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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Farewell to Meat

April 15, 2015 | by

At Masopust, the Czech festival for spring.

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Photo: Carleen Coulter

In February, I took the night bus to Prague for Masopust, the old spring festival—abandoned under Communism—that has made a steady resurgence in the Czech Republic in recent years. The bus pulled into a neighborhood adjacent to the Vltava, north of Old Town, late on a Thursday evening. According to centuries-old tradition, Czech farmers would have slaughtered pigs earlier in the day to make blood sausages, headcheese, and other treyf dishes for the coming feasts. At the bus station, though, there was only a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and, beyond them, the famous Prague spires. Pill-shaped tramcars rumbled along the quiet streets, their interiors as bright as roadside diners.

Saturday morning, I boarded a local bus bound for Únětice, a village about five miles outside the city. With its muddy streets and modest Brueghelian cottages clustered alongside a wide, frozen lake, Únětice presents a fairy tale, or at least preindustrial, vision of Central Bohemia. It was bright and cold, the streets still empty save a few Lycra-clad joggers puffing out steam—Brueghel’s rotund peasants, slimmed down for the new millennium. Cracked and faded village walls suggested an attentively maintained desuetude, and the local tavern was selling strong black beer brewed locally for the occasion. Inside the tavern, I found the tables full of locals eating little open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky and waiting for the festival to start. Read More »

Divine Ordure

February 5, 2015 | by

A master class in hailing Satan.

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An illustration by Félicien Rops for a bootleg edition of Là-Bas.

“The odor from those incense burners is unbearable … What do they burn that smells like that?”

“Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.”

When J. K. Huysmans published Là-Bas (Down There) in 1891, it caused an immediate scandal in France. Huysmans serialized the novel in L’Écho de Paris, a newspaper; readers wrote in early and often to express their revulsion, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the serialization was not halted posthaste. Not long afterward, when the book itself came out, it was banned from sale at railway kiosks, thus ensuring that it loomed all the larger in the public imagination. Controversy followed the book abroad, too—no one bothered to attempt an English translation for more than thirty years, and even then, the U.S. Society for the Suppression of Vice ruled that it was simply too immoral to see the light of day.

The outrage stemmed from the book’s frank depiction of Satanism—it culminates in a Black Mass, vividly described. Its protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, has pursued his interest in the occult to its logical conclusion, and he’s startled to learn that a thriving underworld persists in contemporary Paris. Huysmans conducted extensive research for the novel, basically embedding himself among a group of Satanists; he was disenchanted with ordinary life, and he wanted literature to present a thrilling alternative to quotidian reality. But he went too far. He grew so distressed by the darkness and evil in Là-Bas—and, perhaps, in his own soul; the novel’s subtitle is “A Journey into the Self”—that he came to regard it as a black book; he wrote a white book, En Route, to cancel its negative energy. (It’s sort of the same way that Prince, a century later, recorded Lovesexy to exorcize the demons of The Black Album.) Later in life, Huysmans converted to Catholicism. Read More »

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Tolstoy’s Insufficient Firmness, and Other News

January 16, 2015 | by

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Tolstoy in 1851, when he just couldn’t seem to do a single damn thing right.

  • Here’s a self-effacing diary entry from March 1851 in which Tolstoy chronicles his flaws, hour by hour—part of a larger project in which he evaluates his own ethics. How many of these peccadilloes have you committed today? “Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness).”
  • Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life has become an unlikely hit for its publisher, Tyrant Books—but success can come with its own problems. “When the Times review appeared, Ms. Urban [Lish’s agent] asked Mr. DiTrapano [his publisher] how many books were in print. ‘He said 3,500,’ Ms. Urban recalled. ‘I wanted to kill myself.’ ”
  • Art critics—prepare to give notice by the dozens. Now there’s Novice Art Blogger, an algorithm that reviews art and is not altogether terrible at it. “The bot is simply articulating what it interprets; there is something very noble about that, that it is not passing judgment.”
  • Is science fiction our new religion? “We gather in our millions in the darkened cathedrals of multiplex cinemas to silently venerate our superhero gods. All religions have their holy stories, and the immense respect given to SF novels like 1984 and I, Robot by their fans is very close to an act of faith … Let’s not think about L Ron Hubbard.”
  • Paperbacks give publishers a second chance to find an eye-catching cover design, but the results are often confounding. “After spending so much time, effort and money on getting the dust jacket just right, most publishers go back to the drawing board to design the paperback version. That always seems to me like a waste of hard-won brand awareness, but I’m told most books don’t sell well enough to establish any brand awareness.”

