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From the Sublime to the Hilarious: On Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (part 2) photo

Part 1 of 4
Part 3 of 4: Feb. 21
Part 4 of 4: Feb. 28


If Lucas is the most obvious Bob Stone avatar in Damascus Gate, Adam De Kuff might also be a contender, sharing with his author an improperly managed mental illness (it’s made very plain that De Kuff has stopped taking his prescribed bipolar meds a long while back); intermittent, inchoate, religious longings; a spell-binding, vatic power of speech when manic; and a great many very long, very dark nights of the soul. As Pablo did, though in a very different style, De Kuff could represent for Stone an alternative identity, a path not taken—mercifully: there but for the grace of something or other might have gone I. With Raziel there is less authorial affinity (except, at moments, in the matter of his addiction); Janice thought this character to be partly based on Leslie Wolf, the hard-partying Amherst student who had been close to Bob in the 1970s. Wolf had crippled himself with a drug overdose in 1984 (and lived, with diminished capacity, until 2012); his circumstances may have contributed something to Raziel’s tragic aura.

Raziel does manipulate De Kuff’s illness to steer the older man onto a messianic path, as Nathan of Gaza is thought to have done with Sabbatai. Also like Nathan, Raziel becomes a true believer in the messiah he is helping to create, or at least deeply desires to be that. A complication: the edifice of Kabbalah, on which both the fictional late-twentieth century cult and the real seventeenth cult depend, has extremely unstable foundations itself. The Zohar, Kabbalah’s ur-text, is supposed to be a work of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, thus dating back to the second century, discovered in Spain by Moses de León; however, it seems equally possible that Moses fabricated the document himself. In either case it might be true that the Zohar represents a parallel mystical tradition emerging from the origins of Judaism, never before written down (whenever it was written). In whatever case, its authenticity was generally accepted by a great many medieval Kabbalists, including a group settled in Galilee in the village of Safed. When Safed received the shock of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, the scholars there began more pointedly to adapt their Kabbalah to messianic expectation. Refinements were introduced by Rabbi Isaac Luria, also at Safed, in the sixteenth century—Luria’s specific teachings and readings of the Zohar would underwrite the Sabbatean movement.

“Exile and redemption are the two poles of the axis around which the Lurianic system revolves,” writes Gershon Scholem; “viewed in a dimension of depth, they now stand out as numinous symbols of a spiritual reality of which historical exile and redemption are merely the concrete expressions.” Scholem argues that “the kabbalists not only produced symbolic images of the historical realities surrounding them, but also endowed their images with the vitality of genuine myth. Symbols are produced and nourished by historical and social expectations.” This sort of thinking appealed to Bob Stone, whose religious impulses were usually contained by a rationalist inclination to find material explanations for mystical assertions. Yet it remains true, for Scholem and for Stone, that “Kabbalism triumphed because it provided a valid answer to the great problems of the time.”

Further, the Kabbalist “ideal of the contemplative life in communion with God did not require a messianic world for its realization; it was quite compatible with life in exile.” Indeed, Kabbalah’s central metaphors revolve around the idea of abandonment: “The hidden God, known in kabbalistic terminology as En-Sof (the Infinite) is far removed from everything created; he is unrevealed, nonmanifest, and unknown. Only the emanation of his power, operating in the creation of both the higher and the nether worlds, transforms En-Sof into the Creator-God.” Ten stages of this divine emanation are called sefiroth, comparable to angels except for their resistance to personification. “Though inaccessible to immediate comprehension or contemplation, they can be apprehended through the structure of all being—from the beginning of creation in the supernal worlds down to the last and lowest creature. The mystical contemplation of the universe reveals its symbolic character. Creation does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of pointing to the divine emanation that shines through it.”

This technique for understanding the universe had a powerful appeal to the theologically inclined writer who would tell Robert Birnbaum: It is as though God has separated himself forever and would have to be put together by gathering up all these items of light, which is a virtually impossible task. That whatever that was, whether it was some kind of physical force, big burst, or blast we have seen the last of it, and yet it has conditioned the way we feel and what we want for all eternity.

