Archive for November, 2014

John Franklin Bardin wrote mystery novels in the 1940s and ’50s. If The Last of Philip Banter is any indication, he wrote very good mystery novels. One of the nice things about Banter is the way that Bardin breaks with tradition; the murder comes at the end instead of the beginning. The primary mystery is something quite different.

The first few pages feel like we’ve dropped in on Mad Men: Philip Banter is a womanizing alcoholic advertising executive in 1945. All the office girls are susceptible to his charms except his own secretary, Miss Grey, who is in love with Tom, a guy in a different department who wants Philip’s job. However, today, when Philip gets to his office, he finds a manuscript titled Confession that he himself seems to have signed. It recounts events that are meant to happen tonight. Philip is a little freaked by finding an apparently time-traveling confession, or a prediction written in the past tense, or whatever this thing is. He’s especially derailed by this because he’s been getting blackout drunk (and hearing voices) with increasing frequency, so he can’t actually remember what he did last night. He really could have written this thing himself.

That night, Philip and his wife Dorothy host their old friend Jeremy and his new girl Brent. The confession predicts this, but it represents him suavely seducing Brent, which in reality becomes a complete failure. Philip is probably thrown off a bit by having seen Dorothy and Jeremy making out; he can philander all he wants, but this is her first minor infidelity, and he’s really uncomfortable with the idea that she could treat him the way that he treats her.

On Day Two there’s another installment of the confession, predicting Dorothy breaking up with Philip over lunch. So of course he doesn’t meet her. She does run off with Jeremy for a little bit, but it’s unsatisfactory for both of them.

It was very inappropriate, too, they both realized, for what they were doing in actuality was endeavoring to escape the cage of the present by admiring and reconstructing the bars that had made the cages of the past.

Even though they had both spent the entire length of Dorothy’s marriage to Philip wondering what would have happened if she had married Jeremy instead, that moment has passed. They’re in love with other people now, and not even running off together for averagely-good sex can help them live up to/live out their what-if fantasies.

The detective in all this is a psychiatrist friend of Philip’s. He doesn’t figure out what’s going on until after someone dies, and he never figures out the creepily Oedipal thing going on with Dorothy and her father, but at least he admits

Even psychiatrists sometimes make mistakes.

which is an impressive confession for a fictonal psychiatrist, I think. I don’t know enough of the real ones to say whether they fit the I-am-the-voice-of-God stereotype.

The psychiatrist gives the author the opportunity to talk explicitly about the main emotional drive of the novel: inadequacy. As in his conversation with Philip:

The young boy who has never experienced sex and the old man who doubts that he will ever experience it again share common feelings of guilt and inadequacy. They both spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about exploits they don’t have the courage or opportunity to make real. Sometimes this happens to a man in his maturity, and then his fears are often false. They are only symptomatic of a deeper wound, a hidden conflict. Some men never get over adolescent feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and with such men, every time they have a new relation it is a fresh trial of their ever-doubted prowess – you might call them sexual athletes since they are always trying to break their own records. These men often become psychically impotent prematurely. They day-dream compulsively – you do it on paper! – about imagined triumphs and then force themselves to make them real.

I don’t know if I feel guilt exactly, but I spend most of my life convinced of my own inadequacy. Being a teacher tends to feed these feelings. No matter what I do, my students are never going to speak or write perfectly. Teaching is like seeing a leak in a dam that prevents your hometown from flooding. You stick your finger in the hole. Then there’s another one, so you stick another finger there. If the leaks are close enough, you may be able to reach a third. Then you look around and realize that all your neighbors are sticking their fingers in leaks too. We know that someone needs to repave the dam, and sometimes we get very angry about that. But we just keep sticking fingers in the holes and wait for someone else to fix the systemic problems. There’s never any question of success; we just try to fail the least. Most of the time I think I’m good at what I do, but I’m never free of the uncertainty. Educational supervisors tend to work on the assumption that if nothing’s wrong, they don’t need to say anything, so in most teaching situations I’ve tended to feel isolated and underappreciated. The job where I have felt the best about my work was at The Home Depot. I worked in freight, so there was some paperwork in receiving and some forklift operating and a lot of taking things out of boxes and putting them on shelves; it satisfied the same need for order that tempts me toward library work. But my supervisor worked with me for a night every few weeks, and he always told me I did a good job, and every night he thanked the entire team for the work we did. I know that many people (like Deborah Tannen) say that women are better at giving praise, but in my workplaces I’ve found that not to be the case.

OccMan, you’re drifting. Bardin wasn’t writing about professional inadequacy; it’s pretty clear that he meant sexual inadequacy. Yes that’s true, but I don’t believe the two are so easily separable. Those people who have a proven record of romantic success tend to have the confidence and ambition necessary to succeed professionally; they’re used to a world that says Yes to them, so they go after everything they want in whichever area of life that might be. That’s why so few ugly people become rich. Then there are people like me, who have been taught their whole lives that they can’t have anything worth having, so it’s hard for me to try hard to get either a good job or a good boyfriend, because deep down I don’t think I deserve one or the other. Failure in one area of life leads to failure in the others because I feel Failure like a label printed on my skin.

Philip Banter is a good representative of this idea. He’s married to a woman he cares about, but has a number of one-night stands on the side. It looks like he has success, but he’s a shit husband, and he sees the hookups as failures rather than conquests. He’s looking for a feeling of strength, power, desirableness, puissance, but he only ends up feeling guilty, so he drinks until he can’t remember, his hands start shaking, and he has periodic blackouts. His job is similar: he has a great job as an ad writer, but he doesn’t put in the work to be good at it. He writes terrible repetitive copy, losing client after client, until his boss/father-in-law fires him and tells his wife to divorce him. There are a number of episodes of the Twilight Zone that fit this schema as well (including all of those featuring bachelors who fail at business).

One of the striking things about this novel is the structure. I don’t mean that it’s divided into three installments, one for each section of the predictive confession (which are also days); I mean the precise moment that the last chapter ends and the epilogue begins. You’re familiar with the final scene from Dashiell Hammett pictures: Nick Charles or Sam Spade gathers all the suspects and victims into one room, goes on explaining how each of them could have done it, dismissing each suspect in turn until someone does something stupid, like confessing. In the last chapter, Philip has everyone gathered in like fashion, he starts his detective monologue, but then he gets interrupted, he runs out, and someone kills him (not a spoiler; read the title again). The book proper ends with Philip’s death, and the audience still doesn’t know who the killer is. While most detective novels are about the successful search for the truth, Banter reminds us how inadequate we are to discover it. Even the psychiatrist can’t figure it out in time to save his friend’s life. Nothing gets wrapped up until the epilogue, when we have to repeat the detective monologue scene, getting it a little more right this time. Bardin hits us with it again in the last line of the book:

But there was nothing he could do about that . . .

Ending on the ellipsis, as if even the writer, who stands in the place of God, can’t bring about a satisfactory conclusion. There’s nothing the characters can do to right some of the wrongs of the world. Lives have been ended, others destroyed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In the end, in some way, we are all inadequate.

I tend to forget how much I enjoy some artists. I pick up a book, and set it on my shelf for a while, and the urgency and attraction fade. Then, one day, I open the book I’ve been neglecting, and it opens like this:

It was a cold gray day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it traveled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

and I remember how much I love Daphne du Maurier. One of the things I love about her is her complete lack of the anxiety of influence. Her most famous novel, Rebecca, draws heavily from Jane Eyre; there are also accusations of plagiarism from other sources. Jamaica Inn is remarkably similar to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho. [Radcliffe’s first novel, A Sicilian Romance, is remarkably similar to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.] Nice girl grows up in the countryside, then has to move to a new, isolated home when her parents die. Her aunt has married a real bastard who thrusts nice girl into a living hell for a few months, while she infiltrates his ring of criminals. She tries to escape a few times, but only succeeds when she brings down the entire organized crime syndicate. Writing in the 1930s instead of the 1790s, du Maurier has a little more freedom to imply homosexual attraction, but she refrains in this one. She does, however, make much of gender differences.

 Were she a man, now, she would receive rough treatment, or indifference at the best, and be requested to ride at once perhaps to Bodmin or to Launceston to bear witness, with an understanding that she should find her own lodging and betake herself to the world’s end if she wished when all questions had been asked. And she would depart, when they had finished with her, and go on a ship somewhere, working her passage before the mast; or tramp the road with one silver penny in her pocket and her heart and soul at liberty. Here she was, with tears ready to the surface and an aching head, being hurried from the scene of action with smooth words and gestures, a nuisance and a factor of delay, like every woman and every child after a tragedy.

