity like Dashwood’s were known as “Hell-Fire Clubs.” Evelyn Lord writes in her history The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies that long before Dashwood ever convened his monks, London had been “abuzz with rumors of highborn Devil-worshipers who mocked the established Church and religion, and allegedly supped with Satan,” with the apparently non-Satanic members of Parliament pushing for anti-blasphemy legislation.

That’s the thing with blasphemy though—there’s no Black Mass without first the Mass, no Satan without God. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. Lord writes that the “hell-fire clubs represented an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil…But the members of these clubs faced a dilemma: if they believed in Satan and hell-fire, did they by implications believe in a supernatural being, called God, and a place called Heaven?” Should the sacred hold no charged power, were relics simply bits of rag and bone, than there would be no electricity in their debasement; were a crucifix meaningless, than there would be no purpose in rendering it pornographic. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion.  

Geoffrey Ashe argues in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines that Thelema is an antinomian ethic that can be traced from Rabelais through the Hell-Fire Clubs onto today. He writes that such a history is “strange and unsettling. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived. It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise.” Dashwood’s confraternity encompasses figures as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (who had Rabelais’s motto carved above the entrance to his own monastery in Sicily), and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. As Master Crowley himself wrote in Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers, “I was in the death struggle with self: God and Satan fought for my soul those three long hours. God conquered – now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”  

10.When the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, lily of the Mohawks and the sainted maiden of the Iroquois village of Kahnawake, laid her head upon her death-bed one chill spring in 1680, it was said that the disfiguring small-pox scars she’d contracted vanished from her beautiful corpse. There in the dread wilderness of New France, where spring snows fall blue and deep and the horizon is marked with warm smoke from maple long-houses and fallen acorns are soggy under moccasin slippers, America’s indigenous saint would die. A witness recorded that Tekakwitha’s face “suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful.” A fellow nun records that the evening of the saint’s death, she heard a loud knock at her door, and Tekakwitha’s voice saying “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven.”

Tekakwitha’s short decades were difficult, as they must by necessity be for anyone who becomes a saint. She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus. Despite it being the religion of the invaders, Tekakwitha had visions of the Virgin and desired conversion, and so she journeyed over frozen Quebec ground to the village of the “Black Robes” who taught that foreign faith.

When Tekakwitha met with the Jesuits, they told the Iroquois woman not of the Tao, nor did they speak of heaven, rather they chanted a hymn of Karonhià:ke, the realm from which the father of all things did send his only son to die. Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Cholonec recording that she finally said “I have deliberated enough,” and she willingly went to the baptismal font. She has for the past three-centuries been America’s indigenous saint, a symbol of Christ reborn on this land, the woman of two cultures whom William T. Vollman describes in his novel Fathers and Crows as “Tekakwitha…praying besides the Cross of maple wood she had made.”

Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? In his novel Beautiful Losers, the Canadian poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen says of Tekakwitha that a “saint does not dissolve the chaos.” Tekakwitha is not a dialectic to resolve the contradictions between the Catholic and the Iroquois, the French and the Mohawk. She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman.

If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man. We aren’t known to one another; we’re finally known only to God—though it’s impossible to say which one. When Tekakwitha’s appearance changed, was this an indication of saintliness? Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? All that can be said of conversion is that it’s never final, we’re always in the process of being changed, and pray that it’s possible to alter our broken world in return. Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night.

Image credit: Unsplash/Diana Vargas.

We Should All Be Reading Ancient Poetry Right Now

In 1942, the classicist Edith Hamilton acknowledged the “dark spots” which encroach upon the worlds of Greek myth. Reading ancient poetry today makes you realize how those dark spots have grown. They may be sinister, but like black holes, they suck you in. They are timely reminders of the continuing power of classical verse.

There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.

Ovid captures the zeitgeist better than any contemporary writer I know. It’s remarkable, considering he died in the early first century, but his words have taken on new significance in the past few years. Where his Metamorphoses once seemed strange and fantastical, with their stories of girls turning into trees and sculptures transforming into living flesh, they now read like an entree to conversations of human fluidity.

A young man named Actaeon is out hunting when he stumbles upon the goddess Diana bathing. In her fury, the deity turns him into a stag. Unable to feel at home in his former palace or the woods with other animals—“shame impeded one route and fear the other”—Actaeon is torn apart by his hunting dogs and sense of displacement. There has never been a better description of what it’s like to be uncomfortable in your own skin. Other characters in the Metamorphoses are more fortunate. They change form to better manifest who they really are.

The anguish of Actaeon suggests to me that escapism shouldn’t be the primary reason for reading ancient poetry today. For sure, there’s diversion and joy to be found in the drinking poems of Horace—nunc est bibendum!—or the Cyclops-haunted adventures of Odysseus. Virgil even provides a lively debate on the virtues of the countryside relative to the city. Perfect for the daily commute. But it’s when the poets turn to their struggles and political angst that their voices feel most modern. Read them not for escapism but for the reverse: They found the words to express the dark spots we’re still facing today.

Long before the birth of Ovid, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek tragedians put the human condition under the microscope. No flaw or contradiction went unexplored. In his Bacchae, the poet Euripides let the tension play out between our inner wildness and outer sense of propriety. Is it better to suppress your desires or give free rein to curiosity? In the play, the reputation of a king is on the line. Put yourself in his shoes and you realize the stakes now feel somehow higher. Anyone today can suffer public humiliation for making the wrong choice. Let yourself go at your peril.

The Greek poets understood that extreme situations bring out the best and worst in us. That’s why they liked to present their characters with impossible choices. Sophocles’s Antigone, the inspiration for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, forces its protagonist to choose between obeying the law of her uncle and the authority of the gods. In choosing to bury her late brother, who died an alleged traitor, Antigone honored divine law. She has gone down in history as one of the great political protestors.

When I try to express the sense of unease I feel over politics today, though, it’s the Roman poets I turn to first. Rome of the late first century B.C. was not so very different from the White House or Westminster. The rise of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and populist politics which threatened the status quo was far from universally embraced. The Latin poet Catullus, best known for his passionate poems to his lover Lesbia, grappled with a new question: How do you react to a people-pleaser without feeding his ego? At first, he recommends nonchalance:
I have absolutely no desire to want to please you, Caesar,
Nor to know the smallest thing about you.
And if that doesn’t work? Turn up the temperature without losing your humor. Not even the fact that Caesar was a friend of his father prevented Catullus from branding him a “shameless, grasping gambler” and worse in acerbic verse. His message got through. Caesar was offended by the poems. He forgave their author. I defy anyone to read a book of Roman polemics and resist nodding along to at least some of them.

At their best, the works of the ancient poets read like social commentary of our own times. They brim with uncomfortable but necessary home truths and highlight what really matters. A surge in translations of classical texts in recent years has brought the ancient poets even closer to us, the language no longer a barrier to our understanding. I’d wager that an hour spent in their company would reveal more about the realities of our world than a thousand scrolls of Twitter or Instagram ever could.

Image: Flickr/Balcon del Mundo

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