Sometimes all we have is the courage of our convictions. But not all convictions are created equal. In fact, some are downright delusional. And once a foolish notion sinks its teeth into the famous or the powerful, look out–the impact can have profound consequences for the rest of us. So it’s nothing short of gratifying when our most bullheaded and self-righteous leading lights insist on getting their way only to be proven egregiously embarrassingly wrong. From politicians to pontiffs, movie stars to moguls, and ...
Sometimes all we have is the courage of our convictions. But not all convictions are created equal. In fact, some are downright delusional. And once a foolish notion sinks its teeth into the famous or the powerful, look out–the impact can have profound consequences for the rest of us. So it’s nothing short of gratifying when our most bullheaded and self-righteous leading lights insist on getting their way only to be proven egregiously embarrassingly wrong. From politicians to pontiffs, movie stars to moguls, and artists to inventors, Certitude presents short biographical sketches of notoriously stubborn individuals who were certain they were right–with laughable, disturbing, and often disastrous results.
Earning a place among the greatest historical and contemporary bullheads are:
•Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar who failed to place his own vanities on the bonfire.
•Carry A. Nation, the saloon smasher who didn’t have a temperate bone in her teetotaling body.
•Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, who lacked the deductive reasoning he bestowed on his own creation.
•Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Soviet leader who had a soft spot after all.
•Madonna, the queen of pop, who isn’t just a material girl: She’s embraced Kabbalah and the doctrine of reincarnation–in other words, she’ll be back!
Informative, irreverent, and brilliantly illustrated by the caricaturist Edward Sorel, Certitude is a book for our time.
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Meet the Author
ADAM BEGLEY is the books editor for the New York Observer and the author of Literary Agents: A Writer’s Guide. His book reviews have appeared in such major American and British newspapers as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and the Financial Times. He lives with his wife, two stepchildren, and three cats in Northamptonshire, England.
EDWARD SOREL is the author/illustrator of Unauthorized Portraits and Literary Lives and is a contributor to The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the Nation. In 2005, he completed his mural for the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village.
On November 27, 1095, the tenth day of the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II (a.k.a. Otho, Otto or Odo of Lagery) gave a sermon historians now consider one of the most important in the history of Europe. By declaring a "bellum sacrum" (what Muslims call "jihad") against the "infidels" occupying the Holy Land, he launched the First Crusade, a bloody rampage through Europe and Asia Minor which, unlike subsequent crusades, actually achieved its purpose: to regain control of Jerusalem. The crusaders celebrated the capture of the Sacred City with a comprehensive, notoriously ferocious massacre of all its inhabitants-Muslims, Jews and even a few stray Christians.
You could be forgiven for failing to suppress a cry of historical anguish: What was Odo thinking? The answer depends on which version of his speech you prefer. There are a half-dozen of them, all transcribed years after the event-after the pontiff's death and after Jerusalem had been "liberated" (which of course conferred a retrospective righteousness on the entire sordid adventure).
One account suggests that the pope was essentially exporting violence: "Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians." In another, he rages against the crimes purportedly committed by Muslims in the Holy Land: "They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground." There's no mention, however, of W.M.D.
In yet another account, Urban seems to be calling for suicide attacks: It is a "beautiful thing," he says, "to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us."
But Odo's fixation with Jerusalem was also geographic: He believed it to be the center of the earth (in one account, he repeats the claim for emphasis).
Everyone agrees that he promised immediate remission of sins for those who died in battle against the "pagans" (though he said nothing about flocks of virgins awaiting them in paradise). And there's general agreement that the sermon was a wild success with the 300-odd clerics at the council, who took up a cry that perhaps best distills Urban's message: "Deus vult," God wills it.
Compare that sublime certainty with the Arabic phrase we've all grown familiar with in recent years: "Inshallah," if God wills it.
Carry A. Nation (1846-1911)
With her trademark hatchet-and brickbats and rocks and the odd billiard ball-Carry Nation would storm into a saloon and demolish it, an unstoppable force fueled by righteous rage against intoxicating drink. Even more astonishing than the naked fury with which this 54- year-old grandmother pursued her agenda-from 1900 to 1910 she wrecked dozens and dozens of bars, first in Kansas and then across the country-is the effectiveness of her tornado-style protest. Call her the anti-Gandhi: Through violence, she galvanized the temperance movement and set in motion the political process that in 1919 gave us the 18th Amendment: Prohibition.
