Archive for June, 2016

It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.

It’s a Dashiell Hammett mystery. What else is there really to say? Go watch The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. That’ll tell you what you need to know.

Well, actually, it’s three or four Dashiell Hammett mysteries. Gabrielle Dain Leggett is one of those pretty girls that other people keep dying around. The first sense of closure comes when her parents reveal their truly fucked up situation, with murder and suicide and family curses and all that. Then she goes to live in a cult, there are a few more murders, and then another sense of closure, but this one less certain. Then she goes off on a honeymoon for even more death. After a while you get inured to the idea that everyone in this book is going to die except for the Bogartesque narrator. After a while, the killer has to be the last man standing.

One of the things that I really appreciate about this book is the attitude that everyone is crazy. Curses are nonsense because they don’t actually make families unique; we all have bad things happen to us. We’re all mad here.

It sounds normal as hell to me. Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.

Life is crazy. Everything is connected, just like in real life. You can try to keep one part of your life separate from the rest, but it’s not possible. Your life is your life, and it all bleeds together and rolls up in a big old ball of weird. It’s like facebook, which I think of as a box of unlabeled photographs all mixed up and stirred together. It can be a little difficult keeping track of how people are related, who knows whom, both in Hammett and in real life. The different settings give the illusion of separation, but there is none. The speech-language pathologist in Salt Lake City is friends with the social worker in Chapel Hill, and it seems like everyone ends up in New York and Paris at some point. Hammett’s California criminals all seem to know each other too, whether they’re in San Francisco or not. It’s really just one case with a lot of false solutions, and our ersatz Bogart ends up using all the detectives in the agency with barely a client to justify the expense, but he solves the case. Too bad there aren’t enough living good people to make a happy ending.

And this is where I diverge from the hard-boiled detective genre. I see good people everywhere I go. If I were dropped on an island of cannibals and tossed into a stewpot, I would look at the people’s interactions and find enough love between them to feel that the world I was leaving is a good place. The detective would save his own skin more effectively than I would, but it wouldn’t make him happy. He wouldn’t be at peace with the world. The dissatisfaction is so prevalent and yet so unspoken that I wonder if Dashiell Hammett was depressed or excessively pessimistic. I don’t see how he could have been happy. Maybe I need to focus on finding something happy for my next read.

The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber)

All of my books are still packed up, so I just grabbed the e-reader and picked whatever I had downloaded most recently. So the reading of this book wasn’t exactly premeditated, but it was very good. This is a book intimately concerned with the idea of healing.

Peter blinked tears from his eyes, allowing him to see the doctor’s face in focus. The ragged scar on Austin’s jaw was as conspicuous as ever, but now, rather than wondering how Austin got it, Peter was struck by the scar’s essential nature: it was not a disfigurement, it was a miracle. All the scars ever suffered by anyone in the whole of human history were not suffering but triumph: triumph against decay, triumph against death. The wounds on Peter’s arm and leg (healing still), the scabs on his ears (gone now), every trifling scratch and burn and rash and bruise, thousands of injuries over the years, right back to the ankle-bones he’d broken the week before he’d met Bea, his skinned knees when he’d fallen off his bike as a kid, the nappy rash he’d probably experienced as a baby . . . none of them had stopped him being here today. He and Austin were comrades in stupendous luck. The gouge in Austin’s chin, which must have been a gory mess when it was first inflicted, had not reduced the entire head to a slimy lump; it magicked itself into fresh pink flesh.

And this is what human beings are: self-healing bags of meat and brain.

We are all specialized forms of survivor, Peter reminded himself. We lack what we fundamentally need and forge ahead regardless, hurriedly hiding our wounds, disguising our ineptitude, bluffing our way through our weaknesses. No one – especially not a pastor – should lose sight of that truth.

