Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

May Books

Hello Down There (Michael Parker)

There’s a strong Faulkner influence here, but applied to the Piedmont of North Carolina in the middle of the twentieth century. I picked this up in the LGBT section of the bookstore, but there is no gay content (except for one homophobic joke). It’s more about drug addiction and (hetero) sexual mores. It’s a sad book, early in his career. I hope he has found happier subjects.

Basil (Wilkie Collins)

The story of a young idiot who gets deceived by a family of gold diggers. There’s some looking at the absurdity of marriage laws that prefigures Miss or Mrs?, and this also has what one of my professors described as the most graphically violent scene in Victorian literature, when Basil grinds his rival’s face into a freshly macadamized road. This is during the period when Collins rejects the marriage plot in favor of sibling relationships, but I hope that he’s not actually encouraging incest. The sister in this one is a real Angel in the House, so it’s frustrating – none of the women characters are believable. Collins will eventually get to where he writes complex, interesting women, but he’s not there yet.

Mr Wray’s Cash Box (Wilkie Collins)

This is a little Christmas novella. It’s not great, but it’s cute and heartwarming, though the ending gets a little capitalist for my taste. An aging actor sneaks into the church at Stratford and makes a mold of the bust of Shakespeare, but he’s too afraid to make more than one cast of it. He thinks the police are going to take him away for breaking copyright, but he doesn’t actually know the law. He’s fine.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)

Anne Bronte was the born-again religious one among the Bronte sisters, so while all of them quote the Bible out of context all the time, she does it with a little more piety than her sisters. She also relies on some of Milton’s ideas, the importance of growing and changing one’s mind and the worthlessness of virtue untested. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was seen as a little too sweet and innocent, especially when it was paired with Wuthering Heights, so this was her edgy follow-up. This book takes a hard look at alcoholism and its consequences. Some of her attitudes are surprisingly modern, as when Huntingdon talks about addiction as a disease and a compulsion rather than simply a habit. Also when Hattersley is helped out of it by strengthening relationships instead of being preached at. Some of the women are a little too Angel-in-the-House for me to appreciate them, and I question the wisdom of Helen’s returning to her husband after she left him for very good reasons, but as a whole it’s actually a really good book. Narrators reveal more of themselves than they intend, which is an effect I always enjoy.

Dangerous Personalities (Joe Navarro)

Navarro used to be a profiler for the FBI, so this book focuses on that sort of quick, targeted classification of people. He discusses four basic toxic personalities: Narcissist, Unstable, Paranoid, and Predator. At the end of each chapter there is a quiz to see if someone you know fits this type. The scoring leads to four divisions: safe, annoying, obstructive, and dangerous. I scored my guy as annoying in both narcissism and paranoia and obstructive in instability. It took me another month to get away from him, but I’m good now. I scored myself as annoying in instability, and it seems accurate. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to have tried to live with me consistently through the last seven years. Navarro’s examples tend to be serial killers, so he can seem a little over the top (as law enforcement officials tend to do), but if you remember to dilute his intensity, it’s an informative book.

If Nuns Ruled the World (Jo Piazza)

I got unexpectedly excited about this book. It’s not so much a story of faith as it is true stories of amazing women who do fantastic things with their lives. Most of them are activists – whether for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking victims – and some of them are just doing extraordinary things in their old age, like the one who didn’t start running until she was older than I am now, but worked herself up to compete in marathons, and continues into her eighties. It is true that these are women from a shared, specific faith community, but the good work they do goes beyond that community. In fact, they sometimes end up in conflict with the male leaders of their church because of the work they’re doing to make things better for everyone. Their stories can inspire anyone who wants to make our world better, Catholic or not, particularly those who are interested in women’s political activism.

The Path of the Green Man: Gay Men, Wicca, and Living a Magical Life (Michael Thomas Ford)

This was a fantastic book. Ford introduces us to the basic concepts of Wicca and a little of their history, with ideas for meditation exercises. Along with the nonfiction, he also writes an allegory where the green man travels through the wheel of the year, hitting the eight celebrations commonly celebrated by modern pagans, and meeting gods from a variety of (mostly European) traditions. I loved this book and it meant a lot to me.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)

The first time I read this book, I had a hard time staying with it because I couldn’t find the mystery that kept the story together. It’s so long and digresses into so many details, and it’s great that Rowling didn’t stop world-building after the first book (so many fantasy authors do), but at almost nine hundred pages I felt my attention wavering. This was the second time, though, and when you know that Harry’s emotional state is the mystery and not just an obnoxious by-product of being fifteen, the book makes more sense. Rowling really hits the connection between Harry and Voldemort hard in this one, and that focus will grow toward book seven. There’s a lot of conflict between Harry and society as a whole, not just with his friends, which we saw less of in previous books. The atmosphere of conflict extends to the Weasleys, as Percy cuts himself off from the rest of the family. There’s a general sense that everything is getting bad, so it’s easy to assume that Harry being a little bitch all the time is just part of the general malaise and not proof that Voldemort is taking over his mind. It’s a much more complex and abstract problem than we had before, and as the dumb jock, Harry isn’t really equipped to handle it. Oh, and while it’s great that Ernie Macmillan has finally developed a personality, I think it’s a shame that that personality is Pompous Ass. Luna Lovegood makes her first appearance here, and she makes me very happy. I’ve heard people complain about the worthlessness of wizards who never use magic unless it’s dramatically appropriate; the Hogwarts kids learn Cheering Charms in year three, get tested on them in year five, but never use them outside of class. They literally know a spell to make each other happy, and they stubbornly refuse to do it. I do not understand.

