A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Museum Monsters

Timing has never been my strong suit.  As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.”  To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters.  Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking.  Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation.  Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion.  Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time.  We’ll take whatever validation we can get.

Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters.  Even the Bible, after all, has them.  They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world.  A world of hurricanes and Trump.  A world lacking compassion and sense.  Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands.  Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless.  Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close.  Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving?  When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world.  Monsters have their practical uses indeed.

If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing.  Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house.  Moving is chaos embodied.  Like monsters, it’s best left to the young.  It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town.  I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty.  Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful.  Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone.  Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums.  They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever.  It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily.  If you happen to miss it, don’t worry.  It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.

Somebody Else’s Heaven

Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.”  It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals.  The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores.  Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however.  The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate.  Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees.  At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one.  The smell almost knocked me off my feet.  I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.”  Whose version of heaven is this?

Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven.  Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade.  It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect.  Heaven is, after all, a construct.  The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death.  In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place.  Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance.  The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems.  As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.

A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do.  We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment.  In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees.  We’re often taken in by the innocence of names.  The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it.  It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant.  Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems.  It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds.  According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year.  Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.