Monday, October 31, 2011

All that is Hidden

The following is a book review of mine that was published in the September/October 2010 edition of Touchstone:
Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies (Hardcover) by Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2009.

“Therefore fear them not. For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed: nor hid, that shall not be known.” ~Matthew 10:26
It has become fashionable in some intellectual circles to ridicule conspiracy theories. The tissue of absurdities put forth by authors like Dan Brown have distorted history beyond recognition, clouding the lines between fact and fiction, making it difficult to discern the genuine from the fraudulent. In an effort to counter the tiresome falsehoods about secret societies, it is natural, I suppose, for people to laugh at all mention of conspiracies, forgetting that the American Revolution itself came about as a result of the work of conspiring patriots. Thus we sink into blissful ignorance not only of history but of the forces that are shaping the world in which we live, assuming that if  we do not hear about certain groups on Fox News then they do not exist.
However, for every poison, there is an antidote; the only remedy for a lie is the light of truth. Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries by Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner is one such search light in the murky swamp of falsehood. A witty and eclectic exploration of “mysterious sights, symbols and societies,” Secret Places mingles past with present, bringing history to life, while discerning truth from falsehood. The intelligent and entertaining book carefully looks at some of the great mysteries of history, as well as some current ones, as the authors sift fact from fiction and rumor from documented events. Researching such a book is the dream of many historians and journalists, since from the photos and anecdotes Klimczuk and Warner obviously gained access into some rare places, or else spoke with those who have. This reader came away with the feeling of having been on an investigative adventure, the main result of which is the realization of how much there is yet to learn about the mysteries of the world.
One of the problems that contemporary Americans have with secret societies, private clubs, and conspiratorial alliances is that we live in a society where privacy and secrecy have all but disappeared. The most personal matters are topics for the news media. Every detail of life and love is discussed on talk shows. Since Facebook and Twitter have overwhelmed the scene we now know what a distant relative or an acquaintance on the other side of the globe had for breakfast. We no longer understand the need for privacy and solitude that people of the past once guarded. As the Introduction says:
What is the origin of the basic human instinct to hide away in obscure places, to seek privacy in secret sanctuaries, and to congregate in select groups in venues from which the rest of humanity is excluded?...This book takes a close but wide-ranging look at such behavior, both in the past and present, by casting the light of day on a rich variety of highly private enclaves in which groups have gathered to worship, to conspire, to defend themselves, and, in one gruesome instance, to plan one of the most shocking  mass murders in the history of the world. In a lighter vein, we also explore a large number of secretive and exclusive venues that exist for the purpose of good fellowship and unabashed enjoyment.” (p.1)
I had never heard of Wewelsburg Castle in Westphalia, “one of the most evil places on earth” (p.62) where SS Reichsfürher Heinrich Himmler founded his pagan order of knights as a total distortion of the medieval orders of chivalry. People often wonder how the Nazis could have killed so many people. The authors answer the question.

The answer lies in Wewelsburg. There, with the help of ancient Nordic pagan mythology and the extravagant theories of twentieth-century esoteric philosophers and downright cranks, Himmler manufactured a pseudoreligion designed to take the place of Christian morality, to give his SS units an alternative ‘spirituality’ that would steel them to commit mass murder under the banner of a German mysticism at once old and new. That is the most chilling aspect of Wewelsburg: without its dark inspiration, the killing of millions of innocent people would have lacked the impetus of mystical zeal…. (p.63)

On a somewhat lighter but nonetheless eerie note, Secret Places supplies cogent information about arcane groups such as the Bilderburgers, the Esalen Institute, the Rosicrucians and many more. The truth about places like Rennes-le-château and Rosslyn Chapel is revealed. Even more mysterious and fascinating to me is the chapter about the state-of-the-art modern governmental refuges (the fabled “Undisclosed Location”) which are maintained in case of nuclear attack and natural disaster. I was also intrigued by the section on private banks, mostly in Switzerland, the bastions of privacy and exclusivity.  And yes, the origins and doings of Skull and Bones are investigated; the findings are sobering, bespeaking the human need to invent pseudoreligious ritual when traditional religion has become watered down.

Speaking of exclusivity, the book wraps up with the delightful discussion of various types of old-fashioned gentlemen’s clubs that still are in existence. I wonder if marriages would last longer if contemporary men and women had a bit more time away from each other. As the book explains:

The image of padded armchairs, candlelight blinking on polished silver, port circulating in paneled rooms, and the soft-footed servants tending to members’ every need is an Edwardian vignette of discreet luxury that has long disappeared from most English country houses but still survives, at least to some extent, in clubland….The object of a good club is to provide a home away from home for every member, wining and dining him splendidly, isolating him from the outside world, and, above all, offering him sanctuary from his womenfolk. For most of clubland’s history, its discreet habitats had the primary purpose of providing refuges wherein the British male could seek protection from his natural predator: woman. (pp.234-235)

Any one of the topics discussed in this highly readable volume could make a book in itself. Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries does not pretend to be an exhaustive source of knowledge on secret societies and weird hideouts but rather a compelling travelogue throughout a veiled world, sifting for evidence from among the myths. Although it is a layman’s guide rather than a heavy scholarly work, there is enough information to pique one’s interest and inspire one to sally forth on a quest of one’s own. Well-written and erudite, the undercurrents of humor and pathos make it a book of immense charm. I would recommend it for all ages, but especially for the young who want to know the truth behind so many books and films that are passed off as history. Most fascinating to me is the patterns of human behavior, the desire to be among one’s own kind, which keeps asserting itself in spite of progress and political correctness. As the conclusion affirms:

As these richly variegated examples have demonstrated, humanity’s urge to squirrel itself away in inaccessible sanctuaries is an ingrained instinct from the womb….It is an interesting paradox that while this instinct is, at first blush, unsociable and isolationist, it usually expresses itself in a desire to gather in secret places with like-minded individuals, which actually constitutes a kind of communitarianism….Sometimes, as we have shown, there is a nefarious or evil purpose to such covert behavior. But, as we have also illustrated, there is a legitimate right to privacy that only a totalitarian society will invade. (p.251) 

1 comment:

Julygirl said...

Yes, there is too much reality thrust at one these days.....I make a point of avoiding looking at the covers of 'tell all' magazines as I stand in the check out line. I once had a friend who considered secrets as something sinful. I remeinded him that discretion was something we all needed to practice, but, alas, I was a voice crying in the wilderness because we as a society have come full circle.

By the way, great review!