Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Article excerpt

The weatherman on one of the national morning TV shows has left his home base, and safety, in New York to be in Boston for the annual running of the marathon. Chatting with his distant anchored colleagues, he remarks amiably that the race will bring the runners close to the course of Paul Revere's run. Then: "I guess you could call Paul Revere the first marathoner." Well, yes, you could call Paul Revere an astronaut or the Messiah. You could say he beat Columbus to America and made the Louisiana Purchase (a dozen beignets to go) with a credit card. But should you?

We are told that Americans no longer know much history, and we shrug the warning off, despite the giddy public moments that put Paul Revere in Nikes. The past used to be, in novelist L. P. Hartley's memorable phrase, a foreign country, where they do things differently. It's withdrawing now to the distance of a separate galaxy. Increasingly, Americans do not recognize the persistence of the past - in the small history they make and the large events they observe. The past is never prelude; it's all coda. So events occur, ordinary and bizarre, with no adequate context for judging their significance. Behind the events of a day, however, there is the immense encroaching roominess of history. And we cheat ourselves when we fail to set the dimensions of our lives against that defining space and stretch our minds in its expanse.

"Lunacy" was a common judgment on the behavior of the 39 individuals who shared suicides in a San Diego mansion this past spring. But the judgment was etymologically flawed. The group who sought the key to heaven's gate aspired to a location way past the moon, and they were drawn not by the pull of the planets but by an old idea. They died in southern California, a place, we are told, where the soil does not take traditions. Yet their resolute "no" to this physical world echoes back through millennia. It has been whispered sometimes, and sometimes, as in San Diego, shouted. The belief that the world needs escaping, that the body is_vile, in each of the word's several senses - wretched, wicked, of little worth - and that secret codes, open to the initiate, contain salvation recurs in the history of civilizations, pitched to varying degrees of intensity.

Allow the San Diego 39 a larger history and an ancestry. In the second century A.D., Gnostic separatists began to set themselves up in opposition to the Christian Church. Gnosticism picked its creed from a smorgasbord of beliefs - Christianity, Platonism, Judaism, Stoicism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism - but the essence was a promise of salvation through access to secret knowledge. The movement's fundamental rejection of the material for the spiritual, its challenge to the goodness of creation and the freedom of man, its embrace of asceticism, and, most of all, its insistence on a higher doctrine, hidden from the many but revealed to the few, are recognizable still in a cul-de-sac in contemporary California.

The Gnostic spark burned on in third-century Manichaeism, a religion named for its Persian founder, Mani. Mani believed he was the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus, and his missionary's zeal sent him to India and China before his beliefs got him flayed alive in Persia in A.D. 276. In Manichaeism an uncompromising dualistic myth - rigidly differentiated principles of good and evil, God and nature, light and darkness - once again became the basis for a structure of belief and an ethic of asceticism. The forces of darkness were in cosmic struggle with the light; by invading the realm of light, darkness mingled good and evil and trapped a divine substance in matter. Only the elect - those in the know - could disentangle their souls and participate in redemption.

Roman emperors proscribed Manichaeism as a subversive foreign cult, but it spread rapidly in the West. Was the absolutism of the religion its appeal? Augustine himself was a believer for a time, before he settled on Catholicism. …

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