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HELIOGABALUS: HIS SUNHOOD

The section on this unpublished work of Roth's was self-edited far too much, and far too timidly, in Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. I want to publish it here in its entirety.

Sam Roth was well along in his 70s when he wrote this 341-page typescript, under his pseudonym Norman Lockridge, about the teenaged 2nd century A.D. Roman emperor. The eponymous protagonist was, as a child, a royal priest of the sun god Eliogabalus in Syria. He came to the throne at 15 as a charismatic prodigy, renown as the handsomest man in the empire, and indulged in sybaritic revels that revealed him to be a transgender (possibly even transsexual) person with two “husbands” (both slaves). In addition, he performed in “barbarian” Phoenician rites devoted to his god, wore outlandish costumes, assumed effeminate gestures and speech, and violated such taboos as having sex with vestal virgins. At 19, he was murdered by a mob incited by the next emperor, his cousin Alexander Severus. His headless body, and that of his mother, were dragged through the streets of Rome, further mutilated, and thrown into the public sewer. Finally, he was written out of history, referred to by citizens, as if spitting into the earth and grinding it underfoot, as “the dragged one,” due to the way his corpse was treated.

Roth apparently relied on various sources: his “favorite witness-historian” Dio Cassius, the Scriptores Historia Augustae (attributed to Lampridius), and the novel by Antonin Artaud, Heliogabalus, or the Anarchist Crowned (1934). A 1920 play in which Roth must have been interested as a youth, Heliogabalus: A Buffonery in Three Acts, by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, is irrelevant to Roth’s work.

Roth wrote an epistolary novel, divided, as was Artaud’s, into three parts, but very different from the latter’s. The first contains letters from various Roman officials and members of the emperor’s court; the second, although it seems to bear an alternate title to the whole, “The Garden of Desire,” is essentially a history of all the Roman emperors (Roth had published a translation of Alfred Jarry’s Messaline under the title The Garden of Priapus in 1932); the third part concludes the correspondence and, in its final pages, is very close to Artaud. Therefore, Roth’s Heliogabalus is another redaction. Harry Roskolenko’s comments about this “perversion in the mind of Sam Roth” might be applied here, as might the observation that many of Roth’s writings show a disdain for authenticity similar to that in his advertisements. As in the case of the Heine work, however, it is unfairly derisive to conclude that Roth “fuck[ed] up” his source or sources. There is too much of interest, especially including another piece of evidence of Roth’s early appreciation of a Modernist writer whose present-day reputation far exceeds what it was when Roth knew of his work.

Roth’s appreciation of Artaud may have been increased by the fact that they shared victimization by the censors. The French radio broadcasting authorities withdrew Artaud’s radio play, To Have Done with the Judgment of God, from its scheduled performance in 1947 on grounds of incoherence, obscenity and blasphemy.
Roth was always intensely curious about sexual behavior. Writing this MS is not simply an act of prurience, nor for that matter was his advertising of child abuse, incest, flagellation, sadism, or homosexuality. Although those advertisements made money, they reflected Roth’s compulsive interest in erotic desire. His own urges were intense, from the time he was eight years old through his late years. In his brief “Preamble,” he discusses the Roman belief that incest was sanctioned as a preparation for prophecy, referring to Caesar’s experience, awakening from a dream of making love to his mother with a conviction that he would one day be ruler of Rome. Roth also tries to frame for potential readers (whom he in reality had little hope of reaching) the sadistic, murderous, blood-soaked, lubricious, and gluttonous entertainments of Heliogabalus’ Rome. “Morals yielded to manners for the filling of needs that towered above the laws themselves in their loftiest statutes and precedents.”

Roth informed himself thoroughly on Roman history. He therefore knew the sources that described Heliogabalus’ excesses as the worst example of irresponsibility in an absolute ruler. He used a “Preamble” and an “Interval” early in Part 1 to discuss the dangers of what he calls “man in the stomach of the State,” possibly with an allusion to Jonah who, hiding from God and self-restraint, winds up in a dark, subhuman place. The danger is Heliogabalus’ as well as his subjects’. People always resent rulers, or idolize them, and which it is depends on charisma. Heliogabalus had that, but he was a creature of excess from the time of his birth “in blood and sperm” (the phrasing is Artaud’s) into a society where everyone was sleeping with everyone else, and where he was a child priest in a pagan cult which embodied sexuality in its basic symbols (sun, moon, sacred black rock imprinted with symbols of penis and vagina).