Our protagonist Mary Yellan objects to the social roles allotted to women. Her father died when she was six years old, so her mother spent seventeen years working a farm as effectively as a man before dying herself right before the novel begins. Though she’s written in the 1930s, Mary lives in the 1810s; she has a firmly essentialist view of gender. She often struggles against what she perceives as her femininity, by which she means an ability to become stressed to the point of breaking, and a tendency to cry to vent emotional stress. If these things are essentially feminine, then I must have a feminine nature after all. I can’t cry on my own, though; I need a movie like The Majestic to get me going. Other characters don’t help matters, by also insisting on the restrictions placed on her by her gender.

You’re a woman, and your home is your kingdom, and all the little familiar things of day to day. I’ve never lived like that, and never shall. I’ll sleep on the hills one night, and in a city the next. I like to seek my fortune here and there and everywhere, with strangers for company and passers-by for friends. Today I meet a man upon the road, and journey with him for an hour or for a year; and tomorrow he is gone again. We speak a different language, you and I.

And yet, despite all the seeming indications to the contrary, once Mary’s free at the end of the book she lives this sort of life. She’s not alone, but she is free to experience adventure the way a man does. After all, she may seem limited:

Here she was on her bed, a girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realized she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

but she wins in the end.

There may not be any gay characters in Jamaica Inn, but du Maurier is frank on the subject of sexual attraction, much more than her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century influences.

 And there, in spite of herself, came Jem’s face again, with the growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his bold offensive stare. He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar. He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him. Nature cared nothing for prejudice. Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another. This was no choice made with the mind. Animals did not reason, neither did the birds in the air. Mary was no hypocrite; she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die. There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life.

I mean, realistically, there’s no reason for a farmgirl to be naïve about sex. Animals don’t care who’s watching. I should mention that Mary manages to protect herself from sexual attacks, but she’s frequently threatened with rape, and there’s at least one attempt. If this is a trigger, please be careful – but remember that she wins the fight for the right to choose what happens to her body.

The soil here is Cornwall, du Maurier’s home for nearly her entire life and certainly her favorite setting for her fiction. One of the things that always amazes me about the British is the way that they seem to think of the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales as being at least the size of South America. Mary is constantly thinking how different people are in the North and the South, but she never leaves the county. She’s talking about North Cornwall and South Cornwall. She grows up in Helston, down at the end of the peninsula, and Jamaica Inn is located on the high road between Bodmin and Launceston, what is now the A30, not quite at the opposite end of the county, at a distance that we can drive in a little more than an hour (All the locations in the book are real). I admire the patriotism that can find such variety in so small a space, but I can’t quite comprehend it.

Du Maurier seems to have the Modernist cynicism on the subject of organized religion, particularly the established church. The turning point of the novel is on Christmas Eve, and it’s hardly a time of birth or renewal.

 Last year she had knelt beside her mother in church, and prayed that health and strength and courage should be given them both. She had prayed for peace of mind, and security; she had asked that her mother might be spared to her long, and that the farm should prosper. For answer came sickness, and poverty, and death. She was alone now, caught in a mesh of brutality and crime, living beneath a roof she loathed, among people she despised; and she was walking out across a barren, friendless moor to meet a horse-thief and a murderer of men. She would offer no prayers to God this Christmas.

Mary is a moral person, just not a religious one. I don’t see any direct correlation between the two qualities as I look around the world, and indeed, the difference between them is sometimes rather wide.

I was rather surprised by du Maurier’s representation of alcohol. She seems to come out in favor of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the portrayal of Joss Merlyn. When he tells Mary about what it feels like to get drunk, he says:

 It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I feel a king then, Mary. I feel I’ve got the strings of the world between my two fingers. It’s heaven and hell.

but drinking only makes him hallucinate about the people he’s killed, and it knocks him into bed for almost a week. After watching the process, Mary decides:

 She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in her heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her.

Of course her fear of him comes back, but not as long as he’s drunk.

Jamaica Inn comes fairly early in du Maurier’s career, but she’s already mastered the most important and most difficult part of writing Gothic: atmosphere.

 Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

I was rather shocked at the lack of sympathy du Maurier has for Mary’s Aunt Patience. She fits right into our modern understanding of the psychology of battered women, but that doesn’t mean that the author has much mercy on her.

 In her own way Aunt Patience was a murderer too. She had killed them by her silence. Her guilt was as great as Joss Merlyn’s himself, for she was a woman and he was a monster. He was bound to her flesh and she let him remain.

I feel for Aunt Patience, because while Mary’s loyalty to her is more important than her actual appearances in the novel, she’s the character I identify the most strongly with.

Think of Paris in the early spring. The trees and shrubs are beginning to regreen themselves, and the air is always vaguely undecided as to whether it’s raining or not. I was on a break from teaching school, taking my first-ever vacation that wasn’t visiting relatives. I wandered around the city looking at things for a few days, and then one night I went to a café for a drink or two. There was a cute guy a few tables over, and when he caught my eye, I waved him over. He was Algerian and hated the French, so he was quite glad to find an American, particularly one who looks as Dutch/Swiss as I do. We were rather pleased with each other, so I brought him back to my place. Things went very well; no one has ever complimented me like he did. It was like being in a romance novel. Well, until I got his trousers off. He held me down and slapped me across the face – once was kind of a turn-on, but after several times in quick succession it was clear that he was just getting off on causing me pain. I remember thinking clearly, I’m turning into a battered wife. This is a class of people I’ve never understood very well, so I decided to let things play out a little longer. Things got worse when he started choking me. But he wasn’t pressing hard enough to hurt me, just enough to scare me. Later, he looked so sweet when he was asleep that I didn’t want to wake him up and throw him out, and in the morning he wasn’t violent at all.

We spent the next day together; he took me up to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. During the day he was back to being perfect: attentive, kind, thoughtful, complimentary. So his behavior during the day outweighed what happened the night before, I made up excuses for him in my head, and I brought him back to bed again. The second night was worse. Along with all the slapping and choking, he spat in my face and bit me hard enough that I had a bruise for a week. He also talked about his fantasy of giving me a dog collar and keeping me in a cage. He kept hitting me until I’d join in the fantasy with him; it made me feel complicit in what was happening, but it gave him the thrill he was after without giving me physical pain. This second night I decided that no daytime behavior was worth all this, but that since I only had one more night before I left France, there wasn’t much point in making a scene. And I was a little afraid that if he was this violent when he claimed to love me, I could get really hurt if I tried to get rid of him.

The third night we stayed out late and we drank a lot. And I mean, a lot. For most people, that helps them sleep; for me, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve gotten rid of the alcohol in my system. Getting rip-roaring drunk is a certain way to keep me up all night. Luckily, he’s like most people and passed out within five minutes of walking in the door. I stayed up reading and watching him sleep. In the morning he was his sweet self, so it was easy to be sentimental about saying good-bye. Especially since I knew I was never going to run into him again. I had had the experience of being in an abusive relationship, and now I was more than ready for it to be over.

I know that my experience was very brief when compared with most wives with husbands who beat them, but in those two and a half days I saw, in miniature, the changes that happen to a person. He’s not always violent; most of the time he’s really very sweet. So long as he’s dressed. And it’s easy to forgive an action that only hurts me and gives pleasure to someone I care about. Maybe overlook is a better word than forgive. And what we do in the bedroom is no one else’s business. I keep reminding myself of all the good things and try to forget the bad, until he’s hitting me again and I get angry. My whole life people have minimized my feelings, so I feel a little silly and ashamed whenever I get mad. Like other things I get angry about, I need to deal with it on my own. I’m responsible for my own feelings; it’s not fair of me to take them out on the people around me. The mind becomes a strange mixture of a little good sense and a lot of lame excuses, all in a murky haze of affection for this guy who, sadly, can only get off by denying pleasure to others. He’s a sad case, really, not someone who’s incredibly bad for me. The compliments are nice to hear, but the compliments are so scarce in my life that I only half-believe them, and I’ve probably done something to attract bad karma, so I deserve a little suffering. You can’t smell the bullshit when you’re standing knee-deep in it. That requires some distance from him and the situation he keeps you in.

Politically speaking, it’s been important to the LGBT community to keep quiet about stories like this. People are pushing for marriage equality, so we only present to people the best possible impression of our relationships. The media is all Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, and any problems get swept under the rug. The Trans community is becoming more vocal about the way LGBT groups keep them on the margins, but the internal violence is still something we don’t talk about. It’s real; it happens. Lesbians are better at getting help in exiting abusive situations than men. Men, including gay men, have a hard time admitting that someone is victimizing them. I don’t like remembering it clearly enough to tell the story. A friend of mine was raped once, and when a government official told him it was his own fault, he decided it wasn’t worth telling anyone about it. He spent years taking antidepressants and getting counseling for depression because he couldn’t talk about what had happened. We’ve got our problems too, and maybe when we finish getting the right to marry in all fifty states we’ll start addressing them.

The concept here seems pretty simple. Ransom Riggs went searching for a bunch of old-timey novelty photographs and made a story out of them. Lest you think the pictures themselves are made up, cracked.com is fairly obsessed with old-timey novelty photographs, and we all know that they are the best source for historical fact. Despite its somewhat gimmicky nature, the story is pretty solid, and Riggs’ descriptions are vivid enough that his book would be interesting without the pictures.