This book hit me in some very personal places, specifically in the person I was eight or ten years ago. Peter Leigh is a missionary, having been a pastor in England. He started out as a substance abuse addict and petty criminal, but then he met a nurse who introduced him to Christianity. He’s the sort of Christian that I was; more interested in loving and accepting people than in identifying who is going to hell. He’s physically separated from his pregnant wife, but he didn’t know she was pregnant when he went on the trip. They write letters to each other, but it’s not enough. His wife sounds a lot like The Ex; pregnancy and childbearing change women. I suppose they could change women in several different ways, but with Bea (and The Ex), she becomes more domestic, less adventurous, less willing to endure. The universe shrinks to the size of a uterus, which is constantly under attack from the world outside. The man involved is therefore permanently inadequate because his job description has changed without his knowledge. He still thinks the world is a good and happy place, unaware of the reason for the barrage of bitterness and paranoia from the formerly peaceful woman at his side. Peter and Bea have a bit of an extreme circumstance, but what they go through in their relationship is hardly unique.

Extreme circumstance, you say? Tell me more.

Bea is in England at the end of the world. Society is collapsing around her. She’s trying to hold together a job as a nurse in a hospital while being the emotional support for the people in their congregation, all while going through early pregnancy, and it’s too much strain for anyone to do that with grace. In Faber’s book, we’re only about six months away from Mad Max, or Lord of the Flies. Once the infrastructure goes, the garbage stops getting picked up and the lights go out, London falls prey to panic and gang rule, like America in every post-apocalyptic film you’ve ever seen. For Bea, the last straw is when street kids torture her cat and the vet puts it to sleep instead of healing it. I don’t get it myself, being unattached to pets, but she ditches God and country and finds a way to survive.

Peter, meanwhile, being the actual protagonist, has been given the job of ministering to aliens on a distant planet. Strange though that might seem, people who have never seen something as simple as a lake or the type of storm that gains strength over them, are drawn to the message about someone who could make the storm stop. Jesus promises that he will heal, and that those who love him will not die. The perfect message for a group of beings who cannot self-heal. These aliens do not have immune systems, so if something falls on a hand and there’s a bruise, it just stays bruised while the flesh rots and the person eventually dies. Some of the aliens accept Jesus, while others just lap up modern medicine. And that is the promise of humanity, what we have to give the universe: our ability to heal ourselves.

The people are completely alien. Bodies are vaguely human-shaped, but the face is nothing at all face-like. It puts most of the humans off. I found the alien faces difficult to visualize from Faber’s description; one of those cases where a picture would really have helped. As the aliens become more familiar, they actually became harder to visualize as Faber imagines them; the human tendency to see familiar ideas in familiar shapes took over, and in my mind their faces became increasingly human as I read.

This book is also interesting linguistically, because the aliens of course have their own language. They don’t seem to have vowels, and many of our consonants are difficult for them. And of course, being aliens, the familiar concepts of ancient Palestine are incomprehensible. Peter translates parts of the Bible into language that is easier for them, and sometimes they’re okay with it, but not always.

“The Lord be he who care for me,” he recited as he shuffled through the darkness. “I will need no more.” This voice was the same one he used for preaching: not strident, but quite loud and with each word articulated clearly. The moisture in the atmosphere swallowed the sounds before they had a chance to carry very far. “He bid me lie in green land down. He lead me by river where no one can drown. He make my soul like new again. He lead me in the path of Good. He do all this, for he be God. Yea, though I walk through the long dark corridor of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your care wand make me feel no harm can come. You feed me even while unfriendly men look on in envy. You rub healing oil on my head. My cup runneth over. Good unfolding and comfort will keep me company, every day of my life. I will dwell in the home of the Lord forever.”

It is easy to forget how beautiful words are when you’ve heard and sung them in set ways your entire life. Faber’s translations made these Bible passages new to me, made me pay attention to them, showed me their beauty in a new light. The Bible itself is The Book of Strange New Things from the title. I’m not saying I’m going back to that belief system, only that I can appreciate these words that have survived thousands of years.

It actually takes a lot for someone to die. The human body is designed not to quit.

I think this is true not only of the body, but of the . . . what can I call it? The human soul? Heart? Mind? The pain and confusion of being a prospective father rushed back on me this weekend, as well as the struggles of being someone called by God to love and serve humanity, whilst knowing oneself to be imperfect and inadequate. And being in love with someone you can’t touch, and having faith in what you can’t see, and adapting to a new culture so completely that you lose touch with your own, and being isolated and foreign everywhere. In some ways this book brought up some of my worst mental habits.

