Posts Tagged ‘doctor who’

It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

Advertisements

Well, I got off of my Kundera kick for a while, only to find more Eastern European twentieth-century fiction. This book of short stories was banned in Yugoslavia, and the writer of the introduction acts like that’s strange, since none of the stories take place in Yugoslavia itself. But given the themes relative to Jews and Communists, I’m not surprised. The Jews are heroes, and the Communists are murderers and deceivers. And I imagine that it was considered wise to keep the Russians happy instead of publishing material that is so clearly opposed to their interests.

The thing that really would have got them, though, is the passage at the end of “Dogs and Books” where he explicitly compares the Communists to the Inquisition. The same convert-or-die mentality, the lack of respect for personal property belonging to those who think differently, the same futile attempts to escape what has become the new hegemony.

Before we go to the quotation, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the fact that much of this book is plagiarized. Kis affects a journalistic style, rather like Hemingway in its lack of ornamentation, and as in a news story, there are many short sections and it’s hard to recognize where the exposition ends and the real story begins. One story remained so vague that I got to the end without feeling there was any story there at all. But this style allows Kis to pull whole sections from newspapers and histories without jarring the reader. Part of me rebels against the detractors to say that pastiche is a legitimate art form dating back to at least the eighteenth century, revived as a postmodern sensibility in the twentieth century, and that I myself deeply love Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. But pastiche relies on the audience’s awareness of the previous work, and that that first scene where Ewan MacGregor meets the Bohemians doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know The Sound of Music. Journalism is not a genre where a writer becomes a hero; his individuality as a writer is not valued as it is in fiction or film. News stories rather seem all to have been written by the same person, so that cutting and pasting them can create a seamless whole (unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the two writing styles are so distinct that they don’t blend, making the book really hard to read). Kis’s book becomes unfair to the reader because we can’t recognize the quoted material. It’s a practical joke that starts to seem mean-spirited, and no one laughs.

I was busy reading and writing when a great number of these men burst into my chamber, armed with ignorance blunt as a whip, and hatred sharp as a knife. It wasn’t my silks that brought blood to their eyes, but the books arranged on my shelves; they shoved the silks under their cloaks, but they threw the books on the floor, stamped on them, and ripped them to shreds before my eyes. Those books were bound in leather, marked with numbers, and written by learned men; in them, had they wanted to read them, they could have found thousands of reasons why they should have killed me at once, and in them, had they wanted to read them, they could also have found the balm and cure for their hatred. I told them not to rip them apart, for many books are not dangerous, only one is dangerous; I told them not to tear them apart, for the reading of many books brings wisdom, and the reading of one brings ignorance armed with rage and hatred. But they said that everything was written in the New Testament, that it contains all books of all times, and therefore the rest should be burned; even if they contained something this One did not, they should be burned all the more since they were heretical. They did not need the advice of the learned, they said, and shouted: “Convert, or we’ll knock out of your head the wisdom from all the books you’ve ever read!”

And we pretend that we’re different. It’s the twenty-first century, and we live in the oldest and strongest republic in the world. But it’s not. Enforced conformity is taking hold in Trump’s America as surely as if he were leading the pogroms himself. Texas is considering a transphobic bathroom law similar to the one in North Carolina, and while news reports of police violence against black people is becoming less prominent, I doubt that race relations are actually improving. I may be able to marry another man in any state of the Union, but in most of them I can still be fired from my job or evicted from my apartment for being gay. And let’s not forget that misogynistic sentiment is so high that critics could not stomach a movie where the girls of Saturday Night Live replace the boys of thirty years ago, or that the internet is aghast that a British science fiction series that has been running for more than fifty years is finally getting a female protagonist. I didn’t suffer much bullying after the fourth grade or so, but this supposedly great country is full of children who are being punished constantly for being different from the others. The highest cause of death among teenagers in Utah is suicide.

At times, especially after reading books like Kis’s, it seems right to embrace despair, to give up and move to France. But despite all of the everything, I still have hope that things will improve. I believe that kindness and the better part of human nature will prevail. I believe that good is greater than evil, and that though wars may happen, the world will one day know peace. As the title suggests, Kis is creating a monument for the dead, a memorial to those who died not in war between nations, but the domestic conflict between those who have power and those who have none. Killed for exercising the right to think for themselves. But I think the best way to honor the wrongfully dead is to transform the world so that these deaths will have an end. Kis doesn’t celebrate or even acknowledge hope, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I believe that the world is a good place, and that means believing that the people in it are good. I agree with the old apologists, that faith is ingrained in the human mind like instinct, and having lost my faith in divinity, I place my faith and all the passion it inspires in humanity.

