Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber)

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme circumstance, you say? Tell me more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

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

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

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

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

The good lady was not yet rejoicing.

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

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

“Build what, churches?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you found him there?”

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

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

“And now?”

Receiving no answer, he came quietly back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the first time in years, I now have a public library card. I haven’t had one since before I got divorced. There’s something about my relationship to the library that has changed in this time; it’s not the home it once was. The books are free, so I want to grab them all, every one that appeals to me, and take them home at once. But then, when I do have them at home, my interest in them is gone. I think that part of the problem is the temporary nature of my association with the book. I feel as if the books I own are a part of me, but library books can never be mine. There’s also the physical experience of the book: I like a book to feel warm and natural in my hand, tree-ish, not covered in cheap plastic. When it comes to books, there’s a certain correlation between love and damage, and it’s hard for me to connect with something so well protected. Fortunately, I have lots of books that I own, including several that I haven’t read yet.

When an experienced reader picks up a book by Umberto Eco, he knows exactly what he will find. Historical conspiracy theories, a bizarre ritual at the climax, and misogyny. Lots and lots of misogyny. Eco’s more successful works are those that provide a reason for this exclusive boys’ club, like The Name of the Rose, which takes place in a monastery on the historical line between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. I started Baudolino but didn’t finish it because I got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more of the solely decorative female characters. The misogyny in The Prague Cemetery makes sense because the protagonist is very open and honest with the reader and himself about the fact that he hates women. In fact, in the opening chapter he explains how he hates just about everyone: women, Germans, Russians, Jews, the French, southern Italians, Masons, Jesuits, all of them. I suspect he even hates himself. He recently committed an act so thoroughly against his own character that he starts the book with a psychic break between personalities accompanied by amnesia, and it’s told as two distinct personalities trying to piece together a personal history by writing a diary. There’s a third-person narrator/audience surrogate who occasionally arbitrates, and sometimes summarizes years of life in which nothing happens to advance the plot.

Simonini was raised by his father and grandfather, and therein lies the trouble. The grandfather spent a lot of his time with the Jesuits, discussing the big Jewish conspiracy to bring down everything. The father spent a lot of time with the republican army, discussing the big Jesuit conspiracy to bring down everything. Instead of choosing one or the other, Simonini absorbs both their prejudices and grows up hating everyone. He admires some people who are skilled in useful trades, but throughout his life he never meets anyone he loves, either romantically or fraternally. Perhaps this is why it’s taken me so long to read the book; I don’t like being around someone like him.

I have heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them, but from one look around Palermo it’s quite clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes. And most people smell. There isn’t sufficient food. Just imagine if there were any more of us. We therefore have to cull the population. True, there are plagues and suicides, capital punishment, those who challenge each other to duels and who get pleasure from riding at breakneck speed through woods and meadows. I’ve even heard of English gentlemen who go swimming in the sea and, of course, drown. But it is not enough. Wars are the most effective and natural way imaginable for stemming the increase in human numbers. Once upon a time, when people went off to war, didn’t they say it was God’s will? But to do so, you need people who want to fight. If no one wants to fight, no one will die. Then wars would be pointless. So it’s vital to have men like Nievo, Abba and Bandi who want to throw themselves in the line of fire. Others like me can then live without being harassed by so many people breathing down our necks.

In other words, although I don’t like them, we do need noble-spirited souls.

Simonini is from Turin, born somewhere around 1830. I feel like a more exact knowledge of Continental nineteenth-century history would have been an advantage in reading this book; my knowledge of the century comes from having studied Victorian literature, so if the United Kingdom had been an important setting I would have felt right at home. But my understanding of the Continent at the time only extends to its effect on British writers, and by the time they passed the Reform Bill the novelists and poets were focused on domestic matters or the distant empire; nothing farther than Newcastle but closer than India gets consistent attention. So when I find myself in the middle of Garibaldi’s attempts to unite Italy, I see his name and think, Italian revolutionary with a red shirt, but I don’t fully understand the issues he was fighting for. Eco kind of gives the impression that Garibaldi himself didn’t understand what was going on. Simonini is a forger and master of disguise who does some spy work for the Piedmont government. However, his hatred of every group in existence gets him in trouble; government alliances shift frequently, and it’s important never to go too far in any direction. When Simonini engineers the explosion of a ship carrying one of Garibaldi’s top officials, Piedmont gets rid of him by shuffling him off to Paris.

