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Umberto Eco: The Prague Cemetery, Part 2

Updated on January 1, 2012
Fr. Barruel
Fr. Barruel
walls of Bologna's medieval ghetto
walls of Bologna's medieval ghetto
Oskar Klever, The Ice Maiden
Oskar Klever, The Ice Maiden
Modigliani's The Jewess
Modigliani's The Jewess
Fractured Italy in 1848
Fractured Italy in 1848

We have followed the forge to his dinner with Freud and are now ready to enter his memories, fragile and unreliable as they are. This section, in which the forge details his relationship with his grandfather and father in Italy, forces us to deal with certain issues of great interest to me. What comes first: the hatred, or the subject of that hatred? What prepares the mind to accept the schematics of a conspiracy which designate entire blocs of people, people largely unknown to the believer in the theory and often known only for their place within the theory, on the side of the satanic in life?

Hatred is a tricky beast. Common sense tells us that we know the people we hate, that we fear them, but there is plenty of evidence that counters common sense. For example, medieval England cultivated a strong thread of anti-Semitism on its pulpits and in mob actions, and did so without Jews. The Jews, you see, had been run out of the country during the reign of Richard I. I have met a few people who live in dread of the Jesuits, yet they have never known a Jesuit and are not living in a nation under the control of the church. Their fear, their hatred, does not require the real presence of the vilified people. It is enough that in their heads these malefactors exist, powerful and inescapable, somehow and for some reason exerting a baleful influence on the everyday lives of men and women throughout the world. For some reason I have yet to determine, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion found a welcome reception in Japan during the early twentieth century, though that island nation had no 'Jewish problem' and no real Jewish presence.

Eco refers to conspiracy theorists as living in a horror novel, and this is true. They create an agency of evil that is pervasive, all powerful, all knowing, and wholly without weakness. Certainly, that is a horror. However, I would add to this that all conspiracy theorists are also writing their lives as heroic epics. Beowulf needs his Grendel, or what story will be told? Hercules must have his twelve labors, and Theseus the minotaur. Conspiracy theorists are gnostic heroes, heroes of knowledge, the ones who in their own narrative of a dangerous, but explicable, world possess the key to salvation. Their existences become biblical, with themselves cast in the role of the prophets and the warriors of God, caught in a war for the light against the darkness which is, inevitably, misunderstood and derided by the ignorant who have been deceived into not perceiving the Truth revealed to them.

4. In My Grandfather's Day

In chapter 4 we enter into the genesis period of our forger's hatred, the roots of his pathology. He grew up in Turin. His mother, a French-speaking Savoyard, died when he was young, and his father left him soon after to pursue Italy, for in the time we are speaking of the nation of Italy was only an idea, the reality was a chaos of states and principalities. He was left with his grandfather, with whom he shared a love for food, and as they ate together his grandfather taught him to hate and taught him who to hate.

His grandfather is a man from another epoch, wearing the clothes of a bygone era, and keeping alive the memory of a time when things were simpler, when everyone was where they belonged and the church kept order. He tells the young Simonini, 'The Revolution, my boy, has made us the slaves of a godless state, more unequal than before and fraternal enemies, each a Cain to the other. It's no good being too free, nor is it good to have all we need…Man, left to himself, is too wicked to be free'.

The grandfather is a conspiracy theorist, and an improver upon theories he has received. It begins with Abbe Barruel's attack on the French Revolution, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire du Jacobinisme . Abbe Barruel explained the French Revolution, a very complex historical development with multiple causes and echoing effects, by positing a singular conspiracy, the plot of the surviving Knights Templar, destroyed by King Philip the Fair in 1314, against the crown and the church. This plot, and the secrets of the Knights, passed into Freemasonry and merging with the Bavarian Illuminati, an even more secret organization of regicides founded by Weishaupt, and brought about the Enlightenment, that great attack on the monarchy and the church, and the Revolution, which toppled both in France. They would not stop at France, however; their goal was the whole of Europe. The Jacobins even proudly wore the name of Jacques de Molay, the executed leader of the Knights Templar, in their own, proof of the Templar connection. (This is false, of course. The Jacobins grew out of the Breton Club, which, during the meeting of the parlement in Paris in 1789 began to hold its meetings at a Dominican convent on the Rue Jacques, and it is from the Rue Jacques that Jacobin is derived. But that is not much of a story, is it?)