 

People have been telling me to read Pratchett for quite some time now, but I have not yet succumbed to the attractions of Discworld. I’m a bit nervous that once I get started, it’s going to take over my life, and I don’t really want that. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, though, and this is sort of what I expect from a combination of the two. You remember the old practical joke, where you balance a bucket of water on top of a half-open door, and then someone walks through the door and gets soaked? Funny, right? Now imagine that the someone walking through the door is one of the Lords of Hell, bent on dragging you down to the Underworld to be punished by Mr Big-and-Scaly himself. And imagine that the bucket is full of holy water, which will dissolve the corporeal manifestations of demons on contact. Imagine further that the you running from this demon is also a demon, albeit of a lesser order, and that sloshing any of the holy water on you will dissolve you just as effectively. What was a funny situation is now a game of life or death with eternal stakes. For me, the life-and-death struggle undercuts the jokes.

What happened to England? At one time they were the mightiest empire on the planet. Then they were the only nation to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis, and through the strength of their endurance they won. But sometime during the second half of the twentieth century the national identity shifted to focus on antisocial, xenophobic, inefficient, and unintelligent behaviour. Somehow they went from Winston Churchill to John Cleese. This is one of the things that I admire about Doctor Who: its insistence that no life is unimportant, and that the British people will continue until the end of the universe. The show is making an attempt to restore English nationalism.

The Antichrist is born on earth. Since this book is a little dated, the Antichrist was born the same year I was, and at the time the story takes place he’s eleven years old. He was accidentally put in a normal British family, so he grows up a fairly normal boy, though with a stronger love of home than I had. When he reaches the age of eleven, the hellhound comes to join him, but the boy’s sense of normal infects the dog, and he becomes a normal dog.

It’s time for the great war between heaven and hell, and all the heavenly and infernal hosts are massing together, ready to strike. Earth is the battlefield, and will likely be annihilated. Well, there’s a demon who doesn’t want this to happen. There’s an angel who feels the same way. Aziraphale tries to avoid heaven, and Crowley hell, in order to reach the Antichrist and save the world. Their jobs have been pretty easy until now, human beings being both worse than demons and better than angels. So they use their earthly tricks to dodge the supernatural and get to the boy. This is the type of antihero, praise-of-mediocrity stuff I was mentioning earlier.

This is all laid out in prophecy, of course. Three hundred years ago Agnes Nutter saw it all and wrote it down, quite literally. But like Cassandra of old, no one understands or believes her. Her book is now in the possession of her descendant Anathema Device. Newt Pulsifer, witch hunter, comes to find her and he falls in love (quite a change from Newt’s ancestor, who led the team that burned Agnes to death). His commander in the Witchfinder Army also gets ensnared by a fortune-teller/aging courtesan. (cf antihero, praise of mediocrity)

And there are the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: Scarlett, Dr Sable, Mr White, and The Other One. Scarlett bounces around the world bringing armed conflict wherever she goes, which seems to be not-quite-industrial societies; Dr Sable is leading a revolution in nutrition in America, feeding us all on fillers without any actual nutritional value; and Mr White brings trash and oil spills everywhere. War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired after we scientized medicine in the early twentieth century). Death is always present, following the other three but stronger than them all. And they’re coming to start the war that will end everything.

But that normal boy doesn’t want to end everything. He loves his home. He’s spent eleven years making Tadfield the perfect place for a boy to grow up, and he doesn’t want a bunch of angels and demons ruining it. The two factions are equally indifferent to humanity, each intent on bringing glory to their commander by defeating their opponent. But what would happen after? An eternity of nothing. Heaven and hell are both short-sighted in their ambitions. The real goal is play, an activity that has no other goal but its own perpetuation.

I love moments of convergence, when the disparate strands of a story come together at the climax. All these groups find each other at the Air Base that controls England’s nuclear missiles. The missiles are somewhere else, of course, but all the controls are in Tadfield, and the Four Horsepeople are ready to get things moving.

The ancients were always so convinced that the world was going to end. I’m not. The world continues, and life endures. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s intense; sometimes it’s awful and pointless (full of antiheroes who praise mediocrity), but life goes on. Endings scare us; Death endures when all other spirits have passed. Apocalyptic maunderings are all about the fear of death. When one of us dies, however, the rest go on. The world doesn’t stop for a death. The end of life is natural, mundane. Even if all of humanity died, the world would continue; some forms of life would continue even after a nuclear holocaust. I guess having survived the Cold War gives me a different perspective than people had in 1990.

