Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ode to Belladonna, Chapter Four

I regret interjecting my voice directly for a moment into my history or what have you, and promise to do so as little as possible (for I have become a tiresome old prattler and I know it) but I feel compelled to explain the outlandish fate that so implausibly landed me among the prominent figures of my age, and for a time even in the mainstream of its events. Yet to do so forces me to relate a period of my life I would rather forget, much less set down in writing and like so many things we would rather forget it took place during my youth.
I was born in Cilicia on the coast of Asia Minor to a mother, who died shortly after my birth, and to a petty merchant in a one-mule village, too small to even properly be called a village. In hindsight all I can say for the place is that it was near the sea, which inspired me to dream.
An embittered and loveless widower, and a shameless miser, my father sent me out when I was thirteen to make my living with an acquaintance of his, another merchant in far-off Alexandria. I only saw my father once again in my life after setting out on that miserable hand-to-mouth journey, my loathing of which only equaled my loathing of the merchant to whom he apprenticed me, a merchant I stayed with for three years in Alexandria. This aversion only confirmed I was no more suited to being a merchant than a fish is suited to being a camel driver! Yet there was one great thing that came out of all this: I fell in love with Alexandria. That great city was my awakening into life. I love even the sound of its name to this day... Alexandria!
When I left Cilicia I knew nothing at all of the world so Alexandria was more than an awakening, it was a phan-tasmagoria. It was a labyrinth teeming with new impres-sions, mysterious places, and exotic faces opening new dimensions of my being I didn't even know existed before! So when I wasn’t choking on the dust in the market or simply reeling from the endless monotony of hawking worthless trinkets while pretending to be interested in the wretched yarns of my father’s venerable friend I was at liberty to wander the city. In hindsight it’s a wonder I survived that experience, for Alexandria has more than its share of dangers even to the sophisticated, not to mention for a bumpkin like I was in those days. Yet somehow I did survive and emerged at the age of seventeen with two great loves in life, philosophy and sex!
As I said before recalling this is awkward, even embarrassing, but against all reason and probability it came to have a bearing on history itself! So I'm forced to begin by confessing (unsurprising perhaps considering my age at the time) that from the moment I set foot in Alexandria for the first time I became rivetingly attracted to women. And what a place that city was to first become aware of women's beauty, a city filled with women from every corner of the world! What I felt was not simply intrigue or captivation but a kind of inner cataclysm that reshaped my whole world.
In hindsight I wish I could construe this feeling into something more noble than it was – say for example that one woman in particular attracted me beyond all others, a soul mate to fill my inner void. I did have a terrible inner void in my life then, although I didn't fully realize it myself. But no, interest is such higher considerations would only come much later. At that age I was mesmerized, hypnotized by women’s bodies, by their tantalizing motion of them as they walked down the street, by their alluring fragrance, by the endless variation of their beauty, and especially by their seductive dancing.
Imagine my frustration then when for my first years in Alexandria the mere presence of attractive women reduced me to a sheer babbling, tongue-tied, idiot. Worse still, I was so frightened by the possibility of ridicule that on those rare occasions when I managed to get a woman into bed with me I was rendered impotent by nervousness (a thing that in the normal course of things, at that age, struck me as an absolute impossibility!) Such memories as those are excruciating still.
So instead of being initiated by one of those beauties I so admired I resorted to a number of encounters with lonely, older widows, who were not the women of my dreams but neither did they terrify me with awe and my inward belief that they could not actually be interested in such an utter nonentity as myself. Yet one or two of them were attractive enough and we did have something to offer one another then to assuage our mutual loneliness. Reflecting back on it I still have a soft spot in my heart for one of them particularly, but after they helped me overcome my insecurity everything changed.
From that time onward I went on a spree, recklessly searching every waterfront barrio, every hole-in-the-wall tavern and half-decent bordello with the insatiable desire for the discovery of the women of every race and variety Alexandria had to offer. Everywhere men drank and women entertained there where a handful of we half-free adolescents giddy with our good fortune to be able to haunt such places.