She was not given to self-doubt: "I am appointed for this," she wrote in her autobiography, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, and if anyone wondered exactly who appointed her, she set them straight by calling herself the "bulldog of Jesus." She was arrested over 30 times, beaten, pelted with rotten eggs, ridiculed. Never for a minute did she question the righteousness of her mission or wonder about the consequences of success.
She died eight years before the constitutional ban on liquor dried up every state in the union (with disastrous results, perverse effects on a grand scale)-but it's safe to say that had she lived, Carry Nation would have been dissatisfied with the fruit of her labor. Prohibition, she might have said, was a half-measure, feebly enforced. She'd have scoffed at anything less than a total ban- policed, one supposes, by hatchet-wielding harpies.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Maybe Martin Luther never did nail his world-shaking Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg; or maybe he did, but doing so was simply standard practice-the 1517 equivalent of blogging. And yet there's something in the image of the stern young theologian tapping forcefully with his hammer that captures the determined spirit of his reformist zeal.
Now picture him battering away in a furious, spitting rage, howling curses and barking gutter insults. That's Martin Luther when he turns his attention to the Jews.
Unless you read for yourself his long, vile rant, On the Jews and their Lies, which he wrote just three years before his death, it's hard to believe that so much naked hatred could pour out of a man who gave his name to a branch of the Christian church.
His advice on how to rid the land of the "unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews"? Burn their synagogues and schools to the ground; raze and destroy their houses; confiscate their prayer books and Talmudic writings; forbid their rabbis to teach "on pain of loss of life and limb"; deny them safe-conduct on the highways; ban usury; force them to do manual labor. And the kicker: "If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs."
Luther didn't think up yellow stars or cattle cars or gas chambers- but those who did turned to him to justify their deeds.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Everyone recognizes Sherlock Holmes by the pipe and the hat, but the detective's distinguishing trait is his unfailing logic, the brilliance of his deductive reasoning. And what of Arthur Conan Doyle, the struggling young doctor who created Holmes in 1887? Was Conan Doyle as lucidly rational and piercingly perceptive as the character he invented? Not quite.
A lapsed Catholic in his youth, in later life Conan Doyle became a dedicated Spiritualist. He called it a "sacred cause" and wrote a whole shelf of books making the case that it's entirely possible for the living to communicate with the spirits of the dead. One of his books on the supernatural, The Coming of the Fairies, is an ardent brief on behalf of a handful of photographs taken by two teenage girls; the photos purported to show fairies-cute little winged creatures-frolicking in a garden in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley.
It's difficult, at this distance in time, to believe that anyone, let alone the creator of Sherlock Holmes, could entertain even for a moment the idea that the Cottingley fairies might actually exist, and that the photographs-featuring sweetly innocent girls and what look exactly like paper cut-out fairies-were anything other than a hoax. (At the very end of their lives, decades after Conan Doyle's death, the girls recanted: The fairies were indeed just pieces of cleverly painted paper.)
If only Sherlock Holmes could have communicated with his credulous creator and repeated the line he used so often with Dr. Watson: "You know my methods. Apply them."
Prosper-René Blondlot (1849-1930)
A distinguished French scientist, head of the physics department at the university in his home town of Nancy, René Blondlot was conducting experiments on the newly discovered X-ray in the spring of 1903 when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a detector spark glowing more brightly than it should have. He realized at once that this was his Eureka moment, that he'd discovered a new kind of radiation. He called it the N-ray, in honor of his place of birth.
The news was greeted with great excitement in physics labs all over Europe. Ingenious experiments were devised to demonstrate that N-rays emanate from all sorts of substances, including the human body (especially tensed muscles and nerves). Unfortunately, the trick of catching the variations in luminosity that signaled the presence of N- rays was not straightforward-literally: One had to look sideways, and have good eyes.
The Académie des sciences had seen enough: It had already announced that Blondlot was to receive its top prize when a young American physicist visited the labs in Nancy and proved conclusively that the experiments were a sham. What Blondlot was seeing was a function of peripheral vision, in other words, purely subjective.
Asked to participate in a new round of experiments, Blondlot declined, saying, "The phenomena are too delicate." Nothing would ever shake his faith in what he'd seen with his own eyes. But the N- ray, alas, was no more.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
When Mike Wallace interviewed her on national television in 1959, Ayn Rand was 54, a bestselling novelist, founder of her very own philosophical movement, "Objectivism," and the adored heroine of a growing band of acolytes (among them Alan Greenspan). She was also a very scary person. It wasn't just the thick Russian accent (which she never lost), or the rictus she presented in lieu of a smile, or even the crazed ricochet movement of her large dark eyes-what was scariest was her poorly concealed preoccupation with an unseen audience: She couldn't help glancing away from Wallace and straight into the lens of the camera.
