Posts Tagged ‘bible’

I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber)

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme circumstance, you say? Tell me more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

I know. I know, people who are as poor as I am have no business peeking into used bookshops, even if they are new in town, and even if it’s Memorial Day weekend and no other shops are open. So I did, and the owner was terribly friendly, so of course I did what I had sworn I would not do. I bought a couple of books. Less than a week later, I picked up a couple more because I feel guilty using a store’s wi-fi for an hour without spending any money there. Besides, circumstances in my life are demanding that I make some decisions with relation to my belief system, and when I saw the title of this book I knew intuitively that I needed to read it.

You see, I’ve been getting lonely on the weekends. The loneliness drove me to visit the local Mormon church, because this is the church I was raised in, and I needed to meet some friendly people. Mormons are always happy to welcome a member who is new to their town. No need to mention that after two months of living here and exploring these two towns, I didn’t feel exactly new any more. So I’ve been there two or three times, and so the bishop called me in to have a little getting-to-know-you chat. He seems friendly (I seem to have passed the age beyond which pastors no longer seem paternal), not really bothered by the whole gay thing. But a week or two ago he asked me back in, and the conversation, while not threatening, was more professional than friendly. The problem is this. Even though I haven’t thought about myself this way in quite some time, in their terms, I bear the priesthood of Melchizedek, the high priest of the Old Testament. Yet, as a single man not given to celibacy, I have done things that the church cannot abide. They say that it’s the premarital nature of the sex that’s a problem, not the gender of the actors involved, though I confess that I have some doubts on that score. Not having premeditated a plan for this conversation, naturally I panicked. Long painful pauses, some random stammering. We agreed not to withdraw my church membership immediately, but we’re going to continue to have these little chats from time to time.

So I’ve spent these almost-two weeks trying to understand myself. What I do and don’t believe seems too big a topic for me to tackle all at once, so I’ve gone at the situation from a different angle. Why am I reluctant to take the active role in terminating my alliance with this church? The only answer I’ve been able to accept is sentiment. It’s not the doctrine; most of it, especially the stuff central and unique to them, seems like bollocks. If there is any sort of trajectory to my life, any overall moral lesson, it has been that no one is going to save me. Either I do it myself or it doesn’t get done. Most people are kind, and many of them want to help, but if there is to be any meaningful transformation in my life (aka salvation) it has to come from me. No one else is going to do it. Partially because I don’t like being helped, and partially because they all have their own shit to deal with. Like Rilke’s God, who sort of accidentally created humanity. He had gathered up the clay and was shaping it, but other problems kept coming up, like a baby bird who had lost its parents, so he stopped looking and let his hands carry on without him. God’s hands finish the first man and drop him down onto the earth while God’s eyes and attention are elsewhere. According to Rilke, God is still looking for a complete and perfect man, unsuccessfully since the dawn of time.

“And that is why it is urgently necessary that God should learn what man really is like. Let us rejoice that there are those who tell him . . .”

The good lady was not yet rejoicing.

“And who might they be, if you please?”

“Simply the children, and now and again, too, the people who paint, write poems, build . . .”

“Build what, churches?”

“Yes, and other things too – build in general . . .”

As I was saying, sentiment. I feel a great deal of nostalgia for the person I once was, for the boy who could see life as simple, like the German einfach, one-fold, singular. He was kind of narrow, but he was sweet and happy, innocent. Rilke’s stories are written with children in mind, and I believe that part of the attraction this book held for me is in my need to reconcile the man I have become with the overgrown boy I held onto being for too long. Another important aspect of this sentiment is my desire for my parents’ approval. I forfeited that when I told them that I’m gay, and I’ve been regaining it insomuch as I can convince them that I am still the same person I’ve always been. Around them, I am as little different as possible. Okay, in truth, I’m not very different at all, but I’ve always been careful only to show them one side of me, and it’s not the side of my character that is actually most prominent. I worry that if I voluntarily withdraw my church membership, my parents will never forgive me. There are also the many friends who have worked so hard to keep me in this church. It’s been the best way I know to honor their love for me, by continuing to belong to an organization that brings them so much personal fulfillment. The Mormon church does a lot of good things for people and meets many physical and emotional needs; just not mine.

