Laurent Binet, Civilizations: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).
1. Who the author is.
Laurent Binet, Professor of French Literature at the University of Paris and son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father, laureate of the Prix Goncourt and other awards for his writing, will turn fifty this year. By way of full disclosure, my mother was a Sephardic Jew and my father’s family were Communists, and I taught literature at several universities. Because of these affinities and sympathies one is inclined towards partiality, but the novel is magnificent by any standard. Binet’s new book takes counterfactual or alternative history, a genre that uneasily inhabits a terrain vaguebetween formal literature, that which possesses what Matthew Arnold called high seriousness, and science fiction, which in the Anglo-Saxon cultures occupies a lower rung of aesthetic respectability, and elevates it as a vehicle for profound thoughts about the large concerns of world history and culture— as the book’s title, Civilizations, suggests. It is possible that the author was emboldened to do this because the French, unlike the Americans or the British, take the genres of fantasy and science fiction seriously. It is because Poe and Lovecraft were appreciated in Paris that they attained respectability on this side of the Atlantic. Binet’s work is suffused with erudition but he wears his great learning lightly, and his writing is clear, enticing, and scintillatingly witty. The book is both an entertainment and the master work of a great humanist. It is a delight to read.
2. Another book by the same.
It was my brother who recommended the novel under review, Civilizations, to me, and sent me a copy of the book. Josh lives in our hometown, New York, and I am now in faraway Fresno, California. We share intricate memories of a distant childhood that seems increasingly like legend and myth. He is the only other person alive who can affirm that they are history. The long trajectories of our lives and interests have separated widely, and we are seldom in touch. It was thus a pleasant surprise to discover in the course of a conversation by phone that we are both fascinated by the Aztecs. Josh is interested in explorers of remote places, in the history of discovery, in the details of wars. My focus is more on comparative religion, language, and literature. Civilizations encompasses all these subjects.
I was sorry to reach the end of Civilizations. I wanted more. I had already read Binet’s earlier novel, HHhH, a straightforward historical narrative about Kubiš and Gabčik, the young Czechoslovak patriots who in 1942 killed Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi gauleiter of Hitler’s “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” and architect of the Final Solution. Heydrich, Himmler’s second in command in the SS, had convened the Wannsee Conference just a few months before he was assassinated. It’s not just understandable to have strong, positive feelings about the death of the murderous Heydrich; I’d find it disturbing if somebody didn’t have them.
Ten years ago, in mid-March 2012, my friend and former pupil Jan and I spent a day walking across all of Prague from his home beyond the Castle, down to the Vltava river, across to the Old Town and then the New Town, then up to the pantheon on the hill of Vyšehrad, where the cultural immortals of the Czech nation rest, and at last to the Russian Orthodox church of Cyril and Methodius. After they assassinated Heydrich the two heroes Kubiš and Gabčik were sheltered, then martyred there. They spent their final hours in the crypt of the temple dedicated to their spiritual forebears, the two saints who a millennium earlier had brought the art of alphabetic writing to the early medieval Slavs.
Jan and I had reached the Castle in mid-morning. On that same day in 1939, Hitler had entered Prague— a year earlier, the governments of Britain and France had signed the Munich agreement and handed the German-speaking part of the country, the Sudetenland, over to him on a silver platter. The great powers gave the Czechs no say in the matter: they were not invited to participate in the negotiations at Munich and after it were told sternly not to dare try and defend themselves. Hitler had assured the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that he had no further territorial designs in Europe. Even then it was plain this was a barefaced lie, and soon thereafter he browbeat the Czechs into surrendering their entire country, threatening that the Luftwaffe would level Prague if they refused.
In March 1939 then, the Nazis raised their swastika over Prague Castle, the heart of the only true liberal democracy that had ever existed in Central Europe. Their Fuehrer entered the capital in triumph and ate a celebratory breakfast of Prague ham and Pilsener lager at the Castle that morning. The tyrant was a vegetarian but always said it wasn’t for moral reasons. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, and the Czech lands became the German “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”.
A musician who had played at Jan and Zuzka’s wedding was busking outside the Castle in the morning Jan and I arrived there, and played a solo arrangement of the Largo from the New World Symphony by Dvořak for us. We tried our best to reverse Munich by musical magic and imaginative effort, to expunge the defilement of Hitler and Heydrich: the itinerary of our day-long walk was alternative history as the exorcism of evil spirits. Instead of a counterfactual novel, our walk was intended as new timeline, a vector in an alternate universe in which there was no dictator in the Castle on a morning in March, just a street musician playing for two friends.
It was a wistful sort of magic, and Prague Castle is no stranger to magic. The late-16th-century emperor Rudolf II made his capital a haven for Rosicrucians, alchemists, and occultists. In the same century, when the Jews of Prague were threatened with the blood libel, legend has it that the great and pious scholar and mystic Rabbi Loew, the Maharal, shaped a giant human figure of clay and infused it with life: the powerful artificial man, the Golem, then protected the community. The Golem of Prague was the prototype of cybernetics: the word robot itself is Czech, means “worker”, and was dreamed up by Karel Čapek in his early-20th-century play, R.U.R. One begins to dream of alternate realities, supernatural powers: perhaps the Golem, whose sundered clay parts are said to rest in the attic of the Altneuschul, the medieval synagogue in the Old Town, could have been revived to defend the Czechs, stop the fascist war machine, and avert the Holocaust.
Michael Chabon in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) has his hero rescue the Golem and spirit him away from Hitler’s occultists in a huge box (shades of Indiana Jones’ lost Ark of the Covenant), but it does not stop the inexorable march of war and fascism. If only we could climb into a time machine, go a few centuries back even beyond the Maharal, give the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus some modern weapons, and jump start the Enlightenment. Or visit the father of the Czechoslovak republic, Tomas Masaryk, early enough in the 1930s to make a difference and convince him to have the Czech Škoda works manufacture big guns, and invite in the Red Army to kick German ass. Or appear in the short-lived democratic republic of Czechoslovakia after the war and warn Masaryk’s son, Jan, away from the window, before Stalin’s assassins came to defenestrate him and impose totalitarianism once more. If only one could have done something, but what, to turn back the invading armor of the Warsaw Pact in 1968 that put an end to Alexander Dubček’s brave project of building Socialism with a Human Face. Well, at least there was Vaclav Havel, the rock musician, philosopher, and dissident humanist who became the Czech Republic’s first post-Soviet president. Havel welcomed the Dalai Lama to Prague Castle, dispelling perhaps some of the specters that cast a dark shadow over the history of the great edifice, which had haunted Kafka’s prescient imagination decades before Hitler set foot there. But looking back, it is scant consolation. One still seeks the imaginative balm of alternative history: we were impotent to make reality better than it has turned out to be, so let’s write a novel in which the present is good. Such counterfactual fiction can be wish fulfillment, vengeance in the face of impotence to remedy the past— a thinking man’s masturbation.
