Posts Tagged ‘coming out’

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

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RIGHT AND WRONG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I know, I know. I just finished one of the masterpieces of the (Middle) English language, and now I’m back to reading zombie books. A feminist zombie book about complex identity issues, but it’s still a zombie book.

Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

Melanie is a nice little girl in a prison school. Initially the book is about her and told primarily from her perspective, but as we shift into the middle of the book, things become a little more balanced. Sergeant Parks is in charge of security; he has a red-headed teenaged underling named Private Gallagher. Melanie’s teacher is a developmental psychologist named Miss Justineau, and the real authority at the base is a scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell.

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.

Because what are the ethics of a zombie apocalypse?

Back in the days of I Walked With a Zombie, the deficiently dead were a product of racial stereotypes and misogyny; this made them fairly easy to contain and defeat. Now, during the time of World War Z, they’re a product of natural phenomena, and science cannot be stopped. Now the zedheads take over the entire world.

In this version of zombies, it’s not a virus – it’s a fungus. It’s based on fungi that really do exist in nature – they infect an insect, eat out its inside and take over its motor control, then drive it to high ground so the fungus can erupt out of the bug and cast its spores to the wind. It’s horrible. These zombies either stand still or run, none of the shambling exploration of AMC’s zombies, who give the human characters time to argue for four episodes before taking any action at all (dullest horror series ever).

When dealing with a new world, authors tend to take a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis approach: think about Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or The Hunger Games. Carey’s Thesis is inside the base, which is part prison, part school, and part scientific research facility, where Dr Caldwell cuts up children’s brains. Melanie becomes the star pupil and develops a mommy-substitute crush on Miss Justineau, which is all fairly normal. But as the star pupil, Melanie is also Dr Caldwell’s prize specimen, so she needs some protecting.

Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.

And Miss Justineau is the one to do it.

I’ve often wondered what the lives of British black people are like. I mean, the English don’t have Americans’ squeamishness about interracial dating, which makes it seem like race is less of an issue, but at the same time the English are known for being sort of xenophobic. They think of Europe as another place because they’re insulated on their little island; they fought a Hundred Years’ War with the white people on the other side of the Channel, and then they kept fighting them over and over again. That seems to have stopped since the two World Wars, when they banded together against another, different group of white people. How do black people fit into all this? They were kept as slaves in the British Empire, but unlike Americans, slavery was kept distant from most British subjects. They didn’t bring it home; it was an unfortunate occurrence that happened Out There, in the Colonies. I know that some immigrant communities remain isolated because they’re never quite accepted as being British. Is race an important thing to British blacks? Do they have a separate subculture? [I don’t understand why we’ve taken to calling them “urban” in America. I grew up in a tiny hicktown in the South with more blacks than whites, so there are plenty of rural blacks, and cities still have tons of white people.]

All of that to say, I don’t know why Carey chose to make Miss Justineau black, but it feel purposeful, as if someone who has been oppressed would automatically feel the need to protect other marginalized people, and dark-skinned femininity is shorthand for victim of oppression.

At the end of Act One, the zombies overrun the base and the group comes together and escapes. They travel across the post-apocalyptic countryside, idyllic as England would become if you killed all the humans and left nature alone for twenty years. It would be really lovely if there weren’t zombies lurking out there.

Melanie builds the world around her as she goes.

This is mostly countryside, with fields on all sides. Rectangular fields, mostly, or at least with roughly squared-off edges. But they’re overgrown with weeds to the grown-ups’ shoulder height, whatever crops they were once planted with swallowed up long ago. Where the fields meet the road, there are ragged hedges or crumbling walls, and the surface they’re walking on is a faded black carpet pitted with holes, some of them big enough for her to fall into.

A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at the limit of vision that goes up and up and up like a tower. Birds and insects are everywhere, some of them familiar to her now from the field where they stopped that morning. The sun warms her skin, pouring energy down on to the world out of that upturned bowl – it makes flowers grow on the land, Melanie knows, and algae in the sea; starts food chains all over the place.

A million smells freight the complicated air.

The few houses they see are far off, but even at this distance Melanie observes the signs of ruin. Windows broken, or boarded up. Doors hanging off their hinges. One big farmhouse has its roof all fallen in, the spine of the roof making a perfect downward-pointing parabola.

She remembers Mr Whitaker’s lesson, which feels like a very long time ago now. The population of Birmingham is zero . . . This world she’s seeing was built by people, to meet their needs, but it’s not meeting their needs any more. It’s all changed. And it’s changed because they’ve retreated from it. They’ve left it to the hungries.

