Ce qui est terrible dans la vie, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons. (What's terrible in life is that everyone has his reasons.) Jean Renoir (1894-1979) Around Christmas time in 1557, John Calvin was beset by visions, but if they were signs of a special Christmas gift it was a gift (judging by his comments in Little Reformer, Big Reform, the unpublishable sequel to his unreadable Institutes) that he wished were returnable, like an ill-fitting pair of trousers; and if his visions were the symptoms of illness, it was an illness he dreaded more than any other, one he called Dementia Romana, the madness of Rome. “God preserve me from the haggard hand of the hag of Rome,” raves John in Little Reformer, Vol. 2, throwing in Satan for good measure: “And around the waistline [sic?] of their works build ye a ring of fire that none may cross.” Decidedly, having visions was much too Papist a pastime for the great Reformer’s liking, but had it not been for their Romanist associations he might have just sat back and enjoyed the show, for his visions were of a variety and everydayness not often found in the mystical literature—actually, it may have been this very everydayness that he most resented, as few of his visions, oddly, were remotely Christian, or even religious, in theme. Stefanie von Rothenberg and I were far more orthodox in our visionary material. In fact, what Calvin saw more closely resembles the futuristic gibbering of Nostradamus or Madame Soleil than the luxuriant God-insights of the ladies of Avila, Lisieux and Salzburg (or me). Ironically, Calvin’s little mental one-reelers seemed to get going around the New Year, as if in sympathy with the general (if clandestine, in his Geneva) intoxication of the season. To me, one of his visions in particular, stands out. Recounted to his wife Idelette and recorded by her with her customary precision in a journal entry for January 2, 1558—immediately following an account of a visit to the family home in Noyon and an evocative, even poetic, description of her mother-in-law’s goiter (“like a rotting, porous sea-barge moored to the crumbling jetty of her neck the thing is, unsteady, grayish, and moist to the touch”)—this one hit old John as he was crossing Place St. Pierre on his way home from a hard day’s fire-and-brimstone at the eponymous cathedral. Before him he beheld, “as in a trance, a herd of noisome beast-carriages with eyes of sulphur and gleaming carapaces as of monstrous insects,” huddled at St. Pierre’s very steps, up and down which swarmed spectral human figures “caparisoned in diabolical colors of red, yellow and green”; two of these wretches, a “grossly ill-fashioned male with whiskers” and “a red-clad female, clearly a harlot,” seemed (to reeling, headshaking Calvin) to be taken into the maw of one of the dreadful machine-creatures, “a squatting, malodorous rubicond brute” which then departed, snarling and exuding noxious vapors, thus expressing to our man “all the sins and lusts of Beelzebub.” “Hell itself is at the very gates of my church,” gasped stricken John, faithfully quoted by Idelette (Saturday, 3 January). “These are visions, if true visions they be, of Gehenna, of the final days: the damned in Hell! I must speak of it to my congregation in terms of warning: Caveat, Homo! Tomorrow, thou art damned! Idelette, my sermon must be of these things, vision or no.” Oddly, the reluctant visionary himself recorded and dated a memento of his vision, a sketch in the margin of said sermon (“Sermon on the Imperishable Glory of Our Lord And the Undying Malevolence of the Fiend”: Little Reformer, Vol. 1, Folio II): Depicted above the poignant inscription “Seen or dreamed? 2 jan. 1558” are two vertically aligned chevrons in a shaky ellipse, a four-and-a-half-century-old doodle, really, an emblem meaningless in itself even to the ever-suspicious Calvin (he appended a curlicued question mark of most unProtestant elegance), but which looked, to me, like the emblem of the French automobile manufacturer Citroën: two chevrons in an oval. Yes, an exact replica, no amendation necessary.Reductio ad absurdum, then: Could Calvin, cursed by the visionary gift he didn’t want, have briefly wandered across time and the Place St. Pierre simultaneously, say, to the early twenty-first century? Might his vision have been of nothing more diabolical than the parked and departing cars of church- and (mostly) café-goers (those colors: too bright for earlier times)? Pushing this interpretation to very edge of reason, the “squatting red brute” could well have been, given my frequent nocturnal visits in the vicinity of St. Pierre, my very own car, the one that sits in my garage even now, the Maranello-red, restored (by my own loving hands) 1975 Citroën SM coupe with the 3-liter V6 engine, power windows, black leather seats, Bosch automatic and no damned air bags—not a car, by the way, that one would imagine appealing to the austere tastes of the Genevan Ayatollah. How irresistible to imagine that a glimpse of me getting into my car put the wind up John Calvin at a distance of four and a half centuries! And the red-clad harlot? Could she have been…? Well, let us remember that God moves in mysterious ways.