And I guess that’s what this is really about: heaven and hell and their mutually assured destruction are uncomfortably similar to the United States and the Soviet Union, where ultimately the two sides are working for the same goal, the destruction of everything, and are indifferent to other nations, even their allies. I’ve seldom considered what that would look like to the rest of the world; as an American, I haven’t had to. Sometimes the modern world feels like an old Western movie, and every so-called terrorist organization is waiting to see who’s finally going to kill the aging gunslinger. It may happen soon.

We are a group of former British colonies that were largely settled by Germans, so we have the Nazi viciousness and ravenousness combined with the English endurance and self-control.  No wonder people hate and fear us. For all that Good Omens is billed as a comedy, it’s a Lenny Bruce routine, laughing at what has you scared shitless. Perhaps on subsequent readings I’ll laugh more, but this time I saw this as a book of fear.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

It wasn’t there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn’t.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

 

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

I am sixty-eight years old.

I am eight hundred and ninety-nine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can go . . .”

“Stay. I need you.”

“Why me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe that many people will find my attachment to this novel to be somewhat singular, yet I must confess that my affection for Evelina can hardly be surpassed by that of the hero for the eponymous heroine.

Fanny Burney, who would later become Madame d’Arblay and write a moving account of her unanaesthetized mastectomy in 1811, wrote a novel in her teens called Caroline Evelyn, about a nice girl who gets lured into a private marriage and then abandoned, pregnant, with no proof of her child’s legitimacy. This type of story was quite common among novels written by women in the eighteenth century, actually, and even Charlotte Temple, America’s first bestseller, was a similar don’t-trust-handsome-men warning tale for young women. Writing was not seen as an appropriate activity for a young lady in the 1770s, though, so Burney burned all her early writings. By her mid-20s, when she had passed the age that women of the era pinned all their future hopes on marriage, she wrote a sequel and got it published without her family’s knowledge. Caroline Evelyn is summarized in the first few chapters, and then we move on to the story of her daughter, Evelina.

The novel is in the epistolary style so popular to the eighteenth century, and chronicles a young lady’s first introduction to society. It reminds me of Lydia Melford’s letters in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, but Lydia’s letters are balanced by others of her family while Evelina’s are so numerous that the few other writers hardly seem mentioning. The structure of the story lends itself well to the three-volume division that was common at the time, as Evelina spends each volume with a different set of people, the Mirvans, the Branghtons, and Mrs Selwyn. At one point there is a mention of Justice Fielding, and I can’t help thinking she’s consciously referring to Henry Fielding, the comic novelist who later became a magistrate. The humor of the novel is very much in his style, and I sometimes feel sorry for Evelina because her writer makes her narrate so many practical jokes that she herself fails to enjoy. It’s a bit like asking Richardson’s Pamela to become the protagonist of Tom Jones.

Burney seems fully aware of some of the issues that we in the twenty-first century recognize as of prime importance: gender and class. Women are expected to be decorative, and one of the characters actually says that he doesn’t understand why women live past the age of thirty because then they’re only in someone else’s way. The same guy later has a conversation about how important it is that a woman never seem to be more intelligent or stronger than any of the men around her. Compare this with Burney’s own life, and the fact that she didn’t marry until she passed forty. After she was considered a confirmed old maid, she met someone who found her desirable enough to marry and gave her time to continue her writing, and they seem to have been very happy together. And as for strength, she was almost sixty years old when she had a breast removed, let me repeat with no anaesthetic, and then she lived for nearly thirty years more in apparent good health. She’s kind of amazing. However, the best she can do for her time is to have the moral centre of her novel say,

Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes, though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary, and be accommodated to the strength or weakness of the different travellers.

Today we would cavil at the idea that women are somehow essentially gentle and modest, and indeed, Burney’s characters call this idea into question. But think of the 1770s, before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and give her credit for the gesture toward gender equality.

Class is rather an important issue in the novel. At the time the novel was praised for its accuracy in portraying working-class dialect, but I didn’t meet any characters I could really think of as working class. There are servants, of course, but they rarely speak. I think they must be referring to the Branghtons, who are only working class in that they do work. Mr Branghton owns a shop and rents rooms – he is an employer, not an employee. He is in trade, which separates him from most of the characters, but there are hardly any Dickensian brickmakers, or even any of Fielding’s shrill dairymaids. Evelina’s world only contains one named character who is really poor, and even he is revealed to be the son of a baronet. The Branghtons torture Evelina by trying to seem aristocratic, as in this description of one of their close friends:

In the afternoon, when he returned, it was evident that he proposed to both charm and astonish me by his appearance; he was dressed in a very showy manner, but without any taste; and the inelegant smartness of his air and deportment, his visible struggle, against education, to put on the fine gentleman, added to his frequent conscious glances at a dress to which he was but little accustomed, very effectually destroyed his aim of figuring, and rendered all his efforts useless.

