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From the Sublime to the Hilarious: On Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (part 4) photo

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Apart from all these violent events, Raziel, De Kuff, and the other cult members have been moving between Jerusalem, Safed (site of the ancient Kabbalist community in Galilee), and Ein Karem on the further outskirts of the Holy City, living comfortably on De Kuff’s inherited money, loafing and inviting their souls. Sabbatean musical themes, harking back to the Jewish exile from Spain, are a thread in their experience. Early on, Raziel sings a Ladino song to Sonia, containing the couplet, Yo no digo esta canción/ sino a quien conmigo va. When Sonia performs the same number for Lucas during their courtship, it is identified as “Meliselda’s song” and the couplet is translated, rather loosely: “If you want to hear my song, you have to come with me.”

In his preface for the Franklin Library, Stone credited Jim Maraniss with the translation of Meliselda’s song, although what he actually did in the novel was scramble it with another ballad from the Ladino repertoire, the Romance of Count Arnaldos. Meliselda’s song is an erotic poem set to music, significant to Damascus Gate because Sabbatai Zevi is supposed to have performed it immediately before proclaiming himself the Messiah in a Smyrna synagogue in 1655, and because Sabbateans identified Meliselda with Shekinah, the feminine emanation of God on earth. Lucas tends to see Sonia in this light, thinking as she sings to him that “as far as believing impossible things went, she could do it for both of them.”

However, the couplet Yo no digo esta canción/ sino a quien conmigo va does not appear in Meliselda’s Song at all, but concludes the Romance of Count Arnaldos. Riding out hawking on Saint John’s Day, the Count happens upon a boat whose commander sings a song which calms the sea, brings fish to the surface of the water, and birds to perch on the masts.

There spoke the Count Arnaldos,
you shall well hear what he will say:
–By God I pray you, sailor,
tell me now that song.
The sailor answered him,
such an answer was given to him:
–I do not tell this song
but to him who goes with me.


Stone absolutely needed to work that concluding couplet into his story line, because of its echo of Matthew 19:21, when Jesus says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” This call to faith via the complete abandonment of all other interests is one that Lucas cannot answer, much as he might desire to, sometimes for his own sake and especially for Sonia’s. Instead, he listens to her sing it again, at one of the Raziel – De Kuff public performances: “He would never be free of her, he thought. At the same time she was on the other side of darkness, beyond him, beyond his capacity for believing, beyond anyone like himself, so unequipped for magic. Unready now even for tomorrow, let alone the world to come.”

Lucas attends this concert in the company of Obermann, who remarks of De Kuff, “He seems to be going all the way. Gnosticism. Syncretism.” With a little coaching from Raziel, De Kuff is, step by step, unfolding a series of universal mysteries: “Everything is Torah,” “the time to come is at hand,” “the Death of the Kiss,” then, ecstatically at the close of a concert: “The mystery is one! You are of one faith! You are all believers in one heart! Not to believe together is to cease to be!” Raziel guides the group to a spot the banks of the Jordan beneath Mount Hermon, where, with a little prompting, De Kuff proclaims, “He raised me up to be the Lamb of God returned, as it was foretold of Yeshu. And he has appointed me the Mahdi of the Merciful and Compassionate that the truth be made one! So as the Almighty is One so also are the believers! The kings are resurrected! The vessels are repaired! The tikkun is restored!”

Parts of this oration refer to processes of Lurian Kabbalism, which proposes a primordial event when the vessels containing divine light shattered, the shards of them forming the basis for the material world, and the light itself scattering. Regathering the light is one process of tikkun, and another is regathering the souls imprisoned in materiality by reason of that primordial catastrophe. In this latter aspect, the Kabbalist creed runs very close to Gnostic beliefs emerging from the early Christian period, and with which the De Kuff cult is equally engaged. Complete restoration of tikkun means entry to the messianic age and the return of the entire universe and its godhead to a state of spiritual perfection—the inspired De Kuff means to be bring about no less than that.

A problem with this apotheosis is that Raziel has dosed his messiah, along with the rest of the group (including Lucas, who’s along for the ride with Sonia) with ecstasy to help make it happen...having lost confidence that the pure power of the contemplative soul will be sufficient. As it happens, the use of artificial means is built into the core of both the Kabbalist and Gnostic systems, though their artifice doesn’t involve the use of psychotropic drugs. A Kabbalist fundamental is that “All proceeds from the One and returns to the One”—a process which may require eternity to complete. “The kabbalist, however, jumps this cosmic rhythm and takes a short cut,” such that “the mystic who in his contemplative ascent attains the point of communion with the source of all being has by that act reached the end of the path to his individual redemption. Kabbalistic contemplation is a kind of individual anticipation of eschatological messianism.”

In Gnostic mythology (from which Luria borrowed a number of his ideas) the soul requires both “sacramental and magical preparation for its future ascent,” that is, “the soul’s way out of the world” and reunion with “the divine substance.” In Gnostic cult practices, which continued, albeit with interruptions, well into the Renaissance, this achievement is thought to require practical magic—in the belief that the miracles performed by Jesus, up to and including his resurrection from the dead, were magical techniques which, in principle, any Gnostic savant could acquire. For that reason, over the centuries, the apostles of both Gnosis and Kabbalah risked being denounced and executed as heretics and sorcerers.