Mind you, Calvin’s reaction to the car (assuming that is what he saw, or dreamed) could have been scripted by my ex-fiancée. “Get rid of that damned ugly thing, Gustave!” Françoise had so often said upon coming upon me hovering sudsily over it, cloth and bucket in hand, Sunday mornings as she set out on her lonely way to church (not Calvin’s, by the way, no, Françoise was Catholic, despite her eagerness to embrace celibacy rather than me)...and how did the rest of that diatribe usually go? “You’re a professor, for God’s sake, not a rally driver. You care more for that damned old car than you do for me or my friends. Mad! You’re mad!” Or words to that effect. She was partly right about the car vs. herself, at least, and absolutely right about her friends (smug, leftish, over-analytical). Finally she left, after four years of bickering and deepening mutual incomprehension. She now runs a social relief agency in Lausanne and belongs to some association of neo-left activists or other; as for my and Calvin’s Citroën—I’m thinking of naming it John, in honor—it sits in the communal garage of my apartment building, and I still drive it some days to and from Farel College, where I, mad or sane as ever, still ply my trade, that of teaching, or rather professing, history to the young (History, Alpine, 11B; History, Italo-Balkan, Modern, 12C; History, History of, 005A) and not-so-young (one of my students last year was 79). . . Question: Could the great Reformer have been mad? Certainly. Madness strikes in the loftiest places, said Galileo, himself deemed mad by lesser men. Anyway, it all comes down to genetics, like so much else, so the odds that I might have a screw loose were good from the start: Papa was clearly pazzo, Mamma clearly not. At least, that was how they appeared to me, back then. Could it have been the other way around? In his own way, after all, Papa was a kind of pocket Calvin, not perhaps so much an out-and-out nutter as a frustrated reformer, burning with an eternally-frustrated zeal stemming from his orthodox Marxism that in turn grew out of his hatred of (in order of no importance), his parents Tancredo and Adua Termi, winegrowers, of Custoza in the Veneto (Custoza, by the way, is the only Italian town with a single rather than duplicated z in its name, its sole claim to distinction apart from the fine grappa that originates there), snobs and prime saboteurs of his career as a car mechanic (and a damned fine one, once he’d moved to Switzerland); the Church; oddly, Russians; less oddly (he was Italian, after all), the British and French; Japanese cars, therefore, the Japanese themselves, as well as their racial cousins the Chinese, despite Maoism; homosexuals, consequently hippies, ballet dancers, actors, beauticians and their ilk; and others of a racial, sexual and professional stamp more conventionally abhorred by your narrower mind. His likes? The standard Italian communist’s roll-call, e.g., the Juventus Turin football team; the wines of Piedmont; Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti; Fidel Castro; Sacco & Vanzetti; Lenin (a god); Stalin (demi-); Anna Magnani; Dario Fo; and even Mussolini, up to a point (“But only the YOUNG Benito, ey? The YOUNG Benito. Did you know E was a socialist? Ey? EY?”). Mamma, on the other hand, gave every impression of being serene and above the fray, but I’ve realized in the intervening decades that still waters run deep, and I wonder how deep when I remember her wry smile in the face of Papa’s (and later my) storms of passion, her defiant attendance of Mass, and the long solitary drives she used to take into the countryside at the wheel of our old Fiat 1800. The love she lavished on animals, too, a love that demanded no suffering or hard labor in return—this, too, was odd, and quite un-Italian. But her family, the Caldicottos, had only been Italian since the Caldecotts arrived in Turin from Midlothian around the turn of the 20th century and Italianized themselves to the point of absurdity: Great-grandfather Joe—a man so polite, according to family lore, that he raised his hat to horses and beggars--in halting, Scots-befogged Italian, would give his name as Giuseppe Battista Caldicotto, the “Battista” being mere Italianate adornment . . . Anyhow, King Tut, our Siamese cat, was the main beneficiary of this atavistic animal-love of hers, for on the other, more Italian, hand, Papa’s dialogue with the cat was limited to abrasive shouts of “Fuck off, cat” or “cat, shut up” or, like a line from a Goldoni farce, “Go from me now, swine of misery!” Befitting a true Italian wife and mother, as long as Pappa was alive Mamma’s mood changes were mercurial but brief, allegro to andante and back to allegro again, like a Mozart