Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

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.

Advertisements

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

I first read this book by listening to it; the library had an audio recording of Alan Rickman performing it. Listening to that much Alan Rickman is an experience in itself, and then to have his deep, carefully enunciated voice telling a story of such tragedy . . . it stirred some powerful emotions. My response to Clement Yeobright is one of the things that convinced me (1) that I’m gay, and (2) being gay is sufficiently important to me that I need to act on it.

While Hardy presents us with an entire community, there are six primary characters.

Diggory Venn is the local reddleman. He travels around, selling the red dye that farmers use to mark their sheep. We can brand cattle because we don’t care what their pelt looks like, but we have to be more careful with sheep because we sell the fleece. The dye is transported in large bags, so farmparents always tell their little farmboys and farmgirls that if they don’t behave, the reddleman will take them away, which means that Diggory Venn has become the local boogeyman. He used to be a respectable farmer, but a few years ago he wanted to start a relationship with Thomasin Yeobright and she turned him down, so he turned to a life of solitary wandering. The redding has dyed his clothes and skin a bright red.

Thomasin Yeobright, in my opinion, doesn’t have anything special about her to make men love her. No extraordinary beauty or accomplishments or virtue, just the average amount. I don’t say that to imply that I don’t like her, or that she’s not sympathetically drawn, I’m just saying that she’s a normal girl, pretty enough, good enough, sweet enough, etc. As the book opens, she’s being taken home from a failed marriage. She and Damon Wildeve had good intentions, but the license was made out for a different town than the one they were in, so they couldn’t get married that day. Thomasin (familiarly, Tamsin) suffers quite a bit, but Hardy doesn’t focus on her very much.

Damon Wildeve is the closest thing we have to a villain, and he’s actually not that bad a person. In terms of class and social position, he’s the best thing Egdon has to offer a young girl, so he has a hard time sticking to just one. Basically, he goes with whichever girl likes him the least at the time. He is in love with Eustacia Vye, but she’s too mercurial to woo straightforwardly, so during one of their breaks he courts Thomasin instead, but when their first marriage attempt doesn’t go through he goes back to Eustacia for a time, then he fights with her again so he goes and marries Thomasin. I think that in truth he only loves himself, but he comes closest to loving Eustacia. The whole Tamsin business is unfortunate. He only appears in the book when he’s causing trouble.

Eustacia Vye is a beautiful girl with aspirations beyond her expectations. She wants to get into the beau monde, but she’s stuck living on the heath surrounded by furze-cutters. She toys with Wildeve, even though he’s her best shot at the type of life she wants. But when Clement Yeobright comes back from Paris, she throws all her energy into catching the dream of him that she’s created, no matter what his reality may be. She reminds me a lot of Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda, which was only published a couple of years before this one. The neighbours think she’s a witch.

Clement Yeobright, generally known as Clym, is a handsome, intelligent man who is sick of selling jewelry in Paris, so he comes home to rural Wessex to do something else. Anything else. His plan is to teach, but in all the reading he has to do to prepare he overstrains his eyes and he ends up cutting sticks for firewood just like everyone else. There was a time that his mother wanted him to marry his cousin Thomasin, but neither of them has ever been really interested in the other. His attachment to Eustacia is unfortunate; she’s not necessarily a bad girl, but she’s bad for him. When they get together she thinks that she can change his mind and get him back to Paris, even though he thinks the diamond industry and the “high” culture it represents are for effete losers.

Mrs Yeobright has always had high hopes for her son Clym, who is more intelligent and more beautiful than anyone else around. She was content to miss him when he was away being so successful, but she gets angry at the way he “throws his life away.” She also raised Thomasin, but always with the sense that Tamsin was not hers. Mrs Yeobright has very strong emotions but seldom talks about them, a novelist’s dream come true (cf the Brontës).

These are your main players, but there’s a whole community here; Hardy does really well with minor characters (cf Mr Dickens, who wrote those complicated novels with dozens of characters). Timothy Fairway is the natural leader of the working class; tall, strong, authoritative, but without being removed from the people themselves. He’s a department supervisor, not a store manager. Grandfer Cantle once trained to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and has seen himself as a hero ever since. People always remind him to behave like the venerable sage he ought to be, but in his heart he’s still twenty-one years old. His son Christian is afraid of literally everything. Susan Nunsuch is convinced that Eustacia is doing black magic to make everyone miserable, a prime example of a person fancying herself significant in the life of someone who never thinks of her. Her son Johnny runs errands for the comparatively wealthy sometimes; he’s a good kid. Olly Dowden, Humphrey, and others are on hand when we need an extra body to fill in a scene.

