Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

At work, I’m working on creating a dedicated biography collection, which means that for the last several weeks I’ve been reading a few random paragraphs from each of hundreds of biographies, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I would eventually read one all the way through. This is not my normal genre – I even avoid movies that are based on true stories – but I’m glad I read this one. Our experiences and voices are rather different, but I found enough commonality with Alan Cumming that I’d very much like to know him better.

I suppose something that helps is that he doesn’t try to narrate his entire life, from birth to imagined death. That type of story makes life seem predestined, and Cumming’s story is about taking command of his own life instead of letting his history determine his future. I also appreciate the fact that this isn’t a coming-out story. Yes, he is one of our LGBT heroes, but that’s not the story he’s telling. At one point in the book he has a wife, and at another he has a husband, but there are no tales of homophobic violence or family disapproval, no explanation in between. That story has been told a million times, which is probably why I haven’t felt any urgency about writing up my experience of it. There are only so many times we can observe and internalize those messages – Cumming insists on his husband’s unrelenting kindness, but it’s not a story about being gay, or about being rejected for being gay. This is also not a story about ‘making it’ and becoming famous. There’s one brief scene where he’s standing on a stage with Patti Smith, but there is no other name-dropping or celebrity gossip. He refers to his friends, and I’m willing to believe that most of his friends are entertainers like he is (we tend to socialize with the people we work with), but he doesn’t stress their identities because this isn’t a book about them. It’s an intensely personal story about Alan Cumming and his family.

The bulk of this story is about a short time in his life – during the time that he was filming an episode of a television series where they track down the solutions to mysteries in the families of celebrities. His mother’s father never really came back after World War II, so the TV crew takes him through the journey of finding out what happened. He sees war records and talks with men who served with him during the first week, and then he takes some time away to fulfill other commitments. The war stuff is upsetting, as war should be. Cumming’s grandfather was a bike messenger during the war, riding motorcycles across the European countryside. The actor decides the soldier was a daredevil, and there’s a certain disregard for his own life that could be bravery or a drive to suicide. He had the traditional war hero experiences about killing enemies and carrying comrades to safety. The survivor who tells Cumming about this part was kind of creepy, like he enjoyed the war. Some people never feel so alive as they do when killing others. My own grandfather was a hero to me, but not in the traditional war sense. He never killed anyone, so he avoided most of the trauma that soldiers go through. He was a radio guy; he and one other Ally would be the last two in a city, keeping on the radio, inventing troop maneuvers in order to confuse the Germans. I like to think that his role was to stand between two larger belligerents and keep them from fighting by holding each at arm’s length. Instead of fighting valiantly in battle, he stopped battles from happening. It may have been less personal than lifting someone bodily and removing him from a battlefield, but it is literally impossible to calculate how many lives he saved by keeping the Germans away from the Americans. It could have been in the hundreds or thousands – think about how many fewer people would have died at Stalingrad if the Germans didn’t know how important the town was.

During the week of filming, Cumming is also facing issues with his father. Right before the taping started, his dad calls him up and tells him that there’s another family secret he shouldn’t learn from strangers. He’s the product of an affair, so quite literally Not His Father’s Son. He takes advantage of this part of it to reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his father. Cumming Sr was abusive and terrible to his children, and paraded his affairs openly in front of his wife. They stayed together in order to raise Cumming and his elder brother, but ‘raise’ in this situation means beat, devalue, and humiliate.

Memory is so subjective. We all remember in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.

I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family. I tried so hard to think of happy times we all had together, times when we had fun, when we laughed. In the interests of balance, I even wanted to be able to describe some instances of kindness and tenderness involving us all. But I just couldn’t.

I spoke to my brother about this. He drew a blank, too.

We remember happy times with our mum. Safe, quiet times. But as a whole family? Honestly there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear or humiliation or pain. And that’s not to say that moments of happiness did not exist, it’s just that cumulatively they have been erased by the dominant feelings that color all of our childhood recollections.