concerto, brief shadows passing over smiling uplands. Of course, the post-partum rupture of her uterus and subsequent life-and-death operations had something to do with her moodiness, no doubt. Humiliatingly for an Italian woman, the extinction of her womb meant she would have no more children after she had me—I, hefty even then (something, I imagine, like a huge pinkish grub with the face of a compressed Genghis Khan), requiring, for my existence to get going, eighteen hours of her labor and, ultimately, a nearly-botched Caesarian, all this at the pristine Clinique Beau-Séjour in the placid Malagnou district of our fine city. I was off to the races that fourteenth day of June in the year of our Lord (and I say that advisedly) 1950, screaming and kicking and, as we have seen, nearly killing my mother in the process, but nevertheless growing up confident in her love for me. Papa, then as later, was ambivalent. Yes, he had a son, un figlio, but one was all he would have, and one was not enough, only one of a dream-brood of sons to educate, indoctrinate in Marxist group-think, drill, and raise into collective manhood: one for the unions, one for the newspapers, one for the university, one for the family business, all four or five (he was the youngest of six) married by 25 (in Papa’s Geneva, as in Calvin’s, there was no fucking around), fathers themselves of sons, of course, before their thirtieth birthdays. But chez nous there was just me, christened Gustavo (for an anti-fascist uncle) Antonio (for Gramsci) Ilyich (for…well, it’s obvious) at the Notre Dame cathedral under the aegis of Father Benedetto Sanzio, a left-wing worker’s priest Papa grudgingly allowed across his threshold for the odd glass of wine and ideological squabble (and who was a close confidant of my mother’s and, later, mine). I continued to be called Gustavo until I took matters into my own ten-year-old hands and informed Papa, in the proud tones of the first generation, that I was Swiss, that my native language was French (English came later), and that my name was Gustave. He put down hisHumanité or Unitàand raised his hand to me in intended chastisement, but the threatened blow wilted into a shrug of indifference and the single syllable “Bé,” short for “Bene,” and he returned to his armchair and perusal of the proletarian gossip columns wherein he would delightedly chew over such tidbits as “Comrade Thorez today inaugurated Phase One of his ultimate struggle against the democratic imperialists by laying the inexorable steps to be taken by the working classes of France toward final victory” or “It was with great pleasure and deep solidarity that Comrade Togliatti welcomed to Italy Comrade Kim Il Sung, representative of the Korean people’s heroic class struggle.” Ah, the peerless fustian of pinkoes! O Golden Age of perpetual revolution! Aux barricades!How bracing it was (what bliss to be alive!) to revile what others revered: the Church, the USA, aristocrats, material goods, free enterprise! Another installment of the Usvs. Them soap opera, and by the way you can bury all that nonsense about peace and harmony. What the world yearns for is a stark division between good and evil. Simply put, we need enemies. This Papa understood, and even called himself on occasion “a heretical Christian,” substituting, blasphemously, his cardboard icons—Gramsci, Lenin, Fidel—for the gilded variety; and he carried that flame all his short life long. Suffering Mamma only shook her head when, after an extra grappa or so, he’d rant his beliefs in the god Marx. Magari, Tadzio, she always said: If only it were true. Marxist or not, Papa insisted on sending me to the best school in the city, the World Academy, where, he reasoned, my exposure to the conventions of the resident satraps of society’s upper crust would at best gently ease me into his footsteps, and if worst came to worst I would at least learn from the experts the skills wherewith to support my aged parents. Alas, he only lived to learn of my laziness. He died at 56 one warm August afternoon in 1968, on the balcony of our little rented chalet below La Faucille with in his dying eyes the cerulean sky against which Mont Blanc was incarnadined in the westering light. His last word was no word, but an orotund mouth fart blown in my direction as I rushed onto the balcony waving that day’s Tribune de Genève, upon the front page of which headlines blared news from Prague: the stifling of Dubcek’s spring, Russian tanks circling Wenceslas Square, simian Brezhnev lying fluently to the world. Violent infarction followed Papa’s valedictorian raspberry, and lo! He and Czech democracy were dead the same day, victims both (of Marx, of life, of lies). The funeral was at the Plainpalais cemetery. Coincidentally, the tombstone inscribed Tadzio Termi 1912-1968 E finita la commedia lies not ten meters from a humbler, much older tombstone, bearing the initials “JC” (but no dates), beneath which lies the dust ofa certain