Roth explains very clearly, as had Artaud, the Phoenician religion of the sun, its symbols, and its antithesis to Roman order and rationality. The letters which make up the bulk of his story are written by Roman “sages,” public officials, members of the court, who want to protect their state by spewing out the barbarian. Their outrage, until the final pages of the book, is clearly also Roth’s.
Some, such as the Emperor’s grandmother (who paved Heliogabalus’ way to the throne), conspired to remove his Sunship in favor of his eminently sane and well read cousin Alexander. Roth had stated that the historian must rise above the division of people into good and evil, and focus on the “opportunistic motivation of human nature.” The bulk of his MS is devoted to letters contrasting Heliogabalus’ feckless lubricity to Alexander’s astuteness in evaluating the personal temperaments and self-restraints that made the successful Roman emperors respected, as propagandists, military leaders, and civil administrators. The mad excesses of the notorious failures are given most space, however. The many episodes provoke comments from the epistolary discussants deploring the apostasy of the abusers of power: “[there] is no excess to which a man once degraded will not descend when there is no check to his will”; “[Heliogabalus’] lubricity [having] skimmed the scum of the most licentious parts of mankind,” all that is left for the “wanton bacchante our emperor” is to offend the gods themselves.

The second part of the novel, in which Alexander shows he knows the qualities of the virtuous ruler, is written with the sententious Ciceronian phrasing characteristic of 17th century British works on the education of the prince, or the “complete gentleman.” These epistles are not merely sententious clichés, however, but rather, in view of Heliogabalus’ behavior, an extended lesson in how morals must restrain “manners” among the privileged.

The final fifteen pages of the typescript are entitled “The End.” Roth steps back from the information given in the epistles and asks his readers if they reveal accurately the nature and extent of Heliogabalus’ crimes. Those readers would have thought that the issue was settled, since what had gone before was an undisputed moral and political judgment of the most damning possible nature. The concluding pages, however, tell a different story, one closely related to Roth’s source for them, Artaud. Adelaide remarks that even in his final years her father had an uncanny awareness of which avant-garde writers would be important in the future. He advised her son James, then writing poetry, to read Artaud before studying at the University of Dijon; Jim found that knowledge “made his reputation” there. But why Artaud?
The poet’s vision was the opposite of Roth’s; schizophrenic, he spent as much time in an insane asylum as Sam did in prison. He was an anarchist, not in the sense of advocating a replacement of an impersonal nation state with communal wholeness but in preaching a total dismantling of religion and spirituality, linguistic cues regarding syntactic and lexical order, decorum in art and conduct, distinctions between gender identity, and ideas of social justice.

Literature, to Artaud, was commodity and status, therefore “shit.” He thought of Heliogabalus as a rebel, not a madman. “The revolution will come soon. All this will be destroyed,” Anias Nin reports Artaud shouting in the Paris streets. Biographer Stephen Barber points out that in France in the 1930s, social institutions seemed as vulnerable as 2nd century Rome’s proved to be when the transsexual boy emperor assaulted them. Heliogabalus’ outlandish clothes, worship of the brute unopposed power of sun, rock, and moon instead of Roman deities, his negation of masculinity not only in making himself a “wife” to a slave but in having himself circumcised (and he hoped, surgically provided with a vagina-like opening), made Roth shudder but pleased Artaud, as did the way Heliogabalus’ life was immersed in tabooed fluids: sperm (at birth), blood and excrement (his execution). Artaud in fact was not interested in sex. He saw it, like any other necessity of the body’s organs, as planting creatures in a world of things instead of replacing the “meat” of sensuality with the hard, pure “bone” of a new avatar of existence. His esotericism would seem to be the antithesis of the social and religious conservatism, and the Talmudic wisdom, with which Roth identified himself, despite the modernist, erotic, and iconoclastic publications he distributed and (with a modernist desire to accommodate contradictions) enjoyed. Roth wanted to be considered a man of letters, while to Artaud that was just another name for copriphilliac.

