A Tale of Gods and Saints, of Revolution, Murder and Time
By Gaither Stewart
I find it curious that with the passage of time many former places of worship of various religions—cathedrals and temples, synagogues and mosques, or the pyramids in the jungles and deserts of the world—change their nature from the holy sites of worship where the presence of some god or the other was once perceived, and morph into museums and tourism destinations. And so over the span of its two millennia of existence the same has happened with the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome that my father introduced me to when I was a small child.
I am reading at a caffé near Piazza Venezia when my cell phone vibrates. It is my unpredictable and conspiratorial Serbian friend, calling from his untraceable Belgian mobile and speaking in his secret agent language. Bubbling with phony tourist-like enthusiasm, he informs me that he’s off to visit Cyril and hopes to see me soon. ‘Soon’, I have learned during our off and on relationship and our irregular meetings in Belgrade or Rome or Berlin means ‘immediately’ and ‘Cyril’ means that the meeting place is the transformed San Clemente Church. I know he chose that place for our meetings because it is in its very depths that the Slavic Saint Cyril is buried … solitary but hardly alone on the lowest level of the multi-tiered structure that itself has not actually grown taller with time; rather it has added level after level simply in order to keep pace with the rising level of the two thousand and five hundred-year old sprawling city that has itself risen, level after level, as many ancient cities do. Saint Cyril’s body lies peacefully in its tomb on the lower level of the church, which was once on ground level but now is deep underground, just above the rushing waters of a subterranean river that two millennia ago supplied water for the naval battles Roman emperors staged in the nearby Coliseum.
A second day of a powerful out-of-season north wind from Central Europe has set everything in the city into movement. Young poplars along Via di San Giovanni in Laterano bend nearly to the earth before rebounding skywards. Palms dance, shrubs huddle one into the other and the mysterious outline of the moon moves east to west across still only partially clouded skies. In the south lightning flashes and thunder rumbles.
It has already begun to rain when I step into the basilica, a guidebook in my hand and a camera hanging from my shoulder, I too infected by the secret agent complex. It is early summer and the outside temperature has fallen to a cool seventeen degrees. Inside the empty dark church it is freezing cold.
Near the door I automatically stop at the chapel of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria to view the frescoes attributed to the Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale. My father had especially loved to search for the secrets hidden within the crucifixion scene. After long study of the disputed attribution, he had concluded that the painter’s apprentice, Masaccio, the young Tuscan painter-dissenter, not only had a hand in the capolavoro —as some art historians today admit—but that he painted it alone. Whether he did and whether that was the reason for his subsequent assassination in the city five hundred years ago is another unresolved Roman mystery.
A spectral veil of semi-obscurity hangs over the entire ground floor of the church. A feeling of unreality creeps over me as I move on to the grandiose mosaic covering the rear wall of the apse, the Triumph of the Cross, depicting twelve doves and twelve sheep representing rather naively the twelve apostles sitting underneath. A sense of the unreality of the times and the events I am experiencing recently has so confused reality itself that the sensation of unreality around me here in the church today seems real. Lately, I often stop in front of mirrors and street shop windows and stare at my own image as if searching for myself. Now, examining the frescos, I imagine that my other self, self-reflected back to me from those mirrors and store windows, is the same self standing in front of the frescoes. Mentally, I attempt to transform too and become also the reflection-shadow of my other self inside the mirrors, of whose elusive existence I am no more certain than of that of a simulacrum. My momentary imaginary self staring at the fresco is a lonesome and abandoned stranger, at this moment cut off from his real self. Still, for a moment the feeling is one of a kind of intimacy between those two selves that together are me. I hold tight to the special moment, momentarily stepping back from and examining that other self regarding the fresco. I feel that that other self is living in authentic time, like when I was a boy and each day had seemed to last forever. A kind of sadness overcomes me and fills me, leaving me despondent that despite the intimacy between them those two selves are destined to be forever separated. Time seems to have caught up with me. My shadow is riding on the waves of the events of the times; the real I is left behind.