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Robert Stone, 1937–2015

January 12, 2015 | by

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From our Winter 1985 issue: “A Robert Stone manuscript page, from his most recent novel, Children of Light; an indication of how barren the word processor has made examples of a work-in-progress.”

“I like big novels,” Robert Stone said in his 1985 Art of Fiction interview. “I really admire the grand slam.” Stone died last weekend in Florida, at seventy-seven. He leaves behind more than a few grand slams—broad, despairing, powerful books full of searchers, outsiders, and misfits. His work exudes what Jessica Hagedorn calls “exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread.”

Of course, descriptions like that can make his novels sound too potent—and one of the surprising things about Stone, it must be said, is how little he’s read these days. I hope that will change. As M. H. Miller wrote of him in 2013,

He’s a best-selling author whose work has been heaped with critical praise, but because of the long interims between books, he is more heard of than read by a certain generation of readers. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, Norman Mailer had Gary Gilmore, even Joan Didion, whose novels are the least interesting thing about her, had Maria Wyeth. Among Mr. Stone’s books there is no clear standout, no obvious introduction. His work is best taken in tandem, like one long narrative where you age with the characters.

He’s right: among readers my age, Stone’s work has had that enviable air of mystery to it. He was always that major writer lurking in the distance. His books didn’t seem approachable, not because they were long or “difficult” but because, as the New York Times put it, they “resonate with philosophical concerns, the thin divides between life and death, good and evil, God and godlessness.” These were tomes about war and God and postwar tumult, and, uh, we definitely wanted to get to them, yes, but—maybe later? Read More »

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Illinois Jesus

December 30, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More >>

Satan Comes to Oklahoma City

October 30, 2014 | by

Facing fears in the Sooner State.

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Photo: the Satanic Temple

My ailing wife, Amy, had demanded that I take her to a Black Mass, a well-publicized one that would have meant aligning myself with Satan on local television. These people aren’t really Satanists, Amy explained. They’re blue-collar subculture types who’ve grown up and know their rights and want to thumb their noses at the judgy creeps who persecuted them growing up. Amy, who had seen more than her fair share of those creeps in her own youth, wanted to lend her support.

“Understand that this is all they’ve got,” she told me. “It may seem stupid, but after twenty years of getting shit it’s all they’ve got.”

Despite protests from the local Catholic community, the [Satanic] Church of Ahriman held a Black Mass at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City on September 22. The Catholics had also attempted to file an injunction against them, claiming they had stolen the Holy Sacrament they intended to defile in an unholy consecration. This was their fourth mass, but this time it was for real. The Satanists had won permission to build a monument to Satan on the grounds of the State Capitol, and the wild bad reverend in charge of the Church of Ahriman (also known as the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu) was new and media savvy. He basked in the attention, held interviews and press conferences, did all he could to whip his antagonists into a righteous froth. Those antagonists arrived by the busload and dug in, singing songs and passing out leaflets.

Much of the south refers to itself as the buckle of the Bible belt, but Oklahoma has a special claim to bucklehood: there’s the hard-line Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, and everywhere you turn there seems to be a crucifix; pricey little Amish general stores line the highways and tens of thousands of churches are sprinkled throughout the state, from hippieish splinter sects nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks to goliath megachurches with media teams and television studios and lobbying groups. Life in the Sooner State has a churchy feeling—the stickiness of Kool-Aid soaking through the seams of a waxed paper cup, bake sales manned from behind rickety card tables, devotional sing-alongs, gymnasium lock-ins—and there’s a creeping sense of menace for outsiders. Read More »

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