Melanie realises now that she’s been told all this already. She just ignored it, ignored the self-evident logic of her world, and believed – out of the many conflicting stories she was given – only the parts she wanted to believe.

Despite Gallagher’s abused childhood, I find Melanie the easiest to relate to. Her experience of the world seems most similar to mine; she’s a person who thinks a lot, has been told a lot from radically different sources, and now that she’s been thrust into the real world, she has to make sense of it. Which is hard, because it’s never quite what she imagines it to be. It’s more beautiful, more complicated, and more threatening. But mostly more beautiful.

Zombie movies seem to play on a fear most of us experience: that we’ve become slaves to routine, that we are in fact dead already. [Shaun of the Dead expresses this particularly well in the opening bit, I think.] Zombies are a teenager’s vague fear and a thirty-something’s nightmare; we’re locked into a routine that we can’t escape from, and we need something drastic to shake things up. Routines are comfortable; we wander into adulthood feeling inadequate, so we build a life of things we can do, that make us feel safe and competent and normal.

The houses all seem the same to Gallagher. Dark. Musty-smelling with squishy carpets underfoot, mouldering curtains and sprays of black mildew up interior walls. Cluttered up with millions of things that don’t do anything except get in your way and almost trip you over. It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.

But there’s so little change that the life gets sucked out of our lives, and for some reason I’m thinking of Joe vs the Volcano, which doesn’t have any zombies in it. Consumption makes us feel big and important and worthwhile, but it doesn’t satisfy. Consumerism takes the place of nourishment, and we come to be defined by our lack, the void we’re trying to fill but just can’t because our culture only gives us a choice between praying and buying shit, and for some of us neither is effective. Sometimes there’s a happy ending; sometimes there isn’t. I like it when characters can find a new sort of normal, a life that has both comfort and meaning. Typically this has to do with love, as in Warm Bodies where love heals zombies and turns them back into people. That’s not quite Carey’s response, but the books still ends well.

Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.

But you have to open it to find that out.

The title of the book is a reference to Pandora, and that idea is important to the book. But it’s not just the world that Melanie opens to find hope amid the evils; it’s also herself. She’s at a prison school because she’s a zombie child. She doesn’t know that at first – she has to realize it and figure out what that means for her life. She has to face and accept her identity as something different from those around her, possibly dangerous to the one person she loves most. Some of the children can still think and act without the external stimuli necessary to move an adult zombie; some of the adult zombies carry on some normal activity as their brains fight back against the fungus, but nothing like the children, who can be completely normal right up until they smell a human being, a food source.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

And this is a more specific fear that comes on teachers and parents: that eventually the little maggots will consume us completely. They will demand and we will give until there is literally nothing left, just a bone husk as the miniature undead rip our flesh out with their teeth, devouring our essential bits and leaving the shell. I’ve got some students who talk and talk and talk nonstop (in Chinese), and I can feel their indifference sucking my life and willpower. My existence is draining away, a little every day. Teaching students who want to learn is invigorating and exciting; teaching students who don’t feels like dying slowly, consumptive and consumed, unnoticed and alone. In some ways I envy Miss Justineau; her children all pay attention and learn, like a bunch of little zombie geniuses. I could be okay with that.

I know, most of you who talk to me here are not really interested in zombies, but it’s a metaphor. And this is a really good and interesting book, regardless of the vehicle.

I ran across this little book in my critical reading on Gothic fiction; otherwise, I’m not sure I would have purchased it. It’s the sort of book one can borrow from a library. I mean, far be it from me to discourage the buying of books, but really. Library.

Vathek is like a mixture of Johnson’s Rasselas and Lewis’s The Monk. From Johnson, we have a stylized version of the Middle East with a strongly allegorical feel. It’s the type of writing that makes Edward Said rub his hands together with glee as he prepares to rip a new asshole for authors who have been dead for two hundred years. It’s a weird mixture of Biblical imagery with stereotypes about Muslims and a smattering of the world familiar to northern Europeans in the late eighteenth century. From Lewis, we have the plot: a religious leader turns to the Dark Side, deceiving everyone so they believe he continues in undisturbed piety while he pursues Satanic practices right up to the bitter end, when he’s been abandoned by the devil to suffer for eternity. Since there’s a hundred pages of wickedness for five pages of punishment, you get the impression that he’s jealous of the protagonist’s downward slope, and the final hellfire is more of a sop to the religious readers than an ineluctable conclusion.