Christians (including Mormons) are apt to say that the only way to truly find oneself is in God. You give God everything you have and deny yourself of all ungodliness, and God returns to you all of the things that are really you and gives you a sense of complete identity. This follows the implications of Paul’s epistles, that who we really are is an obedient spirit wrapped up in an envelope of sinful flesh. Good desires come from our true selves, while evil desires come from the physical body, which is not really us. Mormons teach that the body and spirit together form the human soul, but they tend to cling to this holy spirit/evil flesh dichotomy, and I don’t believe in it. I lived that way for a long time, and it’s like I was living half a life. I kept wanting to destroy parts of myself, important, significant parts that shape my character. I hid several aspects of my real self from my conscious self in my labors for divine approval. Now I try to accept whatever aspect of my self is revealed to me. I don’t have that surface happiness any more, but nor do I have the hidden self-hatred. I am becoming simpler, a more unified self, while my view of the world is becoming more complex, more multiple.

The thing I keep running aground on, in terms of faith, is not a belief in God itself, it’s all the add-ons. You believe in God, so you must also believe that you’re a sinful creature in need of Jesus’ blood to save you from hellfire. You believe in God, so you must also believe that Joseph Smith was led by an angel to recover a religious document remarkably similar to the Bible, engraved on golden sheets, preserved by God in a hole in the ground for fourteen hundred years. You believe in God, so you must also believe that God sent his messenger Gibreel to communicate his final message to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) fifteen hundred years ago. You believe in God, so you must believe the world is a mirage, a symbol of spiritual truths not yet directly revealed to us. You believe in God, so you must believe that homosexuality is evil, which means that God built you for either celibacy or damnation, though most days you can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s all this other rubbish that seems absurd; the simple idea of a God doesn’t.

And this, I think, is one of the real strengths of Rilke’s book. He presents us with a God unencumbered by sanctimonious rubbish. His God gets distracted, forgets things, misunderstands, and reveals himself in the least likely places. I suppose you could say that this version of God is too limited, that God should be infinite, infinitely beyond our comprehension, all-seeing/all-knowing/all-powerful. Such a God is easy for people to worship (most people – I don’t know if I have a reverent bone in my body), but hard to love. To love, you have to be able to draw something close to you. Rilke’s God is harder to worship, but easier to love. And my need to love is stronger than my need to venerate.

In “A Story Told to the Dark,” Rilke introduces a ‘fallen woman,’ someone who left her husband for the love of an artist and now raises her illegitimate child alone. Her childhood friend comes to visit her, and she explains to him how she has come to love God:

“As a child – did I love God? I don’t believe so. Why, I never even – it would have seemed to me insane presumption – that isn’t the right word – like the worst sin, to think: He is. As though I had thereby compelled him to be in me, in that weak child with the absurdly long arms, in our poor apartment where everything was imitation and false, from the bronze wall-plaques of papier mâché to the wine in the bottles that bore such expensive labels. And later – ” Klara made a parrying gesture with her hands, and her eyes closed tighter, as though she feared to see something dreadful through the lids – “why, I would have had to drive him out of me if he had been living in me then. But I knew nothing about him. I had quite forgotten him. I had forgotten everything. – Not until I came to Florence, when for the first time in my life I saw, heard, felt, realized and simultaneously learned to be thankful for all those things, did I think of him again. There were traces of him everywhere. In all the pictures I found bits of his smile, the bells were still alive with his voice, and on the statues I recognized the imprints of his hands.”

“And you found him there?”

Klara looked at the doctor with large, happy eyes: “I felt that he was – at some time once was . . . why should I have felt more? That was already more than enough.”

The doctor got up and went to the window. From it one could see a stretch of field and the little old village church of Schwabing, and above it the sky, no longer quite untouched by evening. Suddenly Doctor Lassmann asked, without turning round:

“And now?”

Receiving no answer, he came quietly back.

“Now – ” Klara faltered as he stood before her, and then raised her eyes full to his face, “now I sometimes think: He will be.”

