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The Theater of Self-Indulgence: Prague Cemetery, Part 6
Do you remember the satanism of the 1980s? It was all rather silly: adolescents playing at the devil, usually with nothing more on their minds than sex, booze, and making their parents uncomfortable, and adults wholeheartedly believing that this children's self-indulgent theater had truth, or at least a real threat, within it. My grandmother was convinced it was true. She was convinced I was a satanist, and sometimes, out of a strange perversity that goes with the age, I helped her believe it just to see how much she would swallow before she realized it was all too ridiculous. It did not occur to me that the act could never become ridiculous enough for that realization, that her faith in black masses, sacrifice, and evil as something essential and inescapable was real. After all, I was only pretending, first out of desperation--fine, I'm a satanist grandma, you are right--and then to test the limits of absurdity. There are still people, otherwise reasonable enough, who believe in the satanism of the 1980s, who think that it is more than perverse theater. Admittedly for a very few people, a tiny number, the play is real. There are also people who believe that what they watch, the scenes of television drama, are really happening, that the actors are the parts they play, and their behavior is shaped by this faith, sometimes in very dangerous ways. Society at large, however, does not believe in television drama this way. For a short period during the 1980s, society at large believed in satanism.
Satanism has a long history in western Europe. The theater of self-indulgence is very attractive to some. It had its devotees during the 19th century, and its faithful outside the sect--those who believed in the power of the theater, though they were not followers themselves. This phenomenon now appears in Prague Cemetery , following the murder of the real Abbe Della Piccola, as an object of interest for the police. Simonini is assigned to look into the continuing activities of Abbe Boullan, a man who with his lover-disciple Adele Chevalier attracted the wives of respectable men as a spiritual guide and guru, forming a "society for the reparation of souls". This reparation was achieved primarily by satisfying Boullan's sexual desires, in a theater of flesh and sin, astral projection and ritually described preparations and positions. His influence over the respectable and powerful through their women got him arrested, released in 1864, and, we are told, back in Paris, still troublesome and demonic.
In Simonini's pursuit of Boullan, the Abbe is involved, for the Abbe remembers Boullan's discourse on sin, remembers he and Boullan in conversation, remembers attending a ritual involving a woman possessed and a sort of reverse exorcism, a eucharist of impurities. Boullan's self-indulgence is shaped by a heretical architecture of sin and salvation; he is one in a long tradition of such de-frocked prophets of the flesh that reaches back into the middle ages. There is a complexity in such forms of theater: what begins as play-acting may end in belief. The man who is a false prophet when he begins his career, may be a true prophet, at least in his own head and those of his followers, before his career is over. What a man pretends can, and does, become who he is. This element of perverse theater occurs in Simonni's life as well: the plots he creates, the documents in which he pretends faith, become, in time, the foundation of his system of belief and organization. A conspiracy created for sale is also a conspiracy falsified as a testament to truth.
The real Abbe Piccola was murdered in 1869. The latter nineteenth century was a period of material transformation in the West: electric light, the Suez canal, America's transcontinental railroad, submarines, cigarettes, canned meat for soldiers, the elevator, the typewriter, and more. The world is changing, and Simonini does not like it: progress threatens to dissolve what is known, the last remaining shreds of his grandfather's world, already much damaged, and threatens his livelihood: "Would there be any original documents left to counterfeit?". Progress marches on, but of more direct importance is the drive for power by Prussia facing the arrogant stupidity of the French. Prussian and French intelligence continue to play with one another, to watch one another's agents and deploy falsehoods, injecting lies into one another's information systems. Soon, however, the play of war will end in the reality of it.