This group is entertaining to us who don’t have to associate ourselves with them, but Evelina is miserable with them. Mr Branghton is always insisting on doing everything as cheaply as possible while his children want to live the high life with the upper class who frequent their shop. In the end nothing is done well and they are only spared embarrassment by their colossal insensitivity. They are Evelina’s cousins through her grandmother Madame Duval, an English barmaid who married up twice and now has a rich French husband, so she pretends to be native French gentry. But no matter how she’s dressed, she’s still a barmaid with an inflated sense of self-worth. In this, she’s not really that different from ‘the quality.’

The Mirvans are more highly placed than the Branghtons, but it seems that Burney isn’t quite sure what to do with well-behaved people. Mrs and Miss Mirvan are so self-effacing that they practically disappear from the narrative. It’d be tempting to forget the family altogether if it weren’t for the Captain. Captain Mirvan has just arrived in England after a seven years’ absence at sea. His time abroad has unfit him for the life his wife and daughter lead, and he compensates for this by abusing Madame Duval for being French. He concocts several practical jokes to play on her; he only injures her dignity and her clothes, but that may be more of an accident than evidence of care. He’s often joined by Sir Clement Willoughby, one of Evelina’s suitors. Sir Clement is one of those guys who can’t take a hint; he pursues Evelina through three hundred pages without realizing that she can’t stand him. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval seem equally matched in terms of manners, and Sir Clement only talks better than they do. The people who don’t need a profession are just as vile as those in trade; money and status aren’t the best indicators of worth or respectability.

The shining star of the aristocracy is Lord Orville, who alone seems to care how other people are feeling. At first, Evelina mistakes his manners for ordinary:

These people in high life have too much presence of mind, I believe, to seem disconcerted, or out of humour, however they may feel: for had I been the person of the most consequence in the room, I could not have met with more attention and respect.

But more contact with Sirs and Ladies puts that notion out of her head. Indeed, I find that to encounter such a person is just as rare in real life as it is in this book. This passage reminds me of a line from the otherwise-forgettable Brendan Fraser/Alicia Silverstone flick A Blast from the Past, when he explains to her that a gentleman is someone who tries to make everyone around him feel comfortable. I try to be like this, but generally I fail through oversensitivity. My emotions shout so loudly within me that it’s sometimes hard to hear what anyone else has to say; I only seem still and silent to others.

In fact, I am far more like Evelina than I feel I ought to be. Being a seventeen-year-old raised in isolation, she has a marvelous excuse that I can’t claim. I’m twice her age and was raised in a large family, so I was constantly around people. Maybe the problem is that I was with too many different kinds of people, so I never learned to ally myself with any particular cultural niche. Even today I feel uncomfortable if I find that I’m typical of any group of people. If I’m told that I’m classic gay, I’ll ‘straighten’ myself out. If I seem too high for my company, I’ll start dressing like a lumberjack. And if I’m too much of an Appalachian cracker, I read plenty of books, and especially books that are hundreds of years old or written by international authors.

But as I mentioned, she and I are similar in a lot of ways. I felt that Mr Villars was talking to me when he tells Evelina,

But you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: […] do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret.

I have been blessed with a splendidly passive facility, which leads to my own future regret and sometimes the censure of the world. I need to struggle against it, particularly as the time comes for me to re-embark on the job search. I’m great at thinking for myself, but taking active steps comes less easily. And even though I’ve been travelling all over the country and the world, I still find myself, like her,

unused to the situations in which I find myself and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.

The ex was once in a group of students listening to a well-known author, and someone asked what it took to become a good writer. He explained to the group that from his youth he had had the habit of replaying events from his day in his mind, imagining how things would have happened if someone (usually himself) had behaved differently. This tendency to correct reality doesn’t guarantee a writing career, but he had never met a successful writer who didn’t have it. I do this all the time. It’s annoying, frankly. But when I’m dissatisfied with my own behavior, I play the scene back and write myself a different part. Sometimes that part fits my character, sometimes not. Sometimes I picture myself acting so far out of character that I wonder if I really know who I am at all, and who I would have been if the circumstances of my life had been different. But things being as they are, I keep making false steps, offending where I mean to comfort, wasting time being shocked, and ignoring real affection in favor of the conditional love that I expect. Like Evelina,

my intentions are never wilfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

Which may explain why I’m alone on the wrong side of the world, and why I keep remembering things that I probably ought to have apologized for, but that happened so long ago that I doubt anyone else remembers, or cares. My perpetual erring is particularly noticeable when I’m around people I’m attracted to. I don’t know how to act, so I’m offensively silent, or I interrupt when I ought to have kept my mouth shut; I’m either too aloof or too familiar; I start to get close and then I push people away. Or run off to another city, state, or country for a few years.