In the move, and adapting to the new living situation, I’ve not been taking care of myself as I ought. Insufficient sleep and nutrition are addling my head, which opens possibilities for religion and other things that present themselves as lifelines. I’m going to have to keep my self in check, no matter how hard that might be.

Peter isn’t the first missionary to these people. The first was Kurtzberg, who abandoned both the human and alien settlements to die alone. In the acknowledgments Faber says that he’s named for Jack Kirby, the comic book writer, but the name also gives the book this Heart of Darkness feel; when Peter runs into the mad linguist, I half-expect him to say, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

This is a good book. Maybe a little problematic for me, but if you don’t have my hangups, maybe it won’t be for you. It’s sad, though; no hopeful note at the end, and Peter’s final message to his flock is in their language. Maybe Faber gave us enough that if I had been taking notes I could figure out what he says to them, but I didn’t, so Peter’s message of doubt and apology is hidden from me. But when they forgive him, it’s a beautiful and touching scene.

After reading this, I can’t say how much of Peter’s religion Faber believes, but he presents it effectively, unlike some of the other Christian characters I’ve seen in recent British fiction. He also does a good job of presenting American speech without Britishisms, which is fantastically hard to do. Our speech is shaped by our surroundings, so when you live in Scotland your characters usually sound Scottish, or at least UK-English-speaking, but Faber gives us believable Americans. It’s nicely done.

Healing. Faith. Loss. Death. The end of one world and the beginning of something new. Survival. Technology used and rejected. Big issues, handled gently and realistically.

I’ve been delaying writing about this, and I’m not entirely sure why. These five stories are good, exactly what you’d expect from Byatt. I love her fairy tales, but these are a little grittier than I remember The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye being.

The Thing in the Forest

During the evacuation, two girls see the wyrm in the woods. It reminds me a bit of Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, but this wyrm doesn’t transform into a woman. It’s more like a sentient pile of raw meatloaf. Gross, but something about contact with the supernatural pulls these girls back after they’ve grown into women.

Body Art

Starving art student decorates hospital for Christmas, meets a handsome doctor who’s obsessed with the fact that he’s Catholic but doesn’t believe it any more. So when she gets pregnant, he forces her to keep the baby.

“I didn’t understand. I didn’t know.”

Possibility of a happy ending, despite the messy relationships.

A Stone Woman

At some point, someone is going to write a scholarly article on Byatt’s great love of Scandinavian men. It probably won’t be me, though.

A woman transforms to stone, gradually and beautifully. She meets an Icelandic sculptor who takes her to a place where stone women can be at peace, Iceland in the winter.

Raw Material

Community writing classes that the teacher is trying desperately to keep from becoming group therapy sessions. And failing. When someone writes something genuinely good, the sort of writing that touches the heart and wrings the emotions, they pounce on it and destroy it. Sad. It’s hard for people to honour talent in others that they wished they had for themselves.

The Pink Ribbon

An elderly man cares for his wife, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. When my grandmother got this, she went to the Alzheimer’s wing of the assisted living community where they lived. My grandfather asked them if he could stay with her if he promised to act crazy. But this man in the story just takes care of her at home, with the aid of a community nurse. But no one wants to linger with Alzheimer’s, so the astral projection of her younger self comes to beg him to let her die as soon as she can.

I suppose these are not happy stories. People’s lives are transformed, and often ended. Maybe I shouldn’t see that as sad, but this week I do. Sometimes there’s a redemptive feel, and the Stone Woman’s ending is more triumphant than death, but this is a sad and strange book, read at a time when I don’t really need sad and strange. I’m looking for something comforting, and this wasn’t it.

Sorry not to offer you more, but thinking about this book is getting me agitated again, and it’s not an emotion that I have time for these days. I’m living in a family again, and it requires an emotional stability that is hard for me to maintain. Stories of people going off the rails don’t help right now.

This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”