And this is true of my childhood as well. My father has bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t diagnosed and medicated until after his second marriage. He seems so harmless now, sadly affectionate and blaming everyone for his problems but himself. I feel a wave of pity pressing inside my throat when I watch him eating, seeing how he’s losing his fine motor control so that his hands shake when doing something that requires precision, like moving a fork to his mouth. I know that he’s changed, partially through getting good brain drugs and partially through the suffering of being rejected by his own children, so I have a cautious relationship with him. He seldom raises his voice, but when he does, it clutches my heart and I freeze in place. I talked with my big sister a few years ago and she assured me that it really was as bad as I remember, and that I was right to be afraid of him. That helps remove some of the subjectivity from my memories, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Unlike Cumming, though, I was generally too small to be a target, and I had four older siblings to keep my dad distracted from me.

The biggest difference between me and Cumming here is in our mothers. His seems to have been just fantastic. Mine had overwhelming anger issues, just like my dad. She was relatively safer, though, because instead of yelling and hitting she withdrew most of the time. I can remember being spanked by my mother one time, but that one time was so disturbing to me that I vowed never to do anything to make her hit me again. I’ve been pretty successful, though these days it means that I withdraw from her as much as she withdrew from me.

My parents split up instead of sticking it out ‘for the children’, as if we would have derived any benefit from that, which I think was a good choice. But, as I’ve been thinking of what to talk about as I write this entry, I don’t want to dredge up specific memories of the horrible times – I want to discuss how having been in an emotionally abusive home continues to affect me now. If someone raises their arm close to me, even if it’s just to adjust their hair, I duck a little. If anyone, in any context, gets angry with me, I panic. I can’t live in that moment and hear what they’re saying, no matter how reasonable (I’m human; I can’t keep everyone happy all the time). Fear blanks out my mind and all I can do is either run or grope for some way to reassure them or make them happy. There’s a running narrative voice in my head that constantly justifies my choices and actions to a nonexistent third party who might disagree. I’ve gotten my mom’s voice of disapproval to be quiet, but I’m still responding to it. I still expect my endeavors to fail. I’m grateful for supervisors like the one I have at the library, who train me well and provide the scaffolding that I need to be successful, but when something I do turns out well I’m more surprised than anyone else, even after twenty years away. I remind myself that I’m intelligent and capable, but those words aren’t an instinctive part of my self-image. More than in any other area, I expect myself to fail financially, and am astonished when I have more than ten dollars at the end of a month. My family used to tell me, “In the olden times, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat,” so when I’m underemployed I starve myself in order to live within my income. I’m doing better about asking for help when I need it, and I’m mostly finished with the anorexia, but it’s easier for me to turn to friends than to family. I don’t expect my family to do anything for me that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. I sometimes remind myself that I don’t have to earn every second of continued life, but that work ethic is so ingrained that poverty is something I reproach myself with when I hate myself. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. When I was a kid, the only real safety was in silence and solitude, and I still have a preference for these. I also developed the habit of remaining very still and staying at the edges of rooms. I like sitting close to walls, and I am very uncomfortable with people walking behind me. I also sit near exits, and keep my eye on points of ingress so I know where people are around me. I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. When I go to a house I’ve never been before, it takes a couple of hours for me to become comfortable with the space. Or, comfortable enough to participate actively in the conversation. I’m uncomfortable meeting new people because I don’t know what will make them angry, and the distinction between what will offend and what won’t is never clear to me. Strangers are often loud, which bothers me. Loud noises bother me, so I hate fireworks and parades. Crowds also bother me because there are too many people to separate the crowd into individual people and assess the threat level each one embodies. I have to know someone before I assume they do not want to harm me. Not having grown up with a sense that the world is safe, I withdraw from it as much as I can.