Around the time we were exploring the alleys below Prague Castle, Jan and I stopped to quaff a beer. I don’t generally like beer, but I drank it anyhow to spite Hitler. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, which is on a busy street corner. You would expect a Russian church to sport gilded onion domes and intricately carved porticoes. But the shrine is, incongruously, a stolidly Central European, baroque edifice. It blends in inconspicuously with the other heavy masonry of the 19th-century buildings of the district, the caloric bourgeois architecture of the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs. The streets hum with everyday traffic. That is what makes the scene of the deaths of Kubiš and Gabčik even more terrifying: the plain, well-fed, quotidian setting of the Passion and the Crucifixion. Like the fall of Icarus from the sky on a work day in Breughel’s painting— Auden understood it so well. Tolstoy wrote in The Death of Ivan Ilyich that his hero’s life had been ordinary and respectable, comme il faut, and that was what made his mortal illness, with all its stench and pain and terror, so particularly hideous. It is usual to enter a Russian Orthodox church on your knees while kissing the stones of the threshold; but it was not mere ritual but heartbroken horror when one did it that day after the Castle and the New World Symphony, knowing what happened at Munich in 1938, and at the Castle in 1939, and right there in 1942, and the annihilation of Lidice near Prague afterwards, and Terezin concentration camp just a few miles farther away, and Jan Masaryk’s murder in 1948, and the Soviet invasion in 1968. “History,” quipped the writer Delmore Schwartz, “is a nightmare in which I’m trying to get a good night’s sleep.”
The passion and martyrdom of Kubiš and Gabčik merge well with the hagiography of Cyril and Methodius. The cultural archetype of two heroes is powerful, whether their quest is the creative shaping of an alphabet or armed resistance to tyranny. Pindar’s glow of glory, his semnon ti (“sacred something”), rests upon the innocent and affectionate friendship that runs alongside their great labor, an intimate and human theme. One thinks of the Hellenes Harmodios and Aristogeiton “who slew the tyrant and made Athens a place of equitable laws”, as the ancient skolion declares. There are the twin heroes of Armenian epic, Sanasar and Baghdasar. The saints who invented the Armenian script, Mesrop Mashtots and Sahak the Parthian. The Russian saints and martyrs Boris and Gleb. I began Binet’s book HHhH (the Germans’ asinine abbreviation of their stupid motto, “Hitler’s brain is called Heydrich”) wondering whether he could feel what I felt. He did. Could he put it into words? He could. Could he articulate what it means to honor the quiet, civilized Czechs, despise the hypocrisy of their conquerors and betrayers, and celebrate the almost bashful nobility of their gentle warriors? Yes. He tells the story in fragments, now in cold anger, now in wrath. He returns the reader to Paris now, as his wife interrupts his readings, his fulminations, his labors. Then he plunges back into Prague.
3. And yet another book of his.
So, I’d already read another novel of Binet’s, HhHH, years ago. But I sought and found a third to slake my thirst after Civilizations. It is The Seventh Function of Language (2015), a satire of postmodernism, of academia, of the literary and linguistic theories of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and the other French intellectuals of the late 20th century. There is also a gritty, no-nonsense Paris cop, the reluctant, smart young Jewish lecturer who serves as his interpreter in the halls of academe, some gay boys having pre-AIDS fun, Bulgarian spies (it is 1980 so they use poison-tipped umbrellas instead of polonium, which reminds me of the murder of Polonius in Hamlet, and there it is, life imitating art, everything is text, hah!), and a lost manuscript of the groundbreaking Russian Jewish theoretician of language, the father of structuralist thinking, Roman Jakobson.
But before we look into the novel, here is a true story about Prof. Jakobson, gentle reader. If you are a friend of mine and have heard it before, scroll down. By now, most of my friends have heard all my stories more than once. When I was a graduate student (in British English, postgraduate) at Oxford in the mid-70s, Jakobson came to town to give a lecture on Stephane Mallarmé. This sounded exciting, but in the event he just tabulated occurrences in “The Afternoon of a Faun” of words like et and la. The French poem is languorous; but the lecture was downright soporific. I fell at once into that deep, dreamless, delicious sleep only a warm afternoon classroom or a dully pedantic lecture can induce. Jakobson’s analysis of Mallarmé’s conjunctions could have cured Alexander Pushkin himself of insomnia. Dragged off, Sarpedon-like, by Hypnos (Thanatos, fortunately, was not on duty), I toppled into the warm lap of the elderly gentleman seated next to me. I was rather a shaggy-haired little faun myself, that bygone afternoon, and my poor sleepy head evidently did not bother my neighbor at all. Or else he was just very tactful and kind. The requisite, not thunderous, applause at the end of the lecture woke me and I sat upright, pretending (just as you have done more than once, too, admit it) that I’d been awake and attentive throughout. Nobody had liked the lecture, everyone was bored and annoyed, and to show it they refused to ask Jakobson any questions. The moderator, at his wits’ end, begged the Master of the college to say something. “Sorry,” replied the Master, Sir Isiah Berlin, who had been my uncomplaining pillow. He winked discreetly at me.” I’m afraid I slept through the whole thing.”
Back to the novel. In The Seventh Function of Language, Binet marries the murder mystery to the arcana of French postmodernist theory. As in Civilizations, the lighter genre supports very heavy material, as Binet dissects the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, & Co. The novel is set in 1980, and begins with the communist secret police of Bulgaria ruthlessly murdering Roland Barthes in order to steal the manuscript of a short essay by Roman Jakobson on the seventh function of language. Jakobson has already defined six, but the seventh is politically potent, a kind of occult weapon. At the end (spoiler alert) we discover what that seventh function of language is. It is language as a murder weapon: the technique of defeating a political rival in a televised debate, or of persuading a hired killer to turn his gun away from you and train it on his employer. The grizzled, cynical French police inspector, the homme moyen sensuel who in Barthes’ books analyzing signs and symbols would himself be the suspect of interest, eating his steak with frites and drinking red wine, investigates the murder. There are innumerable small moments of serendipitous oddness that are all the funnier for being unexpected. The cop steals a Rubik’s cube from a kid across the aisle on a 747 crossing the Atlantic. An angry feminist at Cornell strides across the campus lawn and calls Julia Kristeva a bitch. I bet you always wanted to do that. There’s a car chase. A bar fight in Bologna with Umberto Eco in attendance. Double entendres abound, as the characters’ theories seep into both the manner of narration and the plot itself: Eco himself attends meetings of a learned secret society, that is, Binet makes the Italian semiotician a character in the latter’s own novel, Foucault’s Pendulum!
Binet makes in-jokes. Has the police inspector grumble about all these fucking academic faggots making good money for doing nothing except writing and saying stuff no normal person would understand or care about. There are dinner parties on the Rive Gauche: French intellectuals trade incomprehensible barbs over tasty food and wine and visiting Americans do their best to make it look like they understand what’s going on.
4. Get to the point.
Okay, here is the alternative time line of Civilizations. The actual, historical Vikings island-hopped west: Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Vineland. They reached the icy northern bits of America, but stopped there. But suppose we enter into an alternative history, in which they kept going and reached Mesoamerica. The shaper of this new vector of events, the demiurge Laurent Binet, has read Jared Diamond. He knows that an indigenous American aborigine would require horses, iron, and immunity from epidemic disease to withstand successfully the assaults of a would-be conquistador. How is one to provide them with the technological and biological leg up they need? Binet introduces a Viking princess who keeps getting into fights with people and therefore has to keep moving west to avoid her victims’ angry kinsmen and the long arm of the law. Vineland isn’t the terminus of her peregrinations, however: she and a few followers tack along the North American coast southwards in a boat full of the basics of Diamond’s anti-colonialist arsenal: horses, cows, iron axes, and their germ-laden Northern European selves. The weather improves, and they come at last upon a tropical sea dotted with islands inhabited by attractive, uninhibited naked natives smoking cigars. The Danes and the Puerto Ricans become very good friends. The Indians learn to milk cows, manufacture guns, and ride horses. They get sick but develop herd immunity. The Vikings enjoy the balmy climate, recreational sex, and cohibas. It’s easy to cross Panama and look, there’s another ocean, and more coastline: the Vikings make it all the way down to Peru. The indigenous civilization of the Incas absorbs their imported technology and livestock. Time passes.