Our protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy. That doesn’t necessarily make it a teen novel, but the simple vocabulary and sentence structure, the absent parents, the discovery that he has magical powers, and the coming-of-age that involves abandoning his family and former life for a group of friends he just met, do. Ditto the narration that lacks any sort of commentary longer than a single sentence, and the way that the story sidles up close to emotional moments and then runs off to hide in the corner when we get too close. I’m making it sound worse than it is; I don’t mean to. I’ll read the sequel.

So. Jacob Portman is an unpopular kid (Teen Novel Requirement #7) with exactly one friend, a six-foot-five redneck with green hair who disappears fairly early, which is too bad. I thought Ricky had some interesting potential. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather tell these crazy stories about growing up in an orphanage for circus freaks in Wales and saving the world from monsters. One day his grandfather dies horribly, and Jacob sees the monster who does it. He spends quite some time in therapy, then talks his parents into letting him go to Wales to see the orphanage. When he gets there, he finds the peculiar children, who are kind of like the X-Men, if they were all between six and fifteen years old, and if Professor X were a time-manipulating bird-woman keeping them trapped in a perpetual childhood. They’ve been living in a time-loop for seventy years, so that the bomb the Nazis dropped on their island wouldn’t kill them all. Well, the monsters show up, the Nazis show up, and eventually Jacob goes off to save 1940 from bog-wights and Nazis. Come on, it’s a first-person narrator, you knew he was going to survive, and that he was going to choose to stay where he was accepted instead of going back to twenty-first century Florida.

I pictured my cold cavernous house, my friendless town full of bad memories, the utterly unremarkable life that had been mapped out for me. It had never once occurred to me, I realized, to refuse it.

I grew up in a small town in the South, kind of like the one Jacob is from. When your childhood is unhappy, you don’t see the possibilities for happiness that life can offer. There’s an age when you know everything you need to know for your life, and there isn’t anything other than what you already know. I’m glad that I got out of that town and have discovered that the world is larger, scarier, and more wonderful than I had thought. I’m glad I was wrong, and I didn’t need a magical sideshow to convince me of it.

I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.

I’ve also found this to be true. Sometimes I head blindly through doors simply because they happen to be open, and I need to get away from the current situation. It’s how things get better. I wouldn’t say my life is perfect, or that anyone should take it as a model, but it’s a damn sight better than it was.

Another requirement for the teen novel is the inexplicable crush. I didn’t get these as a teenager, so I think they’re overrepresented in teen novels, but I did get one just a few months ago, so maybe not. I do like the description of what the initial mutual attraction feels like:

I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good.

There’s one phrase that I’m really glad he didn’t use, ever: waiting for his life to start. I get frustrated over this phrase because it implies that we don’t live during our childhoods. Each of our lives began back before we can remember; all that stuff when we didn’t have control over our lives continues to inform our actions and attitudes forever.

I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.

When I think about all the different things that happen to children and young adults, I’m amazed any of us reach thirty-five. Sometimes I need to be reminded, but my life is a miracle. I should have died of pneumonia back when I was a toddler. There are a few other times I thought I was going to die; there’s also my childhood paranoia that my older siblings were trying to kill me. Then there’s that annoying habit I had for a few years of falling asleep while driving. I once wandered into a Communist rally in a foreign country, and I’ve done things that would get me beheaded in this country if I were to confess them in the right places. Yes, life is scary. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen more beautiful places and people than a poor white boy from Down East has a right to expect. I’ve looked at the Sahara Desert from the air, where the patterns in the sand look like giant trees, and climbed mountains in Brazil to find the giant crosses that overlook the cities there. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and seen the Pacific Ocean from a highway in Canada. If the world were as merciless as some people think, I would never have left rural North Carolina.

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.

This is a phenomenon I’ve often noticed and tried to explain to people. For Jacob, it was his grandfather dying. For me, the first was going to college for the first time. Then there was getting married. Then the birth of my first child. And the second. And the third. And then the separation from them. It always seems to me that everything in my life has been preparing me for whichever transcendent experience happens next. I’ve had enough of them that I fully expect to keep having them, these moments that alter the way I see myself and the world so profoundly that I feel ripped in half.

Someone once told me the story of reading The Lord of the Rings as a kid, when she had to wait between books. How nerve-wracking. I mean, think of the ending of The Two Towers. Sam, convinced that Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, takes the ring and the magical elven flashlight and sets off to throw the ring into the mountain alone. The movies make this moment easier by not ending there. Miss Peregrine ends on a similar journey-beginning moment, and the reviewers on Amazon say that the second one does too. If you’re into that, could be a good thing. I think it’s only good if the author keeps writing stories in the series (cough cough — Fathom’s Five — cough cough), and ends on an ending note when he loses interest/inspiration/momentum. We’ll see how Ransom Riggs does in the future.

Oh, and it’s been turned into a graphic novel, if you’re not as fond of . . . words.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

This novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story for children. It reads very quickly, and seems to have affected the people at Walt Disney to an extraordinary extent. Their Pirates franchise draws a lot from this book. It’s been memorialized in films more frequently than that, though; there have been a number of adaptations. Despite its great popularity, when it first came out, someone bet H Rider Haggard that he could write a better novel without much effort, and because of that we now have King Solomon’s Mines and the other Allan Quatermain novels.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t remember my childhood. I hadn’t thought of it in years. The ex had had a very happy childhood, despite the drawbacks of loneliness and poor income, so she kept asking me about when I was a child, and I started to remember things, and after a short time she asked me to stop telling her about my childhood. Apparently, it’s rather depressing, no matter how normal I find it to be. [Of course I think it’s normal; it’s the only childhood I’ve got.]

My parents split up when I was eight years old. Nowadays I think it was a very good idea; my mom likes babies and my dad likes sex, which seems like a good fit, but my mom didn’t like having sex and my dad didn’t like having quite so many babies. He tried talking her into various methods of birth control, but after conceiving the seventh time he got a vasectomy. My mom started sleeping on the couch, because there’s no point sleeping together if you’re not going to get pregnant. They never had much in common, and neither was having their needs met in the relationship. My dad also had bipolar disorder without having that word for it, so he was depressed almost all the time. When he realized that he was faced with either divorce or suicide, he chose life separated over faking a car accident so we could get the life insurance money.

What I remember is that my dad worked all the time; when he came home, he went out to his shed and worked on cars. We saw him very little, and when I did see him, I was petrified. I spent most of my childhood afraid. My mother had her own anger management issues, which she dealt with by emotionally distancing herself from her children. She only ever disciplined me herself once, and it was so horrifying that I resolved never to give her reason to spank me again. Never is always a strong word, but in the heart of a five-year-old it can set the course of his entire life. As for my siblings, I don’t know if there was a reason for it or not, but we were never kind to each other. We were never united against common obstacles. We suffered alone, in close proximity.

The divorce was not the big shock that these things sometimes are, even to a kid who didn’t see his parents fight. My dad faded slowly until he vanished completely. I understood it as running away; my oldest brother had already done that several times, as had the protagonist of nearly every sitcom we watched regularly. So it was completely normal to me, though perhaps my idea of normal isn’t quite standard.

As I think on it, I think that I must have read Treasure Island shortly after the divorce. [As mentioned, this period of my life is a little hazy.] I read it a few more times over the next couple of years, until I got out of elementary school. I hadn’t read it again until this week. Analyzing it as an adult/teacher/father, I can see the appeal for a kid in the situation I was in. Jim Hawkins, the first-person narrator, is growing up in his parents’ pub, when this pirate guy shows up. Hawkins Senior dies, pirate gets killed, and Mrs Hawkins digs through the pirate’s stuff to get the payment due to her when she finds a treasure map. Jim takes the map to the local squire and doctor/magistrate, and they decide to sail on off to find all that money. Unfortunately, the dumbass squire hires a huge gang of pirates to man the ship. They get to the island and somehow the pirates are even dumber than the squire and just about everyone dies.

The point is, Jim is unrealistically badass. He doesn’t kill everyone, but the adults place undue emphasis on keeping him alive. How is this kid so valuable? It doesn’t make sense. Also, he kills a pirate. Yeah, the guy is really old and drunk, but why have the little kid kill him at all? And how is he not traumatized after killing someone? It’s a kids’ book because no one else would believe it. On the other hand, for a kid, it’s really empowering. Jim Hawkins can be a badass almost-pirate, being brave and clever and all, so maybe I can too. I understand a lot of kids had this reaction to The Parent Trap. Not the Lindsay Lohan, the Hayley Mills – apparently kids’ movies in the ‘50s involved submission, obedience, and Father Knowing Best.