I’m living in the same space I was six years ago when I first came out and got divorced, so all the anger and depression of that time is coming back, like it was lurking in a corner and waiting for me. I looked back at my blog posts from that time, and I’m surprised at how dishonest I was. I was trying to be truthful about myself and what I was experiencing, but the writing is all about hope that I didn’t actually feel. Hope was an intellectual exercise, a fantasy to keep me from hurting myself. When I look back, I remember driving down the street and imagining car wrecks; everything that happened was an opportunity for me to die. Freud theorized that there are two impulses, one toward life (Eros) and one toward death (Thanatos). When I think back over my childhood and my desire for stillness, and then my adult life and the suicidal ideation, I believe that Thanatos has been the most important driving force in my life. Not as a return to the womb, but as an escape from a life that has never seemed to want me in it. I do pretty well at resisting thoughts of physical self-harm, but not financial. I overspend as a way of hurting myself, sometimes with the same level of compulsion as people who cut tiny little maps in their skin, the streets going this way and that. I can stop myself, but it requires a level of self-control and self-denial that I’m not entirely comfortable with. To be clear, I’m much healthier than I was six years ago, but I’m not perfectly adjusted, and the darkness in me is often more palpable than the light.

There was a defining moment in Cumming’s youth, and I wish I had experienced something similar. At the age that young men discover the joys their own bodies provide, he was spending his alone time out in the woods, and once someone from town saw him.

I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame. This man was the one in the wrong. He was the voyeur, however accidental.

But I didn’t wish him ill. I would have done the same. I actually even thought my father would be glad to learn that some progress was being made in the faltering journey to my manhood. So I rejected shame.

I started rejecting shame much later, and it’s harder when shame has become an established habit. I suppose it’s also harder when your family responds to you with shame – I have been making my family, especially my mother, ashamed of me for most of my life. At times I embraced that as an identity and shamed them on purpose. Now, I tell myself that this is their problem and gives me no truthful information about myself, but when I was a kid I just accepted it. It’s still hard for me to feel and express anger, because when I was a kid everything was my fault. If I got angry, no one ever validated that emotion – I was always treated as the one being unreasonable because I was too sensitive. If someone got angry at me, then I was again unreasonable for causing it. I can’t remember ever being vindicated by an outside source. My pain was unimportant at best, inconvenient and obnoxious if I made others aware of it. The best I could hope for was being ignored, because all I could expect from my parents was shame, anger, and fear.

Typically I’m attracted to people who occupy a similar world, which is why I date (and once married) people who are so unsuitable. I think I have a good one now, but it’s hard for me to trust that he is different, and I look for reasons to be on my guard.

So, this part of it takes up three-fourths of Cumming’s book. The English teacher in me wants him to change the balance of things – if Part One of four is 75% of your project, you might want to subdivide differently – but for this story, it’s right. Part One ends with the DNA test that tells him whether his father’s story is true, and that’s the end of that part of his life. Part Two is about the rest of his grandfather’s story, when he went to Malaysia as part of the colonial police force after the war. He was loved but still recklessly depressed, and died during a game of Russian roulette. Later, Cumming’s father dies, and he uses his inheritance to take his mother to Malaysia to meet the people who knew her father, to see the park and the street named after him, and to see his grave.

In the end, he breaks free of his father’s negative influence and it really does become his past. These things are still very present for me – I’ve been so starved for affection that I’ll take the diseased version of love that my family offers me, better than nothing. Yet, I don’t go building a new chosen family around me. There are people in my life that I love in less complicated ways, which seems to be what people mean when they talk about family, but I don’t apply that vocabulary to them. The word family to me means something weird and toxic and inescapable, a horror that has become internalized. A monster that speaks to me in my own voice and stares back at me from the mirror. And yet, that I love and condemn as I love and condemn myself. I don’t have Cumming’s defiance.

Read this book. It’s not always easy, but it leads toward hope. People with happy childhoods may have a hard time relating, but I felt very close to the author and identified with his struggles. As I said, he’s very different from me, much more extraverted, less willfully unobserved, but still. If he writes more, I’ll be interested to read it.

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It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

This book took entirely too long to read. Ferguson’s writing is very similar to an encyclopedia: very clear, very informative, sort of dry and abrupt, and lacking in unity. She takes the eight major celebrations of the pagan year and analyzes their history, including the ways they have been absorbed into Christianity.

She starts with the winter solstice, and all the assorted Christmas associations. It’s the shortest day of the year, so we think about the death of the sun and plot ways to bring him back. Hence all the lights – drawing the sun back toward ourselves with light and heat.