Stone’s peculiarly painful childhood had taught him plenty about exile. The idea of some messiah opening a redemptive pathway of return had interested him for a long time too. “This was an old theme of his,” says Janice, “of a charismatic leader like Dieter in Dog Soldiers—like Ken Kesey or Mel Lyman, or Jan of Leiden, whose story he had planned to use in the sixteenth century novel he began but never finished.”



Stone makes his characterization of Lucas a possible solution to the mystery of his own paternity. His mother Gladys had once told him, in the last of her many inconsistent answers to the question, that his father had been “a Greek, a Jew, or a Lebanese.” As Stone drenched himself in Kabbalah, the middle possibility began to attract him more and more. “If Bob’s father had been Jewish, and his mother a Gentile, he would be like Lucas, half Jewish, but not a real Jew, since the religious identity is passed through the mother.” Lucas is furnished with some other details of Stone’s childhood: a father who’s more a rumor than a presence, periodic immurement in a school very like Saint Ann’s, punctuated by visits with his mother to the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel.

Lucas calls his father a “non-practicing Jew,” his mother “a sentimental Catholic.” That combination leaves him in a kind of nowhere whose description might be a Robert Stone diary entry (had he ever kept a diary, which he did not). “There were times when Lucas was capable of rejoicing in himself as a singularity—a man without a story, secure from tribal delusions, able to see the many levels. But other times he felt that he might give anything to be able to explain himself. To call himself Jew or Greek, Gentile or otherwise, the citizen of no mean city. But he had no recourse but to call himself an American and hence the slave of possibility. He was not always up for the necessary degree of self-invention, unprepared, occasionally, to assemble himself.

“And sometimes the entire field of folk seemed alien and hostile, driven by rages he could not comprehend, drunk on hopes he could not imagine. So he could make his way only through questioning, forever inquiring of wild-eyed obsessives the nature of their dreams, their assessment of themselves and their enemies, listening agreeably while they poured scorn on his ignorance and explained the all too obvious. When he wrote, it was for some reader like himself, a bastard, party to no covenants, promised nothing except the certainty of silence overhead, darkness around. Sometimes he had to face the simple fact that he had nothing and no one and try to remember when that had seemed a source of strength and perverse pride.”

It’s a dangerous situation for a person to occupy—to be without a tribe, a supporting culture, or an informing story-- in Jerusalem at the end of the twentieth century, a city crawling with both religious and political fanatics, at a moment more fraught than ever with deluded millennial desires.



Stone did not come quickly or easily to the invention of Lucas or others in the cast, nor to the novel’s unity of place. A first draft of the opening is set in Alexandria, where an American (Griffin, later Boardman), an Englishman (Godwyn Jones, later Noyes) and an Irishwoman (Maire, later Nuala)—in one version Boardman is married to her and they are ostensibly based in a London house which, however, they rarely visit. The trio are in transit from some sort of humanitarian service, possibly in Africa, dining in a waterfront restaurant. There’s an ugly scene when they bribe the Muslim waiter to serve them wine, prompting Boardman to reflect, “It was a terrible thing to insult a man’s religion within his own walls. He had seen too much trampling of delicate things. He was tired of cruelty and people having to run away from it.”  After the meal, they stroll the Corniche and are shadowed, then assaulted by local thugs, under the indifferent observation of the police. Boardman and Noyes, both Vietnam vets, dispose of their assailants- Boardman possibly killing his.

The point of it all is to adumbrate a shared history of overlapping traumas, resurfacing into the present like shrapnel carving its way out of encysted wounds. Noyes reminisces, “Nuala and I were both in Egypt before the Six Day War…. I was nineteen. I dropped out of school, bought a Nikon and came to Africa. Boardman was off soldiering in Nam. Ten years later Boardman and I were on the overnight sleeper coming down from Chingmai and there was Nuala weaving down the corridor on her never ending globe circling mission of mercy. And here we all are again.” Noyes’s and Boardman’s Vietnam recollections skirt the borders of PTSD. Boardman (in Stone’s classic manner) thinks, “The mind was a forgiving organ, like the liver. But at a certain point, forgiving as it was, it could not be restored. There were points to which you might force it from which it might never spring back. Then you would have to live with it scarred and unsound. A certain measure of fear would always remain and a certain measure of rage.”

