Arditti, Michael. “Of Men and Angels”, Arcadia, 2018.
The Myth of Sodom
The divine vengeance wreaked on the city of Sodom is one of the most enduring and influential myths of all time. Michael Arditti’s monumental work explores its creation, dissemination, and application in five key historical epochs. The characters that we meet here include exiled Jews, Babylonian temple prostitutes, a playwright, a Renaissance artist, a Bedouin escorting a Victorian canon and a Hollywood movie star with AIDS.
The novel extends over five historical periods, from the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible through to 1990s Los Angeles. Angels begin and end the book and these angels are guardians, messengers and intermediaries with distant deities and they hold the story together.
The story is centered the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone brought down by angels on God’s orders. Only Lot and his daughters are spared the destruction. This is a story we all know well.
Christianity argues that the fate of Sodom, and its neighboring city Gomorrah, was the result of its inhabitants “embracing” homosexuality. Thus the church condemns same-sex attraction is “the sin of Sodom”.
Arditti looks at how three millennia of homophobia has been based on how we read this text since the Bible tends to be unclear about what happened and its cause. The “sin of Sodom”, according to the words used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (authorized to whom?), is an absence of hospitality, over-attachment to other deities, or lack of trust in God. As A Jew, I have been taught that the sin of Sodom is the lack of hospitality and the fact that the stranger was not welcomed. There are strains of Judaism that focus on homosexuality as well. We also sometimes forget what happens after the destruction and I do not believe I have ever heard a sermon about Lot’s two daughters who fill their father with wine and sleep with him to propagate the race.
This is a novel about religious hypocrisy. Each of the five sections of the book tells the story of its victims. In the first section, we meet Jared, a young scribe who has been exiled with his fellow Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. His job entails creating new written versions of the Genesis stories after the originals have been lost in the aftermath of battle. He really struggles to reconcile the teaching of Judaism on the sin of Sodom with his private exploration of a more tolerant attitude to human love in the city in which he is captive.
The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters is acting out a Miracle Play telling about Lot’s wife who supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Simon Muskham whose faith leads him to take part enthusiastically in a re-enactment of Lot’s escape from Sodom as part of the city’s mystery plays, sees his same-sex attraction as a gift from God, an act of heresy that costs him at the hands of the church authorities.
The third section moves to the late 15th century in Florence where Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervor of Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance’s depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy.
In the fourth section, we begin in Egypt with the story of an English Anglican priest who while visiting the Holy Land is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance and self-righteousness is undermined by his companion, his nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company. He witnessed the horrors of mutiny and has bitter and sad memories but what the hook is here is that he is an unrepentant “sodomite” and his stories easily disturb the parson’s narrow understanding.
The last section in set in Hollywood, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It begins with an entry from a mock-Wikipedia about the film “Flesh and Brimstone” that has been condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for actor Frank Archer in his last screen appearance. Archer had been a star for several decades and he was a closeted gay who could not be open about his sexuality and his relationship with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Rumors that Frank is gay began to circulate after Gene’s death. Frank is HIV positive and his appearance in the film was courageous. This was at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence.
One of the problems of writing about five different periods is that the story could feel “fragmented, repetitive, or didactic”, but Arditti is such a fine storyteller that this is a challenging and exciting read. Quite basically, “Of Men and Angels” is an unstinting look at the biblical roots of gay persecution but it is also so much more. We feel Arditti’s position, that those who have engaged and those that engage in gay sex have been subjected is revolting attitudes and punishments over time.
Arditti combines education and research with his art of storytelling to give us a walk through Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history. He maintains “that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.”
The angel Gabriel introduces each of the five episodes that question what actually happened at Sodom. What had the men of that town done to cause God to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbors? What about the incest of Lot’s daughters’ with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back at the town when she had been warned not to? These are not new questions and most of us have asked them many times.
The dilemmas of the five main characters are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, against nature, tolerated, celebrated or concealed. We are reminded of ideologies that have caused gay baiting, hating and martyrdom. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. What Arditti depicts here are innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or compensation for what might otherwise be a “thankless and punishing existence.” We feel the author’s zeal in retelling history from a point of view that will comfort those who feel that they have been prey to unmerited criticism, or worse, for too long. Arditti’s intellectual understanding of his subject is sharp, disturbing yet satisfying. I am in total awe of the man and his novel.