So maybe when I was reading Jim Hawkins, I could be him for a little while. I didn’t have to be stuck in this weird and awkward family situation where I didn’t feel that people cared about me; they kept leaving me instead. I mean, I lived with my mom, but she’d . . . forget me. Sometimes at home. Sometimes in public. She’d start counting kids in the rearview mirror when she was halfway home, then turn the van around. Así es la vida. These days she doesn’t forget me in public any more, but she still reminds me that the cats live at her house and I don’t. [Some people have sibling rivalry; I’m more jealous of the pets. I’d be happy if my mom could express affection for human beings.]

What I do remember about reading Treasure Island is that it made me feel grownup. It was a big fat book (by nine-year-old standards), with big words and long sentences and it includes real danger. It’s not the fluff that was targeted to my age group and gender in the 1980s; now I know it’s the fluff targeted to my age group and gender in the 1880s. I think the age of the book fed the mystique of maturity I was trying to access by reading it. In the years after the divorce, some of us went drinking, some of us dove into work or college, and I drowned myself in the library. I got to be all sorts of people; as long as I was reading, I didn’t have to be myself. I hid in books for a long time. A very long time. Eventually it was books that got me out of hiding – they helped me label my childhood as abusive (from neglect, not violence), and they helped me realize that I’m gay. They’ve helped me work though a lot of issues. They protected me when I needed it, and they brought me out when I needed it. I still feel safest with a book in my hand.

I’ve been taking stock of my life lately; not only am I quitting my job and moving to a different country, I’ve also very recently turned thirty-five. Back when I was young, thirty-five was the age limit after which I thought a person was no longer young. Now that I’m there, I’m not sure if that’s true. I always thought that when I grew up, I would be taller, balder, more responsible. Instead, most days I still feel like an emotionally tempestuous teenager with inexplicably grey hair and child support payments. I thought I’d be better at being a grownup. But then, when I hear people describe what they think youth is for, I wasn’t that good at being a kid. I wasted my salad days being overly religious (ploy for my mother’s approval; worked for a while, until I realized I was lying about having faith in all that), so maybe I’ll carry on feeling young until I do ‘being young’ correctly. Or maybe approaching middle age really is about being a little kid whose face is finally getting stuck being all liney. I knew I shouldn’t have made so many faces in the mirror, all these years. Oh well; too late to stop now.

Last weekend I found myself at one of the local bookstores, where I had a gift certificate from buying electronics a year ago. Their English-language selection is rather small, and last year was dominated by the works of Paulo Coelho. This year, Coelho is out and the battle for supremacy is being decided between Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux. Neither of them writes books I care much for, so it’s a good thing I’m moving in a few weeks. I ended up with the only copy of the only book in the store I wanted to read, a recent Stephen King novel. When I was about two-thirds in, I was moving the book from the couch to the nightstand and took a good look at the cover. It’s not of a girl in a modest green-and-black dress; it’s of a girl in a low-cut short green dress after the censors saw it. It feels strange to own a book that has been thus altered.

Stephen King is famous for writing horror, which is a bit of a shame because I believe he is one of the best writers of our time, full stop. And, he doesn’t write just horror. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for instance, the one about the banker (Tim Robbins) and the Irishman (Morgan Freeman) breaking out of prison, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. As his career progresses, King seems to write more and more about the fact that the world doesn’t need imaginary monsters like It or The Tommyknockers; real people are monstrous enough.

Joyland is a coming-of-age murder mystery. Yeah, there are a couple of ghosts and a couple of psychics, but that doesn’t make it horror. Our first-person narrator, Devin Jones, is spending the summer he’s twenty-one working at an amusement park on the coast of North Carolina. There is no mention of the fact that we were called The Graveyard of the Atlantic (the shore was a bit too tricky for early sixteenth-century mariners). He makes new friends, gets over getting dumped by his first love, saves a few lives, and finds a real sense of identity wearing a big furry dog suit in the unreasonable heat. He stays on after summer’s end, makes friends with a terminally ill ten-year-old, and loses his virginity to an older woman. The murder mystery works its way in and out; people keep seeing the ghost of a girl who was killed in the haunted house four years previously, so Devin sets out to solve the murder as part of his growing-up process.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from the typical story of its type is that Devin is narrating from 2013 the events of 1973. This gives him the chance to drop wise commentary into the novel in a realistic fashion; it also means that he keeps interpolating epilogues. No sooner do we see Tom and Erin move closer together than Devin tells us about how long and happy their marriage was, how it lasted until death parted them more than twenty years after the story. It’s sweet, and pulls the emphasis off of the suspenseful murder-ghost part of things. I know that these people are going to survive, and even though he makes comments like

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.

Devin Jones is a fairly reliable narrator. As you would expect from someone telling a forty-year-old story, he’s also a little nostalgic.

We could see other fires – great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires – all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is.

I’m not 61 yet, but I watch enough old movies and read enough old books to believe that this is true. I think it’s part of the paradoxical nature of the internet – everyone has a chance to make some art and get it out into the public, but so many people are doing it that no one becomes famous. Besides, most people use the internet to make the world uglier, by leaving unkind comments or spreading bad news. Some days, the time I spend on facebook is even more depressing than staring at the four blank walls of the studio apartment.

The day that Mike spends in Joyland is a really emotional section of the book for me. How can it not be? The kid is dying of multiple sclerosis, will be cremated in a few months, so Devin gets his friends to reopen Joyland for an afternoon. Mike rides all the rides (that his mother will let him) and wins all the prizes. I was also a rather unhappy child, growing up with a single mother, and while I’m still alive at very nearly thirty-five, I can understand what it’s like for someone who never gets to do anything to finally have the same kind of fun that everyone else takes for granted.

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.

I also identify with Devin, in the big breakup with Wendy. Well, it was big to him, even though she dumped him by letter and just stopped taking his calls. I was married for eight years; it was the first time I really loved someone, and we were fairly determined to make it last forever. There were problems and we started pulling apart, but when I told her I could no longer pretend to be straight she was done. Like Devin Jones, I was depressed with suicidal ideation, and the only thing I had going on in my life was my job. He falls in love with his job and stays in North Carolina; I felt that my job was futile and moved to Saudi Arabia. Someone who had lived through a similar situation once called me brave for leaving; I think I was too cowardly to stay. I can’t imagine his bravery in staying in the same place to date guys where he had lived with his wife. Devin deals with the breakup in a few months; it took me about a year and a half.

I knew it was true, and part of me was sorry. It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.

At twenty-one, I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented. I found her, we got married. I held on too long, long after my hand was clutching thorns and bleeding constantly. After the divorce, though my list of qualifications is still short, it has become rather different. I want a man who is kind, willing to forget offenses, and able to set boundaries.

This summer, I had an experience like this:

Ten years after the events I’m telling you about, I was (for my sins, maybe) a staff writer on Cleveland magazine. I used to do most of my first-draft writing on yellow legal pads in a coffee shop on West Third Street, near Lakefront Stadium, which was the Indians’ stomping grounds back then. Every day at ten, this young woman would come in and get four or five coffees, then take them back to the real estate office next door. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw her, either. All I know is that one day I saw her, and realized that she sometimes glanced at me as she went out. The day came when I returned that glance, and when she smiled, I did, too. Eight months later we were married.

Something about this passage feels absolutely perfect. But the guy I saw – he’s in a town I’ve been moving in and out of for sixteen years; I’m sure I’d seen him before. But in July I saw him, for the first time with all the force of Devin Jones’s italics. There wasn’t time to do much before heading back into the desert, but I’m hoping to rectify that situation in the next few weeks.

In relation to sex, most horror films are as prudish as Chick tracts. If anyone has sex, he or she must die. Jason Voorhees once impaled two people right in the middle of it; in The Cabin in the Woods, the girl who has sex has to die first. The same thing happens in LGBT films before around 2010; the sex scenes are designed to make the audience uncomfortable, as if they’re horrific (pay attention to the music, lighting, and situation – you’ll see it).  Joyland’s attitude is different.

 “You better go now, Dev. And thank you. It was lovely. We saved the best ride for last, didn’t we?”

That was true. Not a dark ride but a bright one.

Sex can be horrific, no doubt. Chokers, rapists, and such. But it can also be bright, beautiful, joyful. Lovely. And even in a Stephen King novel, it’s not a one-way ticket to the death-house.

Usually in a murder mystery I can sit back and go along for the ride. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve given any thought to who the killer might be. I was right, but I figured it out by looking at the constraints of the narrative instead of the clues presented. The killer has to be a character in the story, not some random person off the street who hasn’t been involved in the action, and it has to be someone the audience cares about, preferably because of a charming personality trait or habitual gesture. For me, it’s usually the character I feel most strongly attracted to; I don’t actually think murder is sexy, but maybe my subconscious does.

So, it’s a cheap mystery paperback. Checking with the exchange rate, I got mine new for about $8.50. But it’s a very good mystery novel, one worth reading a second time. It’s a brilliant study in effective foreshadowing, for those of you writing your NaNoWriMo novels who want to get that technique down. I do hope that fifty years from now, when we’re studying the novels of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Stephen King gets a good representation in the academy. He richly deserves it, more than many an author with an NBA or Pulitzer.

