The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, by Milton Rokeach
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Narrative Study of Three Lost Men.
by Milton Rokeach.
Knopf. 336 pp. $5.95.
The book opens with a promising epigraph. “Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.” This pleasantry of Bertrand Russell's obviously is used by Dr. Rokeach to refer to the three Ypsilanti madmen each of whom thought he was Christ. It also colors the first page and a half of the exposition in the “Prologue”: as Dr. Rokeach describes what he did to these madmen, it seems that he is recognizing that he too (“every man,” Russell said) wants to be God. He makes it clear that he had the three delusional Christs brought together in the state hospital without their knowledge or permission, in order to see what would happen when they were confronted with one another. Splendid, says the reader, an act worthy of a godling. The fact that Rokeach the writer gives Rokeach the character a human-sounding justification for thus manipulating these three helpless men is altogether suitable. “My training is in social psychology and personality theory, and it is this background that led me to my meeting with the three Christs.” Wonderful: that a godling should be represented in a story as wearing the false face of a behavioral scientist is a brilliant narrative stroke. Surely Rokeach the storyteller knows what he is up to and can be held to the highest narrative standards—though a wary eye must be kept on any writer who can say he is led by his background. As the Philosopher said or implied, in metaphor begins intelligence.
Then the confrontation of the three Christs occurs, in eleven pages of stunning narrative. The first madman is described. He introduces himself.
My name is Joseph Cassel.
—Joseph, is there anything else you want to tell us?—
Yes. I'm God.
What economy! Then the second madman.
My name is Clyde Benson. That's my name straight.
—Do you have any other names?—
Well, I have other names, but that's my vital side and I made God five and Jesus six.
—Does that mean you're God?—
I made God, yes. I made it seventy years old a year ago. Hell! I passed seventy years old.
What about that personless voice that speaks only in italics, is never described, and consistently poses the most intrusive and troubling questions it is possible to ask these men? Yes, indeed, Rokeach the narrator knows which of these four characters thinks he's really God. (One of the things which Dr. Rokeach, a reasonably perceptive man about some things, points out later in the book is that each of the three delusional Christs knows that no one else believes he is Christ and knows that other people believe he is a hospital patient with a human name and history.) Then the third madman speaks, in one of the liveliest self-introductions since Jacobean drama.
“Sir,” Leon began, “it so happens that my birth certificate says that I am Dr. Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum, Simplis Christianus Pueris Mentalis Doktor. [This is all the Latin Leon knows: Lord of Lord, and King of Kings, Simple Christian Boy Psychiatrist.] It also states on my birth certificate that I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and I also salute, and I want to add this. I do salute the manliness in Jesus Christ also, because the vine is Jesus and the rock is Christ, pertaining to the penis and testicles; and it so happens that I was railroaded into this place because of prejudice and jealousy and duping that started before I was born, and this is the main issue why I am here. I want to be myself. I do not consent to their misuse of the frequency of my life.”
Those last two sentences—Dr. Rokeach may not be able to write good prose, but he can transcribe noble rhetoric when he's taped it.
Then the god-from-italics agitates the three Christs by asking them why they think they have been brought together.
—Are we all in agreement that there was just one Christ who was resurrected?—
“By God Almighty, that is correct,” Leon answered.
“I'm one—not you,” said Clyde. “There's something wrong with you.”
“I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Leon said. “My birth certificate says so; my habeas corpus says so.”
—Is it possible that there is more than one reincarnation of Jesus Christ?—
“There is only one that I know of,” Leon stated, “and I am the reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and I was baptized as such, sir, and I have my baptismic certificate, sir, and it's also in Dr. Yoder's office if you care to look at it. I believe the others are instrumental gods, the hollowed-out person who became a Jesus Christ through being hollowed out as such.”
“He is a rerise, he is a hick,” Clyde said. “He is next to me.”
That last is one of the great responses in narrative dialogue.
Then comes chapter one of the body of the book, “The Problem of Identity.” The first sentence is promising. “Let me emphasize at the outset that my main purpose in bringing the three Christs together was scientific.” Surely Rokeach the narrator is a fine ironist who understands that Rokeach the character recites the litany of scientific purity of motive in order to protect himself from realizing that he is playing god with three unhappy madmen. But no. No. Alas, it is not so. In no time at all it becomes clear that Rokeach the writer is as unaware as Rokeach the character of what is going on. What is wrong with this book is a problem of identity, all right—the identity of the writer. If only the writer had not confused himself with the character, the entire narrative could have continued at an ironic elevation worthy of the opening.