Hearing me describe all this you might think my expression of contrition is somewhat disingenuous and looking back I confess that is partly true – yet truth will always out in the end and in the end I had much to be sorry for. Still, what evenings those were! I was mesmerized by those dancers who came from everywhere; from India, Namibia, Egypt, Greece, Gaul, Armenia. I was mesmerized by the clinking of necklaces, the clapping of castanets, the rattle and the taut beat of tambourines struck firmly against their hips. Forgive my prurience but an old man has at least the right to remember! For brief eternities I would watch a single jewel sway back and forth and up and down in the navel of an Indian girl, watch the fresh glow of her face, watch her skin bared in more and more intimate places – it was ecstasy!
To me then those moments revealed life in all of its un-folding mystery and it may have been this revelation that in some inexplicable way aroused my curiosity for philosophical inquiry, for a deeper insight into its mystery. For those who say the pleasures of seduction are sin are both right and wrong. Where there is consent sexual relations are too complex to make such sweeping judgments and no doubt among the young sexual relations are often spiritually broadening. But those who say such pleasure for its own sake has no place in a philosopher, I have come to see are entirely correct. So to these latter people I can only say that most of this happened before I began to study philosophy yet even so it was a weakness that proved to be my downfall!
Such questions aside for whatever it's worth I must say re-assert that sexual desire did lead me to philosophy.. How exactly it did I don’t know. It may have been through a deepening appreciation for beauty and of the nature of loneliness, of the ultimate limitations of human connection, or perhaps it sparked a need for something greater, for anything greater than the horrible gray reality of commerce. None of these are questions have I resolved with certainty, although I would interject this: that one of the great slanders leveled at Athenian philosophy is rooted in this whole issue of sexual desire. Many of our enemies accused Socrates and Plato themselves of salaciousness and far worse of pedophilia. Neither of those things are true. Plato took pains to make that clear in his "Symposium." Yet many have read that work and through a prejudice inculcated in them by the church interpreted it as saying the exact opposite is true! That is the power of human self-deception! Those who want to believe a certain thing are capable of seeing that thing even where it patently does not exist.
This is not to say that Socrates or Plato were prudes. Soc-rates was married and had children, and Plato made it clear that in his view sex was not "wrong," it was not "sin," but merely meaningless in absence of a deeper communion. It was my acceptance of this view that made me renounce my former promiscuity; not that I came to feel it was a sin but that it was misguided. And let me tell you the ancients knew what the were talking about when it came to sex. They were versed in every aspect of sexuality, in the whole gamut of sexual variation and expression, and though it may be hard to imagine in this era of Christian orthodoxy, for the most part they saw it as simply natural.
I only go on here at length about this because this whole issue of the "pagan" knowledge of sex has the greatest relevance to this story. The Mystery Cults, especially the Eleusinian, Dionysian, and Samothracian Mystery Cults long understood sexuality in all its forms, and this understanding of sex in the Grecian and Roman worlds has been twisted by the new Roman Church into the most diabolical forms, as you will see! We must remember that the Roman empire never fell, it merely transformed into the Christian Roman empire, and all the former sophistication of the ancients remains available to those who understand Latin and Greek, and those are increasingly limited to the officials of Christendom. Commoners understand nothing of that ancient storehouse of knowledge and so are vulnerable to its manipulation for evil.
Getting back to my own past – whether it be shameful or ordinary – I will just say again only that these "fallen" women saved me from a life that might otherwise have been at least trivial and probably intolerable, and for that I am ever grateful.
So I sat day after day in a state of jaw dropping boredom in our stall in the market, hawking the worthless wares of my father's venerable associate (Feta was his name. Yes, like the cheese) and looking desperately forward to nights of blessed escape the question of why we live at all began to intrigue me more than how we live. I saw that without the allure of the dancers; without some relief from pushing worthless trinkets on anonymous multitudes I would someday have had to stick my head into a fire!