Candles flicker along the stairs leading from the sacristy to the first lower level of the original fourth century church. A constant all-season current of cold air from below blows upwards and sweeps over me. Wave after wave of subterranean humidity mix and merge with the pervasive smell of incense, surprising me again as it has each time I have been here. I have always thought that the Irish Dominicans who have run this church for centuries scorned the use of incense. At this moment of split selves I find this anachronistic.
I stop dead at the top of the cold stone staircase.
For an instant I seem to lose my hold on the events I am experiencing; time slips through my hands and eludes me.
Though I have lived in this city all my youth I have never ceased to marvel at Roman time, forever unhinged and unsynchronized. At some point in the city’s 2650 years, time got out of control. Maybe all the diverse gods at home in this basilica have gotten mixed up, too. Or maybe the confusion is due to the many layers of the city present in this church, one atop the other, helter-skelter, representative of the ups and downs of paganism and Christianity in the holy city … like time itself.
Distracted by their own survival problems, the gods, too, must have forgotten time as they also forgot human life ... if they were ever really concerned about men or what they did.
Yes, admittedly, I am a doubter. Nothing like lingering in an ancient church to lose the sense of gods and world time, I think, prodding myself to motion in one direction or another, from one god to another. But instead of proceeding evenly as it should, my time careens crazily backwards and forwards, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, so that here you never know for certain when and where you are.
Seven hundred years of time passed before today’s upper basilica was built over the lower church, which had been superimposed atop a second century temple dedicated to the old pagan god Mithras, which in turn was erected on top of constructions of the Neronian epoch: the Imperial mint and services linked to the festive Coliseum several hundred meters down the hill.
Such historical confusions must be responsible for our slipshod relationship with time today. I look around once more for confirmation of my confusion and begin to retrace my steps: frescoes, crypts, galleries, saints in marble, saints in oil, candles, but strangely no place for believers to worship. Passing time has changed the very function of this holy place from Christian worship to art tourism.
In that instant I spy the Serb standing pensively in front of another familiar fresco, The Legend of Sisinnio, also accredited to the Masolino-Masaccio duo. I gaze at the masterpiece, then at the Serb. Leaning on one leg thrust forward, his shoulders bent and a tiny hand under his chin, the little man seems even smaller than usual.
“Sisinnio was the Prefect of Rome,” I recite as my father had to me when I was a boy. The incredible tales of the miracles of the saints fascinated my atheist father; he needed the miracles to create the aura of magic surrounding his small part of ancient Rome. “When the Prefect tried to arrest San Clemente, the third Roman Pope after Saint Peter,” I continue, “the Prefect was struck blind, as were all his men ... one of the miracles that gave Clemente sainthood.”
“A miracle perhaps but also the deadliest revenge,” the revolutionary remarks. “Not so churchly.”
“But still a miracle for the Church,” I comment laconically.
Masaccio is my father’s favorite artist. I too have come to believe that Masolino and, in a way, the frescoes here in San Clemente, were truly responsible for the younger painter’s mysterious death in the dark alleys of Rome sometime in 1429 at the age of twenty-seven. My imaginary Masaccio, wandering carelessly in the darkened meanders of the already ancient city, is a young man on the make.
I explain to the revolutionary the part of the story I know he will like: “I also believe his jealous master painter, Masolino, ordered the assassination of his apprentice, the revolutionary Masaccio ... who put real men at the center of his art and was as distant from God as he was near man in all man’s loneliness and his suffering, human ills and his weaknesses—like his fear of God, his thirst for power and fame and wealth.”
The Serb nods, takes me by the arm and says provocatively, “It is also proof of our ignorance. Proof that humans do not occupy a privileged place in the order of things. We are not the center of the universe. Humans have to fight for survival. Besides, maybe the murder was justified in Masolino’s mind, in the sense of his and the official Church’s revenge against dissent so rampant in the Middle Ages. The priests simply tortured and burned dissenters. The latter is what I want to speak with you about. Can we today not permit ourselves to murder the murderers?”