To Abbe Barruel's conspiracy theory, Simonini's grandfather adds the Jews, his personal obsession. The Jews were the yeast, the germ of corruption, which entering the secret societies of the Templars and the Masons brought about their diabolical nature and their satanic scheme against church and crown. He wrote a letter to Barruel, detailing their role in the conspiracy and their clear danger to all Christians. Barruel did not publish it, for fear it would lead to a massacre of the Jews, but he did circulate the letter amongst clergymen, and through the church it was brought to the attention of Napoleon's police and then to Napoleon himself. (This is true: such a letter was written to Abbe Barruel, who did not publish it. He was the author of the text named which attempts to explain the French Revolution in terms of a Templar-Mason-Illuminati conspiracy.)

Where did Simonini's grandfather gain such intimate knowledge of the Jews and their plans? How are conspiracies of such magnitude and all-embracing secrecy pierced? Through a madman. When Napoleon invaded Piedmont, and the Savoy army was defeated, the grandfather, then an officer, hid among the Jews in the ghetto: "it was the only place where no one dreamed of setting foot--the Jews could not leave there, and decent people kept well away". The grandfather's description of the ghetto is an exercise in blaming victims for what can be seen of their victimization: the ghetto is dirty, not surprising in a confined pen for more people than can comfortably live on the streets; the people are poor, not surprising given the limitations on livelihood the governments and societies placed upon the ghetto Jews in this not-quite medieval period; the people are pale and unhealthy in appearance, not surprising when they are cut off from light, from the ability to make a living, and from the amenities of the outside world. The persecuted find that their innate nature is defined by their opponents in the terms that result from their persecution. This, too, is common: we see it in America today in some of our common images of black men and of Mexican immigrants.

Hiding in the ghetto, Simonini's grandfather meets and has long talks with an old Jewish madman named Mordechai, living on charity next to an oven used for baking bread. The man was tortured in Syria, and found refuge in Italy. Although the ghetto residents think the man mad, Simonini's grandfather insists he was not, and he must insist upon this, for it is the delusions of this broken figure that the grandfather makes into the reality of the Jewish view of life, of Christians, and of their future in Europe. It is in his delusions, his claims to supreme power in the depths of poverty, despair, and mental illness, that the grandfather finds the proof he requires of the depths of Jewish perfidy and the extent of their power. The madman revealed it to the grandfather; the grandfather revealed it to Barruel, who lacked the courage of his convictions; now, the grandfather reveals it to the grandson.

He also reveals the secret of the grandson's name, Simonino, for the child-martyr St. Simon of Trent, slaughtered for ritual purposes by the Jews in 1475. The figure of mad Mordechai, a substitute for all Jews, for the real face of all Jews, haunts the young boy in his sleep, becoming one with the fairy tale ogres and giants of which he hears from Mamma Teresa, the family's old servant. But Jews are real, even if they are monsters, and he is tempted to see them, though he does not dare to go into the ghetto. Worse, the Jews are no longer obeying the rules; they are walking among the Christians in disguises, as the forge, too, is a man of disguises when he finds his profession.