 

June Books

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (ed. Devon W Carbado and Donald Weise)

This was a strange anthology. The writings are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, and the divisions didn’t always make sense. Discussions of the United States government’s attitude toward African nations and toward Americans of African descent seem to me to overlap, so why not put them together? It also seems that the majority of Rustin’s work was in action rather than in writing or speaking. While his command of rhetoric is impressive, even he implies that he is most effective at organizing events and movements rather than speaking at them. Rustin’s style is highly educated, which can alienate his less-educated audience. He’s not as popular today, not only because he didn’t go down in a blaze of glory, but because people today aren’t impressed by erudition. People who seem smarter than others are feared and distrusted, not valued. It was probably the case at his time as well. Because my own education in twentieth-century history is not great, I hadn’t realized how much World War II had done for civil rights. The ground was prepared when all those soldiers were forced to mix together; knowing people of color helped whites to understand their value. Rustin started his work shortly afterward, in the late 1940s. The book focuses on the 1960s, as do the superficial discussions of civil rights movements in United States classrooms; it’s misleading because it ignores the gains of the 1950s as well as the fact that drinking out of the same water fountain doesn’t solve everyone’s problems. We’re still struggling with racism all over the world. The two crosses in the title refer to the fact that Rustin was both black and gay, but while he was an activist who was gay, he was not a gay activist. When Stonewall happened, he did not build on the momentum to organize a movement. His focus was on race, and dealing with that identity took up most of his time. He spoke about being gay some, but by the 1980s people only wanted to hear him talk about Martin Luther King. So yes, his sexuality and the prejudices about it (and the imprisonments because of it) were an obstacle to his visible participation in the civil rights movement, but even after twenty years he didn’t have much to say about it. I’ve been talking about those identities that make him similar to me, a gay man working on a second graduate degree, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of what he did for communities of color in the United States. He worked with the bus boycotts made famous by Rosa Parks, and he organized the March on Washington. He was an amazing person at the forefront of cultural change, and the improvements in our laws and culture toward ethnic differences are due to him and his influence. He didn’t do it alone, but what he did changed the course of history.

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (Isak Dinesen)

Confession time: I don’t remember a whole lot about this book. Dinesen’s stories are slow and beautiful, some are realistic and some are fairy tales, but I’ve had so much upheaval in the last two weeks that it seems like I read this book in another life. The most famous one from this collection is Babette’s Feast, due to the slow film that was made of it. It takes a lot of effort to stretch forty pages to fill that much movie. I watched it a few years ago with a friend who said it was her favorite, and we saw different things in it. The story is about a famous French chef who flees from war-torn Paris and finds shelter in an unusually conservative community of Lutherans in Norway. After several years, she wins a lot of money and spends it all preparing a dinner for her friends like the ones she used to make for the wealthy French. If I remember correctly, my friend saw it as a story of artistry and giving one’s best, even when people don’t appreciate it (or know enough to appreciate it). Reading the story, though, I agree that it has to do with the place of the artist in society, but it’s not about love and gratitude. Babette’s feast is a judgment. When she arrives in town, they teach her to make alebread and fish, like she doesn’t know how, and she is forced to kill her creativity for twelve years making these shitty meals for people that she really does come to care about. Someone who can make a turtle soup that people would die for can certainly make bread and fish a sight better than these unoriginal household cooks, but they don’t want her to. The story is about everyone ignoring and undervaluing her gifts, and her feast is a way of saying, “Look at what I can do! Look at what you’ve missed! Look at the talent that your stupid religion has hidden under a bushel!” It’s a story that condemns society for not giving artists free rein to express themselves. It’s a dumb religion that says, God gave you the ability to make the world vibrantly beautiful, but you have to keep making it greyly small because that’s what makes us comfortable.

Quill Me Now: The ABCs of Spellcraft (Jordan Castillo Price)

This is a short little novella, but I thought it was a lot of fun. In this world, magic requires two parts: a picture painted by a left-handed Seer and a saying written by a right-handed Scrivener. Dixon is from a family of Scriveners, though he isn’t really one himself, and he meets a sensitive Russian hunk with a real gift for painting Seens. I’m attracted to the idea that words have power, and that using them carelessly can have unfortunate consequences. Hurrah for paranormal gay romance. First of a series.

