Theodore Ziolkowski’s Cults and Conspiracies: A Literary History was a book I picked up from JHU Press on a lark this past September. It’s only 200 pages, so I thought it’d be an easy read to knock out over a weekend or so. And it sort of was. It was also mindbendingly dry throughout most of it, which is why it actually took me ten days to read it.
This book isn’t about historical cults and conspiracies per se. Rather, it’s about how they’ve appeared in western literature since the very first Greek dramas (which does reflect their cultural/historical importance at each historical period). The table of contents really lays it out there what this book covers:
- The Mystery Cults of Antiquity
- The Order of Knights Templar in the Middle Ages
- The Rosicrucians of the Post-Reformation
- The Lodges of the Enlightenment
- Secret Societies of Romantic Socialism
- Modern Variations
- Interlude: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
- The Playfulness of Postmodernism
I found the first two chapters fascinating, and I chewed through them pretty quickly. The first because it was about ancient Greek plays I’ve read before. The second because it really unlocked a lot of the Dan Brown stuff for me. Then the book got dry—so dry. Stuff I’d learned from the Revolutions podcast really came in handy for the fifth and sixth chapters (especially the episode about the Carbonari and the Diamond Necklace Affair. Also, knowing a little about Cagliostro really helped starting in chapter four.
So, yeah, dry. Lots of novels and their plot summaries. My eyes glazed over. Then came the chapter on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Holy crap, shit got real. This is a document, a blatant literary forgery, from which a direct line can be drawn from it straight to the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust all the way up to Trump and the bullshit NY Times. Goddamnit.
The final chapter ends on a more lighter note, discussing Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Robert Shea/Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. In fact, after finishing this last chapter, it’s clear that this whole book is basically the cliff notes for Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s also clear that I should read Foucault’s Pendulum—after finishing 2666.
In short, a book worth reading if you’re into reading authors like Pynchon and Eco.