Several centuries later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ferdinand and Isabella conquer the last Muslim holdout in Spain and on 31 March 1492 issue the Edict of Granada, banishing the Muslims and the Jews— the latter are my mother’s ancestors— from their domains. The Expulsion is the greatest disaster in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70. In Salonica, at the turn of the 20th century, my family still had the keys to our house in Toledo. My mother, who died just short of her 95th birthday, was a native speaker of medieval Castilian Spanish, half a millennium after the Edict of Granada. Christopher Columbus sets sail in August 1492, on the same day that the Catholic Kings’ ignoble decree takes effect, and his three ships reach Hispaniola, but in Binet’s universe there’s never going to be a Columbus Day.
In fact, there isn’t going to be an Amerigo Vespucci to give his name to the lands across the Atlantic, either. The horse-riding, gun-toting, healthy locals beat the living crap out of Columbus and his greedy crew, and the beached, abandoned hulks of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria rot on the shore. Binet fashions a diary in which Columbus vents his despair, and then expires. Meanwhile, the Inca prince Atahualpa is retreating north during a war of succession with his brother, meets and weds a nice señorita (which is anachronistic, too, since there are no living Spaniards in the hemisphere and consequently no español either) on a Caribbean island, sees the hapless Columbus’ boats, says he’s got good carpenters, she says sure, why not, they set sail, make landfall in the New World (which till then was called Europe, but no longer), and have no trouble taking Lisbon since it’s just suffered a devastating earthquake.
A Lisbon earthquake? Think Candide, the book in which just such an earthquake shakes the pious Catholic city to its foundation. The Inca conquistadors miss meeting Voltaire’s callow hero in this best of all possible worlds, which Binet is about to make a reality, but do sail up the Tagus just in time to witness Conversos being burnt alive at the stake during an auto da fé at Toledo. (Our family’s synagogue in Salonica was called Los Figos Locos, after the one in Toledo.) We practice human sacrifice on occasion, too, says the horrified Atahualpa, and if you people want to worship your Skinny Nailed God that’s fine, but burning people alive is a crime. In a burst of righteous indignation, Atahualpa orders his army to kill the officers of the Inquisition and his men spread out into town, massacring every pious “Old Christian” they can lay their hands on. In Spain at that time, Jewish converts to Christianity— Conversos— were called “New Christians” and were subjected to various kinds of discrimination and harassment because, the ecclesiastical authorities maintained, the proselytes lacked the limpieza de sangre “purity of blood” of Gentiles. By this point in the novel your constant reader is cheering on the indigenous American warriors through the alleys of ethnically cleansed Spain as though Mexico were beating Nazi Germany in the World Cup.
Atahualpa conquers Granada and plants tomatoes around the Alhambra. The Sun King then takes a deserved vacation after his easy conquest of the Iberian peninsula of the New World, and kicks back with a native potation the Incas call the black drink, because it looks that way in the bottle but when you pour it into a glass it’s red. They like vino tinto and the indigenous tribes of the New World like gold, which Peru abounds in, so Atahualpa’s new capital, Seville, becomes the center of a booming Transatlantic trade network. The new ruler’s Edict of Seville annuls and reverses the ignobile decretum of Granada: the Inca king invites conversos, Moors, Sephardim, witches, sodomites, and heretics to return and join his army. Land is redistributed equitably, people are free to worship as they please or not at all, and when Henry VIII sends an embassy to ask how many wives he can marry, the emissaries return with the reply: As many as you want.
A note about the potation the Incas term black drink. There is in present-day reality (I’m not making this up) a Mexican state, Sierra de Puebla, where the complex, euphonious, poetic language Nahuatl is still spoken. Priests share spiritual authority with shamans, called curanderos, who still undertake dream-state, out-of-body journeys to the murky otherworld, Talocan. And there is a Christian saint revered locally as San Guillermo de la Copa de Vino Tinto (“St. William of the Glass of Red Wine”). Let us pray for his constant intercession on our behalf. Long live Aztec Catholicism. Amen.
Back to the novel. Meanwhile, Atahualpa, who has become the Holy Roman Emperor (thereby giving new meaning to Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Emperor was neither holy nor Roman: the novel is full of such learned drolleries), has traveled north. In Germany, the Incas listen with fastidious displeasure to the hellfire sermons of a disgruntled monastic bigot by the name of Martin Luther, but another, more eirenic monk nails his own 95 theses to a church door. These refer favorably to the tolerant, altogether nice Inca sun god Viracocha, and many burghers prefer them to Luther’s fulminations. The followers of the Inca religion bring Viracocha’s warm gospel of enlightenment and civilization to the uncouth barbarians, while according toleration to the more primitive cults of the frigid Germanic natives.
You can see how a humanist, a teacher of literature, a man who hates Reinhard Heydrich and loves to poke fun at the delightful absurdities of French intellectuals and politicians, a handsome fellow with a loving Jewish mother, and an intrepid Communist father, a reader of Cervantes and Montaigne, altogether the best and most entirely lovable and clever and learned person one has met in print of late, can demonstrate how counterfactual, alternative historical fiction doesn’t have to be dystopian. It can be the dream of a better world, a deft adjustment of historical wrongs, a happy exercise of sheer wish fulfillment. Keep in mind, please, the theme of the dream: it will figure importantly in the book presently.
Wine, tomato sauce, Cuban cigars, land reform, freedom of conscience, handsome Indian warriors prancing about on noble steeds, and best of all, my Sephardic ancestors returning to Andalusia in the company of the entire salon des refusés of European history: Moors, sodomites, witches, heretics, atheists. Let’s open the Sarajevo Haggadah, enjoy its shapely and restrained calligraphy and miniature paintings, pour some black drink (or Aztec chocolate for our Muslim friends), sing romantic songs in Spanish and Arabic, intone the praises of God and Viracocha, of Moses and Atahualpa, and all rise for La Marseillaise!
News of the explorations, discoveries, and riches of Atahualpa the conquistador reaches the chancelleries of the capital of the Mexica (as the Aztecs called themselves). I was about to call their city on Lake Texcoco the Venice of the New World but really Venice in Italy is the New World’s equivalent of Tenochtitlán in the Old World, isn’t it. Atahualpa has some Italian friends, inter alia, who have been very helpful as political advisors. Their names are Medici and Machiavelli. The Aztec king Cuauhtémoc, who was not the last of his line, tortured by Cortes to give up more hidden treasure, then murdered since there was no Cortes, sails for the British Isles and invades France from there, building a pyramid in the Louvre (yes, there’s a glass one there today for real, in joke, ha ha). Except this one is an Aztec pyramid, complete with sanguinary rituals of excordiation. More wish fulfillment: there’s no need to excavate the Templo Mayor— the twin pyramids the Spaniards destroyed, building the Mexico City cathedral above— or lament the loss of Mayan and Aztec codices, since Tenochtitlán’s sanctuary was never destroyed and the books were never burnt by Catholic monks. What else never came to be? There were no plantations in the Americas where slaves toiled planting and cutting sugar cane to make rum. There was no middle passage to Africa, no slave trade. There are no Puritans, no blankets with smallpox rubbed into them, Trail of Tears, no genocide of the Indians of California. But there is still chocolate.