It is important to remark upon Egdon Heath. This is unenclosed public land where everyone lives and gets their living. Some readers have said that the heath is a character itself – Hardy remarks on its changing face and its voice, and characters are always represented in terms of their relationship to it. Loving and knowing the heath makes someone good; disliking it means that someone is likely to dislike himself. Dissatisfaction can make for a good story, but it doesn’t make people good or happy.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who identify with the troubled feelings of Eustacia and Wildeve, but their type of relationship is not for me. I don’t see love as something that changes constantly; I don’t see the value of the irresolution that characterizes their romance. We make choices, and then we abide by them. Wildeve chooses Thomasin (because Eustacia won’t choose him), but then he keeps going back to Eustacia. It’s awful; it’s rubbish; it’s no way to treat people. And this is what I’ve explained to my new beau’s daughter. She’s worried because he tends to pick guys who will cheat on him, so she and I had a private talk about constancy. I’ve chosen him, and he’s chosen me. So this is what we’re doing, for now. We’re not committed for life, but as long as we keep choosing each other there’s no reason to look for anything different.

When Hardy writes a hero, he covers him with nature, sometimes quite literally. This is sort of a long passage, but just in case you wanted to see the kind of guy who draws me powerfully:

The face was well shaped, even excellently. But the mind within was beginning to use it as a mere waste tablet whereon to trace its idiosyncrasies as they developed themselves. The beauty here visible would in no long time be ruthlessly overrun by its parasite, thought, which might just as well have fed upon a plainer exterior where there was nothing it could harm. Had Heaven preserved Yeobright from a wearing habit of meditation, people would have said, ‘A handsome man.’ Had his brain unfolded under sharper contours they would have said, ‘A thoughtful man.’ But an inner strenuousness was preying upon an outer symmetry, and they rated his look as singular.

Hence people who began by beholding him ended by perusing him. His countenance was overlaid with legible meanings. Without being thought-worn he yet had certain marks derived from a perception of his surroundings, such as are not unfrequently found on men at the end of the four or five years of endeavour which follow the close of placid pupilage. He already showed that thought is a disease of the flesh, and indirectly bore evidence that ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things. Mental luminousness must be fed with the oil of life, even though there is already a physical need for it; and the pitiful sight of two demands on one supply was just showing itself here.

When standing before certain men the philosopher regrets that thinkers are but perishable tissue, the artist that perishable tissue has to think. Thus to deplore, each from his point of view, the mutually destructive interdependence of spirit and flesh would have been instinctive with these in critically observing Yeobright.

As for his look, it was a natural cheerfulness striving against depression from without, and not quite succeeding. The look suggested isolation, but it revealed something more. As is usual with bright natures, the deity that lies ignominiously chained within an ephemeral human carcase shone out of him like a ray.

I don’t agree with the idea that thinking and personal beauty are incompatible. I’ve met intelligent, thoughtful people who are simply beautiful. I think that beauty, especially as we age, comes from an internal peace and happiness. If you want to continue turning heads as you get older, you have to learn to be content with yourself. If it’s true that we all get the face we deserve by the time we’re forty (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s because our true selves push their way into our features. It becomes more difficult to hide who we are. And for most of us, less desirable.

Vague misgivings about her future as a deserted wife were at an end. The worst had once been a matter of trembling conjecture; it was now matter of reason only, a limited badness. Her chief interest, the little Eustacia, still remained. There was humility in her grief, no defiance in her attitude; and when this is the case a shaken spirit is apt to be stilled.

People sometimes talk to me of the delights of anticipation, but I seldom feel it. I’m more on Tamsin’s side; once the worst has happened, it stops being scary. I’ve had several things that I thought were the worst happen, and once it’s over, that’s it. Life simply becomes a matter of finding the next thing to do. And disasters often make it very clear what we must do next. Some people are alluding to another workplace catastrophe that might be coming soon, but it doesn’t frighten me. I’m certainly not frightened enough to take a job teaching elementary school in China. I love my own children, but other people’s make me uncomfortable. They’re like half-tamed animals; they don’t know how to live in society yet, but we get them to talk, walk upright, and use the toilet, and then send them to school. Some days it’s like working at a no-kill dog shelter. Frankly, if this job ends, I’m sort of excited about seeing what I’ll do next. I want to see what I can offer that isn’t teaching.