The ex always had more active senses at night. For the first few years, she continually woke me up to investigate strange sounds or smells that I could neither hear nor smell. There was never anything there, or maybe I just never woke up enough to perceive it. One night, though, she brought me out of a sound sleep to take care of a bat. As creatures go, bats are fairly nonthreatening. Most only eat plants or insects, so they don’t bite people unless they’re threatened. If they get into your house, they circle around trying to find a way out. The best thing to do is to throw a towel over them, or otherwise knock them to the ground. A bat needs a running start to get in the air, which is why they don’t land often. A bat on the ground is easy to transport against its will. I found out all this the day after the bat attack. All I knew that night was that there was a wild animal in the house with my wife and children and I had to get rid of it. I got a broom and chased it around until it settled to circling my oldest son’s room. He was three and slept through all of this. I stood in the doorway trying to hit the bat as it came by; with each pass it got lower and lower, until I threw an empty cardboard box over it. Then I swept the box over to the door and released it outside. D. H. Lawrence has this weird collection of poems about flowers and animals, and he tells a similar story.

In terms of style, Lawrence’s poetry is quite what you’d expect if you read his novels. This collection deals much more extensively with animals and our relationship to them than his prose, though his prose often involves vivid descriptions of plant life (like that time when Rupert Birkin runs naked through the woods in Women in Love). In terms of attitudes, again there are no surprises: disdain for women, foreigners, and the working classes.

There’s one piece where he describes these purple flowers, and they make him think of Hades. In case you missed Greek (Roman) mythology, once upon a time there was a god named Hades (Pluto/Dis) who literally got the short end of the straw and had to administer the Underworld. He got kind of lonely down there, so one day he chose a wife. Persephone (Proserpina) was a young goddess out picking flowers with her friends when suddenly there’s an earthquake and the God of Hell rises out of the ground and drags her down with him. Her mother Demeter (Ceres) is the goddess of harvests and nature, and she was so depressed with the loss of her daughter that she sank the world into an eternal winter, just like Elsa in Frozen. Eventually the gods convinced Hades to give her up to save mankind from freezing and starving to death. He had one condition, though: she could only leave if she had never eaten or drunk anything while she was there. The whole eternal winter thing had become a real threat, so she had to have been down there for at least a year. She held out almost that entire time, since goddesses can’t starve to death, but they do get hungry; Persephone ate five seeds from a pomegranate, so she has to return to Hades for five months every year. During that time, her mother mourns again, and we have cold weather when crops don’t grow. Lawrence focuses on spring and summer, when lonely Hades wanders the earth looking for his wife, and he calls her a women’s rights activist. I guess you can see Persephone as a suffragette, but that’s a totally messed-up way of looking at the sexual dynamics of equal rights. Lawrence’s sympathies are with the abandoned rapist, and political activists seem domestically irresponsible and doomed to failure.

He gets kind of possessive of women, too – he talks of England as a graveyard where all the women of his life are buried, and then he calls their ghosts to follow him to America. He does a “My Last Duchess” bit of jealousy with his dog. She’s a cute little thing, but she loves everybody, and he keeps losing her because she will run after anyone who isn’t loving her as much as she wants to be loved. Lawrence’s verse derives rather a lot from our great American poet, what with the long lines, long poems, and plain language, but it’s not a straightforward appreciation: he calls the dog “a Walt-Whitmanesque bitch” because there’s nothing she doesn’t like. She’ll even eat shit. I suppose he thinks Uncle Walt did the same.

As for other forms of elitism, here’s his response to meeting a couple of Mexicans who shot a mountain lion.

And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion.
And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two of humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost face of that slim yellow mountain lion!

I’m all for protecting nonhuman life, but really? He’d rather see two million people burning in hell than one dead mountain lion? I don’t deny that big cats are beautiful, but this does seem a bit extreme.

Lawrence has an interest in animal mating habits that also seems a bit extreme. I’m happy that animals reproduce, and I’m in favor of sex generally, but I have never written a poem about a tortoise screaming during ejaculation. Or, this bit about goats:

With a needle of long red flint he stabs in the dark
At the living rock he is up against;
While she with her goaty mouth stands smiling the while as he strikes, since sure
He will never quite strike home, on the target-quick, for her quick
Is just beyond range of the arrow he shoots
From his leap at the zenith in her, so it falls just short of the mark, far enough.
It is over before it is finished.
She, smiling with goaty munch-mouth,
Mona Lisa, arranges it so.

Orgasm after orgasm after orgasm
And he smells so rank and his nose goes back,
And never an enemy brow-metalled to thresh it out with in the open field;
Never a mountain peak, to be king of the castle.
Only those eternal females to overleap and surpass, and never succeed.

Hardly complimentary to the poor woman, who probably regard his repeated orgasms as somewhat premature.

Most of these poems were written in either Italy or America, and he brings the two together briefly:

Evil, what is evil?
There is only one evil, to deny life
As Rome denied Etruria
And mechanical America Montezuma still.

Lawrence goes into his fascination with Italians in Etruscan Places, where he goes on a tour of the ancient pre-Roman tombs. As in America, there was a group of people living close to the soil, and then a more technologically advanced society took them over and used their home as a headquarters from which to launch an empire that would cover most of the continent. Technology tends to drive us further from nature, and away from a value for human beings who are different than we are. I’m not sure if Lawrence does a better job of avoiding this evil than other people do, but I do enjoy his books.

Further on America, and the identity crisis we’re still having almost a century later:

THE AMERICAN EAGLE

The dove of Liberty sat on an egg
And hatched another eagle.

But didn’t disown the bird.

Down with all eagles! cooed the Dove.
And down all eagles began to flutter, reeling from their perches:
Eagles with two heads, eagles with one, presently eagles with none
Fell from the hooks and were dead.

Till the American Eagle was the only eagle left in the world.

Then it began to fidget, shifting from one leg to the other,
Trying to look like a pelican,
And plucking out of his plumage a few loose feathers to feather the nests of all
The new naked little republics come into the world.

But the feathers were, comparatively, a mere flea-bite.
And the bub-eagle that Liberty had hatched was growing a startling big bird
On the roof of the world;
A bit awkward, and with a funny squawk in his voice,
His mother Liberty trying always to teach him to coo
And him always ending with a yawp
Coo! Coo! Coo! Coo-ark! Coo-ark! Quark!! Quark!!
YAWP!!!

So he clears his throat, the young Cock-eagle!

Now if the lilies of France lick Solomon in all his glory;
And the leopard cannot change his spots;
Nor the British lion his appetite;
Neither can a young Cock-eagle sit simpering
With an olive-sprig in his mouth.

It’s not his nature.

The big bird of the Amerindian being the eagle,
Red Men still stick themselves over with bits of his fluff,
And feeling absolutely IT.

So better make up your mind, American Eagle,
Whether you’re a sucking dove, Roo-coo-ooo! Quark! Yawp!!
Or a pelican
Handing out a few loose golden breast-feathers, at moulting time;
Or a sort of prosperity-gander
Fathering endless ten-dollar golden eggs.

Or whether it actually is an eagle you are,
With a Roman nose
And claws not made to shake hands with,
And a Me-Almighty eye.

The new Proud Republic
Based on the mystery of pride.
Overweening men, full of power of life, commanding a teeming obedience.

Eagle of the Rockies, bird of men that are masters,
Lifting the rabbit-blood of the myriads up into something splendid,
Leaving a few bones;
Opening great wings in the face of the sheep-faced ewe
Who is losing her lamb,
Drinking a little blood, and loosing another royalty unto the world.

Is that you, American Eagle?

Or are you the goose that lays the golden egg?
Which is just a stone to anyone asking for meat.
And are you going to go on for ever
Laying that golden egg,
That addled golden egg?

And, my personal favorite from this collection:

PEACH

Would you like to throw a stone at me?
Here, take all that’s left of my peach.

Blood-red, deep;
Heaven knows how it came to pass.
Somebody’s pound of flesh rendered up.

Wrinkled with secrets?
And hard with the intention to keep them.

Why, from silvery peach-bloom,
From that shallow-silvery wine-glass on a short stem
This rolling, dropping, heavy globule?

I am thinking, of course of the peach before I ate it.

Why so velvety, why so voluptuous heavy?
Why hanging with such inordinate weight?
Why so indented?

Why the groove?
Why the lovely, bivalve roundnesses?
Why the ripple down the sphere?

Why the suggestion of incision?

Why was not my peach round and finished like a billiard ball?
It would have been if man had made it.
Though I’ve eaten it now.

But it wasn’t round and finished like a billiard ball.
And because I say so, you would like to throw something at me.

Here, you can have my peach stone.