I would like, with your kind indulgence, to make some useful remarks about chocolate. Proper Aztec chocolate was prepared with water, but let us suppose there was some Viking cow’s milk handy. For a cup and a half of milk, take a generously heaping tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, a goodly dash of powdered cinnamon, a goodly dash of powdered cayenne pepper, a proper squirt of vanilla, and a half-teaspoonful of nice wild honey. Stir and stir over low heat till the delectable concoction gets deep brown and steamy. Pour carefully, lovingly, into a mug and enjoy, dunking achurro or pan dulce.
How could it possibly get better than this? Than an America without the tears of the Indians, than a Europe without the murder of the Jews, than a cup of Aztec cocoa? What is Binet going to do?
If you intend to be surprised and delighted by the novel, it is probably better that you don’t read the next two paragraphs. Towards the end of the novel the panorama of Civilizations narrows, the remaining pages thin, and we are introduced to the picaresque career of an avidly passionate young man of letters fleeing the law after an illicit tryst, one Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra. On the road, he teams up with a temperamental Greek painter, Doménikos Theotokópoulos—most know him better by his sobriquet, El Greco. Till Miró and Picasso he was the greatest artist in Spain’s history. The two arrive at Bordeaux, to find the city ravaged by a plague from Mexico to which the poor Europeans have no immunity. The fugitives hole up in a comfortable chateau outside town whose door is open and whose master is not at home. They find it amply provisioned with good books and black drink, and the rafters are tastefully adorned with Greek and Latin inscriptions. Cervantes and El Greco make themselves at home, and to their relief the lord of the castle upon his return is only too glad to make them welcome, provided they agree to engage in lively, candid conversations with him. They are happy to oblige, and the three, Michel de Montaigne, Cervantes, and El Greco enjoy copious copas of black drink together, argue at great length about everything under the benevolent Sun of Viracocha, and then settle back happily into their armchairs to read more books.
Montaigne’s wife lives in the other tower of the chateau. Her lord and master, inventor of the genre of the essay, is too preoccupied with scrivening and omphaloskepsis to visit her conjugally more once a month. (Was Montaigne’s passionate friendship with Étienne de La Boétie more than what we delicately and tastefully call Platonic?) The young heterosexual Spaniard, who is infatuated with this Gallic Dulcinea, is only too happy to satisfy her every need all the other days of the month. Then they read more books.
Binet’s prose meanwhile has become suspiciously extravagant. The subheading of a passage about some minor events promises extraordinary adventures, the like of which have never been seen before, in which our intrepid hero, in pursuit of the wondrous… and so on. Nabokov entertained us with the unreliable narrator of Pale Fire. Here, the narrator is undergoing a kind of metamorphosis. The text is playing hide and seek with itself, of course it is, the author is a master of French Theory, isn’t he, and the hitherto unnamed narrator of Civilizations seems to be becoming the narrator of Don Quixote. How can it end? With the ghostly intervention of the most famous of the many millions of readers of Montaigne, that’s how: Cervantes and El Greco are enlisted to embark presently on a journey across the ocean, to write and paint the wonders of the Old World (that is, what you and I know as the Americas). Sailing through a tempest at sea, they arrive, disembark, and behold “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples”. It seemed like a dream, the narrator declares as the book ends. But then, all of it is a dream. It is an elegant, wistful, Shakespearean dream that this latter-day Prospero, the magician of The Tempest, has conjured, through that eighth and magical function of language, the creation of a new reality by means of literature.
5. Counterfactual literature: the genre.
Now I want to talk a bit more about the genre to which Civilizations belongs. Binet’s book is utopian; but it is fair to say that most works of alternative history are dystopian. That is, they describe an alternative world, or a world of the future, that is worse than this one. It is fitting, given the relationship of this genre to science fiction, that two books by the greatest of sci-fi writers in English exemplify these two kinds of dystopian alternative worlds: hellishly altered present and dreadful future. H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, 1895, evokes the distant world of the year 802,701 in which the industrial working classes have become a subterranean race of cannibalistic brutes, the Morlocks. Their ceaselessly thumping machinery supports the descendants of the upper classes— the beautiful, indolent, passive Eloi, who disport themselves in the sunlit, bosky glades of a perennially tropical earth. But the earthly garden of delights comes with a cost, Et in Arcadia ego: The Morlocks come up every night to kidnap a few Eloi to eat. Wells is sensitive here to the overtones of language: Morlock is a rough, consonantal, Cockney sort of word. Cold moors, dank canal locks. Eloi combines the Hebrew word for a god with the euphonious plural ending of Greek nouns, graceful, musical, upper-class. The hero falls in love with an Eloi girl of the future, Rowena, and escapes back to his London sitting-room, where his friends are waiting in overstuffed armchairs with lit cigars and snifters of brandy. He finds in his waistcoat pocket a flower Rowena has given him.
Coleridge once asked, If you were to dream of a garden and then wake in the morning holding a blossom, then what? I don’t know what, but this is H.G. Wells’ answer, sort of. M.R. James, Wells’ contemporary and a scholar of the Biblical Apocrypha, used to entertain his young, athletic male students (yes, he was another one) with scary ghost stories. Did they huddle together in fear, while pouring another peg of scotch. One can but hope so. One of his yarns takes a Coleridgean twist in another direction: a man dreams of a horrid monster, wakes abruptly, and finds a nearly severed demonic claw gripping his bedstead. But I digress.
Two years after The Time Machine, Wells published The War of the Worlds, set in the smug, secure England of today— for him, today was the late Victorian period, in a world that had never seen a world war, one in which the sun never set on the British Empire. A Martian invasion reduces that world to ashes, in a matter of days. That is the dystopia of the present day. The destruction, if not the interplanetary invasion, was prescient: London was soon to experience fire and death from the air.
The 19th century was animated by a faith in reason and progress inherited from the Enlightenment; the 20thcentury saw an end to those bright hopes and brought more counterfactual fiction, nearly all of it darkly pessimistic. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, envisions a brutal, militarized totalitarian world order in the wake of World War II, in which the Party, which combines features of both fascism and Stalinism, imposes thought control upon an impoverished and terrorized Britain. Orwell, like Wells, was sensitive to language, and was particularly interested in the strategies of political propaganda and the use of language as a weapon to mendacious and violent ends (Binet’s seventh function): the purpose of the Party’s Newspeak, a dark parody of Esperanto, is the demolition of the creative and literary English language, a way of making free and independent thought— thought crime— itself impossible. When Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazi Holocaust, was put on trial in Israel, he protested that he preferred Beamtersprache— bureaucratese— to ordinary language. Language no longer merely had a seventh function. It had become the seventh function, a murder weapon. When Primo Levi beheld Auschwitz for the first time and wondered aloud how it could be, he was roughly told, Hier ist kein warum, “There is no ‘why’ here.”
America, the country of the common man, with its burgeoning popular culture, has contributed especially abundantly to the alt-hist genre in the postwar decades. Four years after Orwell’s 1984 Ward Moore, a left-wing American Jew, published Bring the Jubilee, in whose counterfactual setting the Confederacy won the Civil War and the broken Northern states of the defeated Union are now technologically backward, mired in poverty, and socially barbarous. Ward had read his Wells in an inventive way: the hero of the novel travels back in a time machine to the scene of a key battle of the War between the States, and the Union army benefits from his clarity of historical hindsight and triumphs (as it did in reality). The battle is the turning point, the South is defeated, and the novel strands our hero in the familiar time-space continuum that you and I inhabited in the 1950s, in which America was a prosperous, free, advanced, happy land. But there is a twist, a price to pay. The panorama so familiar to us is for him an utterly alien universe in which nothing and no one is familiar, a world in which his loved ones and friends were never born.