Hardy is good. His characters still feel real and relevant, even after 130 years. I may not say that this is my favorite Hardy novel, but it’s the one that got me into him, and Clym is my favorite Hardy hero. None of that puppy-doggish feel of Giles Winterbourne. So, strongly recommended, especially if you have a strong value for country living and rural communities.

Not exactly what I expected. This is the sequel to The Great and Secret Show, a fact that the cover should have been more forthcoming about (tsk tsk, Harper Collins). Those who survived the disasters at Palomo Grove and Trinity are back, though in a different setting. The biggest difference is that Barker breaks with his customary structure: normally it’s a bit like Fenimore Cooper’s double journeys, where we reach a conflict in the center of the book that seems final, but then there’s a twist and there are still greater evils for the heroes to defeat. In Everville, this doesn’t happen. We still have those greater evils from the previous book, and Barker chooses not to imagine any worse. The book is set up more like The House of the Seven Gables or Wuthering Heights, with their interest in things ending where they begin – we ascend the slope and then descend like in an ancient Hebrew poem, instead of climbing halfway, resting, and then climbing again.

As before, Tesla Bombeck is our protagonist, and as before, she doesn’t appear until nearly a hundred pages. No one from before does. Indeed, most of them aren’t central to the plot. Howie and Jo-Beth, the supernatural Romeo and Juliet, have a baby and are unhappy. She renews her incestuous interest in her twin brother, Tommy-Ray the Death-Boy, and Howie can’t handle it. Their story just doesn’t seem to interest Barker much, and they disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. Tommy-Ray was the counterpart to Tesla, but not any more. He’s still surrounded by the dead, but he’s lost his fascination with death. He’s growing up. Grillo is dying, but while he and Tesla were close in the first book, their journeys are widely disparate here. And then there’s Harry d’Amour, whose name I vaguely recall from the first book, but who takes on a role very similar to Tesla’s in defeating evil. I wanted the two of them to become romantic eventually, but it doesn’t happen. Kissoon, the enemy, also returns, more firmly enmeshed in the plot and the lives of the other characters than is immediately apparent.

Tesla sees America similarly to the way I do:

She had thought about coming back here many times in her five-year journey through what she liked to call the Americas, by which she meant the mainland states. They were not, she had many times insisted to Grillo, one country; not remotely. Just because they served the same Coke in Louisiana as they served in Idaho, and the same sitcoms were playing in New Mexico as were playing in Massachusetts, didn’t mean there was such a thing as America. When presidents and pundits spoke of the voice and will of the American people, she rolled her eyes. That was a fiction; she’d been told so plainly by a yellow dog that had followed her around Arizona for a week and a half during her hallucination period, turning up in diners and motel rooms to chat with her in such a friendly fashion she’d missed him when he disappeared.

These United States are more States than United. Even within a state, there are differences. Radio commercials keep telling me about the unity that comes with being Texan, but I still see snobbery and elitism and intolerance, the us vs them mentality that destroys societies. In my home state, it’s often apparent after a brief conversation whether someone belongs in Asheville or Wilmington or Durham, and there are subtle differences in accent and attitude as you move from Gastonia to Murphy. Americans are raised on a sense of individualism, and we don’t really cohere well. I often think that the idea that we can be governed by a single federal government is ludicrous; while that may make me sound like a Republican, I believe firmly in accepting the world as it’s given to me and making what beauty I can, which in politics means that I think a government’s job is to make people’s lives better, so I support the policies found in the Democratic Party more than the other. I am a Bernie Sanders man, and the label socialist doesn’t scare me the way it does some. Even if we succeed in electing him, though, I will keep my hopes closer to the earth than I did with Obama.

Maybe the messiahs we imagine are more important than the real thing.

It’s not so much the person I’m voting for as it is the ideals he espouses. Every politician compromises, and we all feel a little betrayed by them, but if we have someone who inspires as much cynicism as Hillary Clinton, or as much hatred as Donald Trump, how much further can we sink? It’s the ideals that are important, and the idealists that I will choose, every time.

