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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
Saturday, May 5 2001

The biggest conspiracy theory

Though the two books I'm reading now seem totally unconnected and represent altogether different kinds of writing, I discovered a surprising interplay between them.

One is a collection of stories by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, whose period is the early 1800s; he was being published already when Charles Dickens of England and the American literary figures Poe (The Raven), Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) and Melville (Moby Dick) were children. Gogol is worth reading for his style, which seems, in translation at least, a century or two beyond those other writers, his use of picturesque figures of speech, his gifts of description and mood being that "modern." The leanness of his prose compares with the style usually thought of as beginning with Ernest Hemmingway.

Unfortunately, his development of plot is inferior. This leaves his stories less than classics. Usually, they begin with great promise because the writing is so crisp and allusive, but they bog down in details that don't seem to fit or "complications" that go nowhere. Major characters die or commit suicide for what seems no literary point. On the other hand, Gogol's literary treatment of madness seems too scientifically sophisticated to have been written nearly a century before Sigmund Freud "founded" the science of psychology.

It's one of the details of one of Gogol's stories that struck me as perfectly fitted to the other book I'm reading, however. The other book, mentioned here several days ago, is The Real Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar working at a Protestant college. His nonfiction book treats the world of scholarly "Jesus studies" in general and, in particular, the "Jesus Seminar" that has been promoting its "findings" about Jesus since the early '80's, findings which Johnson says fit the seminar members' presuppositions that the supernatural world is a fiction. Through press manipulations, the seminar tries to undercut and undermine all the traditional teachings of the church about the divinity and miracles of Jesus. The church, in this view, is a more highly organized and malicious conspiracy than Masonry or the Illuminati could ever attempt to be.

Gogol's story, "Viy," about a Ukrainian witch, begins by introducing some seminary students in the nearby city. When the seminarians go out into the streets and small towns, their uneducated peers taunt them to reveal what the church "really" teaches, as though they suspect that Christianity is a self-perpetuating hoax guided from the Vatican and Constantinople. They represent the same conspiracy theorists as the ones Johnson describes. The main difference is that Gogol's conspiracy theorists are uneducated muzhiks (a Russian term for something like "hicks"), who lived in 1810 in a little town in Little Russia, whereas the people who believe and make good livings off the same conspiracy described in Johnson's book are not only well educated 21st-Century Americans, they pass themselves off as scholars of the first rank.

More on this conspiracy theory later.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Looking ahead

The children had all been photographed, and the teacher was trying to persuade them each to buy a copy of the group picture.

"Just think how nice it will be to look at it when you are all grown up and say, 'There's Jennifer; she's a lawyer,' or 'That's Michael. He's a doctor.'"

A small voice at the back of the room rang out, "And there's the teacher. She's dead."

Sent by Virginia in Millville

The air we breathe

As a man whose head is under water cannot inhale pure air, so a man whose thoughts are plunged into the cares of this world cannot absorb the sensation of the world to come.

—St. Isaac the Syrian

Sent by Christopher Haas
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