Nine years after Bring the Jubilee, the prolific science fiction writer Philip K. Dick published his novel The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in the present day after an Axis victory over the United States in World War II: in this book, then, instead of the genteel wickedness of Ward’s slave state of Dixie or the gray misery of Orwell’s quasi-Stalinist Airstrip One (the new name of Britain in 1984), we stare into the abyss of absolute evil, a global Nazi New Order. Dick inserts a fictional book into his already fictional book, a hyperfiction, much like book on the life of Pontius Pilate, bits of which we get to read in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. In the Russian novel, the book-within-the-book reflects what we know to be a reality, the life of Jesus in antiquity, which the dystopian, lunatic existing order, the present Soviet system that is the setting of Bulgakov’s novel, regards as fiction. Dick’s alt-hist novel, the book-within-the-book, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is itself a work of alternative historical fiction in which America did win the war. The Nazis have banned the book, and with good reason: reading it enables the reader to tear aside the flimsy, shoddy veil of falsehood that masquerades as reality and to behold, enter, and restore the world of truth. Grasshopper serves the seventh function of language in reverse: it is a weapon that by destroying the lethal simulacrum restores life instead of taking it.
Much more could be said about this, and I hope to write about it in greater detail in future. In brief, Dick experienced a mystical vision in California in the early 1970s, in which he was made to understand that the present world is a fake, a copy. In particular, he realized that the oppressive Roman Empire never ended, and that the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, ostensibly opposite and bitter enemies, are both aspects of it, of the same agent of control of this Black Iron Prison. The dystopia of The Man in the High Castle is, in this light, grosso modo our reality, or, more precisely, the imposed unreality we are trapped in. We have been traveling along this wrong and fake vector of existence, Dick was shown and subsequently taught his readers, since the fall of Masada in 73 AD warped or bent the vector of time. Masada was the last holdout of the Jewish Zealots against the Roman legions. His epiphany jolted Dick onto the true vector, that which extends straight from the time before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple when Judaism and Christianity were one. This good and authentic reality, that of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, he calls the Garden of Palm Trees. Reality is Eden; but we think we are in jail.
In a way, then, Dick’s book is not dystopian. But it did exemplify the trend in the genre to focus alternative fiction on one imagined event: an adverse outcome of World War II, and specifically, the worldwide application of the Final Solution, a planetary Holocaust.
It is fair to say that most alt-hist novels now are about the Nazis. I’ve addressed this phenomenon in an article, “Literature and Counterfactual History of the Jewish People,” Homo Loquens: Язык и культура, Диалог культур в условияхоткрытого мира, Сборник научных трудов, Выпуск пятый [“Homo Loquens: Language and Culture, The dialogue of cultures in the conditions of an open world, Collection of scholarly papers, No. 5”], St. Petersburg, 2020, pp. 182-209. (The article is in English. It is a Russian journal, because in Russia, unlike America, a humanist does not need to adhere to the malign lunacy of political correctness, critical race theory, intersectionality, and so on, to see his work in print in a scholarly academic journal. I would be happy to provide a PDF of the article to any interested reader.)
6. A precursor of Civilizations.
“Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.” ——Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, (channeling Poe and shifting the scene of the nymphet’s seduction to the Gulf of Finland).
The concluding two parts of this article constitute an inquiry into another New World utopian historical projection and a meditation on what it means to be an Outsider, the sort of person who might luxuriate, redeemed and vindicated, in Binet’s alt-hist utopia. But they are also a memoir and a web of literary filiation, in which this writer’s own life and library become intertwined with the books that present the ideas he is exploring.
Binet enables the indigenous peoples of the Americas to withstand and defeat European colonialism by the device of introducing an errant Viking princess who supplies them with horses, guns, and herd immunity. Previous writers have toyed with that “what if” in their fictional works, but have helped the Indians, and altered the course of history, in another way. That earlier device, in service of the same general theme of a radically alternative history of the Americas, is what I will now examine.
The precursor to Binet, then, is the theme of the Pirate Republic : Atlantic pirates, in reality, plagued the Spanish galleons, freed slaves, proclaimed freedom of conscience, practiced democracy, enjoyed sexual freedom, armed the Indians, and declared sovereign polities whose constitutions enshrined all these liberties. Had the pirates succeeded, colonialism would have been halted in its tracks. William S. Burroughs, who like the younger P.K. Dick was deeply mistrustful of all authority and suspected that most of what is paraded as actuality is a shoddy and misleading simulacrum, published a trilogy of novels, the first volume of which is Cities of the Red Night, 1981. Burroughs’ books seldom have an identifiable, coherent plot and often follow the cut-up technique he and Brion Gysin experimented with, so it would be pointless to outline them. One can, however, cogently discuss the themes Burroughs stresses.
Cities begins with the description of a Pirate Utopia in the New World, presided over by one Captain Mission. His men, a lustful, motley crew of wild boys culled from homoerotic fantasy, destroy the Spanish Inquisition, guarantee safety for Jews and heretics, liberate black slaves, ensure autonomy for the Indians, play with guns, and indulge in a lot of gay sex. Burroughs called his vision of a pirate republic in the Americas a “retroactive utopia” and ruefully added, “The chance was there. The chance was missed.”
Burroughs acknowledges as a source for his imagined alt-hist timeline the book Under the Black Flag, by Don C. Seitz. My copy, published by the Dial Press, New York, 1925 in “The Rogue’s Library” series, belonged to Charles J. Dutton (1888-1964). Dutton was a clergyman, journalist, and writer of murder mysteries from New England who settled in Iowa in 1930 and served as a Unitarian minister. Seitz begins his Foreword with this: “That a Respectable Person should take an interest in the Doings of Robbers & Villains may seem Reprehensible to those who mistake Prudishness for Morals. To such I make no excuse, but proceed regardless of their Opinions…” Murder mysteries, too, like Binet’s Seventh Function. Do murder mysteries occupy a branch of this mysterious tree of literature to which so many visionary writers belong? Is it, too, a genre of marginal respectability exerting a gravitational force upon certain antinomian talents? I leave this interesting question to some fellow savant out there. Meanwhile, Lead on, captain!
The forty-one flowery chapters of Under the Black Flag are organized mostly as narratives of the individual but overlapping careers of various notorious pirates. The second chapter is dedicated to the pirate Captain Misson (thus, a French surname, not Burroughs’ “Mission”), who lived a century before the French Revolution, anticipating its high ideals. He hailed from Provence and offered recruits a share in the “New Freedom” of the “Republic of the Sea”. Captain Misson freed the shackled slaves on the galleons he seized, declaring that “men who sold others like beasts proved their religion to be no more than a grimace, as no man had liberty over another” (p. 23). Misson sought to make his principles the foundation of a new kind of state. In the Comoro Islands off Madagascar, the pirate captain formed an alliance with a native queen and founded the city of Libertatia.
Joining forces with another pirate, Thomas Tew, Misson established rules of democratic government and equitable land tenure for Libertatia. The venture failed, though, and Tew went off to Rhode Island, while Captain Misson’s own ship foundered in a tempest at sea. Though the glory days of the pirates of the bounding main seem very distant, the last pirate discussed in Seitz’s book passed away only a little over a decade before its publication: he was 94 and expired in the port city of Salem, Massachusetts, in February 1909.