We descend the narrow staircases lower and lower into the labyrinth of the ancient church. A labyrinth of time. We wander through the maze now sunken under Via San Giovanni in Laterano and Via Labicana, with each turn passing from one century to another, erratically either backwards or forwards in time. We sit on a stone bench and look in the direction of the sanctuary of Mithras, the god Roman soldiers brought back from Macedonia in the Serb’s homeland. The unremitting sound of the rushing water of the underground river that has flowed steadily all these centuries under the church complex seems torn out of place and time.
In a reverent whisper I brief the revolutionary Serb about the bodyguards I just hired to protect our charges, a dissident couple in his Belgrade, a subject that he, the inveterate Communist, for some reason thinks is out of place in this semi-holy site.
“The two bodyguards are southern Italians,” I insist anyway. “They feel like refugees here in the capital … they remind me of myself.”
“Like many of us,” he grants.
He says he is flying back home to Serbia immediately. He has an important appointment there concerning the dissident couple. “Listen carefully, my friend. I have decided: I am going to form my own hit squad across the Adriatic to, so to speak, assassinate some of the assassins of our martyred leader ... and hopefully rectify his historical role.”
“Martyred?” I counter.
“Yes, martyred. Every Serb knows who is responsible. As he himself said, they had to get him in order to get Serbia … and Kosovo, too. You do not need to participate personally but I would like to have your agreement … because of our past together.”
“Um Gottes Willen! Why, you sound like a Roman conspirator. Assassinations? How can you speak so easily of murder? Who do you have in mind to do such … uh, dirty work?”
“Tit for tat, as they say. I prefer foreigners in my squad. I too met your bodyguard friends. They are impressive. I intend enlisting them because, well, they are for hire.”
“But they themselves say they’re not killers … not of specific individuals.”
“I believe them. I too have always considered murder as murder. But there are, uh, well, let us say there are revolutionary moments in life when extreme measures are obligatory … not optional. You have to rebel against injustice.”
“Right! So you mean that a certain kind of murder is morally acceptable? But, still, as you say, murder is murder.”
“Remember, my friend, this is war. A war of good against evil. These are not times for non-violent resistance alone. Much blood will flow before this war is over. When times of great change arrive blood always flows. Look at what is happening all across North Africa and the Middle East, in Cairo, in Tripoli, in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Kabul and now in Ukraine-Donbass, too. Americans have spilled lots of blood across the world. Now some peoples are rebelling against their corrupt dictators. People are rising up against dictators and everybody is arming and rearming. Blood flows and torture continues. Our best men are falling around us.”
“Then you have revenge in mind ... as justification?”
“Not revenge, but justice.”
Like a gaseous being a humid chill drifts up the narrow stairways and through concealed air tunnels from the still lower depths of the basilica. No real persons of flesh and blood exist but us. The two of us are alone with the statues and ancient sculptures, signs of Mithras before us and the magnified rushing and rumbling and tumbling of subterranean waters from a lower level echoing in our ears; the same waters that once served for the naval spectacles in the Coliseum.. We pass through darkened chambers and niches into a Mithraic temple of stone benches, thick pilasters, arches and a stucco ceiling with floral patterns. A marble altar depicts Mithras plunging a dagger into a bull which would give birth to all living things. Mithras, the bull’s slayer, was worshipped as a creative force. The ritual banquet commemorated Mithras' feast with Apollo, before he ascended into heaven.
Roman stories of the Sun-God Mithras are alive in my boyhood memories: Mithras, born on December 25, centuries before the same date was arbitrarily fixed as the birth date of Jesus. Jesus, seen by some as Mithras’ reincarnation; Jesus who had twelve companions as did Mithras; Jesus who performed miracles as did Mithras.
Like the Cathars and their two Gods, one good and one evil, scholars believe there were two biblical Jesus children. Not just one. The Luke gospel and the Matthew gospel describe two different events. Hence the two different dates for Christmas in the Eastern and Western traditions. Mithras, whose religious practices and rites were taken over by Christians and Hebrews alike, especially the Orthodox messianic concept; Mithras’ followers, who like early Christians regarded asceticism, abstinence, continence, renunciation and self-control as supreme values; Mithras, who also envisioned a heaven for the good and a hell for the evil and believed in the immortality of the soul, a last judgment and the resurrection of the dead following a final conflagration of the universe.