Perhaps Roth was aware of Artaud only because of his biography of Heliogabalus. Perhaps it was chiefly the repression of Artaud’s “obscene” art that attracted him. There was one more similarity: both men were without cultural or symbolic capital. Artaud’s self-fashioning included public shouts, grunts and expostulations, which made audiences sneer. His intense, malevolent nausea for his own and others’ bodies kept him at arm’s length even from admirers such as Anais Nin. Both Roth and Artaud were unmarketable to any coterie. Both were objects of derision, or were ignored, by journalists and academics. Roth was pirate and jail bird; Artaud was an institutionalized mental patient and had attacked respected peers such as Andre Breton, mirroring Roth’s belligerence toward Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, and Ludwig Lewishon. How much Roth knew of Artaud’s situation is unclear. Perhaps Gershon Legman reported some of it. Legman translated Jarry’s Ubu Plays for Roth’s Boar’s Head Press, in an attractive edition possibly designed by Legman, in 1953. Neither Roth’s autobiographical writings nor Adelaide’s memoir indicate he knew French, which he would have needed to read The Crowned Anarchist. No published English translation existed. Legman did of course read in the language, and could have provided his boss with an English text. Adelaide did also, having translated My Uncle Benjamin (which Roth first published in 1941).

In its first and, especially, its last pages, Roth’s work relies heavily on the French visionary, despite his stating in the Preamble that Artaud was “slightly daffy.” Examples are the possible sexual desire of Heliogabalus for his mother, the 600 amulets on his body, and his religious fervor in which “the blood of the sun formed like dew in his head.” He also repeated Artaud’s description of Heliogabalus’ grandmother’s political skills, which she hid behind a “mouse”-like “scurrying.” He slightly redacts Artaud’s passage about the emperor’s sun worship as a “magic monotheism,” showing no signs of understanding Artaud’s reason for describing the phenomenon. Artaud saw it is a way of unifying people in cataclysmic activities that would produce a state of anarchy, out of which a new phase of experience might emerge.

Roth’s description of Heliogabalus’ effeminate appearance and his outlandish hierarchy of gods are based on Artaud, and are effective. But he cannot grasp Artaud’s praise of this emperor’s “demoralization” of the Roman manners and morals by his importation of his own gods and rituals into the Empire, and does not include these passages. Instead, he puts into the letters of the sages plotting to overthrow Heliogabalus adjectives such as “degraded,” “filthy,” and “debased.” They refer to the emperor’s abuses of power as he erases all sense of duty, humility and magnanimity in order to glorify and indeed sanctify his “bestiality.” His writers insist this anarchistic tyrant imposes conditions on the people that force them to be extensions of himself, destroying individuality and their right to live democratically.
In the final pages, however, where Roth himself not any Roman personage is speaking, he seems to have stood back from their pronouncements. that At this point, using first person singular, he repeats part of Artaud’s assertions about the transgressive boy emperor as not “a madman but a rebel.”

This speaker reiterates as well the comparison of Heliogabalus’ death to Jesus’ and Socrates.’ His refusal to accept the coming ascendancy of Alexander is let stand as the act of a “true king and rebel,” a frenzied individualist.” That he forced himself on a vestal virgin was part of his plan, for it was the ultimate negation of the Roman religion. Roth’s treatment of the grisly murder and defilement of his and his mother’s corpse is almost word for word from Artaud. While it would be fascinating to report that Roth seems to have understood exactly what Artaud was suggesting about the holiness of anarchy, these final pages of Roth’s biography are blatantly inconsistent with what preceded it to support that assumption. It seems instead that Roth wished to bring his work to an end without the care with which he had fashioned the body of his novel-in-letters. But it’s also possible that Artaud’s description of complete, feral abandon to demons within, producing abandonment to feral appetites for sex, the spectacle of narcissism, and a domination built on the humiliation of the Other’s rage, stunned Roth and paralyzed his assent to his sage characters’ judgement. How to dismiss as subhuman all this “I alone” splendor; how not to sympathize with the panicked sun god’s final flight through the palace where he was cornered near its latrines, slaughtered, and reduced to a headless, gutted body, internal organs exposed, and dragged beside his mother’s equally violated corpse to the public sewer! Artaud had cruelly served up a nightmarish stew of a sun without shadows, violation, helplessness: anarchy. Finding at this point no time-honored, sententious philosophy about political survival helpful, as he had done throughout his work, Roth merely titled these final pages “The End.”

This second redaction was another miss, however interesting. Adelaide suggests a possible reason for it. One night, while walking with Pauline to Adelaide’s apartment for dinner with her family, the couple found themselves on the same street as a teen age gang. Pauline gave them a wide berth, crossing to the other side. Sam did not, passing very close to the menacing young men. Why? “I just wanted to find out what they might do.” Sam had lived his entire life on the edge of danger, having the Evil Inclination exorcised from him by a wonder rabbi, having been ostracized from his profession by an International Protest, serving nine years in prison, and challenging the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a sitting President, a powerful senator, and the news media’s most powerful commie-hunting demagogue. He never backed away from experience.
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