Trust in Secrets--Prague Cemetery Part 4

Paris Opera House, ca. 1865
Paris Opera House, ca. 1865
sketch of a brasserie, Victorian era France
sketch of a brasserie, Victorian era France
Maurice Joly, author of the anti-Louis Napoleon tract that became a substantive part of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Maurice Joly, author of the anti-Louis Napoleon tract that became a substantive part of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Louis Napoleon III, the troublesome, equivocating leader of France
Louis Napoleon III, the troublesome, equivocating leader of France
Cholera in Paris, 1865, Chifflart
Cholera in Paris, 1865, Chifflart
Cesare Lombroso who maintained criminality was something you could see, and that it was inherited
Cesare Lombroso who maintained criminality was something you could see, and that it was inherited
Skull measurements were a key data point of Lombroso's work, now condemned as unsound and unscientific
Skull measurements were a key data point of Lombroso's work, now condemned as unsound and unscientific

Once we leave Italy, things begin to happen far more quickly. There are places in the text where Simonini's obsessions burst into focus, falling out of the mouths of other characters, but with doubt on the reader's part that they were ever said by the character to whom they are attributed. He did not follow orders in Italy, and in France he is increasingly on his own mission, despite his contact and occasional jobs for the French. In Sicily, he killed a witness to protect himself from being exposed in the plot against Nievo; and, of course, he blew up a ship to get rid of one book. His sanity is certainly not a given, and his veracity as a witness to his own life is open to question. Are these resurrected memories of his, these explorations of his own psyche and past, carried out in a solitude peopled by fragments of himself, true memories, or a new tale he is spinning for himself, a forgery of the life of a forger? It is a difficult question to which I have no answer.

The problem of trust revealed through the reader's interaction with the voices in The Prague Cemetery and through Simonini's contacts with other voices in the novel is one of great concern to us outside the novel. Increasingly, liberals and conservatives, at least insofar as either group is (mis)represented by the spokesmen and women of the Democratic and Republican parties, appear to be arguing and debating in separate, sealed auditoriums. The arguments of one have nothing to do with the arguments of the other. They are accessing different sources of knowledge, proceeding with different verification guides. They are less malicious, less evil, less pathological Simonini's. Now, the grounds of knowledge both parties use are based on trust: they trust in science, in sociology, in the Bible, in common sense, in something that is created apart from them, has a history apart from them, was born and developed without them, often in ways that are obscure to those who put faith in them. Simonini, at least, is very clear in the development and genesis of that in which he has placed his faith, though the falsity, the deception, involved in that birth and development fails to deter him from his faith.

In public discourse, we make reference to, and are expected to understand allusions to, a common ground of knowledge which we trust as verifiably true, and often assume to have been in fact verified. This is unavoidable, for no one of us can know at this moment everything. There is knowledge we receive from the past, there is a knowledge of experience transmitted to us by those who have had those experiences, and there is a knowledge drawn from research and study presented to us by academics and other professionals. This fund of knowledge we take in trust, or reject out of trust in an alternative theory or narrative. Without such trust, knowledge and human life would cease to advance, as every individual, every society, would have to repeat in a single lifetime, a single generation, the work of successive civilizations and generations. The problem of trust is not soluble by a rejection of trust itself.

The apparent solution to the influence of trust in our social and political life may very well be to problematize it. This is to say that we must recognize that often we act as if we know, when we do not--we are only assuming. We must beware of embracing harmful assumptions, what I have referred to as dangerous fictions, that tend to warp our relations with other human beings. We must pay attention to the structure of our thought, not just whether a particular thought makes us more happy, more content, or appears to explain situations that resist the order we have created in our lives and worldview. We should leave room for chaos, for anomaly, and for disorganized events. If a theory seems to explain everything, to be the one and only answer to a given situation, it is more likely that it has left out considerations we ought to pay attention to than that it is the complete solution it appears to be. Simonini's answer, his particular way of organizing the world, appears to be complete, all evils and disturbances are explicable within its terms, but it is also wholly warped and warping, perverse, irrational, and malevolent.