Ombria in Shadow (Patricia A. McKillip)

High fantasy. Ombria is a kingdom full of shadows, where people seem to drift through time. I deeply love Patricia McKillip, but I wasn’t as pleased with the ending of this one. The book starts with the death of the prince and the casting off of his mistress – she finds a way to sneak back into the palace to continue raising the prince’s son, whom she loves as if he were hers. Mistress isn’t a title that is often accorded respect, but she’s effectively the new ruler’s stepmother, and they have a close bond. The dead prince also leaves behind a bastard son, whom many people would like to see seize the throne, but he’d rather spend his time drawing the things about Ombria he doesn’t understand. The third candidate for protagonist is the witch’s foundling, a young woman raised on the idea that the witch made her of wax who is now trying to figure out what it means to be human. These three marginal figures work together to protect each other and the young prince, because getting him to the throne is what’s best for the kingdom. Then there are the two witches – the one who lives in shadow realizes suddenly she’s been a mother for twenty years and is confronted with her own love for her waxling, and the one who lives in the palace is caught up in political maneuvers to consolidate her power over the kingdom. While things are vague the book is mysterious and exciting, but when the mysteries are revealed the book just ends. I prefer the revelation to come at the end of Act II, where characters use their new knowledge to guide the community to a resolution (after some thrilling and climactic confrontation befitting Act III), but this isn’t a Victorian sensation novel. Nor is it a romance, or a Bildungsroman, or any other of the labels we use to simplify the discussions about stories. I don’t think it’s fair to define a book (or anything else) by what it isn’t, but that’s where I end up when I try to explain this one. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the shadow – this is a book that just isn’t.

Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson)

The unnamed narrator tells us about her affairs with married women. This book is deeply and beautifully sensual without being pornographic. She tells these stories in no particular order, as we do when we talk about our past to someone we’ve met only recently. Things can get a bit jumbled up, even though she gives us names for all of these women. There are a couple of men, but they rarely get more than a paragraph. Halfway through, suddenly, this becomes a book about cancer and loss, and while I don’t know if I would make the same choices that these people do, I was really engrossed by their story. This is a fantastic book, where as usual, Winterson probes into the heart of what it means to love.

Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure (Michael G. Munz)

The Greek gods return to earth in a fun comic novel. Apollo tries to solve the mystery of Zeus’s murder with the help of a television producer, a lovesick anti-hero, and the muse of comedy and sci-fi. In the end they have to defeat the Titans, because apparently that’s the part of Greek mythology that captures the imagination of contemporary writers. Can’t we just leave the Titans in peace? In some ways I found the characters frustrating – Ares is a really unkind Southern stereotype with inconsistent dialect markers, and the anti-hero is harshly sarcastic at inconvenient times. I suppose I just get disappointed when characters don’t use their power for the good of others, and none of the gods do.

The Godmakers (Don Pendleton)

Do not confuse this with the Frank Herbert novel that came out a couple of years later, nor with the anti-Mormon film (and novelization) a decade after that. I will be the first to admit that many of the books I have read over the past few months have been a bit insubstantial, or fluffy. Life has been stressful and I’ve needed relaxation more than intellectual stimulation and growth. However, this is the only one that I would actually call trashy. This is shit science fiction at its shittiest, the type of story that makes Barbarella look like high feminist drama. Characters use heterosexual sex to access higher dimensions of psychic energy, resulting in paranormal abilities. It’s very sex-positive, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic as well. Adolescent wish fulfillment for incels.

Time Must Have a Stop (Aldous Huxley)

A strange book. It sometimes seems a bit like Dorian Grey, the young man learning about life from older, wealthier friends. But while Huxley makes Sebastian the center of the book, he doesn’t seem to find him very interesting. Sebastian’s uncle dies of a heart attack partway through, but his presence lingers on as we see him suffer in the afterlife and experience seances from the ghost’s point of view. Uncle Eustace keeps trying to hold onto an individual identity even when the painfully shining light tries to absorb him into a universal consciousness. This is the part of the story that attracted me, much more than the privileged teenager whining about finding evening clothes (a symbol of respectability denied him by the father who insists on breaking down class boundaries). Women characters are there to support Sebastian, acting as mothers, lovers, or evil crones. One of the fascinating things about this book is the setting, written in 1944 but about 1929. We’re on the cusp of a crash that author and audience know is coming but the characters don’t. Death gives Eustace some prescience, and the epilogue flashes forward to Huxley’s present, but those fifteen years don’t actually change Sebastian all that much. More experience means that he’s a handsome womanizing poet, not a handsome womanizing poet wannabe. I guess Huxley is right; I mean, as I look over my own life, it seems like there’s a lot of change, but the person I am has actually been pretty consistent. There were things that I thought were important that turned out to be superficial, and I have improved dramatically in self-knowledge and self-esteem, but the self in question is still the same. I enjoyed Huxley’s poetry; putting it in the mind of a teenager in the process of thinking through his art gives him a chance to show the revision process and a bunch of half-finished fragments of thought. It might not be as interesting to people who don’t write or study poetry.