Reformer, Humanist, and secret seer. Mamma mourned; then, recovering, she flourished, all in six months or less. She lost weight, dressed up, took vacations, and sold Papa’s car business for a sub-par but comfortable sum. We were, briefly, well-off. I, then a student at Occhetto University in Milan, affected fashionable disdain (it was, after all, ’68 or ‘69, years of insolence) for the tweeds, scarves and Dunhill cigarettes worn by others of the bourgeoisie. I briefly went the scruffy proletarian way, with beret and heavy corduroys, into the twilight of the sub-revolutionary era, emerging into the dawn of another age, that of Aquarius and my own burgeoning maturity. I returned from Milan a laureato, educated yet deeply ignorant, better-dressed than but overly bookish and underexperienced, and arrogant in the way of all youth. **** Mystics mystify me, as I suppose they do most ordinary mortals, so when I became one myself I was quite shocked, as if two distinct, opposing personalities had taken up residence behind my bluff, unremarkable exterior. One personality, the normal one, ate and drank and taught classes at Farel College, wrote the odd poem, worried sporadically about heart palpitations, acid indigestion, joint aches, eye inflammations, bronchitis, etc., and taught his students, sometimes indifferently, sometimes well. This fellow could be found most Wednesdays and every Saturday at his customary table in the Café Lyrique, working his way through a demi of Fendant and the latest London Review or Le Monde Littéraire. The other chap was the newcomer, the seer of visions, and he was above, or beyond, the merely physical. He, or rather his vision, manifested himself one breezy September night on the Corraterie, Geneva’s Bond Street or Rue de Rivoli. I (containing both these personalities) was on my way to visit Giulia in her charming garret room in the Bohemian district of Carouge, in the south of the city. Giulia was a law student at the University. She was from Parma, a lithe Emilian with limbs of ivory and an apple-round bum to die for. Trust fate or the Almighty, then, to interject the sacred into my profane life, that evening; for not only was I in a state of erotic eagerness, I was well-wined and -dined within the butter-yellow walls of the dear old Café Lyrique (once, by the way, the watering hole of, alliteratively if not chronologically, Lamartine, Lenin and Liszt), a favored eating place of mine on weekdays when the yearning took hold for mignons de boeuf or magret de canard.Memory serves up perch from that night, along with a side of sweet apple tart and bitter Guy Gax, the novelist, a friend—or enemy, I’d never figured out which (I know now)— since the third year at World Academy, where we met during an arm-wrestling match in the lunch room. We went to England together in ’69 and did our military service together in the Engadine, back in ‘74—when one inebriated summer’s day he and I, mere corporals, aimed a bazooka at the wrong barn, flushing out chickens and an irate cow, and that night dressed as captains and celebrated the survival of the livestock with a slap-up dinner at the Suesswinkel restaurant in Chur and charged it all to the Federal Armed Services. Upshot: ten days in the cooler and demotion to soldat. My military career, for which I never cared a fig anyway, suffered greatly, and I was given an invalid’s dispensation in ’78 (chronic flat feet). . . Anyway, the subject at hand that night was a resolutely unmystical one, nothing more elevated than the latest shenanigans of a) Katia, Guy’s ex-wife and b) Guy’s publisher La Maison de l’Herbe (none of these proceedings excessively oiled, maybe an open carafe of your standard Fendant de Sion)—and BANG, there was the Archangel Michael, awash in shimmering light, hovering inside two concentric luminous circles of gold and trailed by sparkles like Tinker Bell, right there on the Corraterie. I (or should I say the other Gustave, newly arrived?) recognized him at once. He was unmistakably the same chap Pope Gregory had seen atop Castel Sant’Angelo: his sword, which he held up, then slowly sheathed; his bright blue shield; his halo, discreet but penetrating, like the dome light in a Mercedes; and cinematic, California-lifeguard good looks. He was smiling blandly. The wings, too, were a dead giveaway. He folded them neatly. He was formal and reasonably polite; I, likewise. The exchange went, approximately, thus: “Good evening, Gustave Termi. Do not be afraid.” His voice was mellifluous yet mechanical, with a hint of the robotic; his speech unaccented, as if he’d learned the language from Linguaphone tapes. “Ah, good evening. I am not afraid.” “You are a man.” “That I can hardly deny.” “With bestial lusts and the soul of a hazzan.” He used the Hebrew word for "cantor,” which I happened to recognize through my recent perusals of the sonnets of Judah Halevy, medieval mystic (God help us). “Rather, with the soul of a man, a mere mortal, a thinking