 

So. The ex and I had been married for a few years, and still hadn’t seen all of each other’s favorite movies, so I made her watch What Dreams May Come. I love this film – it touches on the love of children for their father, it goes into how to deal with grief and extreme depression in a romantic partner, and it’s visually one of the more beautiful films I’ve seen. Afterward, I asked her what she thought, and she was just like, eh. It’s okay. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “It’s not real.” Of course it’s not real! It’s not intended to provide a road map of the afterlife. It’s a story about love and responses to grief; death is just a convenient way to isolate a few characters and re-juxtapose them so they don’t recognize each other. Diana Wynne Jones and C. S. Lewis do this by transporting characters into magical fantasy worlds; the filmmakers just used death instead of a magical wardrobe. For me, the fact that the movie isn’t real doesn’t matter.

This question came up in reading Zealot. The book is a biography of Jesus, based on historical research. Being based on documented fact instead of the accounts written by his followers, the depiction of Jesus is rather different than what most people expect. But, like with What Dreams May Come, is it real? And does that matter?

The Fox-News interview focused on his credentials instead of on his book, so let’s review those. Aslan was raised a Muslim in Iran, but his family fled to the United States. Islam became a reminder of the troubles they were escaping, so most of them left off practicing. As a teenager, he became converted to evangelical Christianity; preparing for college, he reverted to Islam. He got a PhD in religion and an MFA in creative writing, attending the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This much he tells us himself, in the introductory material. First off, we need to address the IWW. It’s famous for producing some of America’s finest writers in the last few decades. However, I’ve noticed that while they all have different interests and foci in their work, they all tend to sound the same. The IWW style is clear, concise, serviceable. But it’s not florid. I like florid. I like it when an author luxuriates in language simply because he loves words. The IWW writers don’t do this. For them, language is not a paintbrush; it’s a screwdriver. There were no passages of especial beauty for me to transcribe here – Aslan has written the least emotional account of Jesus’ life I’ve ever read, possibly the least emotional account of any person’s life. It draws the reader in, moves quickly, shows off the author’s vocabulary, describes the setting sufficiently to place the reader in the world depicted, all those things that good prose is supposed to do, except make the reader fall in love. Porro unum est necessarium.

What is a Muslim doing writing about Jesus? Well, what is Islam? Submission to God, worship of the single monotheistic God. Therefore, all the prophets, all of ‘God’s people,’ have been Muslims. Islam teaches of four major prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Followers of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were just as much Muslims as those who follow Muhammad today. The Qur’an tells stories about Jesus; they have just as much a right to him as anyone else. Christians write books about Jeremiah and Isaiah; Muslims can write about Jesus. The point that Aslan focused on, though, is that he has a terminal degree in religion. He teaches religion in a prestigious university. It’s his job to talk about Jesus all day long. He’s not writing a book about faith; it’s a book about a historical person, one that the author has spent years studying. I could write my thesis on Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen without being an Englishwoman; Aslan can write a book about Jesus without being Christian.

But he’s wrong in implying that Islam has nothing to do with his book. Iran tends to be mostly Shia; this is the minority of Muslims that are more prone to violent acts in the name of God. When he describes the Jewish Robin Hoods that were trying to throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor, waving their swords and shouting “No lord but God,” it sounds an awful lot like Muslim extremists who go into their fight against Israel (or more moderate Muslims) saying the “La illaha.” Aslan never makes this explicit, but his language certainly invites the comparison. He makes Jesus seem like a two-thousand-year-old suicide bomber. Aslan rips apart the Christian idea of Jesus and replaces it with a narrative that fits more closely with Islam’s presentation of him, including the idea that the deification of Jesus began with Paul, who rarely concerned himself with what Jesus actually said.

The first quarter of Aslan’s book describes the historical context, going back about 150 years before Jesus was born and extending a hundred years or so after he died. The focus is on the interaction between Jerusalem and Rome. Judea was a troublous province way off in the sticks; they wouldn’t submit to assimilating nicely like all the other conquered peoples. Jerusalem was the home of the Temple, the symbol of the Jews’ faith and their most important gathering-place. This was where God spoke to the people. The priests tended to live in luxury while the rest of the Jews got poorer and poorer. They blamed their poverty on the wealthy foreigners who moved into their cities (or built their own new cities on Jewish land). There were a number of violent insurgents who tried to drive the foreign elements out of their land and free the Jews; a lot of them were called messiahs. Rome was brutal in putting down the insurgents. They called them bandits and thieves, like the two who talked to Jesus when they were all hanging around on the crosses. The extreme violence makes this a terrible time and place to have lived. This part of the book, I think, would be of great interest and import to those people who want to understand the world Jesus lived in, what he would have considered normal. These are his cultural expectations.

The second quarter, a little longer than the first, tells the story of the life of Jesus. There are very few reliable historical documents that refer to him; Aslan talks about Josephus’s brief mentions of him. Some of this section is derived directly from the source material in the first: Jesus was killed for the same crime as some of these other guys, so let’s see what they did to draw attention to themselves and then assume that Jesus did something similar. Aslan has a troubled relationship with the Bible; some parts he dismisses as fabrications, others he treats as historical fact, and he rarely tells us why he treats the stories so differently. The thing is, like What Dreams May Come, most of the Bible was never intended to be taken as literal historical fact. The different gospels were written with different purposes in mind: to compare Jesus to King David as king of Israel, or to convince people that he was this eternal god incarnated for a brief time, for example. The stories in the gospel aren’t about facts; they’re about truth. If your messiah is an illiterate, probably illegitimate peasant, then you’ll need to argue that he’s descended from the royal line of Israel, whether anyone believes it or not. The point of those genealogies is to tell us who Jesus should remind us of, not to trace a literal family tree.

In chucking out a good bit of the gospels, Aslan is chucking out the Qur’an as well. Muslims also believe in the virgin birth, though Aslan dismisses it as a patent impossibility. He says that either Joseph jumped the fence or Mary was sleeping with a Roman soldier. Yet, he accepts Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. The area was full of faith healers, and no one (in the Roman government or American academia) seems to have opposed them. Why can we accept the idea that Jesus was an actual magician, but not that he was born magically? Aslan seems arbitrary in his choice of what he will accept and what he will not. As another example, Aslan does not challenge the story of the Transfiguration even though there were only four people present for it and none of them wrote the story of it. None of them could have, not being able to read or write. The gospels come from two basic sources, Mark and Q. Mark was written thirty years or so after Jesus died, and I’m not sure about Q. Q has gone missing, but scholars have recreated much of it by using the shared material in Matthew and Luke. And John, well, John’s just different.

The main point is that Jesus defied the authority of Rome and the Temple. The Temple was in Rome’s pocket anyway, since they appointed the high priests. Jesus drove out the Roman influence and said a lot of Jerusalem-for-the-Jews kind of stuff. There was also the Triumphal Entry. Jesus was challenging Rome, so the Romans killed him, just as they had everyone else who had done the same thing. It’s pretty simple.

Much simpler than the task of harmonizing the four gospels. The only other account of Jesus’ life I’ve read is James E Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. His attempts are sometimes contrived, and his story is much drier. Even in the faith tradition Talmage comes from, his book is considered difficult to get through. He puts forth a valiant effort to make the four different stories fit together; often he’s successful, sometimes not so much. Talmage accepts everything in the gospels as gospel, though, unlike Aslan.

The third section is comparatively brief. It covers the time after Jesus’ death. It reads a bit like The Brontë Myth; it’s about the creation of Jesus as a phenomenon, how he is uncoupled from his historical reality and transformed into The Christ. Aslan blames first Stephen, who claimed to see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God (and therefore in a position of equivalent power and authority), right before he was stoned to death for blasphemy. Yeah, it is blasphemous, and Jesus would have seen it that way too. The next, more important culprit is Paul. Originally he went around persecuting the followers of Jesus, but he had a dramatic conversion experience and joined their team. But the problem is that he never really joined them. He took the idea of Jesus to the Greek-influenced foreigners and repackaged him for their consumption. That’s why he stripped away all of that Law-of-Moses stuff: so that his Hellenic audience would buy it. The real followers of Christ in Jerusalem didn’t. They called him back to Jerusalem to try to get him back in line with the rest of them, but he absolutely refused. Paul went on inventing Christian theology with nary a thought as to the actual historical Jesus, whom most people could still remember (if they had ever heard of him before Paul started preaching). Unfortunately in the eyes of some, Paul’s version caught on in Rome (even though Peter got there before him), and when Christianity became the religion of the empire, it was Paul’s version, which he mostly made up himself.

The really important guy was James, Jesus’ brother. Despite what many Christians believe, James was the real leader of the group of Jesus’ followers, not Peter or Paul. He did everything he could to keep the real, historical, political, Jewish Jesus alive in people’s minds and hearts. His version of things wasn’t so popular with the literate, powerful crowd as Paul’s was, so he has faded with time. James was the monotheistic one who didn’t associate anyone else in the worship of God; Paul started all that polytheistic weirdness we call the Trinity.