Though Seitz was understandably reticent about the illicit sexual proclivities of pirates, those with an interest in such matters may consult B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Caribbean, New York: New York University Press, 1994. They will not be disappointed. Homosexuals gamboled in safety under the Jolly Roger. Burg relies in part in his book on the entertaining transcripts of cases in court brought by the aggrieved parents of comely cabin boys returned to terra firma with lurid tales and sore butts.
What about the Jews and the pirates? My tribe’s role in all this (except for the sodomitical bits, which I think a rather unfortunate omission, if something is known about it) is discussed by Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom, and Revenge, New York: Anchor Books, 2008. There are many interesting stories in his entertaining book. A Jew named Sinan was second in command of the Barbary pirates on the North African coast. My grandfather, Joseph Sananes, whose hispanified surname is close enough, was born nearby, in Tetouán, Morocco. Perhaps your reporter has more than a drop of pirate blood. That would be nice. Then there were the enterprising Palache brothers, also pirates, who founded the Jewish community of Amsterdam, which community later on in its quest for staid respectability excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher and pioneer of modern Biblical criticism. Jews and Conversos took revenge on Catholic Spain: one advised Oliver Cromwell in the conquest of Jamaica, and another got word to Queen Elizabeth I of the sailing of the Spanish Armada, which England destroyed in 1588. (Jews had been expelled from England centuries before, though, and were not to be readmitted to the Sceptered Isle till the mid-17thcentury.) In 1640, members of the nascent Mexican Jewish community were accused of conspiring to burn down the House of the Inquisition. (The stone edifice in central Mexico City still stands and is now a museum.) Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula were also active in the discovery of the New World: Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, and other explorers relied on a Jewish navigator from Castile, Alonso Pérez. And in 1542 a “Portuguese” (as Conversos were often called), João Rodrigues Cabrilho, discovered a pleasant stretch of country along the Pacific coast. It was to be named California, after a damsel in a fantastic work of fiction.
Some of the Conversos who participated in the colonial project still sought to ameliorate the condition of the conquered Indians and to save the relics and traditions of indigenous culture and learning from the fanaticism of the Church. Heinrich Heine was to write a few centuries later that those who begin by burning books will soon burn men also. The Spanish Catholic authorities in Mexico burned both concurrently; but Converso scholars and clergymen like Bartolomeo de las Casas saved Aztec and Maya codices from the flames. They established a college where indigenous students learned to write the Aztec language, Nahuatl, in Latin script, and proceeded to produce a vast literature of illustrated histories, treatises on religion, botany, mathematics, and other sciences of the pre-Columbian civilizations. The Nahuatl manuscript Cantares Mexicanos is an anthology of the exquisite lyric poetry of the Aztecs, including the verses of the philosopher king Nezahualcóyotl, whose career is uncannily similar to that of the Biblical David. There is detailed discussion of much of this in the book by Ronald Sanders, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism, Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1978. My copy of the volume was a gift of the author to the American Jewish writer Bernard Malamud. Malamud is best known for his novel The Fixer, 1966, which was a bestseller for a time. The book is about the blood libel against a Jew in Kiev, Mendel Beilis, and his subsequent trial in Tsarist Russia just before World War I: Malamud was keenly attuned to the murderous proclivities of European bigots of all sorts, and Sanders’ book would have appealed to these interests.
Peter Lamborn Wilson is an Islamic scholar and countercultural figure on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a prolific writer, and for many years was a broadcaster on New York’s independent, radical radio station WBAI. He was a friend of both William S. Burroughs and the great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I knew Peter well, too. In the 1990s— and this is a story I’ve retailed elsewhere, so if you’ve already read it, skip it— the Harvard professor of poetry Helen Vendler, a powerful and influential critic, published a long essay on Ginsberg in The New Yorker, in which she declared that the more political a poem is, the less aesthetic merit and poetic depth it possesses. I have met Vendler, and have found her conversation brilliant and insightful, but in this instance felt intuitively that she couldn’t be more wrong, about poetry in general and about Ginsberg in particular. Since Ginsberg was still alive then, I asked Peter to sound out the poet himself, and he did. Ginsberg replied that he thought I was absolutely right, but it was still nice to be written about in The New Yorker!
Wilson’s book Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes, Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1995, explores the three centuries over the course of which innumerable European Christians became Barbary pirates, embracing Islam and learning the Turkish language. His focus is Rabat-Salé in the Maghreb in the first half of the seventeenth century. He argues that sailors were at the bottom of the ladder and piracy for them was a kind of social resistance; Islam, an “anti-Christianity”. The 17th-century Flemish renegade Simon Danser, Wilson notes, persuaded the Barbary corsairs of the advantages of sailing ships over galleys, which were then more popular: a good case that Binet might appreciate of a European giving a technological leg up to an alien freedom fighter. Wilson cites Burroughs in the book. Peter and I used to meet for mint tea at a Moroccan restaurant, the Café Mogador, on St. Marks Place in the East Village, and I think that is where he gave me an inscribed copy of his book.
I never met Burroughs, but did correspond with him once. The names of the Cities of the Red Night are Tamaghis, Ba‘dan, Yaswadda, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. I noticed that these are the words of a spell transcribed by the medieval Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah, or Introduction to History. This was a groundbreaking work: Ibn Khadun was the first historian systematically and critically to employ statistics and to consider large-scale social movements and economic factors as the moving factors of history, rather than Divine intervention and the deeds of individual great men— heroes, tragic figures, the sort of larger-than-life people Herodotus had showcased. In that sense Ibn Khaldun was many centuries ahead of his time, yet incongruous-seeming supernatural and occult beliefs of his own age also surface here and there. The spell is garbled Aramaic and is supposed to induce a desired dream to appear in one’s sleep, after which an angel will descend to interpret it. Oneiromancy, from Greek, is dream interpretation, a very ancient form of divination indeed; and the ancients practiced enkoimesis, also Greek and meaning “sleeping inside (a temple)”, in order that a god bestow a dream or appear in one, and explain what it meant. Burroughs placed great stock in dreams and raided them for material for his fiction. My Education, published shortly before his death, is a record of dreams, a dream book. If he knew what the names of the Cities of the Read Night meant, they would be relevant to his interest in dreams. But did he know that, and if so, how?
Burroughs was living in retirement in Lawrence, Kansas, and I was then teaching at Harvard, where the writer had done his undergraduate studies in the 1930s. Burroughs had lived in Adams House, a posh dorm with a gold-plated swimming pool, and used to practice shooting live rounds down the hall with his pistol. He had a pet ferret. He enjoyed the course he took on Shakespeare and made a few friends, but overall he was unhappy and detested Boston so intensely that after graduation he never returned to the town for a visit. I felt much the same way he did but worried he might not reply to a query from a Harvard professor unless one stressed some congenial point and offered something interesting. So I wrote asking him how he knew Ibn Khaldun’s spell, mentioned I had a cat— Burroughs loved cats— and sent him a page of the Voynich manuscript, a medieval work with strange scientific illustrations written in a code that has resisted decipherment. Burroughs wrote back to tell me Brion Gysin gave him the spell, the diagram from the Voynich inspired a dream, and he had six cats.
I do not know whether Laurent Binet has read about pirate utopias in the New World. The thing about a living author is that one can ask him such questions; I’m glad I had the chance to ask Allen Ginsberg, through Peter Lamborn Wilson, what Ginsberg thought of Helen Vendler’s pronouncement about politics and poetry, and to write to William S. Burroughs about the Muqaddimah. I’ll send this to Professor Binet and perhaps he will write back to me. If he does, I’ll let you know what he says about pirate utopias in his reply.