It is at this point, when Simonini is 14 years old, that he sees the young Jewess whom he identifies earlier in the book as a whore. "I meet a girl with black hair who crosses piazza Carlina each morning carrying a basket covered with a cloth to a nearby shop. Fiery gaze, velvet eyes, dark complexion…Impossible that she's a Jewess…And yet she can only come from the ghetto". This is the first woman other than Mamma Teresa in his life. He stalks her, returning to the same spot morning after morning to see her. When she does not appear, he keeps looking for her long past the time his grandfather expects him home. One morning, he stops her and asks if he can help carry her basket. She refuses, calling him boy, not sir. "I've been humiliated by a daughter of Zion….This, in fact, marks the beginning of my war against the daughters of Eve." His lust almost brought him across the borders into a human relationship with a girl from the ghetto, but when it was not reciprocated Simonini reacted with hypersensitivity, increasing his hostility to Jews and initiating a new animosity for women. There are no individual events, no personal interactions, with Simonini, there are only groups, means of diagnosis and categorization.

As I have mentioned before, there is a great triumvirate of conspirators in most theories: the Jesuits, the Masons, and the Jews. The Masons and the Jews have already been mentioned, and we can see how they are joined in young Simonini's mind to form the basic elements of a world-explaining, and world-destroying, fiction. However, the Jesuits remain to be accounted for. Never fear, they arrive, in the guise of teachers engaged by his grandfather in order to save him from corrupting contact with the outside world, already hopelessly decayed with modern customs and a lack of respect for the rigors of separation. The student hates his teachers, with their cassocks and their rulers, and his hatred is seconded by his father, the Italian nationalist, who opposes the power of the church, especially the power of the Jesuits. To bolster his argument, the father cites the writing of a priest, one Father Gioberti, against the Jesuits, noting after he does so that Gioberti plagiarized some of his argument from Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew . So we see that texts participate in the conversation of hatred and threat, that the arguments of one text pass into another, seeming to issue out of different mouths a single chorus of villainy and broken secrets.

The Jesuits, too, have their ogres, their hobgoblins, which they are ready to share with the young man, Simonini. Father Bergamaschi, for example, is concerned with the rise of the communists, and tells the boy of Babette of Interlaken, the Great Virgin of Swiss Communism. The story he tells is that of a satanic saint: born to violence and evil, she is a virago of blasphemy, priest-killing, poison, and mistress of all dark secrets of the sinister societies destroying the church and respectable society in Switzerland. There has been some discussion on the Internet as to the reality of this figure. As so many figures in The Prague Cemetery are historical, might not this child be one as well? As far as I have been able to determine, she is not, but it is such a story as might have been told, a type of history of the heretic that has been told before and will be again. The name Babette of Interlauken I have found, in a story by Hans Christian Anderson titled "The Ice Maiden". In that story, she is no virago, but a bride who loses her beloved. Perhaps I will examine Anderson's story in detail at another time. What is of importance here is the finger towards fairy tale that Eco shows in using this name. We are in the realm of hobgoblins here, in all the stories Simonini has been told of Jews, of Masons, of Jesuits, and now of socialists and communists. Each side has its paranoid fictions to spin, its men and women to demonize, and he is full of enough hatred to embrace all the enemies at once: odi ergo sum .

Simonini's reaction to this particular enemy, however, as with his reaction to the Jewess, is eroticized.

"Half asleep, I wanted to block out the picture of that blond demon whose hair flowed down her shoulders, surely naked, that demonic, fragrant hobgoblin, her breasts heaving rapturously with godless, sinful pride. Yet I dreamt of her as a model to imitate--or rather, filled with horror at the mere thought of brushing her with my fingers. I longed to be like her, a secret and all-powerful agent who forged passports and led victims of the other sex to perdition."

He is entranced by her sex and her power, both of which he wants to possess. He wants to take for himself that which makes her demonic, and he wants to slay the demon. Is this not the goal of many knights fighting on the side of light against sinister conspiracies? Did Hitler's Nazi Party not resemble the convocation of rabbis detailed in the Protocols in its goals, its assessment of humanity, and its methods?

At 18, Simonini is sent into the outside world to study law with boys his own age, but he does not understand them. He was too long kept from their company and joins them now without education in their signs, their means of communication, and their society. He is to study law, and he augments this study with novels from France gained from his father's library. From the fiction of Eugene Sue he learns the facts of the Society of Jesus' crimes, as many today believe they have learned something of Renaissance art and the lineage of Jesus from the fiction of Dan Brown.