I can cope with this idea, of God as the Arthurian legend, the once and future king. I know that I should try to stick with the Rilke here, but this idea of his has reminded me of another book, that expresses a similar attitude toward God but more familiarly (for me):

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. […]”

If Melville is right, and Moby Dick is just a mask through which Ahab can strike at God, then Rilke is also right, and Klara can learn to love God through her aesthetic sense. And as I think about my life since coming out, this appreciation of the beauty in art and nature has actually been sharpened. Without realizing it, I have been loving God through the mask of creation this whole time. If reverence is only to be found in genuflecting, using only the right terms and metaphors, and fostering a lively sense of my own nothingness, then yes, I am a failure. But if reverence can be found in the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, at sunlight on long grass or wind through freshly-leaved trees, or a series of statues in a French park or the paintings of an old Dutch master, then there is indeed hope for me yet.

Perhaps this is what I need to fix clearly in my mind before my next little chat with the bishop: his church, while it can offer me some measure of human love and support, in the long run it cannot offer me hope. If I fall back into the habit of believing them, my future will ultimately be one of despair. Hope and peace are in the woods, in the art galleries, in the libraries, in the love of a good man. And that is where I will find my faith as well.

I read once that a writer is “a reader moved to emulation.” There is no writer who stirs me to write like A. S. Byatt. This is not to say that I have her skill with language, but simply that I wish I had. Her descriptions are lovely; reading her is like resting in a pool, feeling yourself borne along floating, but only temporarily, only so long as you keep very still, because with the slightest movement you will sink or be forced to swim.

The stories in this collection are only partially, and usually only metaphorically, about fire and ice. Water and light are more common. Beyond these elements, though, these are stories about stories, and story-telling. In them ancient myths come back to life. Visual art plays an important role as well. They’re also stories about foreign travel and therefore crossing boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the uncanny finding of things known in unfamiliar settings.

CROCODILE TEARS

A married couple has a little tiff in a London art gallery over some kitschy piece of shit that the husband wants to buy; a few minutes later he drops dead. She leaves, goes home, packs a few things, and takes a train to France. She does what she can to elude detection, and ends up in Nimes. Not for the bullfighting, but just because that’s where she ended up. She spends her time avoiding the things that (as a tourist) she ought to do. She meets a Norwegian gentleman whom she does not fall in love with; she gets rather irritated when he keeps saving her from suicidal accidents. He tells her the old Norse story of The Companion, a man who was frozen in the ice and then mystically aided his thaw-er to achieve his goals. Eventually she softens toward him, and they decide that together they can face the traumas and responsibilities they are each running away from.

A LAMIA IN THE CÉVENNES

An English painter moves to France and installs an outdoor swimming pool. He’s captivated by the shade of blue that results from the interaction of the tile with the water. There are some chemical problems with the pool, so he has it drained and refilled from the river. Wouldn’t you know it, a giant snake gets into the pool with the river water. It’s the Lamia from the Keats poem; if he kisses her, she’ll become a woman and make all his dreams come true. But he doesn’t want a woman, he wants the colors that shine and iridesce all over the snake body. He strings her along until a houseguest takes her bait.

COLD

While I love her realistic stories, no one can write a fairy tale like A. S. Byatt.

Princesses, also, are expected to marry. They are expected to marry for dynastic reasons, to cement an alliance, to placate a powerful rival, to bear royal heirs. They are, in the old stories, gifts and rewards, handed over by their loving fathers to heroes and adventurers who must undergo trials, or save people. It would appear, Fiammarosa had thought as a young girl, reading both histories and wonder tales, that princesses are commodities. But also, in the same histories and tales, it can be seen that this is not so. Princesses are captious and clever choosers. They tempt and test their suitors, they sit like spiders inside walls adorned with the skulls of the unsuccessful, they require superhuman feats of strength and cunning from their suitors, and are not above helping out, or weeping over, those who appeal to their hearts. They follow their chosen lovers through rough deserts, and ocean tempests, they ride on the wings of the north wind and enlist the help of ants and eagles, trout and mice, hares and ducks, to rescue these suddenly helpless husbands from the clutches of scheming witches, or ogre-kings. They do have, in real life, the power to reject and some power to choose. They are wooed. She had considered her own cold heart in this context and had thought that she would do better, ideally, to remain unmarried. She was too happy alone to make a good bride. She could not think out a course of action entirely but had vaguely decided upon a course of prevarication and intimidation, if suitors presented themselves. For their own sakes, as much as for her own.

