Literature of Conspiracy: The Paradigm


Ramona Reeves and Lynn Odell in The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, Los Angeles, 1997. Photograph by Brad Mays

by Theodore Ziolkowski

A string of political assassinations in the 1960s – John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. – generated coinage of the term “conspiracy theorist.” Since then, history has provided ample material for such believers, and the media buzzes daily with reports of conspiracy: that the AIDS virus was created in a government laboratory and spread deliberately in gay and black communities; that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax; that 9/11 was carried out by agencies within the U.S. government for their own insidious purposes; that the murder of Princess Diana was planned by Scotland Yard – it goes on and on, abetted by the secrecy of such agencies as Al-Qaeda, the CIA, the Church of Scientology and Opus Dei.

Is it then a kind of spiritual masochism that tempts so many of us, after days surrounded by conspiracy, to lie abed evenings reading the novels of Dan Brown and his fellow authors of conspiracy thrillers? Novels in which, almost invariably, the hero, aided by a brilliant and seductive female accomplice, uncovers and destroys a sinister international intrigue threatening their country or, indeed, the world.

Various explanations have been offered for the obsession with conspiracy. C. G. Jung theorized that our sense of individuality is enhanced by the possession of a secret which the individual is pledged to guard, and that the earliest evidences of social structure reveal the craving for secret organizations. If Jung’s theory accounts for the appeal of organizations promising special insights or powers – whether teams, clubs, gangs, or political parties, and whether clandestine or not – others have conjectured that “agency panic,” or anxiety about the loss of autonomy, accounts conversely for our fear of conspiracies that can control our actions.

The phenomenon is by no means a recent one. Eve and the serpent provide an early example: they share a secret excluding Adam. In Greek antiquity the mystery cults were often blamed for undermining democracy. The Knights Templar was accused of threatening royal hegemony in the Middle Ages. The Thirty Years War was often attributed to the machinations of the Rosicrucians. It was whispered that the Illuminati triggered the French Revolution as a means to realize their Enlightenment goals. Twentieth-century conspiracy theorists, from Hitler and Stalin to Henry Ford and beyond to the present day, read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as the blueprint for a Jewish plot to control the world’s economy and its sociopolitical organizations.

Ruminations of this sort led me – an admitted devotee of conspiracy thrillers at bedtime – to write Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy. It struck me that many of the literary works from antiquity to the present with which I deal as a scholar of literature displayed a pattern similar to the one that I detected in many of my nighttime thrillers: what might be called a paradigm of conspiracy. It involves in every case a quest inspired by some arcane lore, whether good or evil, possessed by a secret group. We peruse these works not simply for the adrenalin kick of the adventures they contain, but also with the hope that we will gain insight into the secret of the conspiracy. But the point of all these works is not so much the secret itself as, rather, the adventure of the quest.

We detect early indications of this lure of the arcane in several works of classical antiquity in which cult has not yet developed into full-fledged conspiracy. In The Bacchae, Euripides’ last and greatest drama, Pentheus, the king of Thebes, returns from a journey abroad to find that his mother and her two sisters, along with his grandfather Cadmus and the blind seer Tiresias, have all succumbed to the lure of a foreign wizard: Bacchus. Pentheus, persuaded by Bacchus (in disguise) that the raving women can be captured peacefully, goes up the mountain to spy on the revelers and acquire the secrets that are not supposed to be disclosed to the uninitiated. But when he falls from his perch, the maenads attack him and tear him limb from limb. The Bacchae, exemplifying the late fifth-century debate regarding the role of foreign ecstasy cults during the breakdown of Athenian civilization, offers a casebook study of a rational mind giving way to the human desire to gain insight into secret knowledge.


“Lucius spies Milo’s wife transforming into a bird”. From Jean de Bosschère’s illustrated edition of The Golden Ass, 1947

Gradually, cult worship made its way into Rome, where the Eastern cults were not officially welcomed. They represented, it was feared, a threat to traditional religion and, given the democratic equality they promoted among their initiates, a danger to society as a whole. Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass, is apparently based on the author’s firsthand experience with cults. Most of his novel is devoted to the hilarious adventures of the hero Lucius during his transformation into an ass, but the last book provides the only detailed description from antiquity of the practices of a cult: the goddess Isis promises to restore Lucius to human form if he will commit his life to her worship. We witness, first, the exoteric practices of the cult: the elaborate processions open to the public at large and a ceremony that restores Lucius to human form. The work goes on to depict Lucius’s three successive inductions to ever higher degrees in the esoteric cult of Isis – practices that suggest the author’s satirical critique of the cult, whose priests demand ever higher financial contributions from the aspiring initiate – but offer no final insight into the mystery.

In both The Bacchae and The Golden Ass we are dealing with ancient cults and not yet with full-fledged conspiracies. But the works of Euripides and Apuleius achieved their popularity by appealing to precisely that same trait of human curiosity and skepticism that responds in the twenty-first century to conspiracy theories and to the works of Dan Brown and his fellow conspiracy-novelists.