Lime Gelatin and Other Monsters (Angel Martinez)

Another short paranormal gay romance novella. I get on a kick sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Kyle Monroe is a police officer in Philadelphia’s paranormal division, and while everyone there has magical abilities, they’re all bad at them, like the guy who accidentally lights things on fire when he’s angry, but only achieves little smolders rather than large conflagrations. They’re kind of like X-Men who haven’t had any training, so they just flail about with their unusual abilities and try not to hurt each other. Kyle absorbs the powers of those around him and controls them even more poorly, kind of like what I do with picking up on other people’s emotions subconsciously and then inventing reasons for me to feel this way. He gets a new partner, a giant beautiful man of southern Asian derivation, so it’s all police procedures and Indian food, with some gay sex thrown in. It was a fun little story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)

The kids are sixteen, and romantic relationships are starting to take over the plot. They’re also swearing more often. Draco Malfoy and Professors Snape and Dumbledore play larger roles than they have heretofore, with Dumbledore taking a more active role in Harry’s education and the antagonists finally actually plotting to do evil things. We also meet Narcissa Malfoy, who is one of my favorites. There’s a big political storm brewing around her, but all she cares about is keeping her family safe and she will do anything to accomplish that, which makes her a lot more like Molly Weasley than people ever acknowledge. Mrs Weasley, poor dear, spends a lot of time worrying about everyone. Fred and George have become successful businessmen without having finished high school or attempted college, which is great to see, and people start to acknowledge that Ginny might be the most powerful witch of the series. The death at the end of this book always makes me sad, though I have plenty of other reasons for that just now. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it’s over. One of the things that gets me about this series is that while Rowling is fantastic about retconning the Horcruxes and other plot elements, she does not do so well with retconning the school system. We seldom see students doing things that Harry and his friends can’t do yet, like trips to Hogsmeade or Apparating in the earlier books. We see adults doing serious magic, but there’s very little of the intermediate steps between where Harry is as an eleven-year-old and where his teachers are adults. Fred and George seem to represent the zone of proximal development for Harry, but even they are consistently more advanced than he is. It’s like, being raised by Muggles and not that good at academics, Harry isn’t really interested in doing magic, or he thinks that all magic is so far above him that he can’t even try. Finding the old Potions book in this story is the first time that Harry experiences magic as power he can access and not just a symbol of the social acceptance he was denied at his uncle’s house. Looking at Snape’s notes and revisions and experiments, he finally shows some actual interest and passion for something other than sports, so I’m disappointed in Hermione for trying to squash that. But she’s got enough of her own problems in this book, so I don’t judge her too harshly. A lot of people talk about the Slytherin House as being evil, but that’s not their defining trait. Think about Professor Slughorn as Head of that House. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just hyper alert to power and the way it moves. He likes it, he likes its benefits, and he likes being seen as close to people who have it. But he’s not willing to put others in harm’s way to get it, nor does he enjoy the suffering of the powerless. Slytherin isn’t about being evil or serpentine; it’s about understanding relationships of power and staying aware of how social structures affect people. Which is why I identify as Slytherin even a little more strongly than I do as Ravenclaw, the House of learning for its own sake where books are more important than people. This book is definitely building to the series finale/climax of book seven, much more strongly and intentionally than we’ve seen before.

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Stop Thinking, Start Living (Richard A. Carlson)

This is the recent rebranding of Carlson’s first book, You Can Be Happy Again! The premise is that all you need to do to be healed of your clinical depression and anxiety is to stop remembering that you have them. Well, actually, he starts by saying that all you really need to do is have an epiphany, but you can’t force yourself to epiphanize, so everything after the first few pages is an effort to guide you into a purposefully serendipitous experience.

For ages now I’ve been going back and forth as to whether depression is something that is inborn and I just have to put up with, like coeliac disease, or whether it’s something that is done to me, like a respiratory virus. Carlson introduces a third option – it’s something I’m doing to myself. Of course I don’t like this option because it means that I have to change, and I don’t like change.

Fortunately, Carlson gives me a lot of reasons not to listen to him. First, he attacks his entire profession. If all you have to do to cure depression is quit thinking about it, then nearly all psychotherapists are selfish gold-digging charlatans. Second, he attacks his readers as well. He keeps calling us who are depressed and seeking help for it silly and ridiculous, and he blames us for all our mental problems. Third, and clearly the most important, there are no double-blind tests or any other efforts to do quality scholarly research. Nor is there any secondary research. His points are seldom backed up by any evidence, and what evidence he presents is purely anecdotal. There is no reason for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills to believe anything he says. Fourth, it’s so repetitive that eventually you start to believe him just because he keeps saying the same thing over and over again.

When you stick with it and get close to the end, things get better and he starts to acknowledge that there are some traumas that really do need professional attention, and maybe some people have problems that need more than purposeful ignorance. Because, you know, it’s not always the best thing to just ignore problems and hope they go away on their own while you’re waiting for your epiphany.