It was at this time one evening when wandering through the streets that I found myself passing the white marble columns of a temple. Perhaps I had seen it before (I certainly must have for it was situated in a street I had walked along many times) yet I had never noticed it before. The sunset now fell on it with rich luminosity, imparting to it an impression most beautiful and ethereal.
Soft laughter came from within, startling me with its quality honesty and freedom, as opposed to that of the marketplace with its avarice and irony. The laughter touched a chord long silent in me, and struck also a pang of envy, or somehow of nostalgia for something I had never known – or had once known but had now long forgotten.
It may have been also the architecture of the ancient Greeks, for the coast of Cilicia had been settled by Greeks and so was my heritage as well. I was raised among the ruins of temples, seeing them on the hills from the fishing boats, and they kindled a sense of curiosity and wonder in me then, because I knew very little about the past, and it intrigued me.
On the spur of the moment I decided to enter the temple and I arrived just as Ammonius, the head of the Platonic Academy in Alexandria, was beginning a lecture. To my own surprise I found myself riveted. His voice had a musical tone, fluid and resonant, and it conveyed a degree self-assurance and certainty I had never heard before, especially when it came to such lofty topics and great questions as the ones he was addressing. It was not feigned like that of the hucksters in the market with their intonation of deceit, and this was also new to me. In his calm resonant tones he was addressing the very questions that had perplexed me in the market stalls. The words were alive, nor dead platitudes or adulterated scripture. He spoke extemporaneously, and with a perfectly governed excitement kindling something in me like a fire.
I was not the same person after listening to Ammonius. I realized that I had found my true home.
And so I entered the Platonic Academy in Alexandria as a scribe (writing was the only thing my father ever taught me that I considered of value) and this decision set my future on what seems now to be an inexorable path. From then onward I learned truth itself is the light of divinity, the only thing to guide you through to the end with at least some remaining snatch of dignity, love, and communion. Yet due to the nature of the times, instead of reaching for the wisdom I had sought, I was swept into a maelstrom of events I had no control over. It was a journey that would carry me thousands of miles, through exultation and heartbreak, through conspiracies, shattered loyalties, poverty, wealth and, poverty again; through war, peace, flight, exile and repatriation into a improbable and unhoped-for old-age – all that came from that first step into the temple at Alexandria.
I needn't tell you such a journey is personal, experiential, and that to pen them one may only produce the ghost of an experience. Yet I must somehow convey that from the outset I found that Ammonius lived in a rarefied atmosphere. His presence seemed to make everything around him glow, he was worshipped by his disciples and that through him I approached the first glimmer of light beyond the cave of which I spoke of when I first started this thing.
Perhaps I will even say that I saw a delight and wonder in life that the material world could never match in beauty, tranquility, understanding and joy. Yes, I went through many changes during my connection to The Academy and surprisingly I also came to a new appreciation of Christianity; something I frankly hadn't paid much attention to before. Their vision of the human spirit as a trek through the desert attracted me. It seemed a fitting metaphor for life although I could never reconcile the contradictions in its doctrine. No. this I never did and could have never done in a thousand years! Their disputes over the meaning of Christ's life in its relation to divinity could have wearied, confused, and pettifogged God himself! I could find no rhyme or reason to it. It could never be reconciled with the nature of reason. or the ceaseless search for truth which themselves seemed to me our closest, and perhaps only, connection to divinity. Yet friendships with many prominent Christians kept us free of rancor for many years (as it had mostly done for the Academy over the previous four hundred years. Sadly, the changes in political and military fortunes that occurred in my lifetime finally broke our peaceful coexistence completely,
I'll not go on much longer with these explanations, but my story is a serpentine one in a serpentine age. So if the reader will bear with me a little longer I'll give a little more background about my early life.