The last third of the book is documentation and source material, so maybe Aslan isn’t as arbitrary as he seemed to me. But reading through bibliographical references isn’t very interesting, so I skipped that part. Besides, I don’t know enough about the academic study of Jesus’ life to recognize any of his citations.

How should Christians take all this? Well, they survived The Da Vinci Code, they can survive this. They already believe in a lot of things that defy logic, so I don’t see how a logical argument like this one can pose any sort of threat at all. It’s so polarized that it will only convince those who are already inclined to agree with it. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re thoroughly convinced in the literal interpretation of the Bible. I found Aslan’s book convincing, despite the occasional inconsistencies, but I was raised in a church where the most influential leader of the nineteenth century said that the story of creation in Genesis is more of a bedtime story than anything to do with either history or science.

Which leads me back to What Dreams May Come. So, I’ve determined that the stories in the Bible aren’t factual. But does that matter? Like the film, they were never intended as such. There are still a lot of good ethical ideas in Christian writings, still a lot of beauty in Christian poetry, still some comfort to be had in Christian ritual. But I can admit that without having to adopt their version of a suicidal, bloodthirsty, vengeful, jealous, possibly plural god. I don’t have to reject everything in Christianity, but I don’t have to accept it all either. I just need to remember that in my ongoing search for spiritual guidance, I can’t rely on those who interpret the bible literally. It all has to be taken with a grain of salt.

I don’t really understand J. D. Salinger’s intense popularity. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late 20s, and I was really disgusted by it. Holden Caulfield has more money than problems, and that itself is becoming a problem in his teenage life. He lands himself in a mental institution, apparently so that he can finally suffer authentically. I spent my teenage life suffering in poverty and isolation, so it’s really hard for me to relate. However, I have friends who really get behind Franny and Zooey, so I gave it a try. It’s much easier for me to get into – much less whining and more of a struggle that I understand.

Franny and Zooey is basically a story of three conversations. Since the book is two hundred pages long, the conversations are a bit lengthy. This is not the sort of book to read if you’re into action; more My Dinner with Andre and less Andre the Giant. The main issue is that Franny is trying to ‘pray without ceasing,’ as the Bible recommends. But it’s really stressing her out and not really enlightening her.

The book begins with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for lunch. They’re a couple of college kids (attending different schools; this is the 1950s) who are having lunch before a football game. Franny feels kind of sick, which pisses Lane off. Franny’s preparing to drop out because everything is so fake. There’s the established conformity, and there’s the equally established bohemian alternative conformity, and no one is really himself, not even the professors. She’s looking for some kind of authentic experience, so she looks to religion. Religious writers have been saying for centuries that repeated chants can induce a trance state that fosters mystical experiences, and that’s what she’s doing. She found a book in the library about a peasant that wanders around Europe saying The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner), so that’s her mantra. Franny’s spiritual search is played off of Lane’s materialism: he focuses his attention on objects, what coat is she wearing, what does she order for lunch, that sort of thing, and he reflects with satisfaction on the fact of being seen in the right restaurant with the right sort of girl. Too bad Franny’s behavior is becoming erratic; she’s not the right sort of girl after all. She just looks like it. A sample of their conversation:

“I don’t know what a real poet is. I wish you’d stop it, Lane. I’m serious. I’m feeling very peculiar and funny, and I can’t – ”

“All right, all right – O.K. Relax,” Lane said. “I was only trying – ”

“I know this much, is all,” Franny said. “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression. Like Manlius and Esposito and all those poor men.”

Lane took time to light a cigarette for himself before he said anything. Then: “I thought you liked Manlius. As a matter of fact, about a month ago, if I remember correctly, you said he was darling, and that you – ”

“I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. . . . Would you excuse me for just a minute?” Franny was suddenly on her feet, with her handbag in her hand. She was very pale.

I like Franny’s ideas of poetry, particularly of mid-twentieth-century poets. I wish more artists were interested in making the world a beautiful place, instead of merely reflecting the fuckeduppedness they see around them. The world is beautiful, and there are lovely things in it, and I’d like to contribute to that. I want the world to be more beautiful for my having been in it, not angrier.

The second conversation takes place a few days later, in the bathroom. Zooey is reading a letter he received years ago from his brother Buddy while sitting in the tub. Buddy steps forward for a few minutes to identify himself as the narrator and to explain a bit about the family – five brothers, two sisters, just like mine, two dead, not at all like mine. Salinger writes about this family in several other stories; Seymour seems the most important, he being the oldest, and the rest of his family’s stories seem to revolve around him, or the lack of him. He commits suicide in 1948. Seymour and Buddy are only two years apart, and they seem to have been inseparable. Buddy’s narrating the stories might be why Seymour seems so paramount. Seymour and Buddy were in college when Zooey and Franny were young, and they taught their youngest siblings all about Eastern philosophy when they were young children. Franny and Zooey have often felt like freaks ever since, but when Franny has her religious crisis, Seymour’s the one she wants.

I feel more than one pang of envy when I read about the Glass family. Yeah, we have the same complement of boys and girls, but my family is closer in age and further in character. The scene where Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s room hits me the hardest – the two oldest Glass kids had all the same reading interests, so while their room is odd, it’s clear that it is the result of two minds that work in unison. I don’t have that in my family. The brother closest to me in age told me he’d rather have me dead than gay, so he pretends that I am. At almost exactly fifteen months, he and I are the chronologically closest in our family, but we’re pretty far removed in terms of priorities and values. The next older is almost three years older than me. When he flunked out of college and came home in disgrace, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Upon reflection, I think a lot of it was isolation and the need to connect. A few years later he came to the same university I was attending, and over the next three years it became clear that we weren’t quite as similar as we had thought. Eventually I felt like I was valued so long as I was his Mini-Me; when I asserted myself, we tended to drift apart. In general, my family tends to think of me as a useless sort of blank slate. The ex really helped for a while; she presented me to my family in a way that they could understand and like; my solitary visits post-divorce have reminded me that I really do need an interpreter between me and my own family.

Anyway, this second conversation is between Zooey and his mother. She’s concerned about his television career (both parents are old vaudevillians), and she wants him to talk to Franny about whatever’s going on with her. Like Lane, Zooey seems to swear with unnecessary force at strange times in the conversation. Also, they favor the religious swear words, the ones I never use. I will say shit or fuck with somewhat reckless abandon, particularly when upset, but I never use goddamn, and seldom damn or hell. I also do not swear in my mother’s presence, so Zooey swearing at his mother puts me off. I can understand his desire to get her out of the bathroom while he’s in the tub, but the rudeness he uses to accomplish that (which fails, by the way – this conversation is about twice as long as the previous) makes me feel uncomfortable. There’s another treasure trove for the thing theorists when she opens the medicine cabinet – so much useless stuff crammed into a little space.

The third conversation, the one you’ve all been waiting for, is between the two titular characters. Zooey tries to talk Franny into a better frame of mind, and by ‘better’ we mean ‘more similar to his.’ I think that taking on her discontent with academia is a good start, probably because I get frustrated with it too. I think that my frustration may come from my perceived rejection from it – I applied to doctoral programs for years, and never got accepted. In the end, I gave up, because they’re not interested in giving people time and space to develop ideas. They’re interested in finding people who are going to contribute to The Profession and training them to do it properly. Not much caring for The Profession, I don’t get accepted to their programs.

Way back in the early Aughts, I saw a sign up for a demonstration against the impending invasion of Iraq. I (still) think it is/was a bad idea, so I went to the protest. I was fine and happy as long as we were protesting against war, but the person with the megaphone then started making personal attacks on the president and going on about environmental policy. I was never a big fan of Bush Jr, and I’m a big fan of conserving and protecting the environment, but I wasn’t there for that. If we’re here to protest the war, let’s focus on the war instead of mixing the war into a mass of other issues that just foster Bush-bashing. Keep a clarity of purpose. Zooey accuses Franny of making the same mistake.

If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl – because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.

Haircuts and fashion sense don’t make someone a good teacher. Yet, when students dislike a teacher, they seldom think through precisely what they disagree with. Instead, they’ll launch into this sort of personal attack, as if style were the essential thing. I remember one of my favorite teachers in high school was once criticized for wearing a brown belt with black shoes. To his face.

I think it’s much more important that a teacher feel a vocation to teach. I think that’s what Zooey is trying to get at in this section on ego.

Take your Professor Tupper. From what you say about him, anyway, I’d lay almost any odds that this thing he’s using, the thing you think is his ego, isn’t his ego at all but some other, much dirtier, much less basic faculty. My God, you’ve been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher – or, for that matter, college professor – and half the time you find a displaced first-rate automobile mechanic or a goddam stonemason. Take LeSage, for instance – my friend, my employer, my Rose of Madison Avenue. You think it was his ego that got him into television? Like hell it was! He has no ego any more – if ever he had one. He’s split it up into hobbies. He has at least three hobbies that I know of – and they all have to do with a big, ten-thousand-dollar workroom in his basement, full of power tools and vises and God knows what else. Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.