This came out way bitchier than I intended. Sorry about that. This is what happens when people blame me for my problems, however justified they might be.

In the Ring (James Lear)

This author usually writes his gay porn as James Lear, and he has a real name that he uses for more reputable work. And normally I don’t write here about the erotica, but the Dan Stagg series starts to drift away from the strictly porn. Lear is focusing a lot more on story in this book, and First-Person Narrator even desists from describing a couple of sex scenes because he thinks we must be bored of reading about him fucking (we’re not). This is the third in the series – in The Hardest Thing, he was hired as a bodyguard, and in Straight Up he was solving a mystery for some of his military friends. This is much more James Bond-ish, with Stagg hired by the CIA to go undercover in a boxing/organized crime thing. Yes, there’s still some graphic sex with super-muscle-y athletes and spies, but it’s seriously de-emphasized. So, more of an action novel than a gay sex romp, but still a good quick read with some scenes that make me happy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Marlon James)

This book is amazing. It’s a graphically violent horror-fantasy, so a bit Tolkien and a bit Clive Barker, but instead of being based in British mythology, it’s all Africa. So there are spirits that do all sorts of mystical stuff, sometimes called demons, and there’s some vampire content, and people turning into animals. Quest narrative with a nonstandard ending, doors that appear in midair, government corruption, evil creatures who walk on the ceiling, a girl made of blue smoke, a man who becomes a leopard, and a tracker with a powerful nose and an eye that’s borrowed from a wolf (he’s the first-person narrator).

Someone has already purchased the film rights, but I wonder. One of the main thrusts of the book is to normalize QBTIPOC, and it’s hard for me to trust people. Is he planning to make a film of this, with all the gay sex between Africans who haven’t been corrupted by nonexistent Europeans, or did he buy the rights to stop anyone else from making the movie? Just to be clear, most of the main characters are gay men, but there’s a lot of homophobia too. I mean, it’s not like American homophobia, where they call us a bundle of kindling which means that the best thing to do with a gay man is light him on fire. They just call them boy-fuckers, which is at least descriptive of what they actually do. There’s also some of that internalized homophobia where tops get more respect than bottoms, but if you look at their abilities and nonsexual actions, there’s really no difference in masculinity. As he says close to the beginning, blaming a man for which way his dick points is kind of like blaming a compass for pointing north.

People who are religious are advised to turn away, because there’s a lot of profanity, and Tracker’s favorite way of swearing is to say Fuck the gods. There’s all sorts of wishing for the gods to go get fucked, which I enjoy but you might not.

Seriously. I loved this book. It’s gripping and adventurous and paranormal and awesome. It’s supposed to be first in an upcoming trilogy, so that’s going to be great. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

Sacred Paths for Modern Men (Dagonet Dewr)

This is sort of like a pagan man’s Wild At Heart, the Christian book about how we should all be Braveheart. Instead of the one archetype, Dewr gives us twelve, pulling examples in a Golden Bough fashion from the classic mythologies, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Tolkien, and a splash of Judeo-Christian. The result is an examination of the nontoxic bits of masculinity that have always been a part of our culture but that we’ve ignored. It’s good to know that the pagan world has inspirational nonfiction, and I enjoyed this bit of it. I’m looking forward to reading more, as a sort of gearing up for the deeper study of what this community believes, searching for what I believe.

Each archetype has a couple of rituals, one for private study (often with arts and crafts projects) and one for groups. I haven’t practiced any of them yet, but it’s good to know that they’re there when I’m ready. I’m very interested in symbols, so rituals are very meaningful for me.

It’s a good book, about possibilities. The author spent a lot of time at the ManKind project, so he plugs it rather frequently. One of the things that interests me the most is that he refers to his flavor of faith as Storytelling Wicca, and that is definitely a concept I want to learn more about.

Fromm is a social psychologist from the last century, and I’ve been working my way through his works a little at a time. This book attacks the idea that in 1950s America, healthy and normal were interchangeable concepts. Fromm begins by asking the question, are we sane? Is this a sane society? The answer, of course, is no. He determines this by examining the suicide and murder rates, which were already unusually high in the United States.

The next stage could be a bit controversial: determining what a person needs, regardless of culture. Making claims for universality is always a little dodgy, and although a European emigrant to the United States has had experience of several different cultures, his background doesn’t necessarily qualify him to discuss every culture. But since he’s focused on mine, I found his five needs to be relevant.

