Some readers cringe at the fact that I flesh out the Deadly Sins with examples, instead of sticking to abstractions. Then again, some people winced when Dante published his Inferno, which was full of the names of real people whom he’d known personally, and included in hell the pope who was reigning when it was written (Boniface VIII).
To some, it seems uncharitable to dig up the bodies of infamous sinners and put them posthumously on trial — as Pope Stephen VI did to the corpse of a preceding Vicar of Christ. In the course of the festively named “Cadaver Synod,” the rotting form of Pope Formosus was disinterred (minus the three fingers used for papal blessings, lopped off at Stephen’s orders), vested in papal robes, propped up in a chair, and charged before a court of bishops with a long list of crimes. These ranged from perjury and impersonating a priest to an attempt at seizing the papacy by force — but all were merely pretexts for the new pope to vent his rage upon his predecessor, who’d taken the opposite side in the struggle for power in Rome. The reigning pope (surprise!) won a guilty verdict against the dead one, and the court declared that even the priestly ordinations Formosus performed had been invalid. Formosus’s body was thrown in a potters’ field, then dug up again and tossed into the Tiber.
But as Kinky Friedman said of Christ, “You just can’t keep a good Man down”: Legend tells that Formusus’s body bobbed back up in the Tiber and began performing miracles. (None of these has been evaluated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, I hasten to add.) This comeback so impressed the Roman mob that they rose up and deposed Stephen, who was promptly strangled in prison. This sordid, Dark Age prequel to Godfather III was mitigated only by the absence of actress Sofia Coppola.
I’m tempted to cite Stephen VI as the role model here for Wrath, except that the back story behind this pope’s “hermeneutic of discontinuity” is too tortuous to unfold. For a scholar’s attempt to untwist the writhing viper’s nest of 9th-century papal politics, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the subject. Go on, I dare you. Any reader who slogs through that concatenation of Agiltrudes and Arnulfs and recalls a single fact of the case faces a lucrative career as an annulment attorney.
Instead, I’ll tell the story of a very different sort of man who won’t stay buried: Josef Stalin (1878-1953). In the bittersweet Soviet satire Repentance (1984), the body of a small-town tyrant clearly modeled on Stalin insists on popping up out of the ground, to the embarrassment of everyone. It seems that the earth itself is offended and keeps on rejecting the corpse. The film proved, alas, prophetic; Stalin has risen back to prominence in post-Communist Russia as an icon of the nation’s vanished greatness. If that surprises us, it shouldn’t; many of the great men whose names crowd the history books are there because of the body counts they racked up pursuing power and glory. Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon aren’t familiar names today because of all the university chairs they endowed. Likewise, history dwells on the crimes of tyrants against civilians: Ivan the Terrible, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Stalin.
Of all these names, Stalin’s seems the most appropriate to illustrate undiluted Wrath. A slow-witted ex-seminarian with an excellent memory — especially for insults and injuries — Josef Jughashvili was won over early to Lenin’s program for force-feeding Marx’s utopia and joined the Bolshevik wing of the socialist revolutionaries. He quickly made a name robbing banks and kidnapping local notables for ransom. Unlike rivals for prominence in the party like Leon Trotsky and Nicolai Bukharin, Stalin never really grasped the nuances of Marxist theory. He didn’t need to; Stalin’s genius was organizational. He mastered early the art of counting votes and squeezing cadres for support in back rooms to help him take over committees.
A gray man devoid of cultural or intellectual interests, Stalin volunteered for tedious bookkeeping work that was shunned by Marxist ideologues. This allowed Stalin to gather dirt on people, pile up institutional power, and harness the support of his fellow mediocrities against (admittedly evil) geniuses like Trotsky. By 1929, Stalin had engineered the removal of most of the other “old Bolsheviks” who’d played key roles in winning the Russian Civil War. Stalin then crushed potential resistance in the captive nation Ukraine by hunting down its independent farmers — seizing their land, their grain, and finally all their farm animals in an artificial famine that killed perhaps 10 million from 1932-33.
Stalin spent most of a decade avenging the petty sleights he felt his party rivals had done him, and searching out potential rivals for power and engineering their murder. Instead of simply butchering them, as Hitler did his enemies on the Night of the Long Knives, Stalin took morbid pleasure in forcing his rivals to confess to outrageous, impossible crimes. Sometimes after weeks of torture, these broken men would appear before a courtroom in a blatantly rigged trial, and admit that they had served simultaneously as agents of England, Hitler, and the Vatican — and had single-handedly caused factories to malfunction or entire crops to fail. At Party congresses, Stalin would deliver speeches that ran several hours, to crowds of terrified apparatchiks who’d bloody their hands applauding. Indeed, on at least one occasion, Stalin dispatched his secret police to watch for the first man who stopped clapping — who died in jail with a bullet to the skull.
Whole nations that seemed to Stalin potentially disloyal were uprooted from their lands and deported to distant deserts, while the “progressive” Soviet Union undid the work of Tsar Alexander I — who abolished serfdom — by creating in Siberia a vast industrial network based entirely on slave labor. We call it the gulag.
Not everyone reading this will think I’m entirely fair to Comrade Stalin. For instance, the widely admired civil rights leader W. E. B. Dubois penned a famous obituary for Stalin, which reads in part as follows:
Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also — and this was the highest proof of his greatness — he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.
Stalin was not a man of conventional learning; he was much more than that: he was a man who thought deeply, read understandingly and listened to wisdom, no matter whence it came. He was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance; nor did he let attack drive him from his convictions nor induce him to surrender positions which he knew were correct. As one of the despised minorities of man, he first set Russia on the road to conquer race prejudice and make one nation out of its 140 groups without destroying their individuality. . . .
The poor Russian peasant was the lowest victim of tsarism, capitalism and the Orthodox Church. He surrendered the Little White Father easily; he turned less readily but perceptibly from his ikons; but his kulaks clung tenaciously to capitalism and were near wrecking the revolution when Stalin risked a second revolution and drove out the rural bloodsuckers.
Intellectuals who may have conquered other vices, who would sneer at leaders clearly consumed by Greed or Lust or Sloth, can find themselves transfixed by the god-like power of men who are masters of Wrath. The list is long and squalid of the brilliant and the clever who tossed aside their principles to grovel gleefully for tyrants. Perhaps it’s early exposure to the Iliad (“Sing O Goddess, the wrath of Achilles”) or some inborn primate instinct to venerate the leader of the troop, but few of us easily pass by a bloody throne without fighting the urge to kneel.