reed.” I was in good Pascalian form, although I didn’t care for that reference to bestial lusts. “But room for God therein.” “Oh, yes, room for God. And the other one, alas.” “To whom we allude as the Adversary,” and here he made an extraordinary putty-face, widening his eyes and lengthening his nose and cheeks into a vulpine muzzle, a touch of the werewolf chilling even to a lifelong fan of horror flicks—”but never by any other name.” I was duly warned, and vowed never to practice in my shaving mirror. “No, never,” said I. His face collapsed into bland Rivieran handsomeness. “This is the first visit, Gustave,” he intoned, like Marley’s Ghost to Scrooge, or Ezekiel to William Blake. “There will be more. Be prepared.” With that Boy-Scout exhortation, he vanished—or, to be more precise, he rose off the ground a little higher (he’d been floating about a half-meter above) then dissolved into a white cloud, like Mr. Tidy in the detergent commercial. All the while, by the way, people were strolling along the street, a drunk was bawling, cars and tramcars were going by, a mild breeze (it was June) was wafting scents of an early-summer city night (tree blossoms, frites, car exhaust, the river nearby); clearly, nobody else had heard or seen a middle-aged man conversing with an armed and hovering archangel, nor even that same middle-aged man gabbling at the empty air . . .well, I’ve read enough theology and sci-fi, good and bad, to have a stab at the reason. It’s something to do with Time, our master, being Their slave, and a little zone of non-Time being created around the angel and me, muddling everybody else’s receptors for the nonce. (It muddled mine. For the duration of the encounter I felt on the verge of a momentous stammer, with a touch of nightmarish immobility.) I worked out that Time theory on my way home, and let me add that I was in no mood for further lucubrations on the subject, not until I’d had a couple of stiff Ricards and watched a reassuringly boring political program on FR3 during the course of which no mention was made of archangels, visions or anything remotely otherworldly (or interesting). I called Giulia, to apologize. “Is OK.” “I’ll make it up to you next time.” “A-o, professore. Is OK.” “Dinner? At the Boeuf Rouge?” “A-o. Forget it. See you next week.” I drank more, then called Gax. “It’s late,” he mumbled. “Are you drunk?” “Never mind that," I mumbled back. "Something happened to me on the way home. It’s incredible.” I explained. "And how do you know he was the Archangel Michael, my dear fellow, as opposed to a vagrant in fancy dress?" "The sword, the halo. The gilded circles surrounding him. Him being about fifty centimeters off the ground the whole time. He looked just like the statue at Castel Sant'Angelo, which commemorates the vision of Gregory the Great, as you know." Of course, he didn’t say “This is it, alert the media,” or “This is it, it’s the proof all mankind has been waiting two thousand years for,” or even “This is it, what a story”: no, no. Gax was bilious, as usual. “You’ve gone off your rocker at last,” he snapped. “After years of expert apprenticeship. Perhaps your imagination is under-utilized, Termi? Stop watching so damn much television. Write more. Get married. Go around the world. If you need a psychiatrist, try LeCluyse, he’s just down the block from you. He got me off heroin, you know. But if you want my honest opinion, it’s our friends at Al-Anon you’re more in need of.” He concluded his insolent advice with a yawn. “And so to bed. Sleep it off, Termi.” I was outraged but unsurprised. I might well have reacted the same way, had our roles been reversed. I, too, reverted to banality (we all chant the everyday jingles, while in the shadows lurk demons), fearing as much the effort required to adjust to a blinding revelation of faith as the revelation itself—and the nagging doubts about my own sanity? Brazenly, my initial reaction was: Let them nag. As long as astrology and Islam and communism find followers, who’s to say a mere mystic’s mad?Then I wondered, too, if I weren’t losing my mind—or at least paying a long-overdue debt to alcohol, not that I was an alcoholic (aha! the alcoholic’s instinctive protest!), nor even a daily drinker, nor, certainly, an epileptic; but at age fifty-three, in as bibulous a city as Geneva, with the assistance of temperament (artistic) and profession (liberal, easy access to cafes), I probably drank more in a week than entire families in, say, Aleppo, do in a lifetime…but no more than most of my acquaintances, and less than some. Moreover, alcohol played no role in the visions of the great mystics of the past, as far as I knew. I mean to say, consider the dissonance in this composition: St. John of the Cross; Bernadette of Lourdes; Sister Elisabeth of Schonau; Sister Lucia dos Santos; Sister Hildegard of Bingen; St. Therese of Lisieux; Professor Gustave Termi, history department, Farel College. This jarring note rang harshly in my ears. It