“What you actually do in life is already a lot to bear, my friend. What you do not do but could have done is too much to take on. Your conscience can’t stand any more. In any case, we are not killers.”
“Do you really think so? I mean that we are not at least potentially killers, every last one of us. For the right reasons, of course.”
“I meant about our conscience. That it cannot bear the murder of another.”
The echo of our voices wafts through the grotto, ricocheting off its walls and back to us on our stone bench. I have the thought that this is a poignant moment that I will never forget. Whispers of the people who have passed though these vaults and grottoes and caves in the centuries before us reverberate and become louder.
“There are times in which we cannot let our conscience disturb our just intents,” the Serbian revolutionary says. “Since in general our conscience controls our actions, most people can never do what they should do. Yet although we are guided also by our conscience, our thirst for justice is greater.”
“But then you still have to suffer for your acts.”
“True. And that is our conscience speaking. Through the conscience you know what is good and what is evil, just as you know truth from lie. Our instinct for justice can make us do things our conscience forbids. Our mind reasons with our conscience that controls our base instincts—like performing evil acts gratuitously as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia. But in the name of justice the mind and reason can overcome our conscience. Deep inside you, Carlo, in the dark corridors of your instincts, there is your psyche, which deals with your unconscious hidden there. You know that Dostoevsky and Freud are my secret teachers. Both describe as eternal the battle of your mind seesawing between reason and conscience and your psyche, your inner soul … or maybe your spirit. Maybe it is the true self.
“Remember Nikolay, the minor character in Crime and Punishment who feels guilt out of all proportion to his minor crime of the theft of a necklace. Because of his guilt-ridden consciousness he seems to seek a major crime of which to be guilty, one that will make of him a real criminal and for which he can beg absolution.”
“Yes. I’ve never understood why he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit.”
“For him, guilt for a major crime is more tolerable than the intense pressure of the sort of abstract sinfulness arising from his subconscious, that is, those base instincts performed out of habit. So he confesses to a murder he had nothing to do with. Something he can be forgiven of. And that same intense feeling of sinfulness in the real murderer’s subconscious brings about Raskolnikov’s confession that he killed the greedy moneylender. Guilt is the point. Guilt … and forgiveness. After all, Carlo, it takes a lot of courage to kill a fellow human being.”
“Still, I feel that I too am guilty. Does my uncertain participation in your acts not count even though someone else will perform murder in my place? In any case it seems instinct is in command everywhere. Right?”
“True! History shows us that in the long run human instincts command. Reason however tries to limit the damage caused by our worst instincts. But over time reason loses ground. Look what happened in Belgrade. They killed a man, a whole people in my opinion, and an idea, too, because of his reason.”
“I obviously don’t know myself and if I don’t know myself, then others can’t even begin to know the real me. I feel lonely because no one knows me.”
“That is normal,” the Serb says gently, placing a hand on my arm as if to reassure me that I am not alone. “That is the reason for all the incommunicability in the world. The isolation in which each of us lives. Then, few people take the time for self-examination. We are all too busy showing off superficial facets of our selves.”
“That describes me in a way.”
“Still, if your mind could drill down to the core of the real you in order to understand your instincts—you would become one whole person. That is what psychology is all about.”
“You mean my mind and my unconscious would become one?”
“At least to the degree that reason would determine your acts, not habit. Instead, in our world men behave like wild beasts. They always have. In our world instinct commands. Not the same instincts as eating and sex, but instincts to dominate ... and to kill. That same conflict between reason and instinct goes on throughout the whole human race. Still, since the murder of our leader, his idea of the small country of Serbia outside NATO survives. Which means that also a certain morality survives.”
“Do you really think so?” I mutter. “If there were a priest here in this moment I think I would ask for forgiveness.”
“For absolution, you mean. But from a priest who is no less guilty than you?”
“Oh no! Then you’re saying that everybody is guilty. That’s terrible. Absolutely terrible. Then there’s no one to absolve us … for our planned murders.”
The revolutionary sighs.
“That is the way it is in life. A seesawing back and forth between regret for our acts and hope for forgiveness … and somehow, someday, redemption.”