"You have no faith in anything," Wallace objected, "only in your mind."
"That is not faith," Rand replied, "That is a conviction."
At the time of the interview, Rand was engaged in an extra-marital affair with a much younger man-25 years younger, to be precise. The affair dragged on until 1968, when the erstwhile boy-toy (who had become a tireless promoter of Objectivism) hooked up with a young actress. When Rand found out about it, the apostle of rational self- interest lost any vestige of rational cool: She flipped-publicly, angrily-disowning her protégé but not owning up to the cause of her sudden fury.
Having espoused selfishness as a moral virtue, she found the selfishness of another intolerable. A paradox presents itself: Ego, it seems, can get in the way of self-interest.
John Cleves Symmes (1779-1829)
Not everyone finds concentric circles compelling, but for John Symmes they were the key to a great discovery: "The earth," he declared in 1818, "is hollow and habitable within." This simple formula (and the less simple pseudoscientific theory he elaborated) became the obsessive focus of the last 20 years of his life. On his death, his dutiful son marked his grave in Hamilton, Ohio, with a Hollow Earth monument-an obelisk with a sphere resting on top (the sphere, which has a hole drilled through it, looks a bit like a pitted olive).
A hero in the War of 1812, Symmes was an otherwise unremarkable man, with little formal education, an unprepossessing appearance, and a bad case of stage fright. And yet his lectures and "circulars" (not surprisingly, he preferred the term "circular" to "pamphlet") were convincing enough to earn him a minor celebrity. Despite poor health and his dread of crowds, he lectured in frontier towns and across New England; the aim of all his relentless proselytizing was to launch an expedition to the Arctic, where he believed one could gain access to the worlds within our world.
Though ridiculed by scientists and the press, Symmes garnered enough popular support for his polar venture to bring a petition before the Senate in 1822-but a motion to refer the matter to the Committee on Foreign Relations was tabled. Imagine if Symmes' ideas had been referred to the Department of the Interior.... (Alas, it was only established by Congress in 1849.)
Norman Mailer (1923-2007)
For the first 30-odd years of his life, Norman Mailer wrote, his "pride ... was to be an atheist." But in his mid-50's (around the time he began corresponding with Jack Abbott, the convicted killer whose parole he successfully, tragically engineered), he began rethinking his relationship with the almighty. In Pieces and Pontifications, a collection of essays published in 1982 (the year Jack Abbott was tried for the murder he committed just one month into his parole), Mailer explored a new faith: He conceived of a God who is not all-powerful-who shares power, in fact, with the Devil.
As he explained decades later, literary celebrity gave him an inkling of what it might be like to be a fallible God: ''Obviously," he conceded, "a celebrity is a long, long, long, long way from the celestial, but nonetheless it does ... [give] you power that you usually don't know how to use well. So the parallel was stronger than I realized.''
Over the years, his beliefs hardened into doctrine. Less than a month before his death in 2007, he published On God: An Uncommon Conversation-his last testament, as it were-in which he lays out in impressive detail his private theology, the cornerstone of which is a fallible deity with a particular professional orientation: "God is an artist. And like an artist, God has successes, God has failures."
As Montesquieu remarked, "If the triangles had a god, they would give it three sides."
Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (1872-1918)
In 1904, after giving birth to four daughters in succession, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna at last brought forth a male heir, Alexei Nikolaevich Romanov-but the baby, it soon became apparent, suffered from hemophilia.
When doctors proved powerless to treat the disease, Alexandra turned to faith healers-in particular Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant- turned-monk thought by some to have mystic powers and by others to be a shockingly oversexed charlatan. The Tsar and Tsaritsa soon convinced themselves that when Rasputin prayed for their ailing son, his condition improved.
In 1912, while the royal family were at their hunting estate in eastern Poland, Alexei suffered a life-threatening hemorrhage. A desperate Alexandra telegraphed Rasputin, begging for his intercession. He promised that the Tsarevich would get well: "Don't let the doctors bother him too much; let him rest," he cabled back- and lo, the boy recovered. The Tsaritsa was hooked.
Though false, the widespread rumor that she and Rasputin were lovers was profoundly damaging. By the time Nicholas II set off for the front during World War I-leaving his wife in charge of the government- the monk, vodka-soaked, notorious for accepting bribes, was arguably the most powerful man in St. Petersburg.
In December 1916, a conspiracy of nobles, dismayed by his undiminished sway over Alexandra, arranged to have Rasputin killed. Three moths later, the Tsar was deposed by the Bolsheviks; a year after that, Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were executed.