The Franco-Prussian war was brief but vicious, especially in the war between the French that occurred in the aftermath of the Prussian invasion and the fall of Paris. Otto von Bismarck provided the grounds for a war he desired by altering his king's statement of polite refusal into an open insult of the French, leading Louis Napoleon III to declare war on July 19, 1870. The Prussians had invested in modernizing their army; Louis Napoleon had not. This war resulted in the end of Napoleon's Empire and the declaration of the Second Reich at Versailles in January 1871. Louis Napoleon was captured at the battle of Sedan. Paris, under siege in September 1870, surrendered in January 1871, but this surrender was the decision only of the government; the people continued to fight. The Commune of Paris held the city from March 15 to May 26, 1871, uniting the middle and working class Republicans of the city against the Prussians and, most importantly, against their fellow Frenchmen. The treaty of Frankfurt allowed French prisoners of war to pass through Prussian lines to retake the city for the official government. the Archbishop of Paris and other hostages of the Commune were executed. Over 20,000 Parisians were massacred by the government.
Simonini in Commune Paris is frozen, pushed around the chess board by masters who refuse to remain the same: the Prussians communicating through Goedsche, his old masters through Lagrange, and, after 'changes in the political department', through Hebuterne. The old certainties are gone. The Freemasons, in Simonini's schematic of conspirators, are everywhere, and the Commune is a product of their actions, their ideas. Joly, too, is lost in the Commune, confused by a revolution people are unwilling to die for. Such a revolution cannot succeed, and it makes Joly, the old enemy of Napoleon, sad. Prodded by Lagrange, but also in service to his own personal survival, from pure fear, Simonini retreats underground to learn the sewers and tunnels beneath Paris, where the amorality of criminals and smugglers rule.
It is not secrecy, not secret routes through the cities underground, but pure force that conquers the Commune, however. Revolutions do not succeed, because the military men able to organize them and guarantee their success have no interest in revolution, but will always remain where the power lies. The Communards resort to barricades, but "barricades are built out of a feeling of heroism", and it is not feeling that wins the battle of the streets, but deeds. Many men, it seems, feel heroism within them, but few are heroes of deeds. As the forces of the official government re-take Paris, Lagrange is executed replaced by Hebuterne. Simonini's job remains the same; the change in masters does not change that, and he is happy for the return of the official government, for stability and order in which his work can be done, and will be profitable.
In the years that follow the fall of the Commune, Simonini profits from the executions, murders, and death that marked its end. There are inheritances for which no provisions had been made: those killed had not expected to die, and they were not prepared. He continues to hope to sell his Prague Cemetery scene. He tries after the fact to inject into the Commune the Jews he did not see there. His life, in other words, is quiet and profitable.
Meanwhile, France has become religious. Religion is a separate thing from faith, and the revival of religious formalities, and a sort of public penitence for the murder of the archbishop, do not mean that more people believe in God, only that more people attend to the public formulas the churches propose. In this France, then, Father Bergameschi, Simonini's grandfather's Jesuit friend, rediscovers Simonini, inviting him to join in the papal campaign against the church's enemies--Jews and Freemasons. Father Bergameschi, like Simononi, never forgets anything that might be of future service in attracting a man to the church's service, and from Simonini's youthful first steps in forgery Bergameschi follows the trail to properly identify him with the Prague Cemetery scene claimed by Goedsche. Perhaps it is for this recognition of his authorship, of his possession of the master scene, that Simonini serves the Jesuits.
Through serving the Jesuits, Simonini develops a new, better version of the Prague Cemetery, forced to do so by Goedsche's theft. He has a commercial breakthrough, a vision of marketing: instead of one version of the meeting, why not have multiple versions, each targeting a specific element of his audience? A Prague cemetery for radicals, another for priests, still another for reactionaries, each set scene matching the details of the various justifications for each separate audience's anti-Semitism. But in order to realize his document's full potential, certain people, witnesses, must disappear, the risk of their claims must disappear. Goedsche dies in bed, the Jesuits take care of him; Simonini takes care of July, murdering him as he listens to the journalists problems, staging a suicide which, perhaps, Joly would have committed on his own in 1878.
And now, at last, we learn a little more about the Narrator: a writer, for he muses over the pages he shapes into a story for us: perhaps the notes of this doubled man, Simonini/Abbe Piccola, would make a good novel. So, the Narrator is a writer, deforming/shaping the story we are told.