  1. Love. We need other people; not just any people, we need people who are similar to ourselves who welcome us. We need to feel like we belong. The failure of loving others productively is narcissism.
  2. Creation. He expresses it as transcendence, but I find that any explanation that uses the word ‘transcend’ becomes excessively numinous. We need to make stuff. I used to make blankets and sweaters, but now I’m making brownies and pies and casseroles. Sometimes I make poems or stories. Sometimes I add color to figurines at work. I like to make music. When we lose faith in our ability to create, we destroy. Later on, Fromm uses this need to explain why laziness is a capitalist construct and only exists when the work-life balance is skewed.
  3. Roots. Glancing back at the idea of love, we need to have a sense of our own origins. If we’re successful, we can distill that universal love into a positive feeling for those people we grew up with; if we’re not, then there’s incest to fall back on. Fromm really takes Freud to task here, arguing that his Oedipus complex and incest drives are abnormal, not part of healthy human development. He points out how ridiculous it is to assume that babies and young children have developed the sexual instincts of adults.
  4. Identity. We need to know who we are, apart from all the groups we belong to – family, community, nation, fandom, etc. Failure to establish an identity leads to conformity to the group. When we think back on the 1950s, it’s the conformity that seems most prominent in our cultural memory, but trauma has a way of forcing individuality on us, and World War II led to the expression of a lot of things that people didn’t want to face. If there’s repression, there has to be something trying to break free, and little packets of individual identity were breaking free all over the place. Kerouac’s On the Road was published in the 1950s, though most of those journeys took place in the 1940s, right after the war. He served in the US Navy for about a week.
  5. Belief. He talks in terms of orientation, which again is a little more abstract than is helpful for me. This is where he talks about reason – some people form beliefs based on observation and rational thought. They might be Christians or Muslims or atheists or Hindus, the thing believed in isn’t important, but the important thing is how they arrive at this belief. Less successful people grab onto superstitions and are guided by imagination rather than reason. Yes, a creative imagination is important; but CS Lewis didn’t believe Narnia really existed and that he could find it by poking around in the wardrobes in his home. A bird that is given food at random times will look for a cause to the random times, and will construct a ritual that it believes will produce the food. If it fluffs its wings just right, or whistles the precise tune, it believes it can cause the food to appear, even if it is still random. Even if the rituals don’t work, the belief persists. People aren’t much different.

 

The rest of the book (most of it) looks at the basis of society and asks whether it can promote these needs in the form it took then. There’s a lot of talk about authoritarianism, as in his previous books, but the thing that sticks out to me here is the commodification of people. Foucault would later write about this more extensively, the way that human beings are quantified and reduced to numbers, abstractions. Fromm takes a lot of time to talk about alienation, the way that we become abstractions to ourselves. It’s all right, even necessary, to work with other people, but when you start seeing yourself as a cog in a machine then something’s wrong. Human life is infinitely more complex and more valuable than the machinery we produce, and ignoring all of the value that people have and caring only for a small part of them is a destructive act.

Fromm also gets into Marxism, and the ways that people have distorted what was essentially a good idea. He really gets excited about socialism, of which I approve. He talks about the Russian attempt and explains how communism isn’t socialism (no matter what they name their republics), and all the ways Stalin got it wrong.

I have to admit that I started losing interest in this later part. I don’t have a strong background in understanding economic or political systems, and that made his arguments a little hard to follow. Also, times have changed, and some of his analyses aren’t relevant sixty years later. Some of it is also just depressing, as we in the United States keep clinging to an extreme form of capitalism that has produced an authoritarian president who is doing everything he can to destroy the country and make himself richer. It’s all quantities and numbers without an attention to the humanity being crushed to make blood wine for him and his fellow one-percenters. Trump’s election is a product of the alienation endemic to capitalism, and I could say some similar things about Bolsonaro. I just hope we can get rid of these bastards soon; I’m not trying to rob them of their human complexity (though some people do), I’m just saying that they are making bad decisions and creating unnecessary suffering for millions of people and I’d like it to stop.

I sometimes talk about being in favor of socialism, but to me that’s really only a second-best system. My ideal would be anarchy, people living quietly in peace without needing to be governed by an external authority. The problem with anarchy is, people are horrible, and left to themselves would rape and kill less aggressive people like me and swipe all our stuff. Because people suck, government is necessary. Because politicians suck, government is most effective on a smaller scale. Trying to govern however many millions of people there are in the United States with a single organization is sort of idiotic. Smaller countries, smaller communities, would work better. Fromm’s suggestions for creating a sane society are a little idealistic and unrealistic, given the nature and temperament of Americans, but maybe we could build a new society somewhere else. If Trump’s supporters get what they want and we’re all expelled to Big Gay Island somewhere, I’d like to think we’d make something better than what we’d be leaving. I like the fact that being gay in America means I’m expected to be in touch with my own feelings and respectful of those of others.

Fromm’s book is a little more connected with literature than the previous ones of his I’ve read – he makes a lot of references to Brave New World and 1984, though he spends a lot more time on Brave New World. We sometimes talk about Huxley’s book as instincts gone wild, but the people are much more mechanized (and hence alienated) than in Orwell. He makes frequent references to Kropotkin without explaining any of them, though he is more careful in examining the works of Marx and Engels. He wrote a book about literature before this one, but somehow I skipped it in my chronological reading of Fromm’s works. I’ll circle back to it soon.