Chapter 9, Paris

Simonini is hungry. He has been neglecting his stomach, and so he leaves his office for a cabaret, which specializes in serving cheese to promote the thirst of its patrons. He is lonely enough to engage in conversation with a woman, a consumptive artist whose death in the river he imagines as a blessing, drinking absinthe. He creates the "ideal conditions for remembering little, and badly". Then, properly fogged in his mind, he recalls his arrival in Paris.

When he arrived, he sought cheap accommodations in the filth of the criminal poor of the city. In this hell, where his appetite for good food remains unsatisfiable, he "made useful acquaintances and was able to get to know a world in which I would later have to learn to swim like a fish in water". He learns the city of Paris through the eyes of its criminals and provocateurs, finding out where to get lockpicks, retractable daggers, and other tools a conspirator might find handy. He is a voyeur of the city, walking its streets, watching its women, and watching the men who watch the women. He classifies the prostitutes by expense and class, and all the women he sees, or thinks worth mention, are prostitutes of one type or another. Factory girls, while real ones might exist, are often disguised prostitutes, advertising themselves for suiveurs, "middle-aged men who conceal their gaze behind green-tinted glasses". These suiveurs attract Simonini's special attention, for he might be able to blackmail one should he need to in the future based on the intelligence he collects now.

He meets his new master, Clement Fabre de Lagrange, who he assumes works for the Political Division, but whose rank, status within the department, and role in that organization is not revealed to him. He is Lagrange's indicateur, receiving a set payment in that role with bonuses for actual work done, one of many employed in France, and also through his master receives introductions to private citizens in need of his kind of expertise, earning, he says, between the two about 10,000 francs a year. He is comfortable, but dreams of being able to invest, to live off unearned income. This is an additional revelation of how the believer in conspiracy theories, Simonini, longs to be one of the conspirators. He wears a Jesuit masque when he has no need to do so, and he desires to achieve the financial state identified at that time largely with Jews, and used in attacks upon them as parasites on the national community.

Simonini claims to remember nothing of his early work for Lagrange. He remembers a name, Abbe Boullan, but thinks this name is connected with later events, not with his first days in Paris. Abbe Dalla Piccola also remembers the name Boullan, as he writes in Chapter 10, Dalla Piccola perplexed, and for him, too, it is associated with disturbance. Simonini imagines Boullan has something to do with war, while Dalla Piccola sees "the image of a priest spitting into the mouth of a woman possessed". Here we have a scrap of information that allows us to connect Simonini with the consecrated wafers he purchased earlier in the book, with the great underground urban legend of the black mass and female madness.

Chapter 11: Joly

The Narrator is again in charge for an important meeting between Simonini and Lagrange in the spring of 1865. Lagrange shows him a copy of Maurice Joly's attack on Louis Napoleon, Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu; ou, la politique de Machiavel au XIXe siecle, par un contemporain. This political pamphlet by a liberal journalist is historically of great importance in the development of the Russian hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for a great deal of the 'Jewish conspiracy' of that text was drawn from Joly's analysis of Louis Napoleon and his crimes. In this novel, the pamphlet is put into the hands of our Jew-obsessed forger who is asked to discover Joly's sources in the government, for the government, believing itself inscrutable, ascribes all accurate, or seemingly accurate, analyses of its actions and intentions to secret sources. Simonini, whose occupation makes him more sensitive to the use of words and their trickery, finds Joly's analysis obvious, requiring no secret inside source, and also recognizes Joly's use of Sue in the formulation of Machiavelli-Napoleon's speeches. Napoleon speaks as the Jesuits in Sue's Lers mysteres du peuple. The Universal Form of Conspiracies is again at work.

Simonini is to go to prison as one of Mazzini's party of republican exiles, make contact with Gaviali, a bomber, and through him meet and befriend Joly. In prison, Simonini quickly becomes a physiognomist, pooling his observations of the prison population into a definition of the criminal type that allies them in features to the "colored races", just as Cesare Lombroso, who in 1878 became professor of forensic medicine and hygiene in Turin, was doing in Italy. The deceptive truths that may form the base information of conspiracy and hate are not confined to the conspiracy theorists, but are also found in more muted form, and with more subtle qualifications, in the general society of which the conspiracy is born.