Imbolc was this week – celebrating the return of the moon. This celebration is for the goddess Brigid (Christianized as St Brigid) – we leave out food, drink, and bedding for her to rest on as she comes around to everyone’s house. We also leave an article of clothing outside, which she will bless with healing and protective powers. Brigid is honored by a perpetually burning flame tended only by women – not having any women at my house, I had to light my own candle, but hopefully that’s okay. On February 1, we watch the weather. See, she gathered wood at the beginning of winter, and by Imbolc she’s run out. The aging fertility goddess has to get more wood if the winter is going to last longer, so the day will be bright and sunny. If spring is coming, she can sleep in, so the weather gets overcast and rainy. Today’s yucky weather may actually be a good sign.

The spring equinox celebrates day and night as equal halves – it’s often symbolized by the marriage of the masculine sun and the feminine moon. One of the things that bothered me in this book is the extreme heteronormativity. For a homosexual investigating the pagan community, this book makes it seem like the way is barred because all the religious traditions are about procreation and fertility: the Goddess is eternal, like the earth, and the sun-god is eternally dying and being reborn as a sort of husband-son, like the corn. He plants his own seed in the earth, and the result is himself again. The gendering is so heavy that the gays are pushed to the margins.

Beltane (May Day) celebrates the full moon. It’s like the spring equinox, but instead of focusing on marriage, this is a festival of sex. Some of the rituals seem to emphasize heterosexuality, but there’s a freedom to the day that creates possibilities for the rest of us.

At the summer solstice the sun is at its most powerful, but that also means that it begins its decline. More fires, because fire is cool.

Lughnasadh is the beginning of the harvest. It celebrates the waning moon – traditionally a good time for harvesting because this influence was believed to be dry, as opposed to the wet influence of the waxing moon. Plant when the moon is growing, pick when it’s declining.

The autumn equinox is another equally balanced day, but it’s also a continuation of the harvest celebration.

Samhain (Halloween) marks the beginning of the new year – days start when it gets dark, and so does the year. This celebration honors the dark moon, those few days of the month when it is completely obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. It’s also a time to celebrate the dead, because at the hinge of the year there’s an opportunity for the dead to return. That doorway is also open at Beltane, the other hinge of the year, but we’re generally too busy fucking to notice. But at Samhain you could be carried off to the Upside-Down, so keep your wits about you.

And then the book just sort of ends. Like any reference book, there’s not much of an effort at presenting a unified message or a meaningful conclusion; you get to the end and you run out of pages. There are some lovely photographs, not all of which contribute meaningfully to the text. The pictures make it seem more like a coffee-table book. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but this book was hard to get through. There’s a lot of information, but no help digesting it. It’s better as reference than as something you’d read through from beginning to end.

If the idea that Judaism and Christianity grew out of previously established Middle Eastern religions offends you, or if you’re upset by the acknowledgment that Christianity was transformed by the Celtic religions it sought to displace, then just stay away. Part of Ferguson’s goal is to present a tradition, one that incorporates elements from all over Europe and the Middle East in the last five or six thousand years. She also discusses the changes to the calendars and the effect that has had on our holidays, but there’s really not that much to say about that.

Okay, so I’m still not Hindu. That being said, they do have some good ideas.

A man should not hate any living creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all. He must free himself from the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ He must accept pleasure and pain with equal tranquillity. He must be forgiving, ever-contented, self-controlled, united constantly with me in his meditation. His resolve must be unshakable. He must be dedicated to me in intellect and in mind. Such a devotee is dear to me.

I am very much in favor of eliminating hatred, starting with the hatred I find in myself. I also agree that we need to get over the idea of possession, that certain things (or people) belong to us and that they cannot be taken from us. Everything is temporary, including ownership of houses and books and significant others. Refusing to let go causes suffering, so when the universe takes something, we have to learn to let go willingly, or at least submissively. If something is unpleasant and can’t be helped, it’s best to give in to circumstances. Now, if it can be helped, yes, go fight for what you love; I’m just saying that our identity is not based in possessions or relationships. We are who we are, no matter what we have or who we’re with.

The enlightened, the Brahman-abiding,
Calm-hearted, unbewildered,
Is neither elated by the pleasant
Nor saddened by the unpleasant.