7. The Outsiders.
This review essay is about alt-hist fiction, but that is clearly not its only subject. Most of the foregoing has had to do in one way or another with the ways outsiders and underdogs got their own back against those who oppressed and excluded them— or imagined how they would have done so, had history proceeded differently. There could be a very long list indeed of the world’s historical outsiders and underdogs. Were it shorter than it is, it is unlikely that there would have been need of a Spartacus in antiquity, a Robin Hood in the medieval period, or the spate of revolutions that convulsed Europe and Asia from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 to the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. In this discussion we have considered just a handful of outsiders, but it is already a colorful handful indeed: Incas, Aztecs, Caribbean Indians, African black people, Moors, Conversos, heretics, atheists, freethinkers, republican revolutionaries, sodomites, North African Muslims, pirates, Beat poets, Lower East Side and East Village New Yorkers, the literary salon des refusés of Poe and Lovecraft, and Jews.
Circling around to the beginning of the discussion, I think some of Laurent Binet’s concerns may stem from his own background: a Jewish Mom and a Communist Dad— outsider and revolutionary. My own attraction to his work comes from an affinity of background and the point of view in life, about life, about the world in which one is forced to live, that such a background inevitably conditions. I shall conclude, then, with some reflections about what makes Jews unusual and different, what makes the tribe a perennial and archetypal Outsider. These reflections are of large human interest in fact and not parochial. Should a reader disagree, then of course he is free not to read on, as the spirit moves him. But as with Don Seitz, that historian of the pirates discussed earlier, that is a matter of indifference to me and I’ll write what I please.
The Jews were different from the other peoples of antiquity. The Bible admitted no syncretic accommodation with other local religions, their beliefs, their customs, and their art: there was one exclusive God, and all the others were false. There were prescribed dietary and other laws precluding the sociability of meals and other interactions with those outside the faith and nation. Many Greeks and Romans disliked the Jews, therefore, as misanthropes, and everywhere Jews lived outside their own land, intercommunal relations were often tense and hostile.
But with the enmity there was also attraction: the aniconic monotheism of Israel offered humanity an abstract perspective on the universe that was the opposite of parochial, and the equality of men under the Law offered a revolutionary alternative to the slave societies and caste systems of other ancient societies. To foreign elites, though, the very democracy of ancient Israel was confirmation of the view that the Jews were a rabble. Many pagans were attracted, though, to the idea of a weekly day of rest, to the worship of a sole universal God, to the ideal of messianic redemption. But the particulars of circumcision and abstention from pork and shellfish were less appealing.
The Christian sect that took shape in the mid-first century offered the Sabbath, monotheistic faith, and the tangible presence of a messiah, as well as dignity through membership in a community that transcended social station, sex, and national identity. And a Christian did not need to be circumcised or to keep dietary laws. This universalized branch of Judaism appealed very widely indeed to many pagans: it seemed to have selected the best and most general and to have left behind the tribal and specific. But most Jews would have none of it: the Law was a single organism and nobody had the authority arbitrarily to select and preserve one statute while dispensing with another. Moreover, they did not accept that Jesus fulfilled the prerequisites of a messiah; and the idea that he was not just messiah but also God incarnate was blasphemous and unacceptable.
The siblings grew into very different religions. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jews turned to Rabbinic texts; with the exile from the Land of Israel after the Temple’s annihilation, Christians blended into the pagan cultures of the gentile world. The latter responded to the Jews’ refusal to accept Christianity, their insistence on remaining themselves and not being like everybody else, with two deadly falsehoods. The first was the defamatory accusation of deicide— the charge that the Jews had killed Christ and by so doing had killed God Himself. It was not just untrue, it was absurd. How can one kill God? But the calumny took root and many evil flowers blossomed from it: the Jews were satanic, the Jews were not human, the Jews used Christian children’s blood in Passover matzo. This hatred led directly to the massacres during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms in Russia, the Nazi Holocaust, and the persistence of anti-Semitism today, particularly the demonization of Israel. The second falsehood was the development of replacement theology, the claim that the Hebrew Bible, called the “Old Testament”, was no more than a foreshadowing and preparation for the New Testament, and the assertion that God’s Covenant had been transferred from the Jews to what was called in Latin verus Israel, the “true Israel” of the Church. This second lie was not just co-optation, it was plagiarism, an act of literary, intellectual, and spiritual theft on a scale without parallel in human affairs.
Christian ecumenism has gone some distance towards renouncing both falsehoods. While Christians continue, of course, to accept the divinity of Jesus and the veracity of the Gospels, no enlightened Christian today would suggest that the Jews are or were “Christ-killers”, or that the Covenant with Israel was ever abrogated. Decent Christians atone for the harm their religion has done. The two religions are now theological siblings, with the same parentage but different adult characters, meeting each other with equal and mutual respect for the first time since the adherents of the Church of Jerusalem prayed together in the first century. In a very limited way, history may have been nudged back onto the vector of truth and holiness that Philip K. Dick envisioned. I am not inclined to be hopeful or optimistic about this: in my view, human beings throughout history have seldom missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Although a Jew cannot adhere to the cardinal principle of absolute monotheism if he accepts Jesus as a divinity, or professes belief in a trinity, or pays reverence to an image, I think it is possible to begin talking about Jesus within Judaism as a teacher worthy of great respect, and maybe as a prophet. Islam, another sibling of the Jews, has such a Christology without compromising its absolute monotheism and aniconic principles. When the two siblings reconcile, it is not enough for the younger to admit his wrongdoing and ask forgiveness of the elder. The elder needs to take a step forward, too.
But in any case, whatever the benefits of the trends towards reconciliation, mutual understanding and amity and so on may yield for future generations (a good topic for a utopian novel), Jews over the last two millennia have become the archetypal outsider of civilization. I say “the” and “archetypal” because although there are many other groups of outsiders, some are too remote from the European civilizational “inside”, as it were, for anyone to care, for there to be much of an effect on the culture: Eskimos, Aborigines, Bushmen. For other outsiders, the status is transient: Incas and Aztecs are now just normal Peruvians and Mexicans. The Irish were outsiders once, now they’re Irish-Americans. Black people are African-Americans. Jews are not Jewish Americans. They are American Jews. They do not fully belong, they are not “normal”, and their outsider status is permanent— that permanent status of alien is a fixture of what makes Western civilization itself. They are for the world “the near other”, the community that is very familiar, that has some common roots, but is still different.
To explain what the “near other” is, let me adduce the example of a people who are sometimes compared to the Jews. Armenians are a distinct nation, with a unique alphabet, and ancient native culture, and a cherished homeland in which they have endured massacre and from which they have been repeatedly exiled. As with the Jews, Armenian identity is inseparable from religion. One cannot be Muslim, for instance, and still be considered Armenian: many Armenians did accept Islam over time, but their descendants were lost to the nation. Most Armenians belong to their own Apostolic Church, an Eastern Orthodox confession that is independent of and distinct from all other Christian denominations. Through the Middle Ages, the Armenians were the second largest minority in the imperial Byzantine capital, Constantinople. At some times, after the Ottoman conquest of the city they were even the majority Christian population. Thus, the Armenians were visible, familiar, prominent in many professions. They were even Christians. But to the Greeks they were still the Other, maybe even more so for their ubiquity and similarity to the Greeks themselves than, say, the Genoese or Russians or Alans in Byzantium were.
