“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
When L.P. Hartley wrote this line, he was talking about memory: a supposed form of hard, sensory data that is nevertheless reshaped by future transactions. He was also talking about history (memory which is encoded in an external medium; a child’s diary, in this case). For the Go-Between’s hero Leo, the work of history was recorded by his own hand. It was literally “his” “story” of his own past, rendered in its contemporaneous, unedited form. The chief conceit of the novel is that history itself is often changed, in order to suit individual needs.
That isn’t how we typically encounter histories. How we typically encounter them is as records of objective reality recorded by long-dead strangers. As readers we are trained to question very little of them, and to reserve all such questions and revisions for those portions that might grant us political advantage. Damage the overall picture too much with our revisions, and we risk throwing the whole of the past into chaos.
We are also trained to submit to the illusion that there exists one Big True Story of the world entombed in scattered graves, waiting for human investigators to unearth, piece together sensibly, and reliably recount.
That version of historical production, interpretation and editing continues to be the source of a whole lot of mischief. In fact, if I had to pick the primary illusion our mutual Enemy uses to attack and control us, it would likely be found in the pages of some history book. That’s because we don’t typically understand what it is we’re doing, when we’re reading a story of any kind.
Movies of the Mind
When I was a kid, my favorite book was Bulfinch’s Mythology. It functioned as my Internet back then: a massive compendium of tales that taught me about the Greeks, the Norse, King Arthur, Beowulf, Charlemagne and more, equipped with a detailed glossary that functioned as my very first search engine. I recall there was a year or two when I read from it nightly, revisiting my favorite stories about heroes and monsters, ancient wars and doomed romances, dead kings and queens who may or may not have ever been born.
These characters and their exploits soon lived in my head, much the way memories would. I was there beside Theseus in the labyrinth, at the shoulder of Achilles as he dragged Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. But it wasn’t entirely the same process; they were more like the memories of movies I’d seen — and, in a very real sense, movies that I made, my inner Spielbergs and Kubricks encoding them into the interior language of light and sound.
History is the same.
We don’t like to think of it that way. We like to draw hard lines between fact and fiction, real and imaginary. We convince ourselves that a thing must have happened a particular way, at a particular date and time, even though we weren’t there to observe and interpret it. We often take the immanence of a historical record for granted, even when discussing events that predate our own physical existence by thousands of years.
Depending on the source, presentation, our own preferences/biases and other factors, the details of the historical tale will be customized (and so will the movies we make about them). But for the most part, we think we can untangle truth from falsehood, document from myth. We even believe we’re born with the tools to do this properly, which is where most of the problems start.
John Carter recently published the epilogue to a particular head-movie he shot several months ago, back when we hardly knew each other:
As per usual, it is brilliantly written and elegantly argued. Also as per usual, it’s controversial to the sabre-tip of provocation. But — as I once said to a group of other writers on a somewhat contentious, late-night chat — “That’s what’s great about John.”
I stand by that statement. Still, I knew this series was certain to ruffle some feathers on one side, and attract some ne'er-do-wells on the other. I haven’t read through all the comments on this latest post, but combining those I have with those made on the prior entries, most reactions thus far seem to line up with one or more of the following categories:
John is a blasphemous idiot, cloaking his hatred for the Living God in a trendy bit of revisionist pop-history. By identifying Julius Caesar as the “True Christ”, he inverts the principles of Jesus while simultaneously pretending to understand and advocate for them. The devil has seized hold of his mind. May God have mercy on his soul.
John is trying to build an impossible bridge atop quicksand. He’s clever, but the acrobatic leaps he makes to try to connect the events and character of Jesus’ life to that of Caesar’s would make Béla Károlyi beam with pride. Some of these longer leaps are even counter-productive, as they sound more absurd than the traditional story he’s trying to debunk.
John is really onto something here. The story as he presents it makes much more sense than the Gospels, which describe events that cannot have possibly happened as recorded because of (atheism, materialism, rationalism, historiography, blah, blah, blah). It also fills in certain blanks in my own brain-movie about the first millennium that have always left me scratching my head.