It is always impressive to me that books like this can end in hope. People are shitty and create shitty systems to destroy each other, and it takes a lot of imagination and optimism to believe in the possibility of change. I haven’t been feeling the optimism lately. Apparently I read more books in 2018 than in any of the previous five years, and I think it has less to do with self-care and more to do with the need to escape reality. Reading isn’t always productive – it can be a self-comforting, addictive behavior. But I’m not Fromm, and he found hope that the world could improve, and he gave some specific suggestions on how to make it better. I’ll try to make things a little more beautiful where I can, but large-scale social change is beyond me. But if we’d all make things a little more beautiful where we are, it wouldn’t be beyond all of us.

The first thing to understand about this book is that D. H. Lawrence had no more credentials in this area than I have, and that his grasp of science is not always firm. I’m not sure if anyone has ever taken this book seriously, except as a window into Lawrence’s theory of people, a making-explicit of the ideas he implies in his novels.

Please. Please, do not read this book as containing absolute scientific fact or good advice about interhuman relationships. In this regard, much of it is shocking and horrible.

So. In 1921, after those horrible experiences he had during World War I, after all the difficulty of finding a publisher for Women in Love, Lawrence writes this little fifty-page book about psychoanalysis, presenting an alternate theory for those who are skeptical of the Oedipus complex. In Lawrence’s construction of the identity, the first center is the solar plexus, where the umbilical cord connects us to our food supply. This is where all those “gut instincts” come from. Our experience of the self at this point is one of unity with our environment. The second center becomes active when the child starts to kick and arch her back, which Lawrence associates with a bundle of nerves called the lumbar ganglion. She is asserting her independence, her separateness from the environment. In some ways these two urges are mirror images of each other – being at one with everything, being one apart from everything. Lawrence also calls these subjective poles, because they deal with how we experience ourselves.

The third center develops in the heart region, the cardiac plexus. The child sees its mother and realizes that she is not the self; the child starts to experience a more objective world where there is more than Me and Not-Me. The Not-Me starts to differentiate; the mother is an object in the world, not the entire world. As with the solar plexus, the cardiac plexus draws the child toward what is outside herself, this time in love. Solar plexus and cardiac plexus are called the sympathetic centers because they draw us into the world around us. There’s also a corresponding thoracic ganglion, a pulling-away where the child sees the world not in terms of love, but in curiosity, an emotionally indifferent state of scientific observation. The two ganglia are the voluntary centers; they pull the identity into the self and establish differences. These four poles constitute the child’s subconscious mind. Ideally, energy should move freely between them, subjective and objective, sympathetic and voluntary. The first book only goes this far, though it does imply that these four are part of a system of seven chakras. The chakra-system gets dropped in the second book; he never even mentions it again.

So. In 1922, people had responded to Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and the response was mostly negative. Critics found his ideas too esoteric, too little grounded in observed reality. Lawrence replies by writing it all again, expanded, with more explanation. He also occasionally uses language that is far more colloquial than I’ve ever seen him use, before or since. The beginning is with the idea of conception. Yes, we all start off as the union of a sperm and an egg, but he says there’s a third something there as well, which he compares to the Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity. Each of us is more than simply a combination of traits from our parents; there’s a part of our identity that is only us. This bit of uniqueness is what people talk about when they use the word soul. From there he talks about those four poles of the childhood subconscious again.

But none of us stays in childhood forever. If we live long enough, we go through puberty and develop additional poles. The first Lawrence calls the hypogastric plexus, I suppose so that he doesn’t have to call it genital or pubic or anything too obvious. This is the sympathetic center that draws us toward other people in sexual desire. There’s also the sacral ganglion that draws us away; the interplay between these two centers of consciousness explains why sex involves a rhythm of toward and away from the partner. In discussing sex, Lawrence is extremely conservative in this book, with essentialist constructs of gender and heteronormative, misogynistic views of gender roles. Homosexuality and androgyny do not exist in the schema he creates. A man and a woman represent opposite energies that attract like the positive and negative poles of a magnet, and while a man may be attracted to more than one woman, he thinks a woman is only ever attracted to one man. He treats his cultural narrative as biologically predestined.

Puberty also activates upper centers of consciousness in the neck and throat, but those get kind of glossed over. The schema demands symmetry so we get it, even if he doesn’t really have a lot of evidence to support it. This symmetry explains the abandoning of the seven chakra system; Lawrence needs eight points.

And then there’s the head. The head is full of ideas and ideals, which as the source of mechanism, automatism, and industrialization are largely anathema. Lawrence claims that only a few elite people need ideas and ideals, and that society would work better if the mass of humanity were uneducated. For him, children should spend their time learning how to live healthily from their unconscious centers instead of learning how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. He thinks that giving children ideas too soon will overbalance their personalities – the problem with the world of his day is that people live too much in their heads and not enough from all the rest of it.

