The noun cult entered English in the seventeenth century: belatedly, from both Latin and French, and with its meanings burdened from the start with complication and ambiguity. The OED traces back to 1875 the word’s first negative social sense (“a relatively small group of people having [esp. religious] beliefs regarded by others as strange or sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members”), but the more general sense of “a collective obsession” is found, pejoratively, as far back as 1711, and the political pejorative cult of personality is first found, with specific reference to Wilhelm II, in 1896. Nevertheless, in the first year of Wilhelm II’s Great War a man named Misha Appelbaum manifested in the municipal politics of New York as the organizer of something war-related that he named The Humanitarian Cult.

Well, Appelbaum wasn’t a native speaker of English. I should think most speakers of the native idiom as of 1914 would have regarded his choice of institutional title as strange, and after only a short time the strangeness told. Andrea Nolen,

has found traces of its ephemeral passage through the New York newspapers between 1914 and 1920, but they are only archaeological now. I have almost no idea how to read them, and to reconstruct a way they might have been read in 1914 would be, as literally as literal can be, beyond my imagination.

Of course the Humanitarian Cult hasn’t been the only unidiomatic eccentricity in history. People are fascinated by old newspapers precisely because their communications, clear then, are indecipherable now. (“Did I dress like that?”) We laugh and then forget. But the specific history of Misha Appelbaum in its newspaper morgue happens to be appended to an unchronological anomaly: an artifact somehow resistant to oblivion. It is as dead as anything else in the morgue, but having been seen, it somehow continues communicating a meaning to our (or at least my) senses, through a symbol system they seem to comprehend. I think I feel it desiring. It seems to want me to hear it command, “Forget me not,” and I seem to want to obey. I want to believe it physically possible to hear a soprano voice riding through the air of 1920 once more, on a breath.


“Photograph shows soprano singer Helen York (Helen Sherman Yorke) wife of Misha E. Appelbaum, editor of The Humanitarian and founder and president of the Humanitarian Cult, and director of the Musical Bureau of America. Photograph taken in 1920 in their home at 471 Central Park, West, New York City.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Image cropped, and contrast and detail restored.

If you do see, this image may be an idol. While I’m in its presence, I think it does what an idol does: offer itself for contemplation as a bodily life like mine, but one that happens never to have died. See me, says the idol, and seeing, believe. Regardless of what you know I am not, I am a body communicating a sense of life to your body through an order of meaning to which you can’t not assent. Along your nerves, you understand what you now know you always understood: that I am alive, and I outlived.



Life to that point had been a glitter. What tears came to the eyes only amplified the effect. See how efficient it was.



All the tears that were possible then are dry now, of course. The life at their source was only a matter of time. But scroll back up and look again at the idol.

You do have time for that, because the Helen idol didn’t change during your absence. What glitters though it is unchanging and fundamental: a property of photographic nature, compounded of silver and light and nothing else. The idol is the same to your eyes as it was before. It is a permanence. Never will it be able to communicate anything except joy to us all who lower our gaze before its eyes.