John is on the path to achieving Gnostic enlightenment, the first steps of which are to invert the spiritual roles/identities of Yahweh and Satan, reformat their relationship to fit the Titanomachy, Prometheus and other classical myths, toss the whole mess in a basket alongside Hermeticism and a jailer-demiurge, and reach the stunning conclusion that all received works of history have been a lie (except for the version he’s stumbled upon, which reflects the unvarnished truth).
There have probably been some other reactions, but these four seem most common. I must be a very different breed of cat, though, because none of them really describe my own.
First off, I don’t have the temerity to go around accusing others of blasphemy. If the search for truth was as easy as reading a book aloud and shouting down anyone who dared to question or differently interpret of any part of it, then Creation is precisely the prison many Gnostics believe it is, and I would gladly seek out a million “lies” with them instead.
The second group doesn’t really reflect my view either, though it’s probably closest to it. In fact, while reading the second essay, part of me suspected the whole series was the setup for an elaborate joke (while simultaneously being a fascinating thought experiment in itself). For example, his contention that “Jesus had an affair with the prostitute Mary Magdalene,” seems not merely to be a reference absent a referent, but the kind of sophomoric begging that John is far too smart to do by accident. Was the point to inflame and provoke? I didn’t know. But John's a great writer, so I was willing to let the string play out.
There were other epic reaches peppered throughout part two, including that crowds heralding the arrival of two famous men was compelling evidence of their interchangeability. I laughed out loud at this one, recalling the crowds that gathered at a mock-funeral Howard Stern put on for rival DJ Lou DiBella back in the late 80’s. It also put me in mind of Charles de Gaulle. who led a famous march on the same day as Caesar 1891 years apart (and with a very different reception).
Regardless, none of it angered me. I merely found certain aspects of it intriguing, others less so. Moreover, I had a theory about where it might be leading, and was curious to find out how correct it was. Turned out it wasn’t, but that’s no great loss. It was still well worth the read, because it got me thinking about stories (and “histories”) in a much deeper way than before. And as John himself notes: how strong is one’s faith of Christ if some Barsoomian Internet Warlord can wound it with a few thousand words, to review some book you’ll probably never read?
As for John’s conclusions, I think what he has found is a way to re-shoot and re-edit the history movie in such a way that aligns with his spiritual sensibilities. This isn’t in itself a problem — that’s what we’re all doing, all the time.
The problem as I see it is when people confuse this story-editing process with an unearthing of the Actual, or even of the Truth. That is something human beings simply cannot do. It’s a lie we tell ourselves about our capabilities.
Or worse, it’s a lie that others tell us, in order to gain power over our minds and lives.
History As Mystery
A longtime friend recently asked me on the phone why I refer to myself as a Christian. That’s in no way an easy question, and such a conversation could last for days on end. But I didn’t want to just leave it hanging there, so I simply said: “It’s got the best story.”
Plenty of unpacking to do there, obviously. Explaining that overly simplistic sentiment is part of what I’d like to do with my writing moving forward. John obviously disagrees with it on its face (as I myself did, for many, many years). But the kernel of truth nested inside it pertains to all those head-movies of ours, and what it means to “know” a thing that happened in the distant past to be real.
I’ve written before that stories are both what humans do (in the telling) and are (in the living). We claim that history is a “truer” type of storytelling than a myth or legend, because we (or more likely, others) have gathered physical evidence to build that case. That most of this evidence is a compilation of journalistic accounts curated by official storytellers for political use doesn’t seem to trouble most readers (even though it obviously should).
This is a problem that runs deep into the heart of all Scientistic endeavors, in which motivated reasoning, perverse incentives and confirmation bias loom invisibly large. They pretend that history is a puzzle they are assembling from scattered pieces. But the secret of puzzles is that they can only be assembled if you know what kind of picture you are trying to build. That picture is the “spiritual sensibility” I mentioned before; the facts are shaped to fit a cherished theory about reality, applying the jigsaws of our minds whenever necessary.
I think a better way to approach the problem is “history as mystery.” Or at least, it’s a mystery to anyone who doesn’t blithely accept anything that’s fed to them by a favored authority or institution. Which is to say, it’s a “mystery” for a very tiny percentage of people at any given time. Most will swallow it whole, without giving any element much thought. As for the rest, we jam on our deerstalkers and become investigators of a crime scene.