Speaking of horrifying educational theories, Lawrence encourages domestic violence, as long as the violence is sincere. He thinks a man should beat his wife and children, so long as he is honestly angry. I cannot agree with him. In my experience, this type of violence creates fear and subservience. It’s the most effective way to stunt the psychological growth of the wife and children. The home becomes a place where every choice is made to placate one person at the expense of all the others. As a child, I ended up obsessing over the consequences of my behavior on other people’s emotions, but at the same time I was expected never to let their behavior affect me. If other people were angry, it was my fault, and if I was angry, it was still my fault. It’s taken my entire adult life to embrace the fact that my childhood makes me incredibly angry, and that the problem is with other people and not with me. I’m sure that eventually I will get over it, but right now I’m enjoying the fact that it’s okay to be angry. The fact that it’s okay to forgive will come later.

Lawrence has some thoughts on what creates the Oedipal complex, though he doesn’t call it that, and it does fit into his system. He says that the problem comes from leaving the children too much with adults. Parents have developed that higher form of loving from whatever plexus is associated with the pituitary gland, and so they extend the adult form of love and expect the same in response, when the child isn’t ready for it. We’re not talking about sex here; love in children is generally straightforward, while love in adults is all complicated and mixed up with other feelings. Introducing children to the complexity of adult love prematurely activates the throat plexus, which in turn prematurely activates the genital poles as well. There’s a graphic representation of this in Sons and Lovers, where the mother is disappointed in her husband and sinks all of her love energy into her child, only to have him pull away and start experimenting with girls before marriage. Let kids love as they should, as they are ready to, and things will turn out healthier.

From here, the rubbish gets rubbisher. He has an earth-centric idea of the cosmos; the sun and moon are actually created and sustained by life on earth. Our energy feeds them, and when we die, our energy rises and is absorbed by one or the other. Drifting back to the whole essentialist gender thing, he thinks that men are affected by the sun, so our energies rise from the lower poles to the upper, while women are affected by the moon, so their energies sink from the upper poles to the lower. As such, men need some kind of greater purpose to be real men, while women need to have their physical needs met to be real women. The misogyny gets really intense here. For Lawrence, the act of sex is the ultimate goal of women, because it happens under the moon (I like it during the day too, which must be proof that I’m not female). But for men, pursuing sex as the ultimate good leads to enervation and a waste of life. Men have to work, because that happens under the sun (because no real man works at night). Men have to give their lives to some greater ideal, like Progress or Jesus or Science or Society or Art or Empire or whatever. It’s a tricky thing, keeping the ideal in mind while living from the unconscious as well, maintaining a 51/49 balance between them, working during the day (time of man) and eating and fucking at night (time of woman). I guess it would be easier if days and nights were of equal length.

And, I ask you, what good will psychoanalysis do you in this state of affairs? Introduce an extra sex-motive to excite you for a bit and make you feel how thrillingly immoral things really are. And then – it all goes flat again. Father complex, mother complex, incest dreams: pah, when we’ve had the little excitement out of them we shall forget them as we have forgotten so many other catch-words. And we shall be just where we were before: unless we are worse, with more sex in the head, and more introversion, only more brazen.

Yes, even being an introvert is a problem for Lawrence. He sees it as living too much in the head, ideas having taken the place of physical necessities. Or in other words, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be an introvert. It means that I get my energy from the voluntary centers, from pulling away from others and being alone. Yes, intellectual endeavors are important to me, but that’s not what introversion is really about. I suppose he’d see introversion as feminine, because he sees women’s fulfillment in the isolation of the home. He says that men have to belong to a body of men fighting for a common cause, which sounds like rubbish to me. More specifically, it sounds like a sublimation of homosexual desire; he doesn’t think he wants the man, he wants to be a part of the cause the man is fighting for. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the company of one’s own sex, sexually or otherwise – as long as equal respect is afforded the other genders, such a preference requires no justification. But the idea that extraversion is a requirement for masculinity is stupid. It even seems to contradict his main point, that we should all hold our own souls/selves apart and in peace, which seems like a terribly introverted goal to me.

This book presents an interesting theory of the unconscious and its relation to the body, but that theory is extended to terrible places and misapplied in horrible ways. Misogyny, homophobia, classism, and even anti-Semitism. Lawrence throws shade at Einstein for being Jewish, and the man who can do that has a level of ethnocentric elitism that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Part of me wants to say that Lawrence is a product of his time and place, and that it’s unfair of me to expect him to rise above his cultural milieu. But I’ve seen his characters and read his stories, so another part of me wonders if he really believes all this as much as he says he does. In his fiction, he actually does a good job of demonstrating how destructive these attitudes are toward women, and how undeveloped and unhappy they can be when they’re expected to restrict their attention to the home. But that’s not here. There is so much to resist in the reading of this book, so much that seems contradictory and is offensive. I kind of wonder how Lawrence was doing, whether he wouldn’t like a hug and a cup of tea to give him a more positive view of the world.

As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

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.

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.