When I was reading Coleridge’s poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I came across a curious reference by the poet to the source of the spectre that haunts the ship in his verses. I tracked it down: it is a late Byzantine text describing the demonic possession and exorcism of a Greek woman. She had begun acting strangely and violently and speaking Armenian, a language that she had probably heard but had certainly never learned. An Armenian-speaking exorcist was called in to cure her. I looked up other cases of possession elsewhere, and they often involved the demon speaking in the language of the near other of the given community, time, and place. The near other, that is, became a dramatically visible symbol of anxiety, of the loss of self, of spiritual attraction, fascination, and repulsion.
After the eclipse of Byzantium, Armenian Christians remained the Near Other for the Ottoman Turks, and were subjected by the Muslim Sultan to genocide, much as the Jews were in hostile parts of the Christian world. In the only remaining Eastern Orthodox polity left on earth, Russia, Armenians as the Near Other have excelled in all walks of life far out of proportion to their numbers— again, much as Jews have done in the more congenial parts of Christendom, like the United States.
The difference is this: outside of Muslim Turkey, even in the Arab world and Iran, Armenians are not set apart as special or different; and in the Christian countries they are just Christians. For Jews, Near Other status applies nearly everywhere, except in Israel— but Israel, for all its attempts to achieve a kind of normalcy, itself is “othered” by the international community. We can speak, then, of an outsider status that is archetypal, perennial, and universal. What a terrible thing to happen to people. Or, perhaps, what an interesting challenge and opportunity.
For a person outside the group also has the chance to develop a propensity for thinking outside the group’s box, as it were. E.M. Forster memorably described the poet Constantine Cavafy, a modern Greek, a homosexual, living in Alexandria, as “standing at a slight angle to the universe.” When you perceive things differently from others, when you think in a new way, you are standing at that angle. Jews with the potential to be original because they are outside, are an unbroken stream of interesting catalytic minds. Montaigne, mentioned above, who may have had a Converso mother, broke the literary mold and invented the essay form. Cervantes (Montaigne’s house guest in Civilizations) created a suspiciously Converso-like figure in Sancho Panza, who is set on acquiring his little island, his promised land, and is always talking about his esperanza– his hope. It is a code word. Conversos also called themselves Esperandos; a Jewish idealist created an international language named Esperanto; and the Israeli national anthem is Hatikvah– Hebrew for “the hope”. Cervantes created the picaresque novel; Don Quixote is the best-known novel in world literature.
Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew of Amsterdam, also mentioned above, was the first philosopher to transcend the bounds of canonical religion and practice Bible criticism. Karl Marx, the son of Jewish converts to Christianity, changed the way we look at economics, society, and the activities and possibilities of human beings armed with his new insights. Sigmund Freud, the son of Galician Jews living in Vienna, saw psychology at a distinct angle to the rest of the medical and academic universe, and our view of human nature and the motivations of human behavior have not been the same since. Albert Einstein, a German Jew living in Basel, then America, changed our understanding of time and space, of matter and energy, by seeing it all differently, an outsider outside the box. Herbert Marcuse, a German Jew who rebelled against his Nazi teacher, Martin Heidegger, reshaped Marxism and taught that the personal is political, jump starting the New Left of the 1960s. Hans Jonas, another German Jewish pupil of Heidegger, rejected his teacher, asserted that the Hebrew God was different from the others because He experienced concern, and was a pioneer of the ecological movement, extending that concern further. Bob Dylan, a Jew from Minnesota, took Woody Guthrie’s folk music, made it into rock, and then went electric (a disgruntled fan at one of Dylan’s early electric guitar shows memorably shouted “Judas!” at him). Allen Ginsberg, a gay Jew from Paterson, New Jersey, listened to the Muse of Blake and Whitman, added jazz and some other ingredients to the mix, and made Beat poetry. Cavafy had been dead for several decades, but had he heard Ginsberg, the two would doubtless have swung to various angles of the universe in a hip new dance. That’s probably what they are doing right now, on a vector outside space-time, in the Garden of Palm Trees, and Philip K. Dick, Federico García Lorca, and some early Jerusalem Christians are enjoying the party.
The novel I have reviewed, then, is a key to the my definition of the Jew as the quintessential maverick, the creative troublemaker, the visionary outsider. Here is Laurent Binet, the Jewish iconoclast, standing tilted on time-space, riding Rosinante and tilting at the universe with his pen. He has made the thoughts of Barthes, Derrida, Eco, Foucault, and Jakobson into a detective story; the assassination of Heydrich, into a celebration of love; and the Inca conquest of Europe, into Shakespeare’s journey in the other direction. To be sure, there is the Jew as conventional family man, homebody, wage earner, orthodox adherent to the Law, usually gentle and moderate, culturally conventional, salt of the earth, banal. But I would have it that you are the most a Jew when you least belong to the rest of the tribe or to any tribe, when you break the rules and break the mold, when you think in the most unorthodox, unusual, and innovative manner, when you make the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria travel backwards, and when by the sheer force of a generous, brilliant imagination, you read that we are such stuff as dreams are made on and say very well, I accept the challenge, I shall become Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra and El Greco and William Shakespeare myself, and shall write and paint that dream and give it, as a gift, to you.
PostScript, Spring 2022
There is a kind of little owl in the Western states whose call is not a hoarse hoot, but a melodious, melancholy trill. I have always loved owls: it is perhaps a predilection of those who also love cats, and in Chinese the word for owl is mao tou ying— “cat-headed eagle”. A pair of these Western Screech Owls ennoble our garden. I’ve seen them once or twice, tilting their heads at a quizzical angle, but more often I hear them, since they are very small and hard to see, especially at night. The garden is beautiful now, with the intoxicating fragrance of lemon and orange blossoms. It is conducive to letting one’s book slip to the side, to dozing and dreaming.
When I wrote the review article you have just read— thank you and I hope it was interesting— the war in the Ukraine had not yet begun, though Putin was massing his army. One had hoped it was a game of diplomatic chess: the West would concede this; Russia, that. But we have instead fallen into the waking nightmare of cities destroyed; innocent children, murdered and maimed. There is a new icon for Orthodox Christians today, the Kievan Mother of God:
Coleridge claimed a tradesman from the nearby town of Porlock interrupted his reverie, and that is why the poem “Kubla Khan” is shorter than he had intended it to be.
Laurent Binet’s novel of another history of Europe is also a reverie, and an interrupted one— as his oblique reference to “The Tempest” of Shakespeare at the end of the book would indicate. One recalls that in reality Atahualpa, the Great Inca, was murdered by the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. A lament for the king survives in the Inca language, Quechua. Jerome Rothenberg in his wonderful book “Technicians of the Sacred” has rendered it into English:
… You all by yourself fulfilled
Their malignant demands,
But your life was snuffed out
Already the blood has curdled
In your veins,
And under your eyelids your sight
Your glance is hiding in the brilliance
Of some star.
Only your dove suffers and moans
And drifts here and there.
Lost in sorrow, she weeps, who had her nest
In your heart.
The heart, with the pain of this catastrophe,
They have robbed you of your golden litter
And your palace.
All of your treasures which they have found
They have divided among them.
Condemned to perpetual suffering,
And brought to ruin,
Muttering, with thoughts that are elusive
And far away from the world,
Finding ourselves without refuge or help,
We are weeping,
And not knowing to whom we can turn our eyes,
We are lost.
Oh sovereign king,
Will your heart permit us
To live scattered, far from each other,
Drifting here and there,
Subject to an alien power,
Discover to us your eyes which can wound
Like a noble arrow;
Extend to us your hand which grants
More than we ask,
And when we are comforted with this blessing
Tell us to depart.
Categories: Essay/Commentary, Reviews
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