Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

To the extremely casual:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

I know that normally I skip the introductions, but here’s a good bit from Fromm’s:

I wish to express my gratitude to my wife not only for the many suggestions which have been directly incorporated into these chapters but, far beyond this, for what I owe to her searching and penetrating mind which has so greatly contributed to my own development and hence indirectly to my ideas about religion.

The 1950s were a time when women couldn’t get a lot of recognition, so I’m glad Fromm gives credit where it’s due. It’s unfortunate that when he talks about all of humanity he uses masculine pronouns – it was standard practice back then, but now we recognize that it excludes somewhere around half of the population. I know that there are slightly more women than men, worldwide, but I’m not sure if those figures account for transpeople, and I don’t know whether there is a statistically significant difference in the number of transmen and transwomen. So yeah, the book is all sexist and transphobic, but that’s the time Fromm was writing in.

This book is a continuation of Man for Himself, Fromm’s book on psychoanalysis and ethics that I read back in June. He refers back to Escape from Freedom a lot as well, so it really seems like he’s building each book on the previous writings published in English, so this business of reading his books in order of publication was probably a good idea. This one is also really short, so it could be considered a final section to the previous book on ethics. As ever, he uses a lot of italics, so the italics in the quotations below are all his, not mine.

He issues a caveat close to the beginning, that even though we usually associate the word religion with Christianity in this country, he doesn’t intend that connotation.

For lack of such a word I shall use the term religion in these chapters, but I want to make it clear at the outset that I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.

Which means that, for the purposes of today’s discussion, anything can be a religion. Writing about literature, for instance, or the pursuit of romantic love. I’ve been getting agitated with facebook recently, and I think it’s because my friends are getting so insistent on their secular religions. Even my friends who embrace a belief system tend to orient their lives around a secular concept to which they give their devotion. To some it’s patriotism and the flag, which I disagree with completely because I think dividing people into nations is useful in governing them but dangerous in the tendency to nationalism and partisanship. To some it’s guns, and I explicitly unfollow these people. But to others it’s social justice, and while I’m in favor of that, their passion and extreme devotion to the specific aspect of injustice that bothers them is difficult for me. I have people posting that not enough of us are talking about Puerto Rico, but I feel like a third of the things I see are about the disaster there. I see so many terrible things in the news that I’ve become less sensitive to tragedies that I don’t see with my own eyes. There are so many tragedies that I’m exposed to that I seem to have lost the ability to be surprised by them, and without the element of surprise I don’t get shocked, angry, or passionate about things the way my friends do. I feel like I’ve lost some essential human element in my personality – it often feels like a physical pressure bearing down on me, that I don’t care enough about people-first language or injustices that don’t affect me personally. Think about the metaphor for feelings from Brave New World – a pipe with one leak builds up a lot of pressure and shoots that water pretty far, but the more leaks there are the weaker the pressure. My facebook newsfeed is like this leaky pipe, and every fresh injustice pokes a new leak, so that I feel like I don’t have any empathy left over for people outside the gay community. The demand to care about every single person on earth is draining, and it leaves me feeling tribal and misanthropic. It makes me think that the world is an awful place full of horrible people, which includes everyone I know. I don’t actually believe that, and it hurts to have those ideas pushed into my head. I am already in pain; stop poking my bruises with sharp sticks.

In some ways, I was better at loving people en masse back when I was more explicitly religious. I was raised in an authoritarian version of Christianity, and as an adult I tried to embrace a more humanist version, but after reading Fromm I’m not so sure whether I was successful. According to Fromm, the authoritarian/humanist divide cuts across all faiths, and he clearly favors the humanist side. In describing the effect of authoritarian religion, of projecting authority and virtue to a being outside of ourselves:

When man has thus projected his own most valuable powers onto God, what of his relationship to his own powers? They have become separated from him and in this process he has become alienated from himself. Everything he has is now God’s and nothing is left in him. His only access to himself is through God. In worshiping God he tries to get in touch with that part of himself which he has lost through projection. After having given God all he has, he begs God to return to him some of what originally was his own. But having lost his own he is completely at God’s mercy. He necessarily feels like a “sinner” since he has deprived himself of everything that is good, and it is only through God’s mercy or grace that he can regain that which alone makes him human. And in order to persuade God to give him some of his love, he must prove to him how utterly deprived he is of love; in order to persuade God to guide him by his superior wisdom he must prove to him how deprived he is of wisdom when he is left to himself.