upset my digestion. Worse, it took over the dreamspace formerly occupied by women, art, cars and memory. It finally drove me to spend my free hours researching my new avocation, or curse. My inquiries began at the top, or as near as mere mortal ever got, with the only Teresa d’Avila work that I owned: The Way of Perfection.My perusal was brief, not only because of the profound boredom religious enthusiasm inspires in me, but also because of a sneaking suspicion that I was unworthy to be, however remotely, of the same company as the sweet madwoman of Avila, who believed in utter denial and gut-wrenching austerity as the means to God, her whole life spent divided between the worldly (10%) and the divine (90%). Her travails, and those of her chum John of the Cross, although not as physically horrible as those of, say, Miguel Servetus—burned at the stake here in Geneva (but now honored in the name of our Second League football team, F.C. Servette), courtesy of Big John Calvin, for farting on Sunday, or something equally offensive in the eyes of Papa John—elevated mysticism to the rank of pure spirit, a saintly pastime far out of the reach of a workaday sinner such as I. Anyway, such transports were substitutes for, or successors to, Art, for which I had no need of substitutes, thanks very much. They were akin also, as visions of God, to the music of Palestrina or J. S. Bach, i.e. sublime transcendence, a white liqueous light illuminating the way ahead, immortality just around the bend (hard on the heels of your average mystic)—and I always preferred Mozart and Mahler and Wagner’s Parsifal. But the visions of Teresa were certainly not just phantoms of, say, a too-hastily consumed pork chop, or bottle of acidic wine (although come to think of it, the plonk I had that night at dinner with Gax had tasted a trifle corked); no, nothing so mundane, and here was the crux of my dilemma, sensuality being the essence of my life. I’m no Picasso, but I love the first bite of a morning smoke, the soft stroke of a spring breeze, the smoothness of a woman’s thigh, the muffled purr of a well-tuned engine, etc., etc....ah, but all these things are of God, too, you will say, if you are the sage I take you for. Yes, but that God is the humanist’s God, and these things are primarily of the world, and no mystic I’d ever read about had ever been a man, or woman, of the world, or a humanist. All were austere, self-denying, abstemious, in a word, crazy; or, at least, so devotedly antiphysical that craziness came naturally, as a result of no food or drink or sex for years on end. Their love of a God of the spirit was absolute, fanatical, uncompromising. My love of God? Awe, perhaps, at one remove, as deep as anyone’s, but I stress that remove, through the prism of art and science and the works of Man . . . perhaps “love” never entered into it, now that I have all this under the magnifying glass. Who, post-Auschwitz, loves God? Love was for calmer times, when news of horrors never traveled, or could be dismissed as myth, or the outlandish behavior of heathens...no, in my approach to the Almighty I was more of a Hebrew, fearful, respectful, admiring, humble before His works, yet detached and skeptical to the core, spiritually closer to Abraham, God’s questioner, than to Aquinas, His unquestioning servant: Dr. Aquinas, consummate theologian, sage Doctor of the Church and heavyweight levitator. No, Aquinas was no example for me. His spirituality was beyond a layman’s reach, and a layman can’t have visions of the Almighty and His minions...or can he? What of Blake? Here indeed was a precedent: secular mystic, poet and visionary, man of the world (printer, sensualist, rebel) who above all yearned for God, the Divine, Infinity, the Universe, the Great Fuck, or something: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” Why, yes! Cleanse those doors, I say! You there! You, too, can rub elbows with infinity! At the mere age of ten didn’t wee Willie see angels clustering in a tree? What of his encounter with Ezekiel in a field? Tea and scones with Jesus? O Brother mine! O great prophet of Orc, of Los, of Urizen! Full many a week had I slavered over his work back in my Edinburgh days—and it was there, too, now that I come to think of it, that I had what one might call my first mystical experience. **** Edinburgh! Well-matched to Geneva, Knoxian Avignon to my Calvinist Rome, both stern and windswept citadels of the past; both, in the episodic sunlight of their hilly realms, as coyly beautiful as their mercurial skies; both solid, too, and stolid, and deeply alcoholic. I’d arrived from Milan as an assistant lecturer in French and Italian, with doctoral ambitions. I found rooms on a semi-suburban stretch of Victorian highway bound on one side by a cemetery, on the other by long-disused, weed-grown railway tracks leading straight into that rank and silent place where Romance and Horror embrace. The street was remote and unfashionable, which suited