Interview With Theodore Ziolkowski, Author of “Lure of the Arcane”

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Theodore Ziolkowski’s latest book, Lure of the Arcane, explores conspiracy theories in literature. Today, he discusses some of his most intriguing examples.

We seem to be living in a golden age of the conspiracy theory. Nothing is ever what it appeared to be to those who are convinced there was a conspiracy behind almost every significant public act of violence or scandal, and that dark forces lurk round every corner.

The Kennedy assassination. The destruction of the World Trade Center. Even Hillary Clinton used the term, “vast right-wing conspiracy” during her husband’s presidency. How has conspiracy been portrayed in literary works over the centuries, and how might depictions of it help us to understand our world today? As I browsed one day a few months ago on the website of Johns Hopkins University Press I came upon the webpage of the book Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy by Theodore Ziolkowski. This looked promising. I wrote to Mr. Ziolkowski to ask him for an interview. He graciously agreed and this is the result.

First of all Theodore (or shall I call you Ted?), you use an interesting phrase in the preface to your book, “aestheticized current events.” Could you please give us examples of some of these from the 17th, 18th, the 19th, the 20th, and the 21st centuries?

Ted Ziolkowski
Ted Ziolkowski

Please call me Ted.

With the phrase “aestheticized currents events,” I refer to the use of conspiracy fiction to deal playfully with contemporary historical circumstances. For instance, the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, which became a founding document for the Rosicrucians, was written by students in Tübingen to satirize the enormous popularity of alchemy in the early 17th century. Schiller’s novel The Ghost-Seer was inspired by reports concerning Frederick the Great’s successor to the Prussian throne, who was notoriously under the influence of his two principal advisers — both members of the Order of the Gold and Rosy Cross. Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew attacks what the author regarded as the sinister machinations of the Order of Jesuits in the 19th century. And André Gide’s Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) played on the contemporary rumor that Pope Leo XIII had been imprisoned by Freemasons in the cellars of the Vatican. All these works, in sum, “aestheticize” current events by literary means.

You classify your book as “genre history.” What are some notable examples of that type of study?

“Genre history” refers to works, such as my own, The Classical German Elegy, 1795-1950 (1980), that define and trace the development of a specific literary form. Other examples would be Martin Swales’ The German Bildungsroman, D. Bradby’s Modern French Drama, or J. W. Lever’s The Elizabethan Love Sonnet. Studies of this sort help us to locate the individual work within a larger tradition.

I had never heard of the German lodge novel. Could you please tell us a bit about that? Was it a form that ever caught on in the English-speaking world? If not, why not?

Lure of the ArcaneThe German lodge novel (Bundesroman) originated in response to the flourishing of secret societies in 18th-century Germany, when many leading figures belonged to the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, or some other cult. It typically relates the attempts of the society, for good or evil, to influence and direct the life of the novel’s hero, and the genre in its sublimated form includes such masterpieces of German literature as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship – and even Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Several works of that genre, such as Carl Grosse’s Der Genius (translated as The Horrid Mysteries) enjoyed considerable popularity in English translation, as demonstrated by their citation, for instance, by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey.

You write that you hope with this book to have, “persuaded other fans of contemporary thrillers that our craving for mystery and adventure may be satisfied with equal gratification by a host of classics from the canon of world literature.” Have you succeeded?

I have no idea. Let’s see how the reviewers and readers react.

In your preface, you write of the contributions your wife and children have made to this book. They all seem to be extremely well-read, cultivated people. Did you all start reading in your cradles?

My wife, herself a student of comparative literature, is one of the most widely-read people I know, and I like to think that the obvious enjoyment we both derive from our reading and passionate conversations about literature affected — some might say corrupted — our children, all three of whom are now professors of literature (Russian, medieval, and religion and literature). I can’t resist adding that they have all three enhanced the family’s literary ranks through marriage and by inspiring their own children, several of whom teach literature and creative writing.

You make a point in your book that had not really occurred to me before — that secret societies are often vilified even when their goals are perfectly legal. Could you give us some examples?

Obvious examples would be the Freemasons and the Jesuits, both of which have produced, in the course of their histories, remarkably positive achievements but — often out of ignorance or simple secretiveness — have been the objects of suspicion at certain times by members of groups with other goals or beliefs. Thus, the Freemasons were accused by conservatives of having instigated the French Revolution in order to achieve their own liberal goals.