Perhaps my closest affinity for Evelina is in the manner in which we fall in love.

Young, animated, entirely off your guard, and thoughtless of consequences, Imagination took the reins, and Reason, slow-paced, though sure-footed, was unequal to a race with so eccentric and flighty a companion. How rapid was then my Evelina’s progress through those regions of fancy and passion whither her new guide conducted her! – She saw Lord Orville at a ball, – and he was the most amiable of men! – she met him again at another, – and he had every virtue under heaven!

I mean not to depreciate the merit of Lord Orville, who, one mysterious instance alone excepted, seems to have deserved the idea you formed of his character; but it was not time, it was not the knowledge of his worth, obtained your regard; your new comrade had not patience to wait any trial; her glowing pencil, dipt in the vivid colours of her creative ideas, painted to you, at the moment of your first acquaintance, all the excellencies, all the good and rare qualities, which a great length of time, and intimacy, could alone have really discovered.

You flattered yourself, that your partiality was the effect of esteem, founded upon a general love of merit, and a principle of justice: and your heart, which fell the sacrifice of your error, was totally gone ere you suspected it was in danger.

Yup. That’s me. I might be in my thirties, but this passage still describes me well. It was eleven years ago that I met the ex and imagined her to have all sorts of good qualities that I desired, rather than knew, her to have. In eight years of marriage, continually treating her as if she were kinder than she is helped her to develop that quality, and her treating me as I were more assertive than I am helped me to develop that as well, but after the breakup we snapped back to our original characters like rubber bands suddenly relieved of pressure. Not quite back to where we had been, of course, but separating from a spouse is such a paradigm-shifting event that you change very quickly, mostly by rebelling against the person the former spouse wanted you to be. And it was just this summer that I had that sudden crush on the guy I’m trying not to think about, because I don’t want a repeat of the same experience. The ex and I spent all our free time together for nine weeks and got married (not decided to get married – I proposed after twenty-three days, and she had already made up her mind to accept if I should ask), and it was good for a while, but I don’t want to rush into things again. I certainly don’t want to end up smitten with someone who’s going to treat me badly, again. This time I’m going to pay more attention to reality – how does he treat strangers, for instance. The ex could be nice to me, and to people she knew were important to me, but not to cashiers or office clerks who didn’t follow her idea of how she should be treated. Besides, after being with a couple of guys who become intimately violent, and paying attention to who I feel attracted to in films, I’ve realized that I tend to fall for psychos. Sure, David Tennant is my favorite Doctor on Doctor Who, he seems the most capable of really loving someone, but when The Master has him trapped and is dancing around singing, “I can’t decide whether you should live or die,” I wish I were dancing with him instead of trying to save DT. I love villains, the more self-loving the better, and that makes me very suspect of anyone I might feel attracted to in real life. The next time I enter into a relationship, I’m going to be more careful.

So. Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who loves Jane Austen. Burney’s society here is set a little higher than Austen’s gentry, but it’s also about thirty-five years earlier, so the manners are pretty similar. It’s also a good recommendation for someone who likes Ann Radcliffe, though it’s more comic than Gothic. Someone who likes Fielding but not Richardson may find it too sedate, someone who likes Richardson but not Fielding may find the humor too physical, and someone who loves Smollett and no one else may find it a bit too feminine, but if (like me) you like most of the eighteenth-century authors whose works have survived this long, don’t miss this one. Evelina is the best introduction to Burney fiction because it’s a normal length for the time period, but it’s the shortest of her novels. Cecilia and Camilla went to five volumes instead of three, and I think The Wanderer was four. I’ve not been brave enough to read them yet; The Mysteries of Udolpho was the last four-volume novel I read, and I’m not in a hurry to do that again. It’s also good for students of the history of English, since several spelling and grammatical choices are different than what we now consider standard. Choose is spelled chuse, happy people are chearful, and educated people say ‘you was.’  Evelina is cute, funny, imperfect, an impressive debut novel, a pure delight.