1848 arrives, the year of revolutions, when all Europe was thrown into a tumult, Italy no less than the rest. 'This is the advent of the Antichrist,' Simonini's grandfather announces. His father joins rebels in Milan, eventually joining with Mazzini to defend the Roman Republic. The Jesuit order is suppressed in the Piedmont, as are other orders sympathetic to their Society. It is a time of atrocity propaganda, some true and some false, on all sides, the republicans, the nationalists, the counter-revolutionaries. Every man has his horror to reveal, and they are all revealed to Simonini. In this confusion, Simonini discovers the cassock of Father Bergameschi, who has gone off in secular clothes leaving it behind, and in its pocket some money. Simonini indulges himself in a game of theater dress-up: he wears the cassock "moving about as if dancing--as if I were, heaven forbid, a woman, or as if I were imitating him". So attired he goes out in public, to the Porta Palazzo market, to satisfy his desire for sweets, walking amongst women unnoticed, hidden as someone different, a Jesuit lover of coffee and chocolate, but "what I most enjoyed was appearing to be someone else; the thought that people had no idea who I really was gave me a sense of superiority. I had a secret".

He socializes with the other young students now, too, having learned, perhaps, to be someone else, to act as if and so to belong temporarily to that society he does not understand. He peruses pornography passed through the group from a stash of one of their father's, and perusing it descends he knows not where, for he does not remember, but re-emerges citing an early Christian text: "And we who are repelled by the very thought of touching vomit or ordure with the tips of our fingers, how can we ever want to embrace a sack of excrement?" (This is also a true quote from one of the early Christian fathers, Origen of Alexandria, more famous for his legendary self-castration. Origen also held that Satan would be reconciled with God and, in common with other scholars of his time, subordinated Jesus the Son to God the Father, positions which led to a later heresy of Origenists.) The next day, news comes that his father has been killed, striking his grandfather into resentful silence.

Simonini retreats into his father's novels, intercepting a new one, Dumas' Joseph Balsamo . Here is another lesson in incorporation, in the slippery line between fiction and reality as they are used by men: Cagliostro, the villain of the novel, orchestrates a plot under the protection of Masonry, and reveals all on Thunder Mountain (Mount Tonnerre). Here are his grandfather's regicides arrayed in a scene of natural grandeur and narrative force. Simonini says, "It didn't occur to me that a conspiracy of five continents might be an excessive way to change the constitutional rule in France…I wondered whether the bard had not discovered, in describing a single conspiracy, the Universal Form of every possible conspiracy". All that has to be done is to place the persons of any individual's conspiracy in the scene, and, voila! here it is, real, enfleshed. All failures, all shortcomings, are explained in a single stroke as the machinations of this malevolent cabal, and this applies as well to nations as to individual men. "It was someone else, on Thunder Mountain, who planned your ruin." "People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy."

Here, many years before he will act upon it, is Simonini's great illumination, his evil epiphany. He has left behind his father's novels, for they do not teach him what he wants to know, nor what he needs. The world is chaotic, in flux, and he is not--he is apart from it, watching. He remains with his grandfather, a man increasingly confused and filled with hatred for the changing world, for the demise of clerical privilege and old solidities, for the Truth that is being murdered. Eating a last gargantuan meal, his grandfather "passed away with a light belch". And again, our writer's memory fails him. He is silent.

5.Simonimo the Carbonaro

The Abbe returns, writing his own letter to Simonini. He awoke in Simonini's bed, without his cassock, with a false beard beside the bed. He awoke with Simonini's hangover. His examination of his surroundings proves him in the home of one with "dubious morals". He returns to his own room, rereads his notes and asks himself, who is Diana? He does not remember much of his own life, our Abbe, but he does remember things that have happened to Simonini, and what Simonini has done. He would rather not be Simonini, and offers himself an alternative, a shared life with a sinful parishioner, with him, as confessor, bearing the other man's guilty knowledge as his own. He is certainly well aware of Simonini's sins.