In that moment, sounds of muffled voices, a guffaw, a fit of coughing and the clatter of hard leather shoes on stone stairs quickly silenced by a severe recommendation in a priestly sounding English for ‘respect for the Lord’s house’, are interrupted by a loud series of powerful farts followed by an instant of silence before an eruption of hysterical laughter.
The first person to emerge from the stairwell is one of the Dominican basilica keepers dressed in a sober green cassock. One of his arms is raised in admonition but I could swear that he too is suppressing his laughter. He’s Irish after all, they say, though I doubt it from his accent in English and his constant use of the Italian Nerone instead of Nero as he relates the tale of how, in 64 A.D., while oceans of flame engulfed the narrow streets and tall apartment buildings crowded into the area among the seven hills, the wildly extravagant persecutor of Christians, Emperor Nero, from his Domus Transitoria Palace on the Coelian Hill sang a tale of the Sack of Troy and watched the terrified Roman people fleeing from the flames down below him. In the great fire the first stratum of San Clemente was also reduced to smoldering rubble.
“Now, everyone follow me and stay together,” the dubious guide announces to his subdued flock, “so as not to get lost in the maze. By the way that chapel there is unimportant, dedicated to some pre-Christian pagan god that people in the East actually worshipped … before the good tidings of Jesus Christ reached them. Humph. Humph. This way, this way!”
We watch them parade past us, one close to the other, some casting suspicious glances our way. Women with shawls over bare shoulders and wearing baseball caps. They must be freezing. Men in long shorts that reach their knees. Most of the group wearing sneakers, some few in clacking leather sandals.
“I’ve never seen anything like this down here,” I whisper.
The Serb remains speechless until the cowed crowd passes, then stands up, says he’s never seen anyone down here at all except an occasional monk and proposes we move down another level.
“The real guilt we’re talking about comes from planning wrongs against a moral code,” he continues as we enter the dark and even narrower stairs. “We already feel responsible for some potential offense, as did Dostoevsky’s Nikolay … the feeling that sent him off on that crazy guilt trip. For our conscience, murder cannot be justified. Humanists from time immemorial have believed that each human life is of greater value than any abstract thinking of an individual. And that each human, no matter how evil, is made in the image of God.
“For the conscience, no ideal, no religion, no high goal justifies murder for the one who commits it, even though I personally think that in a socially committed life it is possible to come to believe that the murder of certain evil human beings is a good deed for humanity. Still, the murderer in any case becomes an exile in the world. That is the price he must pay for playing God.
“Yet although I believe we are on the side of justice and good, our feelings of guilt mean that we know we have in mind something we should not do. In fact, there are two kinds of guilt at play here. Guilt both for something we should not do but will, that is, kill, as well as for something we should do, but will not do—that is, desist.”
“A pretty fine line … and very, uh, very condemning. And leaving no emergency exit … like from where we are now.”
“And those tourists too. They are all searching for an emergency exit. No? I think so. And Carlo, that is where expiation enters. No one wants to go on living life with a constant feeling of guilt. That can lead to clinical depression and all kinds of manias. You can go nuts.”
“So how are we to overcome this uh, this sense of guilt? Uh, really, my friend, we have to sit down for this kind of conversation. Don’t you think?”
“Not necessarily. Anyway, over there is a bench just made for us.”
“It really is every man for himself,” the Serb continues, undeterred by priests and tourism. “But certainly the only road is repentance and expiation. Still, you should be glad you feel guilt and want to atone for evil acts. Otherwise you might do like the psychopaths who blame the victims and remain scoundrels.”
“As if we could blame Serbian politicians for our acts!”
“Of course not. But still, the point remains that we both want forgiveness … forgiveness for our intentions … as well as for our frequent silences.”
“Well, one thing is certain. I didn’t get involved with you with the intention of becoming a killer,” I admit, claiming innocence in advance.
“No, but you must have come to understand that someday killing would be necessary … even if only potentially.”
“But are we guilty for that potentiality?”