His mind is dead
To the touch of the external:
It is alive
To the bliss of the Atman.
Because his heart knows Brahman
His happiness is for ever.

In one way of looking at this, it may seem that Krishna is praising the clinically depressed – those who can’t feel emotional responses to external stimuli. I’m not sure if that’s what’s going on, though. As I’ve been working through this, I think it has more to do with identity and how easily we are shaken. It’s great when good things happen, but I can still love myself when they don’t. It’s sad when bad things happen, and I can still love myself when they do. It’s about having a core of self-regard and belief that withstand the temporary influences of this life. In this sense, it’s like when St Paul was going on about how he can do all things in Christ. We can get knocked down, but that doesn’t mean we’re defeated.

Yet, I’m still troubled by the idea in the previous quotation of self-control. That wording seems to imply an antagonistic relationship to the self that I’m not comfortable with. Every person has impulses that are socially unacceptable, and I’m not saying that we should indulge them without question. When we want to do something we feel is bad, I think it’s best to understand the emotion that prompts the impulse and work toward healing ourselves. And if there’s an antisocial behavior that is not rooted in causing pain, then I don’t understand why it isn’t acceptable to do it. Sometimes I want to go outside and scream, so I do.

Once more I shall teach you
That uttermost wisdom:
The sages who found it
Were all made perfect,
Escaping the bonds of the body.

In that wisdom they lived,
Made one with my holy nature:
Now they are not reborn
When a new age begins,
Nor have they any part
In its dissolution.

And there isn’t a good way to deal with this concept either, in my opinion. It starts from the assumption that the world is a bad place, and I will not believe that. Suffering exists, but so does joy. I mean, what is the point of learning how to deal with suffering if your goal is to go somewhere that it doesn’t exist? And if you live with the belief that death is temporary, why would you want to make it permanent? At the beginning of the story, Arjuna looks at two opposing armies and tries to become a pacifist and Krishna (representation of deity) talks him into fighting because for the Hindu, death is temporary and therefore unimportant. It’s okay to kill people in a war because they’re going to be reincarnated in a happier time. But the reward for enlightenment is that you get to stay dead, which doesn’t seem like a reward to me. People make it sound like such a miserable thing to be reincarnated as a horsefly, but think about it. How much suffering do insects really have to go through? They’re liberated from the money economy, so they’re free to run around and meet their basic needs without interference.

I’m being faced with decisions right now – whom to date, where to live – and in the past, I’ve only ever been given one option at a time, so those decisions were simple. But now, given the choice between two options that are both good, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose if they’re both good choices, then it doesn’t matter which I choose, but that’s not helpful. I mean, what do I really want? I’m not sure. I’ll need to take some time to work on that.

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

When I was at university, my best friend liked to ask generic conversation-generators when the talking flagged. One of them was, “If you had to lose four of your five senses and could only retain one, which would you keep?” I thought about it for a minute. When I say a minute, I’m exaggerating. People sometimes miss the fact that I’m thinking through a question instead of responding instinctively because I do it quickly, but I did run through a few scenarios, of seeing without hearing or feeling, or hearing without tasting or seeing, and I answered, “Touch.” Even at that time of my life, as extra-virgin as your olive oil and seldom touched by anyone, I understood the emotional significance of physical contact, and I knew how lonely my life was without handshakes, hugs, or even more casual touch. The other things I would miss a lot but I can deal without, seeing sunsets and paintings, hearing music or voices, tasting my food or smelling flowers, but the tactile sense is the essential.

touch

Linden’s book is about this tactile sense, as is obvious from the title, but it’s not much about what I just mentioned. It’s about physiology, primarily about nerve endings and brains and skin. I’m not used to this type of discourse, so while I tried to read it all at a go during the vacation, I got through a couple of chapters and had to take a break. My mind got full. The next day I read the entire rest of the book, and it went quickly and easily because of the background I got in Chapter 2. This experience started me thinking about how I learn. I was never much for studying actively, never very good at reviewing my notes or preparing for examinations. I tried a few times, with friends who were Honors students, but they never invited me back to their sessions. My brain works like this: I read it once, and then I have to move along and do something else, like watching television or reading fiction. The processing goes on subconsciously while my attention is elsewhere. But when I go back to that knowledge, it’s there where I need it to be. It doesn’t disappear the way that it seems to do for other people. The repetition of building on previous knowledge helps, and the spider web metaphor for learning is true for me as well as it is for others, but the sort of rote repetition for the purpose of passing a test is unhelpful, unnecessary, and hard to focus on.