Our Narrator, that helpful fellow who has said he will save us from boredom, does not allow us to read the Abbe's indictment of Simonini. We will have to await further revelations, but he summarizes the effects of the abbe's cues on the forge, so that we will know what he now realizes without bearing witness to their interchange.

Simone, now an adult without a grandfather, was not heartbroken by the disappearance of his grandfather's beloved orders of monks and nuns, nor by his grandfather's death, for he had been too long confined and stifled in the old man's grasp. His upbringing had assured that he was "increasingly incapable of nourishing feelings other than a morbid self-love, which had gradually assumed the calm serenity of a philosophical conviction". Unfortunately, Simone found himself much poorer than he thought, with his grandfather's wealth gone in mortgages and bad investments, so that, if he trusts the notary, which he does not, he has nothing left but his education in law. He begins, then, to work for the notary, a dishonest man, a forge. And Simonini excels at his work.

The reader should pay very close attention to this section of the book. It contains what I think is a key to understanding what is going on. The notary defines the moral nature of his art of forgery, this service he performs and in which Simonini is to surpass him. Rebaudengo says: 'What I produce are not forgeries, but new copies of genuine documents that have been lost or, by simple oversight, have never been produced, and that could and should have been produced'. He is creating the real through fiction, but the categories of fact and fiction are fudged and de-created by his action. I would stress the 'should have', for this allows for the development of conspiracy documents. They are the 'should haves' of Simonini's art, his insertion of the 'real' authors of tragedy into the tale of the world because they belong there, not because they are in fact found there. The evil actor is presupposed, he already exists, and all Simonini does is insert a proof for him. The hated object is assumed, its reality is pre-ordained, and the document only serves as a sign to others of its existence. In order to retain some morality, however, faith plays a large role in the production of the 'should have' reality of forgery. Rebaudengo trusts his employers to demand only those documents that are 'true' though non-existent.

It is through Rebaudengo that Simonini becomes a forge for the state, a man who creates truth for the police. And it is through his relationship with the police that he destroys Rebaudengo and takes over his business, sending the man he believes cheated him of his inheritance to jail and forging payment for his business. He creates a 'should have' that destroys one man and elevates himself, backed by the morality of vengeance which implies justice, but is not. This comes to him as a reward for his betrayal of his young student acquaintances, for he delivers them armed to the police, leading them to their doom with a conspiracy tale that makes of them heroes, the part young men like to play in the world, and protects him from suspicion.

At this point, Simonini's conscience grows tired, the Narrator tells us, and he falls asleep midsentence.

We are involved in another mystery, now, one of which we as readers are growing increasingly aware due to the length of the Narrator's interpolation in the text. Who is this Narrator? He was there at the beginning, watching Simonini writing the first pages of his diary. He mediates the conversation between the Abbe and Simonini. Are we dealing with a tri-partite personality along Freudian lines: Ego, Super-ego, Id? If we are, even in a general fashion, in which we allow for shading across the boundaries of one personality element into another, the Abbe would signify the super-ego to some extent, the conscience and the constraints of respectability and morality. Simonini has many characteristics associated with the Id, the drive for immediate satisfaction exhibited in his gourmandism, his lust, his rage, but the Id is unconscious, and Simonini is not. Perhaps Simonini is the Ego then, through which the Id realizes desires according to the constraints of reality, modulating behavior in order to gain its desire. That still leaves us with an undefined narrator, a third element that is not unconscious, for the unconscious could not so order conversation and text, and not the super-ego, unless we have misidentified the Abbe. At this point, for me, the mystery of the Narrator remains in play, only he/she is now identified as part of the mystery of Simonini.

Next installment: Simonini's career in Italy, and it's bloody end.


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