One thing I learned from your books is the Knights Templar were often the target of conspiracy theorists in their heyday. Could you please discuss their role in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and the order’s recent role in the trial of the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik?

Because the Knights Templar had acquired so much wealth and influence in the late twelfth century they began to be regarded with fear and distrust by many, including kings and other rulers. So it was a logical move for Scott to characterize the hero’s sinister opponent in Ivanhoe as a leader of that organization.

Anders Breivik identified with the Knights Templar (and clad himself in what he imagined to be their uniform!) because, in the confusions of his Islamophobia, they represented the obvious comrades in arms for his hatred of Islam. (The Knights Templar were originally founded to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land from attacks by marauding Arab bands.)

Could you please elaborate on the statement in your book that Rosicrucianism was invented and not based on an existing cult?

What I meant was this: that Rosicrucianism was based on a group of fictions written as a game by students in early 16th-century Germany but taken seriously by many readers, who then established secret societies of their own named after the wholly fictitious hero of those fictions and allegedly based on the principles and beliefs described there. This was in contrast, say, to the Freemasons, a movement that emerged from actual historic organizations of masons in medieval England.

I was surprised to learn from your book that Frederick the Great was a Freemason. Wasn’t a fundamental tenet of freemasonry that all men were equals and brothers? And Frederick was a monarch, after all.

Yes, Frederick was a monarch — but a monarch with astonishingly broad intellectual and cultural interests. He hosted Voltaire for an extended period at his palace Sanssouci near Potsdam, and he challenged Bach to compose his Musical Offering on a theme of his own creation. The Freemasons of the age — to which such figures as Goethe and Mozart also belonged — provided an opportunity for the free exchange of ideas among men — no women! — who might otherwise be precluded by social barriers from coming together.

You make the very interesting point that the German lodge novel tended to revolve around secret societies, whereas the Gothic novel in England usually focused on a single demonic figure. Would you please elaborate?

Walpole’s Castle of Otrantoand Lewis’s The Monkexemplify the 18th-century Gothic novel that is based on a central demonic figure. Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be familiar examples of 19th-century popularizations of the genre featuring a single hero. The reason for the difference in emphasis — which is by no means absolute! — can be seen, perhaps, in the German obsession with the hero’s education or “Bildung” in contrast to the English Romantic focus on the mysterious hero’s inherent genius.

Could you tell us a little about the French lodge novels of romantic socialism? Is that your own characterization?

Romantic socialism is a familiar term in French cultural history of the 19th century. I borrowed the term to characterize the adaptation of the German lodge novel by French writers as a vehicle for their own liberal ideas, as in George Sand’s The Countess of Rudolstadt or Eugene Sue’s novels.

Could you please explain what you mean by the term “romantic socialism etherealized?”

I invented that term to describe Karl Gutzkow’s novel Knights of the Spirit, which — written in response to the disappointments of the failed revolutions of 1848 — appropriated the form of the French novels of romantic socialism but suggested that the ideals of the romantic socialists could now be fulfilled only in the imagination or thoughts of an elite few “knights of the spirit.”

What was the classicization of the lodge novel?

I use the term “classicization” to describe the stage at which the lodge novel has forsaken the political intentions that originally motivated its authors and has become a formal structure in which the ideas are purely philosophical and theoretical, as in Hofmannthal’s novel Andreas.

Who were the Illuminati? Any names we would recognize today? You mention Goethe. Anyone else?

The Illuminati constituted a short-lived secret society created in 1776 at the Bavarian University of Ingolstadt by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of philosophy. He organized some of his brightest students into a group known initially as the Perfectibilists; they pursued essentially the same ideas as Freemasonry — liberty, equality, fraternity — but with a more explicitly political agenda: to infiltrate governments with their liberal ideas. The movement was prohibited during the reactionary 1780s immediately preceding the French Revolution.

Although Goethe belonged briefly — when his Masonic lodge was suspended — the order never really gained a standing (or membership) to match that of the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, or other better known orders. However, the name was so appealing that it has been taken up from time to time to designate secret societies in contemporary fictions: for instance, the popular cult-novel by Shea and Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

Please tell us a little bit about Eugène Sue, his novel The Wandering Jew, and its relation to modern conspiracy-thrillers.