When I was in school, I liked just about everything, and was good at the academic subjects. It’s great for being a student, but terrible when you have to specialize. I don’t think there’s any one profession that could consume my entire life like Zooey expects it to. Besides, as much as I like handcrafts, I don’t think I could support myself and my kids with my knitting.

I notice that the passages I’m pulling out are decidedly Zooey-heavy. The story is like that, but I’m a little too close to Franny’s mental state to derive much benefit from her. I’m kind of in the market for a spiritual guide, but I keep rejecting the ones that are available. I’m afraid that I’m going to find something that works for others in my independent reading, try it for myself for a while, then go to pieces when it doesn’t work for me. And,

When you first felt the urge, the call, to say the prayer, you didn’t immediately start searching the four corners of the world for a master. You came home.

I’d like to go home. We can only handle a finite number of stressors at one time; going to a familiar place reduces the stress from the environment. This is an important strategy when internal stress runs high. Mine is becoming problematic, and I’d like to go home now.

Franny and Zooey is a good book. Franny has a major religious crisis, but it remains unresolved, potentially unresolvable (how very 1950s-bohemian). Personally, I’m looking for a little resolution right now, so I may need to file this with Demian as good, but not what I need at the moment. Maybe if I read some of the other Glass family stories; they seem like interesting people, and I’d like to see more of them.

Three years ago, when I faced the fact that I didn’t believe in the church I had been attending my entire life, my friendly acupuncturist recommended this book to me. He had read it when he was younger, and it really helped him begin fashioning his own belief system. I read it then and really liked it, but as I was reading it these last few days, I realized that its time has passed for me. It’s a good book for beginning, but feels less relevant when you’re in the middle of the struggle.

It’s also kind of elitist. Sinclair starts the novel as a kid in school. He meets Max Demian and they talk about the biblical story of Cain’s mark. Demian sees it as some sort of retcon by the uninitiated: they saw something about Cain that was unsocial and extraordinary, so they invented the myth about killing Abel to explain it. The two friends spend the rest of the novel either being alone or hanging out with an intellectual ‘elite,’ until they go off to fight in World War I. There in the last few pages, Sinclair finally begins to see the beauty and dignity of ordinary men and ordinary lives.

Having read several of his books, I firmly believe that Hermann Hesse was a closeted homosexual. Possibly not closeted to close friends, but in terms of his public. This book leans pretty strongly in that direction. It seems obvious to me that Sinclair is in love with Demian but can’t admit it to himself. He feels a magnetic attraction that he can’t explain. He only infatuates himself with women who are completely unattainable and noticeably masculine. The big love of his young life is Demian’s mother, a more mature version of Demian himself, only with a gendered body that Sinclair will admit to being attracted to. When the book ends, Sinclair is in a war hospital seeing a vision of Demian kissing him. This vision seems to settle in his mind what relation he will have to Demian in future, using him as a sort of intellectual muse.

Part of the difficulty Sinclair has is one that I’m faced with too. He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

There was only one thing I could not do: wrest the dark secret goal from myself and keep it before me as others did who knew exactly what they wanted to be – professors, lawyers, doctors, artists, however long this would take them and whatever difficulties and advantages this decision would bear in its wake. This I could not do. Perhaps I would become something similar, but how was I to know? Perhaps I would have to continue my search for years on end and would not become anything, and would not reach a goal. Perhaps I would reach this goal but it would turn out to be an evil, dangerous, horrible one?

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

I still don’t know what I really want to do, professionally speaking. It doesn’t seem like an important question. What’s important to me is in my personal life – what sort of relationship I’ll have with my children, where I’m going to find the right somebody to love, what I will eventually discover myself to believe in. As long as my job gives me enough money to feed my kids and pay my bills, and gives me enough free time to work through the rest of it, I don’t care too much about what that job is going to be. I never felt a strong vocation to teaching; I majored in English and wanted to become a professor because that seemed the best way to prolong the academic life I was enjoying so much. But as I contemplate that now, I don’t think it’s the right thing for me. And I don’t know where that leaves me.

As one can expect from Hesse, this novel is about a spiritual journey. Of course, it starts by rejecting the conservative Christianity of the time.

But I have to tell you something: this is one of the very places that reveals the poverty of this religion most distinctly. The point is that this God of both Old and New Testaments is certainly an extraordinary figure but not what he purports to represent. He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental – true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed to the devil, this entire slice of the world, this entire half is suppressed and hushed up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it’s all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely this artificially separated half! Thus alongside the divine service we should also have a service for the devil. I feel that would be right. Otherwise you must create for yourself a God that contains the devil too and in front of which you needn’t close your eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.

I think that Demian is right here, but only partially. Yes, the common Christian conception of God ignores a significant portion of our lives, and demonizes the very drives that lead to the fulfillment of one of God’s first commandments, to be fruitful and multiply. Yes, either everything is sacred or nothing is. But I don’t see that these ideas mean that we need to continue to accept the traditional binary thinking. Instead of seeing God and the devil as dualistic opposing forces, look at nature, both human and otherwise. Every species ensures its own survival. Once that’s accomplished, they live in peace with each other. There’s a time and a place for destruction, just as there is for creation. It all exists in cycles. The divisions between good and evil desires are sometimes in place to ensure the survival of our species, but sometimes they’re fairly arbitrary. Instead of setting up a shrine to the devil (Aldous Huxley showed a worship service to the devil in Ape and Essence – not as fun or constructive as it sounds), I think it’s more worthwhile to revise our understanding of God, or at least of the conventional morality ascribed to him.

Conventional morality kind of sucks. It seems based on the idea that self-denial is intrinsically good. Of course some of it is, but there must be a reason we deny ourselves things, and that reason must be a good one. It’s easy to deny yourself things when you hate yourself. I spent a long time doing just that. Sometimes I still do. Denying myself luxuries so that I can more adequately support my children seems like a good idea, but denying myself basic necessities because I’m angry at the world and my place in it is a bad one. I don’t think that fear of hell is a good reason to do anything, either. Not only is it fairly ineffective, it transforms you into someone who lives in constant fear, and I think that fear is bad. I have a lot of experience with it, I’m comfortable with the fear I find in myself, but I try not to let it govern my quotidian experience of life on earth. The emphasis on fear and unnecessary self-denial turns a lot of people away from faith-based belief systems.

I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I’m looking for something that isn’t. Morality has always seemed to me insufferable. I can’t express it very well.

Sinclair doesn’t quite have the words for it, but Pistorius, the drunk church organist who teaches him for a time, puts it better.

I don’t mean that you should simply do everything that pops into your head. No. But you shouldn’t harm and drive away those ideas that make good sense by exorcising them or moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or someone else you can drink wine from a chalice and contemplate the mystery of the sacrifice. Even without such procedures you can treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning – and they all do have meaning. If you happen to think of something truly mad or sinful again, if you want to kill someone or want to commit some enormity, Sinclair, think at that moment that it is Abraxas fantasizing within you! The person whom you would like to do away with is of course never Mr X but merely a disguise. If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.

I’ve mentioned this concept a few times lately, with Gibran and Casariegos, but I think it’s important, and must be something I need to hear a lot these days. The key to happiness, holiness, whatever you like, you could even call it the Meaning of Life, is to accept everything about myself. Not do everything that occurs to me, but to accept whatever need my urges and ideas express. I also think it’s important to recognize that when something irritates me in someone else, it’s because that same thing is in me. Which means it’s a tendency that I need to accept instead of hating it. I think that hatred in general is a bad thing.

Throughout the book, Sinclair has a series of teachers, and at the very end (last page) he seems to have internalized the most important of them. These past few days I’ve been feeling the lack of a teacher. My beliefs are all tangled and confused and I’d like some help getting through this next clarifying stage of things, but I don’t know if there are any that I’d accept. Among the people around me now, the only spiritual teachers would lead me toward Islam, and I know that I don’t want to go there. I have a hard time with the idea of a silent God, one who spoke last to Muhammad and has expected all the rest of us to listen to that conversation fifteen hundred years ago. I’d rather not believe in God at all than believe He’s that indifferent to me. And this is part of my problem: I can easily say what I don’t believe, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a positive belief statement that I can agree with unreservedly.

When Demian first came out, it seemed to capture the attitude of an entire generation of young Germans who came of age during World War I. It was like the twentieth century’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I can see how it can provide a lot of hope to people who feel like they’re somehow different than the people around them, but can’t pinpoint in what way. I think that feeling is fairly common to adolescents. It starts us on a journey, but it doesn’t reach the end. I don’t feel like I’ve even hit the middle; on the last page, I still feel as if Sinclair is just beginning. I suppose in some ways that’s appropriate. I feel like life is a series of beginnings with no ends, like nothing is ever really finished or done. It’ll all keep circling back, in Nietzsche’s eternal return.