A genuine ice princess falls in love with a man of fire. She’s initially captivated by his glasswork, and my heart ached for her because even in the gift-sending stage of things it’s clear that his nature is wholly different from hers. They each find beauty in otherness, and they find ways to make it work.

BAGLADY

While it seems realistic at the beginning, this story takes on a fairy-tale quality as well. A woman gets lost in an Asian shopping mall. Maybe less fairy tale and more urban legend, but maybe these two types of story are not so different. When I went to New York, my friends warned me not to go out drinking late or go home with strange men because I don’t want to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys; just like German parents used to tell their children about Little Red Riding Hood to keep them away from going into the woods alone.

JAEL

So, you know the story from the Old Testament. Israel is in bondage (again), and under Deborah’s direction, they go to war against their oppressors. The leader of the enemy army, Sisera, runs into the Hebrew camp and asks a woman to hide him. She treats him nicely, gives him dinner and a place to rest. While he’s sleeping, she nails his head to the ground. Byatt uses this to talk about gratuitous betrayal – unexpected, purposeless betrayal. A woman remembers being in school, when she lived on the peripheries of a couple of rival gangs (1960s-ish white-girl gangs, so don’t think of Baltimore or Detroit). She also talks about her current life designing advertisements for fruit drinks. She always incorporates classical themes, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and the younger set don’t understand. One of the younger women is working at betraying her, so it’s kind of a vicious circle. If I were more misogynistic than I am, I’d say that this story shows how all women are like this, but I don’t actually see it that way. I have very good friends who are women, and they aren’t vile betrayers.

CHRIST IN THE HOUSE OF MARTHA AND MARY

And, from the New Testament, Mary and Martha. Someone summarizes the story from the Bible, but the narrative is more about the painting than the Bible. The Velazquez painting, with the same name as the story. I’m used to hearing it as the story of Mary and Martha, I guess since the final –y of Mary elides more effectively with the following and than the final –a of Martha; I don’t say it Marthanmary, there’s always a glottal stop between Martha | and. Nevertheless, I like putting Martha first; she gets the short end of the stick all the time, but if we all just sat at Jesus’ feet waiting for him to multiply loaves and fishes no one would ever get any dinner. Maybe Mary was clumsy or a bad cook, so listening was a better task for her than serving and cooking. It always seems to me that there must be more to the situation than we get in the Scripture. Some people are active, some are contemplative, and some are both; to me, the bad thing is to go against one’s own nature, not to be careful with the housework. So Byatt describes an angry, rebellious cook (aptly named Dolores) who meets a painter who visits the house where she works. He does beautiful things with light on still life, and even when he makes a painting of her she notices first the fish, eggs, and garlic.

I know that there are some people who will object to my associating the Bible with myths and poetry; well, that’s what it is. They’re Hebrew myths. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: the people of Sodom commit an offense against the laws of hospitality; some Biblical writers who interpret this story say that the reason God sent the angels was that the people didn’t take care of the poor; the Qur’an and the New Testament writers (who lived two or three thousand years after the event) say that it was a cautionary tale against homosexuality; the Gay Church movement insists that the story is about gang rape. These stories might be moralistic, but they’re also malleable. The important thing about Scripture, as with myth, is not whether these stories literally happened; the important thing is how we respond to them, what they say about human nature, and how these stories impact the way we live our lives. In this sense, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Spock can be as important as Ehud and the disgustingly fat Moabite king. Stories – myths, legends, poems, scripture, novels, jokes, anecdotes, fairy tales, television programmes – even more than fire and ice, quicksilver and brimstone, or fire water wood air metal, are the elements that compose our lives. We are the stories that we believe, that we live, that we love.