I’ve lost God, but I haven’t recovered the parts of myself that I gave up ten years ago. Maybe in some ways I still feel like a sinner, but one that is no longer penitent. If I’m a sinner, then I love the sin in me as well as the virtue. The Ex never could quite understand that there were some things that I believed to be wrong, but that I did anyway because I enjoyed the wrongness of them, and maybe that’s still true of me. These days I damn myself through projection differently, thinking and saying that my kids have the best parts of myself, as if I lost some virtue in giving it to them. But this is illogical, because that’s not how genetics works. When I see my personality traits in my children, but without the anxiety, I get excited and happy, but those traits are still present in me, and I want to be better at recognizing my strengths and not only my limitations.

When he gets into talking about love, I do see my limitations quite clearly.

The command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, with only slight variations in its expression, the basic principle common to all humanistic religions. But it would indeed be difficult to understand why the great spiritual teachers of the human race have demanded of man that he should love if love were as easy an accomplishment as most people seem to feel. What is called love? Dependence, submission, and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable,” domination, possessiveness, and the craving for control are felt to be love; sexual greed and the inability to stand solitude are experienced as proof of intense capacity for love. People believe that to love is simple but that to be loved is most difficult. In our marketing orientation people think they are not loved because they are not “attractive” enough, attractiveness being based on anything from looks, dress, intelligence, money, to social position and prestige. They do not know that the real problem is not the difficulty of being loved but the difficulty of loving; that one is loved only if one can love, if one’s capacity to love produces love in another person, that the capacity for love, not for its counterfeit, is a most difficult achievement.


Psychoanalysis also shows that love by its very nature cannot be restricted to one person. Anyone who loves only one person and does not love “his neighbor” demonstrates that his love for one person is an attachment of submission or of domination but not love. Furthermore, anyone who loves his neighbor but does not love himself shows that the love of his neighbor is not genuine. Love is based on an attitude of affirmation and respect, and if this attitude does not also exist toward oneself, who is after all only another human being and another neighbor, it does not exist at all. The human reality behind the concept of man’s love for God in humanistic religion is man’s ability to love productively, to love without greed, without submission and domination, to love from the fullness of his personality, just as God’s love is a symbol for love out of strength and not out of weakness.

As I think over my relationships, I think that Fromm is more correct than I want him to be. In fact, I feel a bit like he’s pulled my pants down in a public place – not embarrassed exactly, but exposed to the possibility of being perceived as inadequate. I do sometimes wonder if the emotion I excite in people is not love so much as pity, since I do very little to hide my suffering, and I seem prone to suffer at the least inconvenience. And while my relationship with him may have started in a good place, it ended up in possessiveness, dependence, sexual greed (on my part), and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable” (on his part). Then I think about my life here without him, and I’m shy about meeting new people because I’m concerned about not being thin enough, or wealthy enough, or cultured enough, or interesting enough, or handsome enough, and it’s a well-documented fact that our community focuses more on the external than heterosexuals do. A friend told me recently that there’s nothing quite so attractive as a rich, handsome lawyer in his jogging outfit. So maybe what I really want is not love, but just to find someone who will touch me. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but they do present a very different focus, and probably a different approach (if I knew anything about locating men for either purpose, I could be more specific about this).