As is to be expected from a book written in the 1780s, there’s some unnecessary, vicious misogyny:

This Princess was so far from being influenced by scruples, that she was as wicked, as woman could be; which is not saying a little; for the sex pique themselves on their superiority, in every competition.

And for most of the book, that’s the most memorable passage. There’s some unnecessary, vicious racism too, but that’s kind of bound up in the misogyny, as people of darker skin are represented by fierce negresses, mutes who delight in graphic violence and torture. There are no chapter breaks, so we just rush from one ridiculously excessive evil to the next, right up to the end.

The Caliph and Nouronihar remained in the most abject affliction. Their tears were unable to flow, and scarcely could they support themselves. At length, taking each other, despondingly, by the hand, they went faltering from this fatal hall; indifferent which way they turned their steps. Every portal opened at their approach. The dives fell prostrate before them. Every reservoir of riches was disclosed to their view: but they no longer felt the incentives of curiosity, of pride, or avarice. With like apathy they heard the chorus of Genii, and saw the stately banquets prepared to regale them. They went wandering on, from chamber to chamber; hall to hall; and gallery to gallery; all without bounds or limit; all distinguishable by the same louring gloom; all adorned with the same awful grandeur; all traversed by persons in search of repose and consolation; but, who sought them in vain; for every one carried within him a heart tormented in flames. Shunned by these various sufferers, who seemed by their looks to be upbraiding the partners of their guilt, they withdrew from them to wait, in direful suspense, the moment which should render them to each other the like objects of terror.

In my opinion, this is the moment of their supreme suffering. Once they choose to separate from each other, it’s done and over with; you can move on from that. But when you can figuratively see the axe suspended over your head, waiting for it to drop . . . the anticipation of suffering makes it more poignant than the suffering itself. Which is the moral of the story:

Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds! Such shall be, the chastisement, of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be – humble and ignorant.

I’ve never been comfortable with ignorance. Humility is fine, but ignorance is not. I’ve always wanted to know and experience everything; it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept that some places I will never visit, some things I will never live through. Like Japan. I have no real desire to go to Japan. I have nothing against it, I’m sure you’re a lovely country with delightful people, beautiful fruit trees and sublime mountains – but there’s no strong pull. I’d like to know France and the United Kingdom a little better than I do, and my heart is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but other than that, it’s people I want to visit, not places. Besides, I’m a teacher; my life has been dedicated to ending ignorance. It’s not the preordained preferred state of humanity. It’s an evil in itself.

As you can imagine, I’m not really fond of the place of reward, either:

He admitted without fear the congratulations of his little friends, who were all assembled in the nest of the venerable genius, and vied with each other in kissing his serene forehead and beautiful eye-lids. – Remote from the inquietudes of the world; the impertinence of harems, the brutality of eunuchs, and the inconstancy of women; there he found a place truly congenial to the delights of his soul. In this peaceable society his days, months, and years glided on; nor was he less happy than the rest of his companions: for the genius, instead of burthening his pupils with perishable riches and vain sciences, conferred upon them the boon of perpetual childhood.

I’m all for a heaven that is populated by handsome, affectionate young men, but for God’s sake, let them grow up and pass through puberty. Perpetual childhood is less a boon than a curse. But then again, I suppose not everyone has my inner drive toward maturity and responsibility. Not that I’m great at those qualities, but I value them immensely, and I tend to value myself in the same degree that I reflect them.

So. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling lonely so I went to the local branch of the church I grew up in. Last week I didn’t go, so a couple of guys came out to the house to talk with me. They tried talking me into becoming a regular church-goer again, but without much success. I don’t like being called names, and saying that it’s arrogant for anyone to think he can understand God when you think that’s what I’m doing is name-calling. I suppose there’s some arrogance in my attitude, but I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. You see, I’ve got some religious books, including the Holy books of Christianity and Islam, and I think about reading them sometimes, but I don’t think they’ll fix my problem. Religious writers tend to try one of two things: convince people that God/Jesus/Muhammad really is who/what they claim, or teach people how to respond to this belief/fact. They always, always assume that to believe in God is to love Him. As I meditate on my own feelings, I think I do believe in God – that’s not the problem. The problem is, I hate him. I try to be a good person; I love people, I love the world I find myself in. My only problem is with God. I really fucking hate him. I think this sort of hatred and anger are toxic, and I don’t want them inside me, but there they are. I think about the ways that I’ve always been taught to overcome hatred, and they don’t make sense in this context. “Let God into your heart” – not helpful when it’s God you hate. “Pray for them and try to make their lives better” – not helpful when it’s God. That’s part of the whole omnipotent gig: God doesn’t need anything, least of all the good wishes of an obscure English teacher in the Midwest. Isn’t it a greater form of arrogance to assume that the all-powerful creator of the universe needs anything I can do for him? “Just forgive and forget” – like it’s easy under normal circumstances, much less when I contemplate the suffering of someone I love. What did the ex ever do to him? She just loved and worshipped him for her whole life, and he gave her a gay husband and then a divorce just when she was finally relenting and becoming Roman Catholic. How cruel is that? I object to being made the instrument of someone else’s suffering, so I suppose this is really about me. Regardless of the precise things I’m angry about, I have this boiling rage that I keep pushed down in public, but if I think about God or praying it rises up and makes itself known. [My recent prayer life: Dear God, FUCK YOU.] I want to be rid of it, but I don’t know how. I’m open to suggestions, particularly if they come with book recommendations.

But, um, Vathek. It’s short; it’s not really substantial; it’s offensive; it’s blatantly moralistic and simplistic. If you just love the eighteenth century, go right ahead; otherwise, find something else. You’ll be happier with just about anything else.

Update on the God-hating thing: I sat down with a friend (M.Div, eastern European mission experience) to talk it over, and while I didn’t get a lot of direct benefit from what he said, it was good to say these things out loud. In talking about it, I came to a little epiphany; you see, unless there’s a clear case of injustice, anger is about what’s inside me instead of what’s around me. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I am not grateful for the life I’ve been given. I love my friends and family; I love the earth, particularly in the spring; I even like myself – I’m a handsome, intelligent man, inclined to be serious and silent but still worth knowing. It’s my place in the world that I object to. I dislike my role, not my character. I don’t like the way that I’ve hurt people (not just the ex) by being honest about myself. Life, specifically my life, is a parade of unrelenting suffering, and no amount of alleviating the suffering of others has changed that. I turn an optimistically blind eye to it most of the time, but deep down there is a pain that never ends, a black bitterness unrelieved by the transient joys of social intercourse or woodland hikes. I push it down so much that it seldom surfaces directly; it comes out in these tortured, sublimated ways, like the whole I-hate-God thing. My acupuncturist friend once labeled it grief, and we did a series of emotional healing treatments to set it to rest. That was five years ago, so I guess it’s time for another go-round. He’s getting out of acupuncture, though, and he lives too far away for me to be treated there anyway, so I need to find a different solution.

Anais Nin is not best known for her male readership, but I try to read at least something by well-known authors, so I tried it out. Her writing is beautiful, though it’s not in a style or about a subject that will immediately appeal to most men these days.

Jay could not retain any sequence of the people she had loved, hated, escaped from, anymore than he could keep track of her very personal appearance as she herself would say: “At that time I was a blond, and I wore my hair very short,” or, “this was before I was married when I was only nineteen” (and once she had told him she had been married at the age of eighteen). Impossible to know who she had betrayed, forgotten, married, deserted, or clung to. It was like her profession. The first time he had questioned her she had answered immediately: “I am an actress.” But when he pressed her he could not find in what play she had acted, whether she had been a success or a failure, whether, perhaps, (as he decided later) she had merely wished to be an actress but had never worked persistently enough, seriously enough except in the way she was working now, changing personalities with such rapidity that Jay was reminded of a kaleidoscope.

He sought to capture the recurrence of certain words in her talk, thinking they might be used as keys, but if the word “actress”, “miraculous”, “travel”, “wandering”, “relationship” did occur frequently, it remained impossible whether or not she used them in their literal sense or symbolically, for they were the same to her. He had heard her say once: “When you are hurt you travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt,” and when he examined her meaning found she was referring to a change of quarters within fifty blocks in the city of New York.

She was compelled by a confessional fever which forced her into lifting the veil slightly, only a corner of it, and then frightened when anyone listened too attentively, especially Jay whom she did not trust, whom she knew found the truth only in the sense of exposure of the flaws, the weaknesses, the foibles.

As soon as Jay listened too attentively, she took a giant sponge and erased all she had said by an absolute denial as if this confusion were in itself a mantle of protection.

Sabina manages a number of love affairs, some of them very well-described for the 1950s. Her husband is the most important and yet the one who appears the least. Her relationship with him reminds me of many people’s relationships with God: he is the foundation of her life, the one thing that she can’t survive without, the one person whose opinion she values the most, and yet she doesn’t let his opinion of her behavior influence that behavior. She does what she likes and hides it from him. The lies she tells heap up around her and twist over each other in uncomfortable ways, and Jay’s experience in listening to her talk is a mirror for the reader’s experience with the novel. It’s not clear when things happen, so maybe all the affairs in the short little book are happening concurrently, or maybe she only does one at a time. This tangle of detail is where the title comes from.

It was when she saw the lives of spies that she realized fully the tension with which she lived every moment, equal to theirs. The fear of committing themselves, of sleeping too soundly of talking in their sleep, of carelessness of accent or behaviour, the need for continuous pretending, quick improvisations of motivations, quick justifications of their presence here or there.

It seemed to Sabina that she could have offered her services or been of great value in that profession.

I am an international spy in the house of love.

I’ve sometimes thought I could be a spy, but I don’t have Sabina’s talent for deceit. But this tension she experiences seems similar to what I went through when I was married. I reached a point where I could no longer hide from myself that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to tell my wife yet. So I avoided her when I could and avoided talking to her when I couldn’t, and got into the habit of clearing my web browser history all the time. I knew that if we had any sort of serious discussion, I was going to tell her and she was going to leave me, and I didn’t want that, so we didn’t discuss anything. She accused me of being distant, and I was, but I wasn’t about to explain why. I didn’t feel at home in the places we lived, like I was always a foreigner, an intruder, a spy.

The core, where she felt a constant unsureness, this structure always near collapse which could so easily be shattered by a harsh word, a slight, a criticism, which floundered  before obstacles, was haunted by the image of catastrophe, by the same obsessional forebodings which she heard in Ravel’s Waltz.

The waltz leading to catastrophe: swirling in spangled airy skirts, on polished floors, into an abyss, the minor notes simulating lightness, a mock dance, the minor notes always recalling that man’s destiny was ruled by ultimate darkness.

This core of Sabina’s was temporarily supported by an artificial beam, the support of vanity’s satisfaction when this man so obviously handsome walked by her side, and everyone who saw him envied the woman who had charmed him.

Yes, it was like dancing toward a bottomless pit, but only I could see it. When she was young, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. Their first afternoon it was too foggy to see anything, so she and her brother ran along the trails just as they did here in Pisgah National Forest. Their parents kept telling them to be more careful, but they couldn’t see the danger. The next day it was clear, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw how close they had been to plunging to a certain death. The last couple of years of our marriage were like that.

I could see how much she relied on me, and it was very flattering to have a woman so beautiful so dependent. When we walked through a parking lot into a store, I’d see other guys nudge and point as we walked by, sharing the joy that the sight of her figure brought. After she had our first son she dropped a few dress sizes, and it’s pretty close to ideal in our society for a woman to be a 34C up top and still a size 4. When she put in her contacts, our friends often compared her to Anne Hathaway (Now that I think on it, this is sort of ironic, considering the role she played in Brokeback Mountain). I used to say that if she wasn’t the perfect woman for me, there was none. And, well, I was right.

Sabina doesn’t just show how easily men are cuckolded; she reduces her lovers to a feeling that she gets from them or a few key traits, just as men have been doing to women for centuries. She chooses them as one does items on a menu: pick what you’re in the mood for tonight, and tomorrow night pick something else.

The music stopped, he came to her table, sat down and gave her a smile mixed with a contraction of pain.

“I know,” he said. “I know . . .”

“You know?”

“I know, but it cannot be,” he said very gently. And then suddenly the anger overflowed: “For me, it’s everything or nothing. I’ve known this before . . . a woman like you. Desire. It’s desire, but not for me. You don’t know me. It’s for my race, it’s for a sensual power we have.”

He reached for her wrists and spoke close to her face: “It destroys me. Everywhere desire, and in the ultimate giving, withdrawal. Because I am African. What do you know of me? I sing and drum and you desire me. But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a mathematician, a composer, a writer.” He looked at her severely, the fullness of his mouth difficult to compress in anger but his eyes lashing: “You wouldn’t come to Ile Joyeuse and be my wife and bear me black children and wait patiently upon my negro grandmother!”