“What about the broad idea of rising above the mediocrity and habit we grew up in? What about the idea of a kind of power over events? Remember that Raskolnikov claimed he killed the old woman to make of himself a Napoleon. Besides, as I said, true forgiveness is rare,” the Serbian revolutionary says, shaking his head. “Maybe none of this is valid. I have not lived my life among people who forgive easily. My hope is in people in a world morally superior to ours.”
“That’s what I hope for too … and for their forgiveness.”
“At some time in life one must begin doing the right thing. This is the right time. Carlo, you personally might never have such a chance again. This is a turning point. A crossroads of your life. Still, the difficulty with escaping guilt and receiving absolution is that we are the first to accuse ourselves. And we cannot forgive ourselves. But there must be a power somewhere that can arrange things for us.”
“I hope for something better next time around. l believe that everyone should have a second chance.”
The Serb frowns, glances at his watch, sniffs the humidity and stands up.
“People in this whole city must wonder the same thing,” he says.
I stare fixedly at him, he at me. A shadow of a third person flits past behind him. Again I am aware of the grotto and the distant rushing of water. I hear a door close. Steps on stairs. Whispers from concealed corridors. The Sun God image in the middle of the aisle in the depths of the Mithraeum seems to have fixed accusatory eyes on me in his eternal line of vision from the eternity of his cave on the third level of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome.
“But killing people is something else. Is that not true?
“Yes, killers are always lepers. For killing people is a different matter. And the murder of M. in particular. He opposed Serbian membership in the war machine of NATO, as do two out of every three Serbs today. We do not want war. Weak and small nations like Serbia with our population of only eight million people do not make the wars. Syria with its twenty-two million people does not make wars. Nor does Iran with its eighty million population make wars. Capitalists make the wars. And politicians and bankers and bureaucrats heading powerful and greedy countries make the wars. But not us. That was M.’s message. Anti-NATO. Anti-war. And he died for it.”
“Nor do the poor of Italy,” I exclaim. “They don’t make wars.”
“Then you and I and people like us everywhere are all on the same side,” the Serb says. “As people like us in the entire world should be. You might not believe this considering my work and my past but I prefer to believe that most people are born with a natural goodness. And when they go wrong in life, they can change. Every crime, every evil action, every sin can be pardoned.”
“Yes, also forgiven … under certain conditions.”
“Under what conditions?” I insist.
“There is something you call atonement.”
“You mean espiazione? Like in church?”
“In life, too. More than confessing—you have already confessed to me. It is more than saying one hundred Hail Marys, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, full of grace ….”
“You’re Catholic? A Christian? I thought you were Communist and atheist. My mother was Catholic but I never believed in anything much ... well, except justice … though that might not be apparent. And anyway justice seems so elusive … if it even exists.”
“Oh, I believe justice exists, even if rarely in our world today. Still, we are all children in search of justice. And yes, some of my people are Christians. My Croat father was a Catholic too. But not a good one. You see, my people have problems with where they belong and who they are. And with justice too. Anyway, we are not here to talk about religion, but about life in the here and now. Now listen, our leader M. was engaged in desperate politics. A Socialist who opposed NATO and the capitalist, multinational European Union now occupying the Balkans. Despite his vanity and the temptation of power, he had a futuristic vision of society. I am, er, let us say ‘involved’. You can help us.”
“I’m a combatant …”, I begin.
“But maybe a combatant without a real cause … thus far, But suffering and dedication to a just cause is restorative,” he pronounces rather pompously.
“And redemptive too,” he adds, again turning his ageless eyes on me.
“I feel obliged to add one last word about guilt, confession and expiation. Some say it is unnecessary to reveal everything about oneself. Especially about one’s past. Mouths shut about one’s past. No need to dwell on past errors. I do not agree with this philosophy. Guilt exists somewhere in the life of everyone. As you say, things we did that we should not have done. And the things we did not do but should have done. No one is innocent. Everyone has a dark hole gnawed by guilt—some deep, some more shallow—but everyone has that malignant cavity. For that reason I am thankful for that mysterious thing called conscience. Conscience can keep growing until it has to find relief. But, unfortunately, in some people it seems to just wither away.”
“And me?” I ask … naively, I realize. “What about me? I hope my conscience continues to grow, as you say, and not disappear. Shouldn’t we all hope that?”