Illuminated manuscript page of Parzival, c. 1440

With the religious orders of the Middle Ages we are well on our way from cult to conspiracy. The goal of the quest is still essentially religious, but the pagan deities have now given way to the Christian God and the ancient cults to highly organized churchly orders. We see this illustrated in the legend of the Holy Grail, as set forth by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Middle High German epic Parzival and popularized centuries later by Richard Wagner in his Parsifal. Again we detect the same basic paradigm: like Euripides’ Pentheus and Apuleius’s Lucius, the hero is engaged in a quest for hidden knowledge: the Holy Grail, a sacred object protected by the secret cult of Knights of the Grail (who were identified with the historical Knights Templar). Like Lucius, he is fascinated by the ceremonies that he witnesses, and fails to ask about, before his quest finally leads to his initiation. Wolfram titillates a medieval audience eager to learn more about the secrets of the historical Templars and the legendary Grail.

With the Rosicrucians of the Post-Reformation we reach a group widely regarded as a conspiracy in the modern sense. In fact, the order of Rosicrucians came about as the result of a student hoax. In the early seventeenth century three documents were published by a group of students at Tübingen University: the Fama (1614), the Confessio (1615), and The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosercreutz (1616), which was actually written first, sometime after 1605, by the student of theology Johann Valentin Andreae. The long and often confusing work, which the author himself called a ludibrium or “jest,” is a satire of alchemy, which still enjoyed widespread popular belief. It is relevant in our context because of the hero’s name, Christian Rosencreuz, from which the Rosicrucians took their title.

The so-called Fama, written several years after the Chymical Wedding, is allegedly the life of Christian Rosencreutz, which again displays a typical quest. Identified only by his initials, C.R., he undertakes in his early teens a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre and, beyond, to the wise men of Yemen. Having mastered the skills of mathematics, physics and other Arabic lore still unknown in the West, he proceeds to Morocco, where he adds “Magia” and the kabbalah to his learning. Returning to Germany, he recruits several other like-minded associates to join in a common enterprise: to produce an extensive Vocabularium of magical terms and to build a grand House of the Holy Spirit. From there they gradually expand their order into various lands, always with the understanding that their order should remain secret for 120 years. Their teachings reflect a generally antipapal but broadly Christian and humanistic attitude characteristic of many Renaissance intellectuals.

This playful fiction was taken quite seriously, stirring excitement similar to that generated by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Broadsheets and pamphlets were issued by enthusiasts, and secret societies calling themselves Rosicrucians sprang up all over Europe. Others, both religious and secular, regarded the movement with its secrets as a threat to existing religion and society. The Rosicrucians marked a pronounced step beyond the pagan cults and the religious order of the Knights Templar to a secret society – one founded consciously as the result of a quest and promising occult wisdom.

Paradoxically, the Age of Enlightenment marked the heyday of secret societies that were often persecuted as conspiracies. Jürgen Habermas observed that secret societies belonged – along with dining clubs, salons, academies and coffeehouses – to the important new institutions of the emerging bourgeois élite. Reinhard Koselleck analyzed the central role of secrecy within those societies, which elevated the spiritual inner-world of the individual to the level of a religious mysterium. Charlatans like Cagliostro built their careers on alleged high office in a secret society. Yet many true leaders – from Frederick the Great and Mirabeau to Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–belonged to one order or another: Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Illuminati and others.


The Temple of the Rose Cross, Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, 1618

These orders soon began to appear in works of literature, music and painting: for instance, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Ignaz Untermeyer’s painting of Mozart’s initiation into his Viennese lodge. In Mozart’s opera and Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96), we encounter sublimated lodges representing higher goals toward which the heroes aspire, but in most of these works the secret society has unfolded into conspiracy.

Friedrich Schiller’s novel The Ghost-Seer (1789) concerns the prince of a small German principality who, whiling away his time in Venice, is accosted by a mysterious “Armenian” and initiated into a secret society preaching universal equality but in fact proclaiming sophistries that the prince is incapable of exposing. It turns out that the society, which exploits all his funds, is in reality a Jesuitical group conspiring to indoctrinate the prince and thereby to seize control of the Protestant principality where he was in line to succeed.

Schiller’s unfinished novel was so popular that other writers soon imitated it, notably Carl Grosse in The Genius (1791-95). The title refers to the guide sent by a mysterious society as an “invisible hand” to conduct the young Marquis C* of G* through various (mis)adventures to their own goals: to overthrow the monarchy and control society by assigning each person to what it regards as his or her own proper place. The German novels of conspiracy became so popular during the Napoleonic years that the term Bundesroman (“lodge novel”) was coined to designate them. In all these novels the secret societies of the Enlightenment have evolved into conspiracies threatening the status quo.

