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Cults and Conspiracies

Cults and Conspiracies
, 248 pages
November 2016



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Cults and Conspiracies

A Literary History

Human beings have believed in conspiracies presumably as long as there have been groups of at least three people in which one was convinced that the other two were plotting against him or her. In that sense one might look back as far as Eve and the serpent to find the world’s first conspiracy. Whereas recent generations have tended to find their conspiracies in politics and government, the past often sought its mysteries in religious cults or associations. In ancient Rome, for example, the senate tried to prohibit the cult of Isis lest its euphoric excesses undermine public morality and political stability. And during the Middle Ages, many rulers feared such powerful and mysterious religious orders as the Knights Templar.

Fascination with the arcane is a driving force in this comprehensive survey of conspiracy fiction. Theodore Ziolkowski traces the evolution of cults, orders, lodges, secret societies, and conspiracies through various literary manifestations—drama, romance, epic, novel, opera—down to the thrillers of the twenty-first century. Arguing that the lure of the arcane throughout the ages has remained a constant factor of human fascination, Ziolkowski demonstrates that the content of conspiracy has shifted from religion by way of philosophy and social theory to politics. In the process, he reveals, the underlying mythic pattern was gradually co-opted for the subversive ends of conspiracy.

Cults and Conspiracies considers Euripides’s Bacchae, Andreae’s Chymical Wedding, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, among other seminal works. Mimicking the genre’s quest-driven narrative arc, the reader searches for the significance of conspiracy fiction and is rewarded with the author’s cogent reflections in the final chapter. After much investigation, Ziolkowski reinforces Umberto Eco’s notion that the most powerful secret, the magnetic center of conspiracy fiction, is in fact "a secret without content."

Theodore Ziolkowski is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. He is the author of Uses and Abuses of Moses: Literary Representations since the Enlightenment, German Romanticism and Its Institutions, and Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present.

"Conspiracies, whether attributed to mystery cults, Freemasons, Socialists, or Rosicrucians, pervade literature from Euripides to Umberto Eco, as Theodore Ziolkowski shows in [this book]. Ziolkowski has read everything, taking even a 3,000-page German novel in his stride, and summarizes and analyses his material fascinatingly for lesser mortals."

"This is a literary and cultural history for the twenty-first century: fascinating in scope and focus, striking in its attention to detail, solid in its continuity, and indisputably erudite."

"Ziolkowski is excellently placed to attempt the construction of a genre history... As such, his treatment of the literature and the array of texts included is predictably masterful, moving with ease from Greek and Roman mysteries in antiquity to the Medieval representations of the Knights Templar, through the Rosicrucian manifestoes and the German Enlightenment lodge novels, to the literary depictions of secret societies of Romantic Socialism."

"The wealth of examples, the lively and indeed intimate writing style, and the delicate refusal to go too far in the analysis of paranoid fantasies all contribute to a welcome dealing with mystery, secrecy, and the arcane."

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