me. Also, I had a view, beyond the graveyard, of the Pentland Hills, yellowish-blue in the sun. On rainy days the winding paths up the hillsides glistened wetly like the mucal trails of giant snails. I roomed in a ground-floor bed-sit for two years of my Edinburgh sojourn, sharing the rent with guitarists and language teachers and a ne’er-do-well named Willie, a linguist from Glasgow with whom I found instant companionship. My love of solitude and select debauchery coincided with his; my need of occasional outbursts, too, found a ready response in the high jinks that came so naturally to the Calvinist-born rebel he was. For instance (and here my digression returns, more or less to its, point), it was in Willie’s company that the veil was first lifted and I saw, one Halloween . . . a spook? A stain on my eyeglasses? A mirage? An angel’s harbinger? No angel, at least, not then. Willie and I were drunk, and in a cemetery at midnight on Halloween, it being common in the Scotland of Willie’s childhood to spend All Hallows in a graveyard on a dare. As we had a graveyard handy, and were Dutch-courageous after an evening’s drink, why, Willie and Swiss Gus were game, och aye! So there we sat, with our beer, on a broad new tombstone near the main gate, across from a small mourners’ pavilion.As one a.m. tolled and rolled away, in that pavilion—as if responding, on cue, to the simultaneous pops of our beer-can ring-tabs—something gathered itself mistily into existence and rose and limped, rather than walked, in our direction; something foglike and pale and vague, yet with discernable features like a much-erased Identikit drawing; not the features of an archangel, nor a demon, either, but not quite your standard ghost, no mere spectral passerby . . . anyway, whatever it was or wasn’t, it was invisible to Willie—”a spook, och aye, away yourself, fer Gawd’s sake”—but THAT FACE a haunting severe enough to linger in my mind for days afterward, a visitant (or revenant) from deep within the spidery undergrowth of M. R. James, or the clammy vaults of Poe, and maybe, for all I know, no more or less than a direct, digestive consequence of that evening’s Vindaloo and dozen or more beers. I yelled, pointed, bolted, caught my foot on a railing, went down face-first, endured Willie’s jibes, returned to the flat, took in an aria or two (Puccini? Verdi?) and slept, to dream of who knows what. Gravely, I reconnoitered the graveyard on the following day, hungover, ashamed, and doubtful. The best I could come up with, anywhere near the pavilion, was the tomb of a deacon deceased since 1890 or so. Oddly, the tomb was surmounted by an inordinately spectacular, Neapolitan-style statue of the Archangel Michael, somewhat militant in stance; downright prescient, if you credit Memory with recording, rather than inventing, abilities. Back home, I never made much of my encounter in the cemetery. It was just a dinnertable yarn that first amused, then worried, my colleagues at the College, skeptics and freethinkers all. But if I’m a mystic, then Edinburgh was the crucible, and not just because of the ghaistie in the boneyard. The city itself simmers with long-suppressed magic that no amount of artistry, or art, can disguise. As does Geneva, beneath its bland facade of international do-goodery. So, all those years later, I found myself mentally revisiting, with the clarity of long-disused memory, the bonnie braes of the Pentlands, where I’d often strolled (or “rambled,” to keep the Romantic spirit), innocent at heart, Innocence in hand: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.”I’d returned hopefully to the works of Blake, the great mad polymath, and spent most of one Saturday morning (the howling wintry Bise cooperating the make the outdoors inhospitable) rereading “Jerusalem,” an intense exposure to quirky genius that, in the end, tired me out:Ah, Brother William. Alas. Già basta.Did He who made me make thee? The man was brilliant, yes, visionary, quite possibly, and mad, beyond doubt, all these in an entirely English way that was appealing mainly in short doses or from a distance. He utterly lacked, however, that skepticism, that detachment, that touch of world-weariness that is the stamp of my kind, my song of experience—that is, let me say it plainly, so Italian. (Swiss that I proudly am, I am also, dear Papa, as Italian as Venetian grappa, or the bordellos of Pompeii.) Blake always reminded me of one of those bicycle-riding, ruddy-cheeked, half-a-pint-a-night Sunny Jims in corduroy trousers who sing in Gilbert and Sullivan societies at British universities and who, frequently, belong to political clubs or religious groups: too earnest by half, our William. But a crank, a genius? Oh yes. Those, if nothing else. Post-“Jerusalem,” and running short of other sources at home, I braved the Bise and made a visit to the eminent Central Library on the Boulevard Helvétique. (This would have been, let me see, a week or so after my run-in with the Archangel.) “Have you mystics?” “Beg pardon, monsieur?” “I seek mystics. Their memoirs. Biographies.Et cetera.” “Ah. Avila and company?” “Yes. And/or Lisieux. And others.” Well, they had some such, yes. See under “Religion,” which section was in a dusty, little-used corner of the library, adjacent to the heavier traffic of the “Mysteries” section—tsk, tsk! what an eloquent commentary on our Godless age!