For the action retains the power to delight and surprise. After a year of daily meetings, things are slowing down badly. Rokeach the character conceives and executes the notion of entering into the madmen's delusions by sending two of them a series of letters signed by persons toward whom each of the two has enormous respect. (Clyde is too far gone to be interested in anybody else.) Joseph views the superintendent of the hospital as a good authority; one set of letters purportedly comes from him to Joseph. The other is from Leon's supposed wife, Madame Yeti Woman, who he at this point thinks is God. Now this is a situation of high comedy, and some of the letters and responses are literarily worthy of the macabre occasion. But clearly Rokeach the narrator does not appreciate how thoroughly Rokeach the character, in the flimsiest of disguises, is playing godling. Instead, the narrator gives to the reader the same justification which the character gives to himself for unironically deceiving the madmen this way: he is said to have done it as an experiment, out of pure scientific interest, and also out of a humane desire possibly to help them as patients. In fact, neither of them is helped, and, though the narrator assures us that this intrusion into their utmost privacy has yielded a genuine contribution to science, he is rather vague about what this contribution is. Cervantes knew all about it: anyone who has read Don Quixote already knows pretty well that trying to undelude a madman by deceitfully assuming the identity of one of the persons in his crazy system yields little enough good to him, though a lot of fun for the deceiver and his audience.
In the introductory theoretical chapter, Dr. Rokeach (no longer narrator or character but would-be scientist) outlines his theory, what in his own terminology is called his belief-system. Each person has four classes of beliefs; three of these are varieties of what is commonly called beliefs, but, according to Dr. Rokeach, what one learns through the senses and by direct intuition, which most of mankind calls and always has called knowledge, is really primitive belief. Since I share most men's opinion on the subject and not Dr. Rokeach's, I find this sentence of his quite as amazing as any of those uttered by the three Christs. “I believe this is a table is the statement of a primitive belief about the physical world which finds complete social support.” Still, if defining knowledge as socially supported primitive belief is part of his epistemological game, all right, as a reader I am willing to suspend my disbelief in order to see how the system works out in the story. Unfortunately, the system works best as a way for Rokeach as writer and as character to disguise his goddy propensities from himself. As a way for Rokeach the writer to disguise these qualities from the reader, the system works poorly. And as a scientific explanation of the human psyche, it is awful.
Dr. Rokeach believes in the religion of Science. The fundamentalist cult of which he is a learned doctor is standard contemporary Behavioral Science, American social psychology branch. Aside from the fact that Dr. Rokeach's belief system is the chief agent in the ruination of this potentially good story, I have two main objections to it. One is that it produces more banalities than any other system now flourishing, along with gleams of surprising insight. (To a non-believer, the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology is the most unsettling magazine in the world.) For example, Dr. Rokeach solemnly assures us that “the concern with beliefs involving a sense of identity is of even wider scope, having application to normal people no less than to schizophrenics and to other persons suffering from pathological states.” He spends pages adducing arguments and authorities to support this platitude. My God! Again, a few pages later, he takes the opening idea of The Divine Comedy (“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”) and makes a pomposity of it by quoting an “authority,” another behavioral scientist named Norman Cameron, on the subject.
Some time toward middle age, when a person turns thirty, thirty-five, or forty, comes the dawning realization that his life span actually is limited. With this recognition may also come fears that his lifelong hopes, overt or latent, will never be realized.
Isn't there anything these men can assume and then go on to something interesting?
My other objection to this belief-system is that it is self-deluding and timid. “There is no knowledge. What you think of as knowledge is really an uninspected primitive belief,” he roars like any radical skeptic. Yet, in the last sentence of the book, he smuggles knowledge, along with humanism, back into the cloisters of Science.
This study closes with the hope that at least a small portion of ignorance has here been dispelled, and with the faith that as knowledge gradually advances, the incurable conditions of yesterday and today become the curable conditions of tomorrow.
This is said in another tone altogether, in a devout murmur: “There is no knowledge except for us true believers.” No, sir. You can't have it both ways. You may have a better belief-system than the three Christs and certainly a lot of people nowadays share it with you, but your belief is not a godlike knowledge permitting godlike interfering in the souls of inferior mortals, any more than theirs is.
What a happy day it will be when no one can justify his poking around in other people's souls by saying, to the satisfaction of himself and of the rulers of our society, that he is doing it “in order to make a contribution to knowledge.” O Thou who speakest only in italics, I would feel better about what Leon justly calls Thine impositions if Thou hadst already made a greater contribution to Thine own knowledge. Doctor, know Thyself. “I do not consent to their misuse of the frequency of my life.”