There had been something to die for in those hard hearts, and that was a greater gift than those blessed with it knew; a gift not granted those who’d come after. They were a prosaic lot, in Owen’s estimations, the builders of suburbs and the founders of committees: men and women who had lost all sense of the tender, terrible holiness of things.

It’s the idealists that build countries, and it takes the prosy committee members to keep things going; but things change, and the builders of suburbs fight against it. As I tell people whenever it’s appropriate, remember your lessons from fourth-grade science class: if it doesn’t move and it doesn’t change, it’s not alive.

And, well, maybe dying isn’t the worst thing either.

Up they went, Norma wrapped in her shawl, onto the roof nine floors above Seventy-Fifth. Dawn was still a while away, but the city was already gearing up for another day. Norma looped her arm through Harry’s, and they stood together in silence for perhaps five minutes, while the traffic murmured below, and sirens wailed, and the wind gusted off the river, grimy and cold. It was Norma who broke the silence.

“We’re so powerful,” Norma said, “and so frail.”

“Us?”

“Everybody. Powerful.”

“I don’t think that’s the way most people feel,” Harry said.

“That’s because they can’t feel the connections. They think they’re alone. In their heads. In the world. I hear them all the time. Spirits come through, carryin’ on about how alone they feel, how terribly alone. And I say to them, let go of what you are – ”

“And they don’t want to do that.”

“Of course not.”

“I don’t like the sound of it either,” Harry said. “I’m all I’ve got. I don’t want to give it up.”

“I said to let go of it, not to give it up,” Norma said. “They’re not the same thing.”

“But when you’re dead – ”

“What’s dead?” Norma shrugged. “Things change but they don’t end. I told you.”

“And I don’t believe you. I want to, but I don’t.”

“Then I can’t convince you,” Norma said. “You’ll have to find out for yourself, one way or another.”

Again, think of science class: The Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, things change shape, but they never begin or end, not really. They’re just reborn in a different form. The frontier spirit is a part of American life, not just the desire to strike off into new territory, but the desire to strike off alone into new territory. We don’t sort well with each other. Tesla and Raul share one brain for most of the book, but they still don’t fit comfortably.

“How come I didn’t see that?” she thought, confounded (as ever) by the fact that she and Raul could look through the same eyes and see the world so differently.

Perhaps it takes a British writer, someone from the outside, to see us as we really are. Someone who wasn’t raised on the shared delusion we call The American Dream.

Okay. New subject.

I once started reading Elizabeth George’s series of mystery novels, the ones with Inspector Lynley. The first one was quite good, and very helpful to me, but in time I saw that she was only looking at the worst side of humanity. Many mystery and horror writers only present us at our worst, which is perhaps why I don’t read extensively in the genres, but Barker doesn’t. He sees people, all the good and bad in them, and continues to love them. He even imagines things that are pure concentrated evil, worse than any real person could ever be, and yet when he sees the world, he sees its beauty and wonder.

As they turned the corner onto Phoebe’s street, out of the blue Harry said, “God, I love the world.”

It was such a simple thing to say, and it was spoken with such easy faith, Tesla could only shake her head.

“You don’t?” Harry said.

“There’s so much shit,” she said.

“Not right this minute. Right this minute it’s as good as it gets.”

“Look up the mountain,” she said.

“I’m not up the mountain,” Harry replied. “I’m here.”

And humanity, even the overly religious, homophobic, self-righteously selfish humanity, can be a source of incredible heartrending beauty.

Caught in the grip of the crowd, unable to entirely control her route, nor entirely concerned to do so, she felt curiously comforted. The touch of flesh on flesh, the stench of sweat and candy-sweetened breath, the sight of oozing skin and glittering eye, all of it was fine, just fine. Yes, these people were vulnerable and ignorant; yes, they were probably crass, most of them, and bigoted and belligerent. But now, right now, they were laughing and cheering and holding their babies high to see the parade, and if she did not love them, she was at least happy to be of their species.

And:

Was there anything more beautiful, Owen wondered as he left the coffee shop, than a sight of yearning on a human face? Not the night sky nor a boy’s buttocks could compare with the glory of June Davenport (Miss) dolled up like a whore and hoping to meet the man of her dreams before time ran out. He’d seen tale enough for a thousand nights of telling there on her painted face. Roads taken, roads despised. Deeds undone, deeds regretted.

And tonight – and every moment between now and tonight – more roads to choose, more deeds to do. She might be turning her head even now, or now, or now, and seeing the face she had longed to love. Or, just as easily, looking the other way.