For the rationalist sensibility, which is Lucas’s most of the time, miracles can’t really happen; there is no “real” magic, but magical thinking (certainly a property of both Kabbalah and Gnosis) can always be enabled. To have an effect in the material world, magical thinking may sometimes require a boost from (say) heroin, or explosives.

Exhausted by the effort of actually believing in a messiah partly produced by his own charade, Raziel goes back to the needle. Fixing, “he felt a childlike rush of gratitude; creation in that instant became again a place of comfort, and he had found quarter of caring, providing world.” This relapse is somewhat difficult to break to Sonia, whose own milder pain pill habit has been spontaneously cured by her participation in the cult. The “violent aspect of the plan” is also paradoxical for Raziel, to the point that he cannot think clearly about his involvement with Zimmer’s plot. “He had believed there would be intercession, although the forms of violence had to be employed.”  At least metaphorically, there must be cataclysm in the reassembly of the vessels, as well as in their previous shattering, “an explosion that mirrored the accident at the beginning of time.” “But now he could feel it all dissipating into illusion…. The thing had failed, but he had not the courage to tell them.”

Back in Jerusalem after his declarations on the banks of the Jordan, De Kuff drops into a post-hallucinogenic depression—his elation turns to nightmare: “The souls in me are suffering. They force their way through my body. They cry and scream. They demand that I take my place among them.” Making a psychiatric call, Obermann notes that De Kuff has been off lithium for six months. He makes a plan to admit De Kuff to a hospital, but before it can be carried out, De Kuff is transported by his mania back to the Bethesda Pool. There he is once again “strong, unafraid, joyful, thoroughly delusional,” announcing (again): “I am the twelfth imam. I am the Bab al-Ulema. I am Jesus, Yeshu, Issa. I am the Mahdi.  I am Moshiach. I have come to restore the world. I am all of you. I am no one.” This time his audience is a rioting Palestinian mob, plus a force of Israeli soldiers trying to subdue the riot. De Kuff is pulled into the scrum and beaten or trampled to death, while Raziel, who has followed him, is clobbered into a coma.



Beneath this ground, meanwhile, the bomb plot is unfolding. Sonia, who has winkled some information out of Raziel, enters a maze of tunnels which leads from the madrassa complex containing Berger’s apartment into catacombs under the Temple Mount. Lucas, getting his blueprint from the House of the Galilean archaeologist Lestrade, converges on her there, as do a bomb squad they have alerted, and the bombers themselves. The point of convergence is a fictitious underground shrine to Sabazios, a Phrygian deity who persisted through the ages in various syncretic avatars and who was—infrequently but significantly—called Sabaoth, the Hebrew Lord of Hosts. Stone therefore invented the shrine to represent the encysted origin of all the religions which De Kuff, Raziel, the Gnostics, the Kabbalists, and all similar seekers and dreamers hope in vain to reunite.

The De Kuff cultist now and then refer to something called the “Uncreated Light,” which is one of the objects of their quests. Some Christian theology identifies it with the nimbus surrounding the resurrected Christ on Mount Tabor, and also with the beam that struck down unbelieving Saul on the road to Damascus, transforming him into the Apostle Paul (who would be largely responsible for the development of Christianity as a mystery religion). The concept relates to gathering up all these items of light, as Stone described it to Birnbaum, into the equivalent of critical mass.

But the bomb set in Sabazios’s chamber turns out to be a fake, with just enough explosive to give Sonia some first degree burns and produce a temporarily blinding flash, and the novel’s plot devolves from this anticlimax into wholly material explanations. Janusz Zimmer turns out to have been playing an elaborate triple game, with the sole and successful purpose of returning one Israeli political faction to power at the expense of another. In the course of his debriefing, Zimmer ticks off the accomplished goals: “We set the Jewish undergrounds, the Temple bombers, back five years…. We flushed out the most violent elements in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, forced them into a premature move. We provided a reason to legislate against the cults and Christian missionaries…. We hurt the elements here who were cooperating with the American religious right. We demonstrated, I think, that such a policy has a down side…. And the Communists—“ represented by Nuala and her unlucky paramour—“ we sent them a message that they won’t be needed, that their day is over, and that the lives of our people are extremely important to us.” With that, Zimmer fades from the scene.

As does Lucas, who must finally accept that the numinous seductions of Meliselda will never be for him. Sonia is recovering from the mystical intoxication of the disbanded cult, but she will never join him in his condition of unbelieving cynicism. “I’m making aliyah,” she explains. “When I’m not here trying to be the best Jew I can, I’m going be in Liberia. Rwanda. Tanzania…” carrying on the banner of salvation by good works. Lucas departs from Israel, returning to the secular world with a wistful kernel of earned wisdom: “a thing is never truly appreciated or defined except in longing. A land in exile, a God in his absconding, a love in its loss.” If religion is the opium of the people, Lucas is headed for detox, leaving behind him “Jerusalem’s Heaven… that rich, indifferent blue, the first and holiest of unresponding skies.”

Damascus Gate is a work of art, and also a kind of thought experiment, perhaps; it was never intended as a prophesy, and it wouldn’t have been very accurate if it had been. No explosion, sham or otherwise, occurred on the Temple Mount in the year 2000. But one year later there was a big one, in New York City, Stone’s home town.


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


image: Tóth László from Pixabay