—dimly illuminated by flickering fluorescent strips. On the bookshelves, under the rubric “Religious Works,” I first investigated Michael. I knew, of course, that he was the mightiest of angels, a great favorite of Jews, Muslims, and the Orthodox; and sure enough, there in the Vatican Canonical Code, or Lex Vaticana, Vol. III, was a photo of the effigy atop the Castel Sant’Angelo, sheathing or drawing his sword. “St. Michael is one of the principal angels,” I read. “His name was the war-cry of the good angels in the battle fought in Heaven against the enemy and his followers.” Well, we all know who that is, don’t we? I remembered the archangel’s blood-chilling imitation and shivered—I am tempted to add, in good literary style, “although it was a warm day,” but in fact it was quite chilly. “Four times his name is recorded in Scripture,” lectured the Lex. “Following these Scriptural passages, Christian tradition gives to St. Michael four offices:
To fight against Satan.
To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death.
To be the champion of God’s people, the Jews in the Old Law, the Christians in the New Testament; therefore he was the patron of the Church, and of the orders of knights during the Middle Ages.
To call away from earth and bring men's souls to judgment (signifer S. Michael repraesentet eas in lucam sanctam, Offert. Miss Defunct. Constituit eum principem super animas suscipiendas, Antiph. off. Cf. Hermas, Pastor, I, 3, Simil. VIII, 3).
“Archangel Michael,” gushed the Lex, “is known for his great powers of protection. His mighty sword cuts away anything which no longer serves: cords and bonds, astral energies, etc. He is associated with the color electric blue. His feast day is September 29th.” Brrrr, indeed. According to my rough mental calculations, as it was now mid-OctoberI’d seen him in late September sometime, very likely on the 29th . . . And by the way I quite like electric blue, but I didn’t like that part about bringing men’s souls to judgment, or rescuing the soul at the hour of death. Perhaps I was a secret Jew and he’d found time in his busy schedule to prepare me for the news? (Or an even more secret Christian?) Or about to die? But he’d told me nothing, really. And—for God’s sake! (As it were.) Enough of archangels. I turned for light relief to the short shelf of Mystics and found, as expected, Teresas three, those superstars of piety Avila, Lisieux, and (completing the trinity of Teresas) Saint T. of Calcutta, this last a biography by a Vatican groupie and correspondent for Einstein magazine. Bored, I was on my way out. Then, like the close of an office workday, came release from tedium: a slim volume red with the gilt lettering of a Douai Bible, or a cardinal’s robes. Its title was ADORATION: A LIFE OF STEFANIE VON ROTHENBERG. A composite gold logo formed by a cross and a swastika adorned the spine. The author was one Martine Jeanrenaud, a TV journalist whose doctoral dissertation this book had originally been. Intrigued, I took it down, the hesitated; if this Martine Jeanrenaud was to guide me I needed to know more about her. I wanted no leftish exegesis, no postmodern propaganda, no ideological havering. On the Table of Contents verso page, I came upon a short bio, with accompanying photograph of a pretty woman in her late thirties or so with shaggy hair and round glasses. Martine Jeanrenaud was, according to the blurb, a master’s graduate of Geneva University and a doctor ex-Sorbonne-Paris IV, with studies at Princeton also to her credit. (Aha! I sensed Career Woman at best, Feminist Scholar at worst.) Furthermore, she was the author of, apart from the present volume, “James Fazy: Radical Bourgeois,” and currently a TV reporter at Télé Suisse 1, known for her work on the “popular documentary series” Priests of the People: Wholesome Rebels (featuring among others Father Leonardo Boff and the Abbé Pierre) and producer of something called “Land Beyond the Yaks: Bhutan, Modern Shangri-La”...so, this Jeanrenaud person had a notch or two on her belt, that was clear. Her qualifications to write history were less so, but these days any journalist deems him- or herself qualified to craft the great book of life in all its forms, fictional, dramatic, historical, autobiographical, sexual, and we have only Time the great winnower to fall back on in our quest for culture. I borrowed the volume, hurried home and settled myself deep in my armchair. With a cigarette and an espresso at my side I embarked on Page One, reserving the right to resume at any moment my browsing elsewhere.