There is beauty in every life, in every heart. Phoebe Cobb is a doctor’s receptionist in a small town in Oregon, stuck in a marriage she hates, surrounded by people she can’t abide, carrying more weight than Hollywood is comfortable with (I suspect that those of us who see with Southern eyes would describe her as normal, healthy-looking, as we do all women who are only twenty or thirty pounds overweight [But really, the ex had a good friend who was 5’6” and needed two bathroom scales to weigh herself, and she was very pretty and always dressed well, so I think she’s cute as a button]). She meets a housepainter, younger, thin, black, with a criminal record, and they have an affair. But it’s no ordinary fling; she’s not just some vulnerable female he can stick it to, and he’s not just some passing fancy. This is one of those loves that transcend space and time, and they go off to the dream-sea and find each other, even when separated by sleep, death, the earth, and the supernatural forces that exist only in fiction. Love makes her beautiful, and him luminescent. The human capacity to love is often startling in its depth and breadth, shocking in the unpredictability of whom it joins. As in The Scarlet Letter, love spills out of our hearts and makes the world beautiful.

Harmon O’Connell is a visionary Irishman, traveling through the colonization of the American West. A mystical figure gives him a medallion and a dream, a dream of a shining city founded on the spot where he will bury the medallion. He dies before he reaches the spot where Everville will be built, but he passes the medallion and the dream on to his daughter Maeve, in love.

“It was a fine dream I dreamed,” he murmured, raising his trembling hand toward her. She took it. “But you’re finer, child,” he said. “You’re the finest dream I ever had. And it’s not so hard to die, knowing you’re in the world.”

She builds the city on a whorehouse, another type of love, and is eventually driven from it by the intolerant religionists who settle there. But some things don’t die, not right away, and she continues to define herself by her love for her dead supernatural husband. His ghost hangs around, and eventually, at long last, they are reunited. Love brings us all together. Love breeds hope, and hope keeps the world turning, at least the part of the world that concerns human beings. And love and hope keep us alive, even after the body decays and our names are forgotten.

It’s time for us all to put our lives in order, Harry, whether we’re dead, living, or something else entirely. It’s time to make our peace with things, so we’re ready for whatever happens next.

I’ve been working at this, these last several weeks. I’m using some of the techniques I learned after the divorce; I’m sure it was frustrating to my counselor friend just how little I was ready to change then, but things are different now. Back then, I had lost so much that I was afraid to let go of my pain and anger and general fucked-up-ness because I didn’t have anything else, no other foundation on which to build an identity. They were the only things I was sure of, in a world where everything was changing and falling and dying around me. But now, now I know that I won’t be destroyed by any of this. Death is just a change like any other, and when it comes to me it will be as natural and comfortable as walking from one room to the next. The anxiety and depression are dramatically less than they have been for many years, and I’ve even had some episodes of unreasoning manic joy as my brain chemistry rebalances itself.

My tarot cards keep telling me that it’s time to stop resting in solitude and to get involved in life again. Maybe that’s what I’m getting my brain fixed up for; maybe what happens next is that, like Owen’s waitress, I’m going to turn my head and see the man I’ve been longing to love. Texas is just a waystation for me; I’m determined not to end up here, because my end is not here. I am determined not to die in Texas. I think I may be headed for a larger city next; for all I love the woods, I would like to live somewhere I don’t have to drive to work every day, where people are too busy with their own lives to waste time observing mine. And cities are where gay men tend to find each other. I loved New York and Paris, and I won’t be looking for a drunken tourist or a sadistic Algerian this time. My life is amazing, and I want to go live it someplace awesomer than here.

You’ll be pleased to know that I really don’t identify strongly with Miss Lonelyhearts any more.

A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Not a pleasant situation. It’s sort of how I feel about teaching sometimes. Not that the job is a joke, but it’s something I shouldn’t take too seriously, and then I fall headfirst into my own natural seriousness and drown.

But I’m not running from or hiding my sexual orientation, as he does.

He paid for his breakfast and left the cafeteria. Some exercise might warm him. He decided to take a brisk walk, but he soon grew tired and when he reached the little park, he slumped down on a bench opposite the Mexican War obelisk.

