Hello, Everybody—Nice seeing you again.
Having been educated beyond my station (which is Grand Central, where I will soon be living in a cardboard box), it’s surprising that I was never required to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was just one of those things I always supposed I’d get around to some day, but I never did. That’s why I was so pleased to see that Penguin’s new “Great Ideas” series includes a little volume called The Christians and the Fall of Rome, some 96 pages excerpted from the massive 3-volume Decline and Fall.
There are a dozen titles in this new series of excerpts from great writers, and the covers are so well-designed, and the in-store display is so tempting, that I wanted to buy them all, even the ones I’ve already read. But, Jeez, they cost $9.95 each! There’s really no reason for that. I think the material is all in the public domain by now, and Dover manages to put out similar books in their Thrift editions for, like, $2.00 each. I can’t afford to pay $8 for cover design at the moment, so I only got the Gibbon.
I expected Gibbon to be, you know, the definitive official history, droning on in period prose, but then on page 9 he says, “Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to Heaven, that could exalt his devotion, secure his happiness, or even gratify that secret pride, which, under the semblance of devotion, insinuates itself in the human heart, was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favour, but imposed as an obligation.” Ha! It turns out Gibbon was a big ol’ bag o’ snot (and I mean that as a compliment), with lots of slyly worded criticisms of the established religion of his day. I really enjoyed this little book, and think it’s more likely now that someday I will read the whole original work—or at least the longer Penguin abridgement of it.
I have a friend who grew up in the Bible belt and he was really surprised to hear that the Romans considered the early Christians to be members of a socially unacceptable cult. He’d probably also be surprised to find out that back in the mid-1800s more than 50% of Americans didn’t go to church regularly, and that Spiritualism was the fastest-growing religion at that time. I mean, today who even considers Spiritualism a religion? Ouija boards and ectoplasm—it seems more like a party game. But in the 19th Century, belief in the soul’s survival after death and the ability to communicate with people who have “moved on” to the spirit world was a big deal. In “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” a photography exhibit now at the Met, Spiritualism is referred to as a “movement,” not a religion. Judging from the show, it was a movement mostly of Eastern European electrical engineers. Even though I didn’t expect to see real pictures of spirits, I still expected some pretty interesting photographs—I thought it would be like some of the first “special effects” photography ever, but except for the picture that I swear is a close-up of somebody getting a handjob, it was kind of disappointing. There were some obviously faked spooky ghost pics, and portraits of well-known mediums, and lots of label text about “fluids” or “liquids” (I guess in relation to Kirlian photography, but it’s never very clear), and a whole lot of oddly positive material about Ted Serios.
And also a Kirlian photo of my fingers, taken at about the same time. (It’s on Polaroid film, so the red has faded out completely.) But the whole thing about being transparent and seeing ghosts and the run-in with the ball lightning and the alien abduction in 1977 in Santa Barbara, that’s all stuff I’ll be shouting at you in a few months when I’m begging for change at the corner of 43rd and Lex, and I don’t need to write about it here.
Thanks for reading my blog entry this week, and may God bless.