Sabina answered him with equal vehemence, throwing her hair away from her face, and lowering the pitch of her voice until it sounded like an insult: “I’ll tell you one thing: if it were only what you say, I’ve had that, and it didn’t hold me, it was not enough, it was magnificent, but it didn’t hold me. You’re destroying everything, with your bitterness, you’re angry, you’ve been hurt . . .”

“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been hurt, and by a woman who resembled you. When you first came in, I thought it was she . . .”

“My name is Sabina.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you at all.”

But when she rose to dance with him, he opened his arms and as she rested her head on his shoulder he looked down at her face drained of all anger and bitterness.

Paradoxically, there’s something freeing in this sort of commitment-phobic attitude toward love. No one man has to be everything to her. The English fighter pilot just has to be the complete PTSD-ridden ex-soldier (who is really hot), and she’s satisfied. The drummer can be as serious as he likes; she’ll accept him as he is, and get what he can’t supply with someone else. Bacon and eggs are truly wonderful, but no one wants to eat them three times a day every day for the rest of her life.

They also elicit different things in her. She feels like she has this multiplicity of selves, and she has to be a different one for each man she’s with. Donald wants a maternal figure, so she cooks for him and babies him and feels like her mother. Other men want someone to listen, or to watch spy movies with, or to fuck in all the positions their wives don’t like. She remakes herself every time, becoming the woman that every man wants her to be. None of them really know her, not even Alan, and she doesn’t really know herself either. At the end of the book she realizes that she wants to know herself and be whole, a unified personality, but she doesn’t seem to know how to become this, and I don’t think she succeeds. Nin collected this with four other interconnected novels, so maybe Sabina reaches wholeness later; this book is about realizing that her promiscuity is a quest for unity of personality. In this sense, it has some similarities to the final portion of Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In this discussion, it’s probably seemed that I value promiscuity over fidelity, but my feelings on the subject are a little complex just now. The ex and I were very possessive of each other, which belied a great insecurity in the relationship. I’d like to be confident in the love of my partner. I don’t see the value of celibacy, so I’m going to continue to try people out until I find someone who wants to hang onto me, but serial monogamy fits my personality better than random promiscuous activity. I don’t understand the impulse that Sabina follows, stacking up guilt upon guilt until she telephones a lie detector who may or may not exist. If you’re with someone who expects faithfulness, give him that. If you’re going to keep a string of lovers on the side, be honest with him and them. Secrets are a poison that diseases the consciousness. As for me, it’s been almost six months since the last time a man told me that he loves me, then stripped me down and beat me without actually fucking me, so I’m ready to try dating again. After one of those experiences, it takes a while for the loneliness to outweigh the risk. I’m really hoping I find someone genuinely nice this time, or at least more upfront about what he wants to do to me.

Nin mentions misogyny once or twice, but generally she ignores the systemic difficulties that women faced sixty years ago and focuses on the specific experience of one woman.

Above all he possessed a most elaborate encyclopedia of women’s flaws. In this gallery he had most carefully avoided Joan of Arc and other women heroines, Madame Curie and other women of science, the Florence Nightingales, the Amelia Earharts, the women surgeons, the therapists, the artists, the collaborative wives. His wax figures of women were an endless concentrate of puerilities and treacheries.

“Where did you find all these repulsive women?” she asked one day, and then suddenly she could no longer laugh: caricature was a form of hatred.

I can’t tell you how much I hate the sentence, “You have to admit, that’s funny,” nor how many times I have heard it. No, I do not have to laugh at a comment that dehumanizes me or any group of people, whether I belong to that group or not. As Nin points out, such comments ignore the best (and even the typical) aspects of human experience, highlighting the worst in all of us and blaming huge groups of people for the faults of a few. Telling jokes that rely on the gender of the people involved is sexist. Differentiating between gay men and real men is homophobic. Joking about your ignorance about Islam is offensive. We don’t have to laugh when you are actively involved in hating us or the people we love.

Anais Nin writes beautifully, and this book is rather sexy. I should have liked it more than I did. Throughout, there was some ineffable barrier between me and the writer. I don’t know if it was cultural (I’m American, she’s Cuban-French) or just that being a man makes it hard for me to connect with the material. But it’s not even 120 pages; I should have had no trouble knocking it out in an afternoon, but it took me almost a week. Maybe it was Sabina’s unhappiness, her lost-ness, her inability to resolve her conflicts. Maybe it was something else. I’ll need to read another of her books to see if this was an exception or the rule.