I was chatting with a medium I know – practicing my tarot readings, learning more about the symbology – and she introduced me to a divination schema I had never heard of before. The main takeaway point I got was the idea that this instability and restlessness that I’ve been suffering from my whole adult life is not a trial; it’s who I am. The argument is that for me (not for everyone, mind you) it’s my desires for stability and domesticity that are culturally determined and foreign to my nature: the ease with which I get bored isn’t a flaw that I need to correct, it’s just me. Some of us just have explorer personalities, which means that I’ll be better and happier, more my natural self, if I stop thinking of my journey as having a destination and just focus on making sure it doesn’t end. For me, the joy will have to be here and now, in the temporary and elusive, because the permanent will always leave me unsatisfied and the future will never look as I think it will. I was talking it over with another friend, and she pointed out that this doesn’t mean I have to keep up the nomadic lifestyle. It just means that I have to keep looking for something to explore, something new. Life always has something new to offer – new activities, new ideas, new disciplines of study, for example. This self-evaluation meshes well with my Gallup Strengths Finder results and my Myers-Briggs type, which is why I think it’s worth relating. I know that astrology isn’t science and there’s no logical reason to believe in it, but I left that conversation feeling more comforted, more at peace with myself than I have in weeks, and I’m not going to let the logical voice in my head take that away from me.

As with any book about religion, Fromm has a clear goal for us and our belief systems, and I think it’s a good one:

Our unconscious – that is, that part of our self which is excluded from the organized ego which we identify with our self – contains both the lowest and the highest, the worst and the best. We must approach the unconscious not as if it were a God whom we must worship or a dragon we must slay but in humility, with a profound sense of humor, in which we see that other part of ourselves as it is, neither with horror nor with awe. We discover in ourselves desires, fears, ideas, insights which have been excluded from our conscious organization and we have seen in others but not in ourselves. It is true, by necessity we can realize only a limited part of all the potentialities within us. We have to exclude many others, since we could not live our short and limited life without such exclusion. But outside the confines of the particular organization of ego are all human potentialities, in fact, the whole of humanity. When we get in touch with this disassociated part we retain the individuation of our ego structure but we experience this unique and individualized ego as only one of the infinite versions of life, just as a drop from the ocean is different from and yet the same as all other drops which are also only particularized modes of the same ocean.

Or, more concisely:

The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance.

One of the reasons that this book is so short is that Fromm circumvents a lot of the religious debates by focusing on the issue of his previous books, authoritarianism. As mentioned, authoritarianism exists in all religions, and he finds it more productive to focus on this difference than the differences between Buddhism and Catholicism, or between Mormons and Muslims. And I think he’s right, that the outward trappings of belief statements and whether you say ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ are really unimportant, far less important than whether your faith leads you to love yourself and others or to hate yourself and others. Any faith group where people are increasing in love is okay with me, and any in which people are sowing the seeds of destruction is not. The fact that the same group can have both tendencies just makes it complicated, and reminds me that it’s not my job to judge someone else’s beliefs.

I do want to disagree with Fromm on one point: he argues that secularists don’t have rituals, and I disagree. I may have given up prayer as an individualized ritual of finding comfort through communing with my subconscious, but I’ve switched to tarot readings, which for me have very little sense of mysticism and more to do with the logical application of symbols. There are other rituals I do every day, like flossing, brushing my teeth, and rinsing with mouthwash before going to bed. Or, I fasten my safety belt, put the key in the ignition, press and hold the brake, turn the key, release the parking brake, and then shift into gear before releasing the brake. These may not confirm my position in a group, but they are established patterns of behavior that I hope will bring me safety and good oral health. We all have our rituals, but I guess in 1950 it was a little harder to recognize the secular ones for what they are. Fromm only recognizes ritual in the community sense, as in taking Communion as a congregation.

The shortness of the book does make me wonder how comfortable Fromm was writing on this topic. However, the shortness of it also means that I read it in one day, even though it’s taken me three more to write about it. Life is getting busy. Sometimes a shorter text serves as a good introduction to a writer’s thought, but because this one relies so heavily on the ideas in his other two books, I’d still recommend people start with Escape from Freedom.