“Conscience is problematic … in a revolutionary cause. But perhaps your feelings of guilt are only theoretical. In my opinion you are much less guilty than you think. Or, as I believe is most likely, you are just lost. On the other hand, were you to admit that you would shoot if the occasion arises, there would be no need to discuss further the, uh, the conundrum. Yet, believe me, I think that in real life some actions we perform are exactly that: errors. Human imperfections. Some of our errors—evil or well-intentioned—are orchestrated by others but are still unforgivable. In any case … in any case, recognition of the error, the mistaken path, the evil path, is a turning point in one’s life. Perhaps the way to moral redemption. That, I think, is your case.
“And yes, I admit that revenge is involved too,” he says directly in my ear, “but it is justified murder to prevent more murders. Murders of our best people. The murder of killers hired to kill our friends and comrades is, I believe, justified … by Mithras, too. Are we not morally justified to defend our own families? In fact obligated? I think the answer is yes, my friend and comrade.”
“You must be right but I still wonder how we will feel about it afterwards … when remorse sets in and we no longer feel morally justified.”
“Oh, I agree that murder is still murder. But so is necessity, in this case urgent necessity. I repeat: this is not a time for non-violence. God rest Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”
“In sum, you believe that murder is all right as long as it is justified?”
“Not exactly. Murder is always murder.”
“My friend, you’re confused too.”
“I suppose. Yes. Where murder is concerned, confusion also lives. But I repeat that necessity is necessity. You murder political persons not only for personal grievances but also for purely political reasons. We cannot wait for them to murder others. Let us say we are morally justified but we will still have to live with the knowledge of the murder. Remorse must live in murderers for a lifetime … and leave little space for other genuine feelings. Remorse is the price we pay for participation in the war we are in. I have killed before. I know. In the Balkan wars I killed the murderers of many innocent people. I was right … but also wrong. Nonetheless I still see some of their terrified faces before I pulled the trigger, at the moment when the worst of men became human beings. I will see those faces all my life. The decision is terrible. For there are people who might not deserve to be exterminated but who do not deserve to live either.”
“So you become also the judge ... judge and executioner.”
“That is the terrible part.”
“Yet you live with it.”
“The act gets easier with time … each time. I will lead a squad myself; this is work for which I am well trained.”
“Well, we are very attached to our mutual friends from Belgrade who believe as we do. I think we would do anything for them. So they are our moral justification.”
“Hmmm. Well, I will speak with our friends in Belgrade and then decide how to proceed. The victims will be avenged. And, my friend, I know very well, as you Italians like to say, that revenge is served cold. Extremely cold. And its victims on both ends of the murder weapon end up refrigerated, so to speak.”
Urging me to my feet, he then says, “Let us go down another level. Each time I have to get used to the descent gradually … to avoid the vertigo, you know.”
We take another darkened staircase. On the lower level, there is another stone bench. Nearby, a discreet sign and an arrow indicate that Saint Cyril’s tomb’s is to the left. Now, around us, deep beneath the modern city above, stone benches, faded frescoes, images of sacred Mithraic bulls, Corinthian columns, Roman bas-reliefs, orange bricks and fragments of large granite pots, and, like the sound track for a horror film the constant rushing of water currents. The voices of the putative Irishman and flock have faded away.
The rough skin of the little Serb’s rugged face cracks and seems to split in a rare delighted grin.