Sue, like George Sand, appropriated the form of the popular German lodge novel as a vehicle for several of his own fictions. They anticipate the modern conspiracy thrillers mainly through their presentation of the conspiratorial society — e.g., the Jesuits in The Wandering Jew — as a sinister group seeking to advance its own interests and power.

Could you tell us a little about Karl Gutzkow?

Gutzkow (1811-1878), who as a student at the University of Berlin, heard the lectures of such luminaries as the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and the philosopher Hegel, was a political journalist with radical views: about women’s liberation, about religious intolerance, about political freedom. In various successful dramas and novels — for instance, the novel Wally the Skeptic about a socially and religiously liberated woman — he publicized his ideas, but was eventually demoralized by the failure of the revolutions of 1848.

What do you mean by “the criminalization of the order?”

By that term I simply mean the appropriation of the form of the lodge novel as the vehicle for novels such as Gide’s satirical Les caves du Vatican, where the “secret society” is simply a gang of criminals that plays on fears traditionally associated with the Jesuits and Freemasons.

One novel that I was surprised was not discussed in your book is The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Does that not have a place the history of conspiracy-related fiction?

I could surely have mentioned Conrad, but it was a matter of degree. In my reading, Conrad’s novel deals with anarchism and terrorism rather than with conspiracy, which requires some sort of goal other than anarchy.

Could you please tell us about Hermann Hesse and his relationship to the lodge novel?

Unlike many of the earlier authors, Hesse had absolutely no connection with secret societies of any sort — and notably with their political aspects. But he was more intimately familiar with German literature from 1750 to 1850 than many scholars and, in that connection, became fascinated with the lodge novel as a genre. Accordingly, he used the form as the basis for several of his own novels, in which the hero is led or educated by a secret society of some sort — the group surrounding Frau Eva in Demian, for instance, or the group in which H.H. makes his “journey to the east” in the novel of that title. For Hesse, however, the goal of the group is never political, as in the traditional lodge novel or novel of Romantic socialism, but purely cultural and intellectual.

Did any conspiracy fiction arise from the Dreyfus case?

It’s timely that you ask because Robert Harris has just published a well-reviewed thriller entitled An Officer and a Spy, in which he attributes the scandal surrounding the notorious Dreyfus case to an anti-Semitic conspiracy.

Would you consider any of the following books conspiracy fiction: Libra by Don DeLillo; The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and The Princess Casamassima by Henry James?

Those are all reasonable suggestions. I might well have included James’s novel as a modification of French Romantic socialist conspiracy fiction after the manner of George Sand, but I decided to stop with Bulwer Lytton. In Conan Doyle’s work the focus, as always, is on Sherlock Holmes’s deductions concerning the conspiracy’s plot rather than on the conspiracy itself. And in DeLillo’s fictional biography, the alleged conspiracy is secondary to the confusions of Lee Harvey Oswald’s own mind.

Even though it is not marketed as fiction and thus not in the purview of your book, how would you classify a book like Whittaker Chambers’ Witness?

Chambers’ political autobiography captivated readers for many of the same reasons that appeal to fans of conspiracy fiction because it amounts to a first-hand account of Communist espionage and conspiracy in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. While it lacks the tight plot and heroic adventures of the fictional thrillers, it attracts our interest essentially through the same lure of the arcane that is featured in the thrillers or more traditional lodge novels.

You mention Stefan George briefly. Do you have any comment on the fact that he influenced real life anti-Hitler conspirator Claus von Stauffenberg tremendously?

It is of course a fascinating fact that Stauffenberg was for a time an admiring member of the circle surrounding George and that George himself refused to allow his name or poetry to be used as propaganda for National Socialism. By the time of Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler, George had been dead for over ten years. But no doubt his views and ideals — which, while elitist, thoroughly repudiated Hitler’s nationalistic rabble-rousing — influenced Stauffenberg’s own resistance to the Nazis.

You make the interesting point in your book that, “the early twentieth century featured works by writers with no personal association with secret societies.” Could you elaborate on that?