The German Bundesroman provided the perfect paradigm for many popular European novels of the next generation, in which the secret society that guides and takes in the hero or heroine embodies the ideals of Romantic socialism between the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. We observe this pattern in such works as George Sand’s La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1843-44), where the “Invisibles” save and guide the heroine, Consuelo; and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), whose hero is one of two survivors of the primal secret order embodying immortal Wisdom. Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844-45) uses the same paradigm, but the secret society that seeks to ruin and exploit the heirs of a wealthy French Protestant is the Order of Jesuits – which had been suppressed since 1767 and restored by papal order in 1814 – exemplified here by the diabolical Rodin. All these novels are informed by a keen awareness of the history and practices of secret societies going back by way of the Knights Templar to the Egyptian orders. Implying as they do that modern society, given the unworthiness of the existing aristocracy, requires a specially qualified elite to govern them properly, they betray a disillusionment with the proclaimed ideals of liberal democracy. They exemplify both the positive and negative view of secret societies, from the evil machinations of Sue’s Jesuits to the idealizing visions of Sand’s “Invisibles.”

By the fin de siècle the paradigm had become so familiar that it could be playfully varied. In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Andreas (1912-13), for instance, the Bundesroman is classicized: the secret order into which Andreas is introduced by the mysterious Maltese Sacramozo is concerned not with the political goals of the German lodge novel or Romantic socialism but, rather, with loftier philosophical issues that contribute to the development of the individual. In André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures (1914), in contrast, the secret society is degraded into a gang of confidence men engaged in a scheme to swindle money from gullible believers. The secret society in Thornton Wilder’s The Cabala (1926), into which the young American Samuele is introduced, consists of such effete members of Roman society that it simply disintegrates.

The writer truly obsessed with the traditional paradigm in the sublimated form of Mozart and Goethe was Hermann Hesse, whose only association with societies, secret or other, was purely literary. Secret societies that guide the heroes underlie virtually all the novels of his maturity: from the group surrounding “Frau Eva” in Demian or the “Immortals” in The Steppenwolf to the company that undertakes The Journey to the East and the Castalia of The Glass Bead Game.

Apprehensions regarding secret societies – the thesis of a Jewish world conspiracy generated by the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the real threat of Al-Qaeda and its worldwide cells – has continued unabated down to the present. In the 1960s, systematic research into this long-standing and international phenomenon began to be undertaken and conspiracies scrutinized by critics and scholars rather than always from the suspicious standpoint of conspiracy theorists. Karl Popper suggested, for instance, that the “conspiracy theory of society” stems from abandoning God and then asking, “Who is in his place?” – a place filled by various powerful men and groups.

This scholarly activity was paralleled by writers who took satirical delight in depicting the paranoia revolving around conspiracies that may or may not exist. In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) Thomas Pynchon’s heroine Oedipa discovers a conspiracy linking multiple aspects of California life in the 1960s. W.A.S.T.E. (“We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire”) is a secret postal system for citizens who choose in an act of defiance not to communicate by U.S. mail. In her paranoia, Oedipa detects evidence of the Tristero System (allegedly founded in the sixteenth century) everywhere: in watermarks of postage stamps, in the rhymes of children jumping rope, in the message on a latrine wall. In Ishmael Reed’s diatribe against Western civilization, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a secret society calling itself “The Wallpaper Order” strives to combat a “psychic epidemic” infecting black communities as it moves from New Orleans toward New York. The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson begins as a detective story when two New York detectives investigate the bombing of a leftist magazine’s office and the disappearance of its editor. They discover that the editors were investigating secret societies and conspiracies: notably the “Illuminati.” As the lengthy work develops, the detective story gives way to a science fiction about a group known as the Discordians, whose base is a golden submarine in the Atlantic Ocean and who have been engaged for centuries in a continuing battle against the Illuminati.

The magisterial summation of this literature of conspiracy is a critically acclaimed masterpiece and not simply a cult classic: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). The novel concerns three editors who, overwhelmed by submissions from authors of occult works, playfully develop a conspiracy theory of their own. They establish far-fetched connections linking the Knights Templar to other conspiracies from the Rosicrucians, Freemasons and Jesuits down to the elders of Zion and the Nazis until they begin to believe in their own theory. Their conversations, replete with esoteric information about the history and practices of various secret societies, also refer along the way to most of the works mentioned earlier. One scene is based on the passage in The Bacchae where Pentheus spies on the dancing maenads; another reenacts precisely a scene from Andreae’s Chymical Wedding. It emerges that a sinister conspiracy actually exists: it blackmails one of the editors and then, following an elaborate Rosicrucian initiation ceremony, hangs him from the Foucault’s pendulum of the title (in a Paris museum). Another editor, who has secretly witnessed the proceedings, escapes back to Milan, where he relates the story we have read and awaits what he is convinced will be his inevitable murder by the conspirators.

The paradigm underlying this entire literature of conspiracy is the quest for secret knowledge by a hero who is often (mis)led by a mysterious agent representing the group that allegedly holds the secret. The quest involves adventures that entertain the reader, whether in the research library or in bed at night. But in every case the sought-after secret turns out to be what Eco called “a secret without content.” And so in our continuing quest we turn to the next literary classic or to the next thriller embracing the lure of the arcane.


About the Author:

Theodore Ziolkowski is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and the author of some thirty books in English and German, including Scandal on Stage (2009), Dresdner Romantik (2010) and Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters With the Ancient Epic (2011). His most recent book is Lure of the Arcane: The Literature of Cult and Conspiracy.