What’s that spider web thing, Occ Man? Spider webs gain their strength by intersecting and making connections. A single strand is easily avoided or broken, but a web of several concentric circles with numerous radial strands is effective at trapping all sorts of prey. Likewise, facts that are unconnected to previous knowledge or our own experience, what theorists call inert knowledge, are weak and easily forgotten. Teachings that connect to a student’s experience or to previously acquired information are stronger and easier to retain. The more connections a student makes, the more likely she is to remember. Which I suppose is why I couldn’t study with the Honors students – they were repeating the same information in the same way divorced from context, not making connections to anything. It worked in the short term and gave them the grades they needed for scholarships and awards and things, but it wasn’t the same as loving knowledge for its own sake or learning the material effectively. If they ever needed that information again, it wasn’t waiting for them.

As previously implied, Chapter 2 is about the basic mechanisms of tactile sensation, how we recognize items by touch and perceive motion. It gives the necessary information about the types of nerves we have in our skin, the types of skin we have on our bodies, and where in our brains we analyze and sort this information. Chapter 3 is about the different ways we perceive being touched by other people and the emotional content of physical interactions, which leads into Chapter 4, about sex. Chapter 5 is about our perceptions of temperature, Chapter 6 is about pain, and Chapter 7 is about itching. Add an introduction (about social touch) and a conclusion (about tactile illusions) and you’ve got two hundred pages of physiology. The notes are sort of interesting, a range from the overly technical:

For you hard-core anatomy mavens: Neurons that carry information from the mechanoreceptors have axons that ascend in the region of the spinal cord called lamina IV of the dorsal horn. Mechanoreceptor axons from the lower body, below the seventh thoracic vertebra, contact neurons in the gracile nucleus of the brain stem, while those of the upper body form synapses on neurons in the adjacent cuneate nucleus. The gracile and cuneate neurons send their axons to a particular subdivision of the thalamus called the ventroposterolateral region through a midline-crossing pathway called the medial lemniscus. These thalamic cells then project to the primary somatosensory cortex. In later chapters, we’ll discuss skin sensors for erotic touch, pain, itch, and temperature, which take a different path in both the spinal cord and the brain.

To the extremely casual:

And don’t imagine that it’s only gay or bisexual men who like stimulation of the anus, rectum, and prostate. My old pal C., who runs an Internet sex-toy shop, says, “You’ll never go broke selling devices for straight guys to put in their butts.”

Which makes me wonder if I ought to give up on education and devote my life to selling vibrators.

So. Things that were new and useful in conversation. Itching and pain are actually quite different, and this fact is actually relatively new knowledge. In 1999 I was told that itching is just a very mild pain, and that acetaminophen would help with mosquito bites, but we now know that the truth is different. Itching and pain are perceived by different cells and processed in the brain differently, and there are actually different types of itching. Histamine is an obvious culprit and there are numerous antihistamine creams, but it’s not the only cause. There are itches that antihistamines and acetaminophen don’t help with because they’re caused by other chemicals in the body. (Just to review, the British name for acetaminophen is paracetamol, because the generic name for the compound is para-acetylaminophenol and we shortened it differently.)

The most practical piece of information and advice is this: Birds don’t have capsaicin receptors, which means that they don’t notice the hot and spicy quality of chili pepper seeds the way that humans and squirrels do, so if you’re having problems with small mammals eating out of your birdfeeders, mix some chili peppers into the feed. The squirrels will hate it – humans are the only mammals who eat peppers on purpose.