That is presumably a historical-cultural phenomenon. During the 18th century most self-respecting intellectuals, especially in Germany, belonged to one secret society or another: it was a gesture of Enlightenment liberalism. During the reactionary Metternich years of early 19th-century Europe, secret societies provided a venue where thinkers of a more liberal disposition could gather to share their views. In the twentieth century it was no longer necessary for thinkers to hide their views — at least, not until the totalitarianism of Nazism and Communism. As a result, writers no longer felt it necessary or even desirable to belong to secret societies. There were, of course, such prominent exceptions as Yeats, who belonged to the Golden Dawn and wrote about secret societies in his poems and prose. And the circle around Stefan George cultivated a cult-like atmosphere that resembled — but was not — a secret society or conspiracy.

Has any great conspiracy-related/secret society fiction emerged from the era of left-wing political terrorism in 1970s Western Europe, from the Irish troubles of the 1970s–2000s, from the Cambridge Spy ring, from communist control of much of Eastern Europe for decades, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the War on Terror? Do you think the memoir or historical account rather than the novel will tend to be the genres that will address these places and times?

Quite a few thrillers of recent decades have dealt with the Cold War, with the Israeli Mossad and its efforts to protect Israel, and with the war on Terror. But “serious” novelists have tended, to my knowledge, to avoid themes of that sort, leaving such issues to the authors of thrillers (who are often first-rate writers!).

Are novelists just too university-centered these days to capture the world of secret societies — and are they just too dangerous to write about if you are, say, a former member of an extremist Islamic group?

I don’t know if they are too university-centered or simply too self-centered; but many of the “serious” writers seem to avoid larger political issues in favor of personal crises of one sort or another or to focus on their own social concerns, whether sexual, racial, or ethnic. I can well imagine that some writers, recalling the problems of Salman Rushdie, choose to avoid sensitive Islamic issues. (In 2006 the Berlin Opera canceled a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo because the director added an utterly irrelevant scene featuring the decapitated heads of Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha.)

Does it seem to you that much of the action when it comes to conspiracy-themed art has shifted to films (as in those of Oliver Stone) as opposed to novels?

That may well be true, but I have seen too few films to be able to make an informed comparison.

Could you tell us about Alessandro Cagliostro?

Cagliostro — the pseudonym assumed by the Sicilian Giuseppe Balsamo — was a brilliant con-artist whose exploits fascinated the later 18th century, including many of the royal courts of Europe, until he was imprisoned, first in Paris and later in Rome. He held séances that captivated many credulous believers and claimed to have occult knowledge and to be a high officer in various secret societies. A colorful figure, he featured in many literary works of the period and inspired the portrayal of charlatans in others.

Could you tell us a bit about why George Sand appears in your book?

My book was essentially inspired when, at my wife’s insistence, I read The Countess of Rudolstadt, just after I had finished Dan Brown’s latest thriller, and realized that it displayed many of the features that I knew from my bedtime reading and from my earlier acquaintance with German lodge novels. So Sand’s novels as well as her biography — she was a sophisticated and informed student of secret societies — occupy a central place in my thinking and my book: as a transitional point, so to speak, between Goethe/Schiller and Dan Brown.

You have a rather interesting grouping in your book of some quite different writers: Thornton Wilder, André Gide, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. How did that come about?

It came about simply because all three of them adapted the form of the lodge novel, in different ways, as the structure for fictions of their won. And I was eager to show that the form occurred in different literary cultures with appropriation modifications.

Whom do you see as the ideal audience for this book?

I would hope to introduce readers of conspiracy thrillers to various literary masterpieces as examples of essentially the same genre; and, at the same time, to persuade some of my more elitist colleagues to examine in popular literature the evidence for what the Germans call “gesunkenes Kulturgut” (degraded cultural property).

How did you come up with the title?

The phrase “lure of the arcane” emerged at several points in my prose as I sought to describe the appeal of secrets (arcana in Latin) and of the societies built around secrecy since the cults of antiquity, and that phrase suggested itself as title. Initially I worried that it might sound too esoteric and toyed with alternatives, notably “From Cult to Conspiracy.” But I was persuaded by my editors that my preferred title, “The Lure of the Arcane,” would be more effective — so there it is!

Thank you for your time.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,