Simonini finds Gaviali, an expert in bombs, critical of the means of detonation used by the group of assassins to which he belongs, and dangles out a possibility of future cooperation in case he should need a victim for the French police later. Gaviali introduces Simonini to Joly, a lonely prisoner in need of a friend. Simonini plays at being a friend, and plays his part well enough to gain Joly's confidence, but truthfully he does not have to play the part very well, for Joly's own need for an interlocutor is strong. Joly thought he had discovered the key to shaking Louis Napoleon's hold on France in Eugene Sue, but is dispirited by the destruction of his pamphlet, its apparent futility, and his own incarceration. Meanwhile, Simonini "felt he had been deprived of something that was his." His discovery of the Universal Form of Conspiracy, of the utility of the Jesuit discourse in Sue, was his private revelation, and he is not happy to share it, comforted only by the fact that few copies of Joly's pamphlet survive and Joly is himself in prison, effectively out of circulation giving Simonini time to complete his own masterpiece using the material.

This possessiveness over a Universal Form, over material Simonini knows may be recognized by others, given a certain literacy and access to printed material, has a way of evolving its own enemies. At this point, Lacroix, a servant of Lagrange's assigned to read and analyze Joly's pamphlet, becomes a person who must disappear, who must be gotten rid of, to protect Simonini's exclusive rights over a manuscript he has not yet created. In his own report to Lagrange, Simonini stresses Joly's inoffensiveness while making Lacroix a villain. He, in fact, makes Lacroix responsible for Joly's pamphlet, declaring the reporter would not have produced it without Lacroix's prompting and that Lacroix actively contributed to it, probably in the service of a foreign power, likely Prussia. He thus arranges Lacroix's assassination by planting the idea in Lagrange's head.

Simonini now concentrates on creating a favorable impression on Lagrange and the Political Department, and the easiest, clearest way to do so is to discover a conspiracy. The easiest conspiracy to uncover is one you have created, and so this is Simonini's next mission, centered on Gaviali and the Italians at Cabaret Pere Laurette. Simonini resurrects the Alta Vendita that worked so well with his young Carbonari friends in Turin to propose another assassination attempt via bombs, with the exiled Italians to form his expert corps of bomb-makers. He establishes them in a bomb-making room, successfully establishing a conspiracy for the police to break.

At this moment, one of Simonini's victims returns: Master Ninuzzo, his fuse-expert in Sicily whom he thought disposed of by a dagger. Master Ninuzzo has survived, and he has found his murderer. Simonini defends himself with words, claiming to have acted as he did, despite his personal preferences, in obedience to superior orders in the fulfillment of a sacred mission, which Ninuzzo as a loyal servant of his king should certainly understand. It is not this defense that saves him, however; it is the fact that Ninuzzo is too hungry and tired to avenge himself. He can have his passions aroused, a fact that Simonini takes advantage of to bring Ninuzzo into his gunpowder plot, thus leading him into a trap in which the police will take care of this problem for him. He further ensures that this one plot will serve him in as many ways as possible by feeding Gaviali and the other Italians Lacroix name, ensuring that when they are taken by the police Lacroix will fall with them.

This chapter ends, then, with Simonini pursuing financial rewards through the death of others. Personal feelings have no role in his decisions. He has no personal connections or intimacies. He sacrifices the innocent and the guilty with equanamity, his primary goals confined to his comfort and security. He has now killed Nievo and Bronte in order to destroy a ledger; Master Ninuzzo twice to rid himself of a troublesome witness; Lacroix to rid the world of a reader of texts; and Gaviali and the other Italians, probably, for they are sent to the unhealthy conditions of Cayenne, "where they would die of malarial fever".

What do we know? We know more details concerning Simonini's villainy, but these are not the sort of details which indicate we are any closer to the central mystery of his memory loss, the existence/non-existence of Abbe Dalla Piccola, the Narrator's person and function, or the person of Diana. All this malice, all that is leading us towards the production of The Protocols, is not something by which the forger is horrified; he is rather proud of his machinations and unconcerned with the moral questions aroused by his casual murders. What horrified him, the source of his psychic trauma, is something quite different, something dealing with that mysterious madwoman, Diana, consecrated hosts, and, if we are to trust the flash of an image presented by the Abbe, some ritual similar to a black mass. We can identify these elements with the trauma, with what must be forgotten, because they are the very elements this long tale of forgery and espionage, trickery, deception, and death avoid.

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