At Alexandria I encountered something I had never known before, a group of free men and women who had formed a communion of mutual understanding, of fearless and unfettered thought. I was on fire from the thrill of that discovery. I felt as if I were flying among the stars! Those years were an oasis where I washed away the grime and apathy crippling my spirit since I entered in the merchant's stalls, and even before, living with my father. Perversely, I found myself still wandering the docks in the evenings, among the theaters and brothels where I indulged in the seduction of the dancers. I couldn't tear myself away.
I'm sure Ammonius knew of this and frowned on it but he never reproached me. Sometimes, when I arrived in the morning exhausted he gave me a searching look, but for myself I never made a secret of my disreputable attraction.
As time went on I gradually abandoned the "venerable" old friend of the father I never liked or understood, and was taken into the temple by Ammonius as his secretary. I made much less money than I had in the market (a matter of complete indifference to me), and I must say it turned out I had an extraordinary aptitude for Philosophy. I was driven as if it were by wildfire to learn anything and everything I could get my hands on. My health was good and the dancers who came to know me were often generous with their favors to the passionate, good looking young scholar who slept with them, so those years could hardly have been happier! I had no other vices and so as I said, this weakness for women was largely overlooked... All of which brings me to the turning point of my life in Alexandria; a coincidence of great significance haunted my thoughts and shaped the course of my life, and of the Platonic Schools, and most unbelievably even to me now, the course of history.
I had been working with Ammonius for many years, on many papers, mostly commentaries on the Platonic Dialogues themselves, when to my surprise Ammonius told me he was going to make me his successor. And then a strange fate intervened. By that time I'd mostly overcome my infatuation with the dancing girls and was setting myself the goal of complete commitment to philosophy when a new dancer appeared whose fame was so great she was the talk of the city. One a cool evening (a Saturday as I remember), I was strolling the wharf when I heard a roar from the dance hall across the street. Stepping inside, when my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I was instantly riveted by the woman onstage. She was of medium height and superbly athletic. Her graceful arms and legs conveyed the impression that she was tall while her wide-set, almond, eyes, were elongated with black eye-liner for a dramatic, Levantine effect. She had the most beautiful hair I have ever seen, a kind of thick red-brown profusion, a mane coming down the whole back to her beautiful buttocks. It was marvelous as it cascaded when she danced. It framed her breasts and their beautiful wide, dark, nipples. She was simply superb!
Yet... how can I say this? Something about her went beyond outward beauty, something startling and uncanny in her eyes, some aspect of a wild animal. As they moved obliquely with an expression of deep concentration on every individual in the room. She was a stunning wild animal, dancing for each and every one of us alone.
She could move her limbs independently of one another in the most unexpected ways. I had never seen the like of it. It seemed impossible, outlandish. Pushing my way through to the stage I became lost to time. In the years I had frequented the dance halls I'd never been so carried away. Such dancing, such seduction was a marvel!
After standing there transfixed for – I don’t know how long – something extraordinary happened. She made her way over specifically to me, and she danced directly in front of me for so long that the other patrons began to be angry, and finally dragged me away from the stage. Before I knew what was happening I was booted out in the street. . .
That was my "introduction" to Theodora and in hindsight it seems an appropriate one. For reasons I shall never understand, out of all the men in Alexandria she was attracted to me. I returned to the dancehall regularly until one night as she was leaving I met her in the street and she grabbed my arm and dragged me home with her. It was that simple and unceremonious and it never would have occurred to her that I would refuse, and she was right, I didn't.
As I said she was already famous then, some would say infamous, but I would like to meet the young man who could resist Theodora at the age of 19. We had sex against the wall almost as soon as she closed her door. Without thought, without consideration of any kind I found myself in a desperate struggle to get my clothes off. Absolutely nothing of the eventual results of this encounter occurred to me at the time, and I must say it behooves young people to think twice about who sexual attraction may lure into their beds and their lives. But there seemed no reason to have any qualms at the time and from then on for months we spent most evenings together in her luxurious apartment by the sea.