When approaching this crime scene as scientists, we start by cobbling together a variety of sources, which we interrogate in the usual way. What might the storyteller’s motives be, hidden and otherwise? Why might some details of his account be altered or omitted, and others given extraordinary prominence? How well does his version line up with other evidence and accounts?
For all generations alive today, these sources don’t only include books and physical artifacts, but a vast assortment of mediums that help us write and produce the movies in our heads. History of the past hundred years is therefore rendered more vividly and (supposedly) more accurately, because we now have captured images and sound of certain events, in addition to the usual written accounts by those who lived it (or within spitting distance of it, at least). We’re far less willing to significantly question these type of records. Sometimes, we’re even forbidden to.
We nevertheless believe these mediums render the more recent histories closer to the Actual. Maybe that’s even partially correct, but only in the sense that audiovisual media makes it somewhat more difficult to tell Really Big Lies in close proximity to events without raising any questions. That’s ultimately what this whole “misinformation/disinformation” business is about: official liars want to put legal guardrails around their narratives, because it’s not as easy to suppress those questions as it used to be.
An investigator always wonders what powder-keg of giant whoppers we may be sitting on, which would wildly deform our picture of reality if revealed. These may include events that occurred during our own lifetimes, and even as recent as last week. Something like the CIA ordering the Kennedy assassinations might only be the tip of such an iceberg, against which the Titanic of History is finally smashed apart.
This is all to say that some of us are (rightly) suspicious about recent histories, as rendered by official storytellers. We don’t need a time travel machine to see through the motivated lies of the Covid years, for example, or a crystal ball to see what’s going on in Ukraine. And yet, for some reason, we feel no such compunction regarding “historical details” of the distant past.
Of course Julius Caesar was murdered by Roman Senators!
What possible purpose might it serve to lie about that?!
Cui bono, motherfucker?!
I can think of a few bonos. However, there is no Zapruder film of the assassination of Julius Caesar to scrutinize, or of the trial and execution of Jesus Christ for that matter. For all we know, both could be entirely fictitious characters and events, contrived to serve a specific purpose by long-dead fabulists and propaganda wizards. They might even be the mutated products of a multi-millennia game of telephone, with sharp twists and turns that have been lost or retroactively disguised.
In fact, even John recognizes this (mis)use of “history” in his series. In his case, it’s part of a vast plot to defame and distort Caesar’s character (a theory which Carotta’s reconstructive surgery reifies). There’s a bit of a contradiction at the heart of this, though, because the aspects of Caesar’s tale that were “allowed” to survive by these same conspirators are simultaneously offered as evidence for his secret identity as Christ the Conqueror. There’s also a lot of gaping holes in this story. For example, a lengthy backlog of Caesarian converts and martyrs must be retroactively transformed into Christian ones, or many of the latter species invented from whole cloth.
But for the sake of argument, let’s take for granted John’s cut of the movie, and agree with him that too many details of Caesar’s story line up with that of Christ’s to be sheer coincidence. If we grant this, we can interpret it in a variety of ways. One of them is this:
Aspects of Caesar’s story were reshaped over time, to better align with the far more successful story of Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact that might be the Occam’s Razor explanation, requiring the fewest leaps in logic. After all, even by John’s standard there exists plenty of evidence that this brand of Christian cosmetic surgery was performed on other figures and tales. The leading historical candidates for King Arthur, for example, were likely pagans who lived hundreds of years after the deaths of both Caesar and Christ, but before Christianity took full root in Britain. And yet, Arthur searches for the Grail.
But John’s standard is not my own. In fact, what I’ve learned about Man’s capacity for strategic storytelling means I no longer have an evidentiary standard for history that can possibly be met. History is a Gordian knot composed of motivated lies, or might as well be. It can never be trusted as Actual, either in its individual components or as a whole.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a method for evaluating Truth. I do. I think we all do, though that muscle has been atrophying for a very long time.
I submit to you that the stories of Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar are radically different — not just in detail, but in meaning and gestalt. Nevertheless, they are similar in one important sense:
If we assume that both men lived and breathed (or men very much like the ones in our head-movies, at least), this assumption doesn’t contradict the notion that they’re also mythological figures. They stand in two worlds: one foot on the shifting sands of history and its endless revisions, the other planted on the terra firma of mythos. To find the truth of each story, we must investigate the latter. This time, however, we won’t be investigating as scientists, but as artists.