The stone shadow cast a long, rigid shadow on the walk in front of him. He sat staring at it without knowing why until he noticed that it was lengthening in rapid jerks, not as shadows usually lengthen. He grew frightened and looked up quickly at the monument. It seemed red and swollen in the dying sun, as though it were about to spout a load of granite seed.

He hurried away.

Often.

While Miss Lonelyhearts was puzzling out the crabbed writing, Doyle’s damp hand accidentally touched his under the table. He jerked away, but then drove his hand back and forced it to clasp the cripple’s. After finishing the letter, he did not let go, but pressed it firmly with all the love he could manage. At first the cripple covered his embarrassment by disguising the meaning of the clasp with a handshake, but he soon gave in to it and they sat silently hand in hand.

I don’t listen to rape jokes in order to fit in, feigning the indignation at women’s success that so many men feel naturally.

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterward, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

I never lost my belief in beauty. I’ve been out of school for years now, but my appreciation of beauty and my belief in its importance are stronger than ever. It’s this that keeps me hoping, moving forward, because everywhere I look there is more beauty to be seen and experienced, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.

I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I should be more jaded, because sometimes it seems that in the real world pessimism is the only reasonable response. But I can’t hang onto it. I’ll look over my shoulder as I’m pulling out of the driveway and see the sun pop over the horizon, and I feel filled with the awe and wonder I used to feel in religious experience. Living beauty is all around, if I keep my eyes open to see it.

If he could only believe in Christ, then adultery would be a sin, then everything would be simple and the letter extremely easy to answer.

Which is what makes the dying God so hard for me to connect to. It’s like Christ is the Hanging Man in a tarot deck – he represents wasting time, being stalled, the inability to progress. Christianity as it is commonly practiced seems to favor a simplistic worldview, which Miss Lonelyhearts can’t believe in. I understand The Great War did that to a lot of people, whether they actually went to it or not. I agree with him, that life is more complex than sin/virtue or any other binary, and that getting your needs met so that you can meet the needs of others sometimes requires actions that are deemed sinful. So, for me to believe in God I need him to have a more flexible view of acceptable behavior.

I’ve found a church that I seem to like. It was founded as a haven for gay Christians in Texas, and now it has weekly attendance in the hundreds. I found it through a friend of a friend, and his group is a little overwhelming for me – social anxiety means it’s okay to be alone in a crowd when they all leave two empty seats on either side of me, but when someone I don’t know well wants to hug me and sit close it’s a different story. And besides, do people only go to church when they’re in long-term relationships? “This is A and his husband B, C and his husband D, E and his partner F, and this is my husband G . . .” Wow. But more importantly, I feel like I’ll be accepted here, whether I believe as they do or not. I don’t feel like I have to hide who I really am.

There are a couple of places where the Christ our protagonist believes in is referred to as the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts, which informs the character in a couple of directions. First, he sees God as an advice columnist, a distant faceless entity whose identity is a farce, but who tries to help in an ineffectual way. It also means that he’s like Christ to these people who write in, and it’s his job to save them. I’ve been both a missionary and a teacher, and it’s taught me that you can’t save people. You can give them tools, but they’ve got to save themselves. Similarly, I can’t wait for someone else to make my life better; I’ve got to save myself too.

Reading him this time, Miss Lonelyhearts is a reminder of how depressed I once was, and how important it is that I don’t let myself go down that way again. He encourages me to take responsibility for my own life, not to bounce along the way that he does, always seeking the path of least resistance, because that ends in disaster.

I am Harry August, born New Year’s Day 1919.

I am sixty-eight years old.

I am eight hundred and ninety-nine.

I have directly killed seventy-nine men, of whom fifty-three died in war of one kind or another, and indirectly murdered through my actions at least four hundred and seventy-one people who I know of. I have witnessed four suicides, one hundred and twelve arrests, three executions, one Forgetting. I have seen the Berlin Wall rise and fall, rise and fall, seen the twin towers collapse in flames and dust, talked with men who scrambled in the mud of the Somme, listened to tales of the Crimean War, heard whispers of the future, seen the tanks roll into Tiananmen Square, walked the course of the Long March, tasted madness in Nuremberg, watched Kennedy die and seen the flash of nuclear fire bursting apart across the ocean.

None of which now matters to me half as much as this.