People with smaller fingertips are able to perceive finer distinctions because we have the same number of nerves in our fingers, so the smaller fingertips have those nerves in a denser configuration. No matter how sensitive someone might think the sexual organs to be, they don’t have that density of nerve fibers of fingers or lips, which means that if a blind man loses both arms, he’ll be more able to read Braille with his tongue than with his penis. But how many armless blind men are there in the world? A lot of the stories are similarly at the extremes, dealing with odd cases that may only happen once or twice in a lifetime.

With an entire chapter on sex, you might think that there’s some useful and practical tips, but not really. I think it’s interesting that the clitoris actually reaches down and wraps around the vagina (it has wings inside a woman’s body like a butterfly poking its head out), so that even shoving a penis in there can stimulate the right organ, but that’s not going to help me much. I don’t know how many women there are who differentiate between orgasms from touching the clitoris and orgasms from touching the vagina, or how many of them share that Freudian idea that direct clitoral stimulation is less mature or less worthwhile than vaginal intercourse, but Linden explains scientifically why that’s rubbish. An orgasm is pretty great, no matter what part of the body it comes from, so don’t shit on other people’s jouissance.

In a study of pairs of people touching in public, Latin Americans and the French touch dramatically more often than Americans or the British. You can stare at couples in an English coffee shop for an hour without seeing anyone physically touch anyone else. Americans are only marginally better – if you want to see some social touching, head to the Mediterranean (and other places with a strong Mediterranean influence). Similarly, if you want to experience social touch in public, don’t marry an Englishman; find a Latin lover instead.

Imagine that we were vampire bats, and we were close nest mates, either very close friends or family or lovers. One night, I go out hunting and come back full. A meal can last one of us a few days, so I’m ready to hunker down for a long nap. You weren’t in the mood to go out tonight, and now you’re hungry. You might start licking my body, and if I didn’t protest or push you away, you’d move up toward my lips. We’d kiss for a little, and then I’d vomit blood down your throat, because that’s how it works for vampire bats. Tomorrow night, we’ll both go out. Maybe we can share an animal – you can bite it first and lap up the blood that flows out, because we don’t suck it out of the wound, and then I can carry on lapping it up before it clots.

Did you know that vampire bats have infrared temperature sensors that allow them to find blood vessels more easily? Did you know that certain hospitals have similar vein-finding technology, so the phlebotomist can flash a light on your arm and see plainly where all the veins are, to facilitate injections and blood withdrawals? Rattlesnakes also have infrared sensors, but they work at a distance of several feet, much farther than the bats’, and they combine with messages from the eyes to give a more complete picture of the world than we humans can see. Because animals are amazing.

People are amazing too. We sometimes perceive touch when nothing is stimulating the nerves, based on memories and expectations and stimuli that we don’t consciously perceive. It’s nice to know that phantom cell phone vibration is normal (for doctors, which I am not); it’s good to know that sleep paralysis is not an isolated phenomenon, but seeing the actual numbers, it’s not as normal or as common as some other reports have led me to believe. It’s also good to know that no matter how effective machinery can be at stimulating certain parts of the body, it can never fully replace another human’s touch.

I appreciate Linden’s style and approach. He’s writing for a general audience, so the information is kept at a level that someone like me with no specialized training can understand fairly easily. The subject is also discussed in a general way, as an overview of current research that doesn’t go too deep. One of the things that I learned in graduate school is that you can have either breadth or depth, but seldom both. Linden’s breadth on the subject made me think that he might not actually be an expert, and reading the Acknowledgments section, he’s not. He’s a brain researcher, yes, but not a touch specialist. That doesn’t discredit or devalue the book: the research is still good, it’s just that he had a lot of help with that part of it.

I also appreciate the fact that he recognizes where the research runs out – there are several places in the text where he recommends further research and greater experimentation, even where he explains the precise sort of experiments that could be done to test our current theories. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about how touch works and why we perceive things as we do, which means that there’s a lot of work for medical researchers and other scientists to do in this area.

This book is recommended for general readers who are interested in understanding brain function and touch mechanisms, but for medical or nursing students, I’d point you to the notes section and encourage you to go directly to the source materials. You need more practice in reading that sort of text instead of popular nonfiction. I will also say that I am dramatically more interested in the sociology of touch than the physiology, so this wasn’t the best fit for me, but it was good nonetheless.