Practically all Thornton Wilder’s work is unusual in one degree or another. THE CABALA—really a series of sketches held together by locale and a group of people who have something in common—is no exception. Like THE WOMAN OF ANDROS, the sister work to THE CABALA, this novel explores the haunting connections between pagan and Christian states of mind. Wilder was fascinated by the interpenetration in the modern mind of these radically different world views. Ever since the Church fathers “Christianized” the Greek philosophers, and Renaissance artists reinterpreted Christian ideas in pagan forms, Western civilization has been torn by the opposing forces within it. Wilder’s fantasy records the inevitably self-destructive effect of trying to live in totally opposite worlds. The soul is literally torn asunder in its impossible yearning for immanence in an alienated world. Marcantonio and Alix are sacrificed to their hedonistic instincts; as “lost” gods, they cannot find worshipers, only tormentors and judges. Like Milton’s pagan deities in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” they flee the conquering Christ—who is ironically represented in the Puritan Americans, Samuele and James, apostles of modern Christianity.
In THE WOMAN OF ANDROS, Wilder directs his pagan heroine toward Christian piety and feeling; that novel records a rite of passage and is full of wonder and awe at the evolution of religious consciousness from pagan to Christian values. THE CABALA, however, concentrates on the incompleted passage, the unaccommodated pagan consciousness that survives despite the nominal victory of Christianity. Although the bulk of the novel records the pain of the pagan gods in the modern world, the closing speech of Virgil closes on an elegiac and even heroic note. Can we ever stop loving Rome? Can we confront the modern city without the ancient one in our hearts?