Though some of Boardman’s attitudes recur in Lucas, both Boardman and Noyes disappear completely from the finished novel. The Lucas character, though entering middle age, needs to be too young to have actually served in Vietnam—if post-Vietnam morbidity flavors Damascus Gate (as it probably does) almost all of it has been repressed well below the surface. Only Nuala persists in the published book, where she’s still Irish, still an international aid worker, now a die-hard Marxist and a representative of a sort of secular messianism that sets out, in the face of utter futility, to save the world by good works. Lucas has a never-to-be-consummated crush on her, until his romantic attention shifts to Sonia Barnes.

Some of the wounded veterans of Damascus Gate are women: Nuala and Sonia, who share trauma from past service among the wretched of the earth. As Sonia tends the dying Berger, “It occurred to her that she had seen a great many creatures die. It must be all right, she thought. It came for everyone. In Baidoa she had watched the babies fade like little stars.” Such recollections don’t always have such a philosophical temper, though a certain numbness remains. “All the children died,” she tells Lucas in the course of their courtship. “They hardly had time to be born before they died.” For those disappointed in faith, such slaughters of the innocent do demonstrate the absence of God.

Lucas quotes her Richard Crashaw’s “To the Infant Martyrs.”

Go smiling souls, you new built cages break,
In Heaven you’ll learn to sing ere here to speak,
Nor let the milky fonts that bathe your thirst
Be your delay;
The place that calls you hence, is at the worst
Milk all the way.

A certain measure of rage might respond to that, though Lucas in this scene is numb in his own way. When Sonia wishes she had known the poem while she was nursing dying infants in Somalia, Lucas replies, “No you don’t…. Then you’d be like me. And instead of doing things and believing in things, you’d just know poems about them.”

In this manner Lucas is located at the center of the web of the Damascus Gate narrative, able to see the many levels of doomed aspiration, both religious and worldly, but unable to commit, connect, or intervene. (His impotence when he first tries to make love to Sonia reflects the latter problem, though eventually they do get it on successfully.) Or maybe Raziel and De Kuff and their messianic cult are at the center of the web, or maybe it’s the conspirators planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Maybe the web has no center.

Lucas’s journalistic interests open a couple of pathways into the labyrinth of the novel’s plot. For one, there’s an opportunity to collaborate on a book about “Jerusalem Syndrome” with Raziel’s psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann. Obermann’s example: “A young man of scant prospects receives a supernatural communication. He must go to Jerusalem at the Almighty’s command. Once here, his mission is disclosed. Often, he is the second coming of Jesus Christ.” This story line promises plenty of low-hanging fruit; as Lucas says airily, “The millennium’s coming. The city’s full of majnoon” (an Arabic word generally meaning “crazy person” but in the Jerusalem of the moment applied to the numerous religious maniacs swarming the streets and temples).

For another, Nuala is urging him to help her with an investigative report on “Abu Baraka,” leader of a group that’s regularly battering participants in the intifada in the Gaza Strip—Nuala is certain that the Arab name is a blind and that Abu Baraka is running an undercover enforcement squad for the Israeli military or for Shin Bet, which as Lucas’s friend Ernest Gross (head of the Israeli Human Rights Coalition) tells him, “is divided into compartments. Sometimes the left hand isn’t acquainted with the right.” To that, Lucas replies, “Sounds a little like Kabbalah.” He also has a lead toward another angle on Nuala’s story from Basil Thomas, a down-at-heel professional informant who might be a vestige of the Griffin Jones/Noyes Englishman from the discarded Alexandria episode (or even a satirical sketch of Graham Greene); Thomas claims to have knowledge of intrigue within the Israeli security services.

Nuala’s story has romantic appeal for Lucas, not only because of her own attractiveness to him, but because Sonia Barnes sometimes collaborates with her on missions of mercy in the Gaza strip. (Lucas reflects, with a certain irony, that “in this city, as in many others, the practice of journalism was made more difficult by the interlacing sexual affairs that consumed the international press.”) Then again, Nuala is a magnet for the worst kind of trouble, with a personal fondness for the most dangerous men she can attract, and Obermann’s project looks to be by far the safer of the two. Yet again, as Obermann warns Lucas, cults arising from Jerusalem syndrome can have their own dangerous potency; some are “not merely a few lost souls but organized and powerful groups.”


A version of his essay appears in Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday, 2020).

image: Tóth László from Pixabay