So stick a feather in your deerstalker cap and come along for the ride, won’t you?
A Tale of Two Heroes
The name of this ride is The Hero’s Journey (or, alternatively, The Monomyth). You won’t need to read the collected works of Joseph Campbell to ride, because you already possess an osmotic knowledge of its general shape (which, ironically, is Campbell’s ultimate point).
Both Julius and Jesus present controversial versions of this immortal storytelling template, and for different reasons. Certain connections are crystal clear, such as Caesar answering the Call to Adventure on the banks of the Rubicon, or Jesus reaching Atonement (to be read “at-one-ment”) on the cross. Other nodes seem to almost contradict the template, or to be placed mysteriously out of order. But they are certainly both the tales of heroes, whose journeys lead them to death at the hands of their enemies.
For the purposes of this artistic investigation, I will see Julius through John’s eyes, as a paragon of virtue beset by weak and morally inferior men. In fact, I don’t even disagree with this assessment on its face; I think it’s very possible that Actual Caesar was much closer to this image than the one painted by his detractors. As with Christ, storytellers have used his name and supposed history to rationalize all manner of evil over the years. But it’s worth mentioning that the mythological character of Caesar has usually been a very complex topic, not so fit for easy propaganda. Shakespeare’s stage version is famously impenetrable, for instance, and Dante imprisoned his betrayer Brutus in the ninth circle of Hell alongside Judas Iscariot. If there has been a vast conspiracy to cast Caesar as history’s ultimate villain, it has failed to hypnotize the artists (which is why I suspect John’s head-movie is much closer to the Truth).
Importantly, the recorded tales of both men contain supernatural elements, including in their earliest surviving forms. I spoke with John about this the other night, mentioning that Suetonius saw fit to include such details in what was nominally a historical document.
The same can be said of Plutarch in his Parallel Lives version. Unlike Suetonius, he makes no mention of the angelic figure which appeared before Caesar on the river banks. He does, however, see fit to include a description of an event that took place during the civil war, when Caesar’s forces apparently summoned a UFO or a dragon:
Besides there were some panic fears and alarms that ran through the camp, with such a noise that it awaked him out of his sleep. And about the time of renewing the watch towards morning, there appeared a great light over Cæsar’s camp, whilst they were all at rest, and from thence a ball of flaming fire was carried into Pompey’s camp, which Cæsar himself says he saw, as he was walking his rounds.
Is this a factual account?
No, because nothing is.
It’s certainly part of Caesar’s mythos, though: an unprovable story that survived long after its initial telling. We could claim Caesar’s UFO was a dramatic flourish, or the second-or-third-hand account of an Actual event. Like all within his mythemic egregore, there are arguments for both, and proof for neither. It certainly may have been edited out of hand-copied texts like the De bello civili war journals, so as not to suggest that Caesar was favored by the Divine. I know if I was a medieval monastic scribe, I might be tempted (or even commanded) to snip that out.
But the most well-known supernatural events of Caesar’s mythos take place near the end of his life. Agreement on these events is near-universal, which is why the phrase “The Ides of March” carries meaning to this day. And it’s at this point on the wheel in which the mythologies of Caesar and Christ most radically depart.
Here I’ll try to be very careful in my assessment. I take John’s spiritual journey very seriously, as when he writes:
Caesar was a Saviour I could actually respect.
I also consider him to be a friend (and I wouldn’t want to slander him, even if I didn’t). I believe he sees the many strengths and virtues of Caesar, as do I. But at the same time, I think he fails to see his ultimate weakness, which is why he conflates the murder of Caesar with that of Christ. If we investigate these two events through the artist’s lens, they could not possibly be more different.
In the myth of Caesar, we are told that his death was the result of having ignored several omens of ill-portent. In some tellings, he was even handed a document that detailed the plot shortly before it was activated against him, but either lost it among other papers or neglected to read it.
The material-reductionist will likely run a different movie in his head that’s more in line with the latter, the supernatural elements all replaced with Caesar missing obvious clues and ignoring good advice. But in both movies, one thing is clear:
Caesar was taken by surprise.
He did not hear the train coming down the tracks, and met his fate due to some blend of hubris, miscalculation and carelessness (and perhaps we should just say “hubris”, since the latter two can be deemed offspring of the former).
The same cannot be said of Jesus Christ.
That’s even the case in a material-rationalist’s film. Even a flesh-and-blood rabbi who faced such heavy opposition from the Pharisees could sensibly predict his own demise (and certainly after entering Jerusalem and clearing the temple). To them, he was a blasphemer, a false prophet, a Sabbath-breaker and even a servant of the devil. Whether it was by divine revelation or by logic, he could both hear and see that choo-choo chugging from miles away.
In response, he planted his feet firmly on the tracks.
It’s here where I think the greatest misunderstanding of all begins. In John’s version, this is a tale meant to provoke suicidal pacifism and/or slavish assent. Like a Marxist (ironically), he sees little more in the story of Christ than a trick being played by a bunch of corrupt power-brokers upon the witless masses. His version of the film is a propaganda reel starring a weakling as the total and willing subject of evil power. If he were to admit the possibility of a “historical” Jesus, he might even call it hubris of a different kind, born of illogical madness and conceit. But we aren’t talking about history. We’re talking about mythos.
In the mythos of Christ, we see a hero who stood unbowed before every form of human evil simultaneously, completed the underworld journeyand conquered Death itself on both sides of the Veil.
Now, if you do not recognize such a partition, you might side with John and prefer Caesar’s virtual immortality (i.e. “legacy”) to Christ’s. But let’s talk about what Caesar’s legacy truly was.
If we accept that there was a Actual Roman empire and an Actual Caesar who captured it for virtuous reasons, what became of that virtuous empire after his demise? The widely accepted story — of which John, to my knowledge, does not dispute — is that, via a series of increasingly corrupt and incompetent heirs, it crumbled apart from within. And while elements of its fall may be individually fishy, I can safely say that the Rome of Julius Caesar does not exist today. Perhaps it’s even appropriate to say that it died with him, as do all works of Man.
More importantly: whose story survived and flourished, in all the centuries since? Which man’s God is still worshipped, however imperfectly or unwisely? The claim will be made that the Jesus story’s survival was all due to a combination of brutal repression and mass hypnosis. The people who think this also tend to think of people as programmable machines, and know nothing of artists or art. Their grotesque movies are filled with vast, faceless and contemptible human hordes, which resemble the way the devil sees our kind.
It is not so simple to rule the mind unchallenged across many ages, or for very old stories to survive and thrive. Otherwise we’d see far more of those survivors. We may even still see large, well-organized cults to Jupiter or Mars, or Hellenists still guided through the Eleusinian Mysteries. We do not.
If I was trying to be cute, I might say something like, “My God is way stronger than yours, John.” But in some ways, this seems evident to the point of being obvious. And I think a big part of that is because one story is clearly more beautiful than the other.
Which also, in light of beauty’s symmetry, makes it more True.
To close this out, I just want to add that — despite some of its obvious errors and (in my opinion) wild speculations — the new film presented by John is worth reading in its totality, so I’ll provide all the relevant links below:
Chapter 1 - The Jesus Question
Chapter 2 - Parallel Lives, Parallel Cults
Chapter 3 - Jesus, Caesar, and Paul
Chapter 4 - Anastasis Caesaris
Caesar’s myth clearly speaks to John and others on a spiritual level, which is something I well understand. We live in a time of both physical and spiritual warfare, after all, and the pugnacity and masculine virtue of someone like Gaius Julius can make his story seem more attractive than the tale of a carpenter from the boondocks, who submitted himself to execution by corrupt authorities.
That Caesar himself was likewise undone by the treachery of venal men is something they perhaps see as a cautionary tale. But I can say this; I think the movie of “christcucks” swimming in some heads is mostly a false one (and again, ironically, very similar to the one our common foes produce).
To claim Christians won’t fight to defend our liberties and lives isn’t just a misunderstanding of the Gospels, but defies every conceivable version of history that could have brought us to the present day. And I don’t have go as far back as Marinus of Caesarea to demonstrate that point:
More recent DoD administrative data focused on active duty personnel show that as of January 2019, approximately 70 percent were recorded as Christian (about 32% no denomination, 20% Catholic, 18% Protestant, 1% Mormon), 2 percent as Atheist or Agnostic, 1 percent as affiliated with an Eastern religion, 0.4 percent each as Jewish or Muslim, and the remainder (about 24%) were reported as “other/unclassified/unknown” (Kamarck, 2019, pp. 46–47).
To my Christian friends:
Try not judge John Carter too harshly. He appears to come by his opinions honestly, and has shown epistemic humility in the past. If you feel the urge to see his work as vicious slander or attempted theft, consider taking a step back and trying to come up with a more generous assessment. Generosity of spirit is something I’ve been trying to improve in myself lately, and I find it’s already yielding profits.
To my non-Christian friends:
If your gods (or your secular principles) are demanding that you try to erase or co-opt our own, take a moment to consider why that might be?
If the instinct is to attack and demean Christianity and its faithful, ask first whose goals that might ultimately serve. Start by looking to your left and right, to see who else might be standing in that room with you. You may not like who you see.
I doubt it will be a legionnaire of Julius Caesar’s beloved 10th. I think that warrior would reject such internal strife, for reasons of virtue if not basic strategy. In my movie, they are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rhineland mercs of Caesar’s personal retinue. They do not mock the gods of those strong, shaggy brutes, any more than they would jealously defend their own. If they heard such slander from a two-legged swine within their ranks, they would promptly kick him to the curb.
But if you do find yourself in such a room and hear such a person, gleefully and disingenuously assailing Christians for our most deeply held beliefs, consider this question:
Of the two of us, which do you think will be more likely to defend you, even at the cost of his or her own earthly life?
If you ask that question honestly, I think the answer might surprise you.
P.S. If you found any of this valuable (and can spare any change), consider dropping a tip in the cup for ya boy. I’ll try to figure out something I can give you back. Thanks in advance.
I’ve found this portion of the Easter story is often “grayed out” by clergy, to the extent that many mainline Christians aren’t even aware of it. It nevertheless seems important (and, like so much in the NT, perhaps poorly translated) as it seems Christ’s time in Hell was spent preaching to the souls of the damned, and thus rescuing them via katabasis.
Great post, Mark! The story about Jesus is powerful and conveys some deep truths that we only dimly understand. If we take St Paul at his word, he had a personal revelation of the risen Lord, yet said that in this life, we can only "see through a glass darkly." The details of the story were changed for theological and political reasons (one need only note the differences between the 4 gospels to see this), so who knows what the historical Jesus was really like or how much of the mythos maps onto any historical reality. But that story!
Something I've entertained as a possibility: would it make a difference in the story's meaning or Truth if (assuming a multiple parallel universes) the story of Jesus actually did happen the way it is believed (or at least the key points of it) in one universe, but just not this one? What if our desire to map the mythos onto the historical and religious record is just some dim, dreamlike intuition about a story that actually did happen in a different universe in another dimension? Would it really change anything for us, in terms of how we should understand and relate to the story? (Honest question; I really don't know.)
Anyway, thanks for the though-provoking essay!
This was excellent, Mark. Insightful and thought-provoking, touching on a number of deep issues. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of conversation I was hoping to provoke.
I'd actually meant to mention in my last piece, but forgot to (I always forget something), Dante's inclusion of Brutus (and Cassius Longinus) stuffed into the mouths of Satan in the 9th circle of Hell, alongside Judas. To me that suggests rather strongly that Dante's sensitive artist's soul perceived some deep symbolic kinship between the two figures. That, or he knew something (but let's not get too Dan Brown....)
Regarding Magdalene, big mea culpa on that one. I think I'd picked up the 'affair' bit via cultural osmosis - I don't think I've ever seen the movie in question. Somehow that got lodged in my mind without getting checked. However, that influenced my inflammatory phrasing more than anything. If I recall, Carotta also draws a connection between Cleopatra and Magdalene as symmetrical dramatis personae in the respective stories, which was what I was drawing attention to.
There's a lot to think about here, some subtle points that I'm going to have to ponder over as I compose a reply. Exactly the sort of stimulation from which the best insights emerge.