“Last night in Belgrade I had a vivid dream,” he confides as he seldom does interior experiences; it must be the influence of the Mithraeum. “I was older, about seventy, and was living in a strange pension run by a fat woman. Many women lived there. Though no longer young, they all seemed to have sex on their minds. In a way, sex was also on mine. However I was there for a purpose: I was searching for my social redemption. My room was on the main floor. Books were strewn around my spacious room, which had huge windows with Persian blinds that kept opening and closing. An exigent woman was in my bed. I stroked her hanging breasts, which she liked and wanted more of, but I wanted her to leave. Then a strange man, tall, both young and old, appeared at my bed and told me that I was there to search. Your brother’s problem, he said, was that he had too little time. His life was too short to discover his real and maybe evil self. I know he meant my brother who stayed in Croatia and became a Catholic priest, then left the priesthood, took a job in insurance in Belgrade and died during the bombing of Belgrade. ‘You,’ he said, ‘have a long life ahead, enough time for your fall.’ I knew he meant my moral fall. Without seeming to look at my books, he added that I had the wrong books to find the right answers. From my bed I looked around my room and saw only books of fiction and history. The man left and I immediately missed him. He stood outside my window. I spread my hand on the windowpane to say farewell to him but he was joined by two young men and did not respond to my salute. I wanted to go away with him and learn his answers and also gain his approval, but he ignored me and left with the two young men. I turned back to my room which was suddenly flooded with water from a powerful rainstorm and I began to bail and mop up the water. I knew I had to abandon the pension and therefore my redemption.”
After liberating himself from, I imagine, the world of shadows and from his hallucinating dream, the revolutionary Serb wanders off into the nearly dark chamber to visit the tomb of his hero, Saint Cyril, the creator of the first Slavic alphabet, as he claims he has done each year since he studied in Rome. He vanishes down another flight of stairs to another age. Another staircase, another level, another time.
I will wait until he returns. I remain seated on the bench, surprised that I am as surprised by his Belgrade dream as I am by most of my own. How self-centered we all are, I think: the dreamer is at the center of his world. Strange how my dreams, set in my two homelands of Germany or Italy, exclude Arabs and the Arab world, in the same way that Arabs dreaming their dreams in Arabic, about their lives set in Palestine or Libya or Syria, exclude Europe.
The labyrinth of the levels of San Clemente never fails to create in me such mental sensations of oneiric geometric perfection: the illusion of my own presence here at the time those now dead gods reigned supreme, and confused by the miracles and the death that lives in these dark corridors and passages and secret subterranean vaults, as if the realities of all history between Mithras and Sisinnio and myself were absent. As I observe time marching past, up and down the dark staircases, in and out of the tiny, hidden chambers and niches, the gods and the saints, the artists and their subjects are resurrected and restored to their own places.
Actually, I don’t need the beauty of the basilica structure of multiple levels to revive the physical place; the proximity of the frescoes and statues, the monuments and the carved stone of the tombs, the artistic objects—all composites of countless atoms colliding with each other and forming everything—that create the perfect images, the simulacra of another present in the past and the hallucination of a leap into the future of my own death.
I shiver in horror.
I am overcome by a vertiginous horror at the spinning dimensions of time out of control: ancient past, middle past and present; murder, war and spilled blood harmoniously presaging the death of tomorrow. No space for illusions of eternity; everything, every object, every subject already fixed in eternity.
I reconstruct my friend’s association of the levels of San Clemente with the development of the levels of mankind’s conscience concerning the killing of other men. While we passed through the levels of history here in San Clemente, torture and murder by drones have become legal. Guilt has been diminished, self-forgiveness automatic.
Progress? Level: murder has become legitimate for pragmatic motives.
Level: justice counts no more today than in a Pol Pot prison or in the cells of the Inquisition.
Level: World War I, fought to end all wars, cost thirty-seven million casualties and paved the way for World War II which cost up to eighty million lives.
At that moment I feel that the past, present and future, level after level, are nearly the same. The levels are only satires of a continuous splitting and rejoining of events. Instead, I know, what really happens is repetition, repetition, repetition. My vertigo, annihilation and resurrection are unreal.
I blink, run a hand through my thinning hair, stand up and peer down the last staircase. My friend has vanished into the labyrinth ... or maybe is already on his way back home to Serbia.
Listening to the repetitive music of the waters below I weigh the trustworthiness of my vaunted intuition: you can be attracted to a person like the Serbian revolutionary but totally miss the crux of the person’s true values and actions. In any case, the Serb is right: intuition is a fine thing but I now know that it has its limits. At least in the attempt to sum up of the moral factors and the myriad external circumstances that drive real persons to perform or fail to perform the acts they do or do not do, my intuition is insufficient.
My self within the mirror accepts the guilt that I too, like the Serbian revolutionary, will feel for the rest of my life.