Time travel happens like this. You live your life normally, and then you die. But at the instant of death, instead of moving on to Elysian Fields or purgatory or whatever your belief system tells you will happen, you’re born again. Not into a new body, into the same one. Same birth, just for the second time. In a few years, you’ll be a seven-year-old with a ninety-seven-year-old mind. And it’ll just keep happening, every death returning you to the beginning of the circle that is your life. The people who live like this are called Kalachakra, or ouroborans, because of the cyclical nature of their existence. People like me who only live one life are called linears. The Kalachakra tend to get to know each other, supporting each other, saving children from the monotony of pretending to be a kid for eighteen years, that sort of thing. These Cronus Clubs make sure that people don’t disturb the flow of history too much. We all will, of course, because there is no such thing as an unimportant person, but there’s a difference between saying yes or no to a date and explaining to Albert Einstein how microwave ovens work. Of course, rules in fiction exist so that a character can break them, so this is the story of a man who tries to use his repeated lifetime to accelerate scientific achievement to a breakneck pitch, so that he can create a quantum mirror and finally understand how the universe works. It’s compared to seeing the face of God. Harry August is here to stop him.

Harry’s a good guy, the illegitimate son of the heir of the house and one of the maids, conceived in a fit of jealous revenge when the young heir found out his wife was unfaithful. He’s adopted by the gamekeeper and his wife, and after that the course of his lives changes dramatically. The first time, of course, he goes through without thinking about it much. The second time, he’s freaking out about the rebirth and ends up committing suicide in an insane asylum at age seven. The third time, he grows up and goes searching the world for God. The fourth time he becomes a doctor. Then he finds the Cronus Club and his life changes.

My first life, for all it lacked any real direction, had about it a kind of happiness, if ignorance is innocence, and loneliness is a separation of care. But my new life, with its knowledge of all that had come before, could not be lived the same. It wasn’t merely awareness of events yet to come, but rather a new perception of the truths around me, which, being a child raised to them in my first life, I had not even considered to be lies. Now a boy again and temporarily at least in command of my full adult faculties, I perceived the truths which are so often acted out in front of a child’s sight in the belief that a child cannot comprehend them.

In his early lives, he fights in World War II, but the second time he feels more powerless than the first.

I wondered what I could do differently, with my knowledge of what was to come, and concluded that it was nothing. I knew that the Allies would win, but had never studied the Second World War in any academic detail; my knowledge was entirely personal, a thing lived rather than information to be shared. The most I could do was warn a man in Scotland by the name of Valkeith to stay in the boat two minutes longer on the beach of Normandy, or whisper to Private Kenah that there would be a tank in the village of Gennimont which had turned right instead of left and was waiting between the bakery and the church to end his days. But I had no strategic information to impart, no learning or knowledge other than a declaration that Citroën would make elegant unreliable cars and one day people would look back at the division of Europe and wonder why.

This early part of the book is when Harry is most like us, and spends the most time thinking about the nature of our lives. There is beauty in the linear flow of time, in the belief that this moment will never happen again, in valuing the transitory life that will vanish never to return. We live with an awkward grace, like camels crossing a desert. We stalk across the sands with our hump full of water carrying baggage that isn’t ours, caring for the humans who need us, keeping one eye on our loved ones’ comfort and the other on finding the next oasis.

Meeting the Cronus Club skews Harry’s life in a radically different direction. Instead of looking for answers for himself, he turns his attention outward, to the community. He accepts the fact that for people like him, death is unimportant. He’s caught in the 1960s by an American spy who tortures him to learn about the future, and he meets an older woman who gives him a knife and tells him to meet her in London in 1940. So he kills himself to escape the torture and remembers his date twenty years later/earlier. It shifts his focus from linear humanity to the Kalachakra, and one night as he’s dying in the early twenty-first century, a little girl warns him that the end of the world is speeding up. So he becomes a child and warns old people who are dying, and the message is passed back and back a few centuries, and Harry August goes to find the person responsible.

How do you assassinate someone who doesn’t die when you kill him? The simplest way is to prevent his ever being born. Find out who his parents are and kill them before the child is conceived, or interrupt his conception, or send his father a scholarship to a boarding school in Paris so the father never meets the mother in Boston. The romantic details of our lives are the easiest to disrupt because they’re not based on the colossal machinery of governments, and we direct our relationships based on emotions and whims instead of logic and historical inevitability. For this reason, ouroborans guard the secret of their origin obsessively. Another trick up their sleeves is to electrocute the brain, forcing the person to forget everything. Then kill them quickly. They’ll wake up as a baby, with one weird nightmare about being an adult with electrodes strapped to the head and being killed. It’s so gentle a way to eliminate threats that some Kalachakra choose it voluntarily. Akinleye is a woman who spends her lives going from one pleasure to another, soaking her eternity in heroin and ecstasy and whatever else is on hand. Until one night when her linear friend gets so high she dances off the edge of the yacht and drowns. After that, Akinleye just wants to forget. Some Kalachakra, like Harry, can’t forget, though. He’s forced through the Forgetting process a couple of times, but it never takes. He never forgets anything from any of his lives.