Once, when I asked her why she had chosen me over so many others she laughed and said very seriously that it was because I was an aficionado!
“Every one of those men wants me,” she said, “but not one of them really appreciates what I do, not really. I saw at once that you didn't just want to fuck me, but recognized me as a true artist. Besides... I never saw anyone as innocent as you Simplicious. The earnestness in your eyes was very touching, and you are very handsome. But it was really your innocence of the world, your faith, your idealism. Those things are a gift of God and not many manage to hold onto them as long as you have. I wish I could have any of those things back again, but I can't.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. It astounded me that this incomparable beauty would want me for any reason at all... but to make a long story short I became the preferred lover (No, I had no illusions about being her only lover) but still I was the preferred lover of Theodora ...the most famous beauty in the Mediterranean. She had come from Constantinople to Alexandria by way of a jilted husband; a provincial governor in some stagnant backwater in Libya whom she had married to escape the life on stage in Constantinople. It turned out that he tortured and tormented her, and she shortly found him more odious than all other men together. She became detached from life.
You might laugh to think a philosopher can accuse anyone of being disconnected from the world! But it was not like that, it was something different, a profound indifference to life. Gradually I sensed some kind of calculating ruthlessness in her not entirely concealed by her charm and her razor-sharp intelligence. But I didn't want to see that. I was too infatuated, too flattered that she wanted me to be her lover.
“So Simplicious, you are a philosopher?” she said to me one afternoon with just a hint of mockery. We were lying on silk pillows on her bed overlooking a portico and the dazzling. sun emblazoned sea below. And at that moment I wanted to laugh at myself as well. A philosopher in a luxurious bed with a famous courtesan? That would have raised a few eyebrows.
“How lucky you are!” she said.
She smoked opium then and as she smoked she spoke dreamily in a not too common state of introspection. She went on to tell me she trusted me implicitly, because like most philosophers I was the kind of fool one could trust. She said this and laughed, "the kind one can speak freely with." And indeed it took considerable openness to reveal how absurd she thought I was. Did it bother me then? I don't think so.
I think she was in love with me then, and that maybe it was the only time she was in love. At least that's what she said to me many years later. She thought of me as simply guileless, and could let her guard down with me. Anyway, I suppose there was an element of truth in what she thought about me then.
“If only I could spend my days in contemplation, exploring the higher mysteries of the soul!" She said. "You might not believe it Simplicious but I would have been suited to that kind of life. More suited than I am to this one, but I've had to live in the real world.” Theodora said the phrase, the real world with undisguised disgust.
“In Constantinople one quickly becomes acquainted with the real world, and you see Simplicious the real world is a finely filigreed dagger, exquisitely wrought and stained with blood. That's where you philosophers go wrong with your notions of the higher aspirations of man and an earthly connection to divinity. You see, I've learned a little of what you Platonists believe. I've learned a little of Everything." She took a long draw of opium and went on languidly, expelling the smoke slowly through her nostrils. “Our souls may find God after death, I don't know, but this world is nothing but a cheat and an exquisite abattoir.”
I took a gardenia from an urn on her dresser and set it between her flawless breasts. She was angry with me for a moment and dashed it away. ”Don’t lie to me, Simplicious!” she said.
“I didn’t know that you were a Christian,” I said, changing the subject.
“I am a most devout believer and have been consulting the Bishop for instruction.” There was just the slightest hint of satire in her voice. One was scarcely aware of it
“The Bishop of Alexandria?” I said, a bit surprised.
“Yes, the Bishop.”
“But he's a Monophysite. You had better be careful, or they'll declared a heretic in Constantinople.”
“I can find my way around that.”
“You can find your way around it?” I said, confounded. How on earth can you possibly do that, I thought to myself.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower