In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
There is a movie that came out decades ago. I saw it in a theater in Paris as part of a Robert Mitchum festival, which, as luck had it, was playing in a small theater across the street from my small hotel at the end of a small street during a small, lonely season of my life. Instead of going to museums, I passed the days in the dark watching Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, and Pursued, an obscure movie directed by Raoul Walsh. Martin Scorsese once described it to me as the only Freudian Western. It deals with repressed memory, signs and symbols, dreams and fantasies of uncovering the hidden origins of your existence. It’s about a cowboy. He lives in New Mexico with his mother, whom he loves; with his sister, whom he loves in a different way; and with his brother, whom he hates, though he doesn’t understand why. At night, he is haunted by a strange dream—in it, he sees dancing boots and spurs, and there is always laughter. In the last act, we learn the meaning of the boots and the laughter, a secret that explains the cowboy’s fear and distrust. The dream is more than a dream. It’s a memory of the day the man who’d been posing as Mitchum’s uncle killed Mitchum’s father, then danced over the body in spurred boots laughing as the woman Mitchum would accept as his mother scooped up the terrified child to be raised as her own.
That movie has haunted me ever since. Its dancing spurs have become my dancing spurs, its story less a plot than a parable. It’s mankind reduced to symbols. It’s a secret encoded. It’s telling us that the truth about our past—as a species—has been hidden. It’s about the effort to keep it hidden, which constitutes a conspiracy. It’s a secret that remains just out of reach, though the existence of the secret is hinted at in all the ancient books. It’s in the Bible (Old Testament) and in its sequel (New Testament). It’s in Exodus when Moses climbs the trail to the peak of Sinai, the holy mountain, the Lord’s abode in the upside-down. God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, then something else, a secret teaching, whispered in the left ear. Moses shared it with his nephews, who either passed it on or were not listening. Some of it may have been recorded in Jubilees, a noncanonical book of the Bible. It’s in the Gospels, too, most clearly in Mark, when Jesus, explaining why much of his teaching is given in the form of parables (in ancient Israel, a parable was like a riddle) says he does it to obscure as much as to reveal:
You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables, for they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.
For Jews, this method—teaching via seemingly pointless stories—will be familiar. All our old-timers prefer anecdotes to instructions, questions to answers. Think of the Bob Dylan lyric: “I can tell you fancy, I can tell you plain.” Or think of my pop who, when asked why he answered every question with another question, responded, “Why do you ask?”
So in Mark, you again have the existence of the secret but not the secret itself, which is reserved for a handful of disciples who will pass it on to a chosen few, protecting the masses from a truth that would only confuse them.
You find mention of the secret all through art and literature—once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it. It’s in every book that’s really knocked me out. Start with Walker Percy, whose novels I came across by accident—of course, there are no accidents—freshman year in college, when I was hungry for the secret. The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, The Second Coming—these books gripped me and disappointed me. Gripped me because the protagonist was always on the verge of discovering the secret; disappointed me because he never did. I always closed the book hungry, yet not knowing why. This not knowing drives Percy’s protagonists toward suicide. Better not to know you don’t know than to know you don’t know and never will. It’s a realization his characters experience as a fall from Eden, a move from blissful ignorance to tortured knowledge. Once again, and just like that, the bleak nature of their predicament comes back to them.
This can happen anywhere, even on a golf course:
Another time, he sliced out-of-bounds, something he seldom did. As he searched for the ball deep in the woods, another odd thing happened to him. He heard something and the sound reminded him of an event that happened a long time ago. It was the most important event in his life, yet he had managed until that moment to forget it.
Shortly afterward, he became even more depressed. People seemed more farcical than ever. More than once he shook his head, and smiling ironically, said to himself: This is not for me.
Then it was that it occurred to him that he might shoot himself.
First, it was only a thought that popped into his head.
Next, it was an idea which he entertained ironically.
Finally, it was a course of action which he took seriously and decided to carry out.
The books satisfy but not fully: you want the answer Percy himself seeks but never finds. You are left with the same questions you had at the beginning: Is there a secret? Who keeps it and how? And, most importantly, what is it?
That’s where secret societies, and the hatred of secret societies, comes in. Because these groups, real or imagined—Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Jews, always Jews—are thought to be in possession of the secret, which they use to manipulate the multitudes. If not, then why the codes, the symbols, the strange languages and signs? Why the two-headed eagle, the pentagram, and the all seeing eye? What are these things if not a wink to the hidden elite, those who know but are not telling. And what about the secret books—the Book of Enoch and the Gospel of Judas, or the occult writings of Theosophist Madame Blavatsky? And what about the rituals? The goat loaded with sin and driven into the wilderness, the horned helmet worn only in the inner sanctum, the staff and the flowing robes?
A fixation on such questions can drive people mad; they stand before the world like a person standing before a 3-D poster, hunting for the pattern. The answer is so close they can almost touch it. It shimmers like a heat mirage up the highway, forever receding. If they knew this, maybe they’d know everything. A man in my town told me that he gets goose bumps whenever he walks past the synagogue, wondering what’s being said in there. I can assure you, I told him (it’s my synagogue), nothing is being said. Or, if we are talking, it’s not about you. We know nothing you don’t know, which is why I have trouble connecting with the services. I am searching for the same thing as you, I tell him. In fact, the core of Judaism, as far as I’m concerned, is not knowing. We had the secret, then lost it. That’s the worldview. That’s the humor. That’s the food. That’s the sad old men. That’s the klezmer. That’s why people pray to a wall in the desert. Because the wall used to support a temple, in which there was a room where the secret was spoken once a year, but the room and the building have been destroyed.
People join secret societies for the business contacts, the companionship, to pass time and, of course, for the answers. But are these answers, if they do exist, anything other than ludicrous? The Nation of Islam believes the white race was made in a lab by a black scientist named Yakub. Scientologists believe human history was warped by an intergalactic overlord named Xenu who, in an effort to deal with overpopulation, killed millions of beings, stashed their frozen souls—“thetans”—beside volcanoes on earth—Hey, I’m doing the best I can here!—which he then nuked, scattering alien souls that adhere to modern humans in the way of burrs picked up in the forest. You pay, they are removed, and you become “clear.”
Every religion has a creation story, and the story, whether told in school or church, is always basically the same. The lyrics change, but the melody is the melody. It is always order arising from chaos: a big bang, an explosion of life, the creation of man and the fall from the paradise of not knowing. In the Bible, Cain kills Abel and is cast out. In Darwin, Homo sapiens plunge the Neanderthals into nonexistence. In both stories, the bad brother survives. In the Bible, the snake tempts Eve in the Garden, she eats from the tree of knowledge, and brings suffering into the world. To Gnostics, God is really a demigod who means to imprison us, to keep us from learning the secret: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though shall not eat of it; for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” In this reading, the spirit we have accepted as almighty is more like a prison warden, hiding the truth, which the snake, who enters the Garden as if entering our dream, tires to reveal. Having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve must be cast out before they eat from the tree of life, at which point they will become the equal of their jailer. “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
And who is this “us,” anyway?
And what about the modern sects, dozens of them, who’ve picked up and reassembled the pieces of the puzzle into ever wilder patterns. Take, for example, members of the Raëlian Movement, who believe mankind was created by ancient aliens—a genetically engineered hybrid designed to mine the gold needed to save the alien atmosphere. It’s a story they say can be read in the tablets found in the ruins of ancient Sumer, the world’s first civilization, which show reptile men, spaceships, thrones, little people worshipping giant lizards—the snake that crept into the Garden? These were the old-world gods, the immortals of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greece and Rome. People with the right kind of eyes can find these intergalactic overlords even in our canonical texts. There they are, above the wine-dark seas of Homer. There they are, in the first pages of Genesis, where they are called the Nephilim. “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” It’s a secret known to the Masons and Illuminati, though it has been kept from the people, who, to this day, are ruled by the descendants of half alien/half human hybrids. (This is what conspiracy theorists like David Icke believe; it’s what people mean when they speak of the reptilians.) Some think we are not even free-range hybrids, but live in a vast zoo, where we are gawked at by schools of field-tripping aliens. Some think we are on a reality TV show—that we’re famous on a distant planet. Some think this is all a computer simulation, that this world is not the real world but a reflection or echo of the real world, that we are living in a mainframe, our lives the playthings of adolescent boys who really should be doing their homework.
So what does it all mean?
It means that no book, no teacher, no religion, no philosophy, no scientific discovery will ever satisfy. You are looking for something you will never find, which they used to call God.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.