Harry and Vincent have a best frenemies sort of relationship, like Professor X and Magneto, or The Doctor and The Master. Frankly, the whole book has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it. It’s about a guy who travels through time but spends an awful lot of time in England in the late twentieth century, who achieves an ageless quality by being nine hundred years old but only looking twenty, who speaks of years as places to visit, and who must save the world and all of time from an evil genius. The difference is that Harry August doesn’t have an Amy Pond or a Rose Tyler to think he’s brilliant and stop him from killing things. He just doesn’t have the personality for it. In fact, he reminds me a lot of myself.

“Harry, don’t be obtuse. You do it sometimes to put people at ease, but I find it patronising and annoying. You know exactly what I mean. You try so hard to blend in, I find it frankly intrusive. Why do you do that?”

“Did you ask me here to tell me that?”

“No,” she replied, shuffling her weight a little in the bed. “Although now you’re here, I may as well inform you that this ridiculous notion you have that if people find you pleasant, you’ll have a pleasant time in return is stupid and naïve. For fuck’s sake, Harry, what did the world do to you to make you so . . . blank?”

“I can go . . .”

“Stay. I need you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re so obliging,” she replied with a sigh. “Because you’re so blank. I need that now. I need to forget.”

I totally do this, pretending not to know things to make other people feel comfortable. In a lot of situations, blending in takes precedence over being myself. In the past, I’ve been so successful at it that I’ve lost track of who I am and what I think and believe. I don’t think that’s likely to happen again, but the habit of blending, fitting myself into the personalities of the people around me, remains. As I think about the effect I have on people, it seems that I have an unusual ability to allow people to be themselves. People can tell me the bad things they’ve done or wanted to do and I don’t treat them differently because of it. I try always to answer vulnerability with gentleness, and that frees people to be increasingly vulnerable with me. My dad told me once that there’s no such thing as an ugly woman, that every woman can be beautiful if she’s made to feel special and loved. I think that goes beyond just women; every person is a compound of beauty and pain, and I want to spend my life fostering the beauty and alleviating the pain. Sometimes I feel like an enabler, but there are worse things to be. I’m obliging, yes, but I don’t think that makes me blank, though stupid and naïve are definite possibilities.

I think that being ouroboran is not necessarily a blessing. Spending centuries being ground down by the system can really hurt a person, like the woman who runs one of the Soviet Cronus Clubs.

For a second her chin drew back, and there it was, the flash of the woman Olga might have been, beneath the layers of jacket and wool. Gone as quickly as it had come. “White Russian,” she proclaimed. “I was shot in 1928,” she added, sitting up a little straighter at the recollection, “because they found out that my father was a duke and told me that I had to write a self-criticism proclaiming that I was a bourgeois pig, and work at a farm, and I refused. So they tortured me to make me confess, but even when I was bleeding out of my insides I stood there and said, ‘I am a daughter of this beautiful land, and I will never participate in the ugliness of your regime!’ And when they shot me, it was the most magnificent I had ever been.” She sighed a little in fond recollection.

It’s a lonely life, where you become increasingly convinced over centuries of life that any change you make, any effect you have, will ultimately be bad. They tend to think that any contact they have with the linear world will be negative, so they hide away from people and deal with depression as best they can. It erodes the personality until they sigh in recollection of the people they once were.

I think that a conviction of the temporary nature of life is a good thing. If this life is all we will ever have, then we had better make it the best possible life we can have. It keeps us from acting as if suffering were unimportant. It keeps us from seeking out suffering in order to achieve some benefit in a future life. I don’t think that religion is necessarily bad in itself, but it has led to some fairly awful ideas about how to treat ourselves and each other. Let’s celebrate all that’s good in our minds, bodies, and communities. Let’s put an end to self-hatred and prejudice. Let’s love more. Let’s make this life good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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