In Paris, he does similar work, spying on this or that person, forging documents that lead to huge international incidents. Throughout it all, there’s his little story of the Prague cemetery that he keeps revising and reusing. Originally cribbed from Eugene Sue, he writes the story of the leading rabbis meeting at midnight in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to discuss their plans to take over Europe. It’s very thinly veiled propaganda. As the winds of politics change, he revises the story to match whoever it needs to be used against. He ends up working with a lot of real historical characters, who tend to be bigots, or at least interested in inspiring mass hatreds.

I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life – that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.

And, of course, Simonini also deals with those who hate the Jews for different reasons:

The English Methodists, the German Pietists, the Swiss and the Dutch all learn to read the will of God from the same book as the Jews – the Bible, a story of incest and massacres and barbarous wars, where the only way to win is through treachery and deception, where kings have men murdered so they can take their wives, where women who call themselves saints enter the beds of enemy generals and cut off their heads. Cromwell had the head of his king cut off while quoting the Bible. Malthus, who denied the children of the poor the right to life, was steeped in the Bible. It’s a race that spends its time recalling its slavery, and is always ready to yield to the cult of the Golden Calf, ignoring every sign of divine wrath. The battle against the Jews ought to be the main purpose of every socialist worthy of the name. I am not talking about communists – their founder is a Jew. The problem is exposing the conspiracy of money. Why does an apple in a Paris restaurant cost a hundred times more than in Normandy? There are unscrupulous races who live on the flesh of others, merchant races like the ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians. And today it’s the English and the Jews.

And, if you’re starting to get visions of Nazis, you’re pretty close to the truth.

I asked if he thought he was a good example of the superior, Apollonian race. He glowered at me and said that belonging to a race is not just a physical matter but above all a spiritual one. A Jew is still a Jew even if, by accident of nature, he is born with blond hair and blue eyes, in the same way as there are children born with six fingers and women capable of doing multiplication. And an Aryan is an Aryan if he lives the spirit of his people, even if he has black hair.

All this hatred really grinds you down after a while. Eco’s writing is spectacular, as ever, but his choice of subject is so antipathetic to my customary frame of mind that I disliked the book, just as I disliked Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, only more intensely because it more directly attacks my fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity with fewer interruptions to discuss theoretical matters that don’t relate to human evil. And instead of only using women in a dismissive way (you can glimpse them flirting there at the margins of Eco’s stories), Simonini spends a lot of time using a woman and thoroughly hating her.

Diana Vaughan is not a central or important character. She has dissociative personality disorder; the more dominant personality is a sexually voracious Satanist who tells lots of stories about her brief time with the Masons. The less dominant personality is a sweet, pious girl who is horrified at everything her other self does, says, or believes. Simonini takes her out of a mental institution and hides her in a private apartment, where he and his colleagues use her imaginative stories to blacken the reputation of the Masonic lodges. The colleagues also use her for sex. Simonini is too repulsed by the human body to take advantage of her in this way, until the climactic ritual, a black mass that ends in an orgy. There’s a bit here that reminds me of one of my favorite parts of The Name of the Rose, and I think that Eco really excels at describing the experience of sex:

I know that such abandonment will cause my whole body to waste away, will bring an ashen pallor to my dying face, clouded vision and disturbed dreams, husky voice, pains in my eyeballs, the invasion of pestilent red marks upon my face, the vomiting of calciferous materials, palpitations – and finally, with syphilis, blindness.

And though I can no longer see, I feel the most excruciating and indescribable and unbearable sensation of my life, as if all the blood from throughout my veins were suddenly gushing out from a tear in each of my taut limbs, from my nose, from my ears, from my fingertips, from my anus, help, help, I think I know now what death is, from which every living being recoils, even when he seeks it through an unnatural instinct to multiply his own seed.

I can no longer write, I no longer recall, I am reliving, the experience is unbearable, I wish I could forget it all again . . .

So of course he takes the girl home and kills her. The two acts together cause the psychic break and amnesia mentioned at the beginning; once he remembers what he’s done, he no longer needs the separation of consciousness, so he reintegrates his self and gets back to work destroying the Jews. He makes one last expansion/revision and sells the Prague cemetery story for the last time, with the implication that this will become The Protocols of Zion, that document that stirred up a passionate European hatred of the Jews right through the Holocaust.

When I consider Eco’s career, at least the now four and a half novels of his that I’ve read, I really have to wonder how similar Simonini is to Eco himself. Eco loves to write about conspiracy theories, always portrayed in a spirit of ridicule for the people who believe in them. Christianity seems to be the biggest conspiracy of all. As I reflect on it, Eco has written very few characters whom I actually like, or who have a favorable opinion of humanity. I like the narrator/protagonist of The Name of the Rose and his Sherlock-Holmesian friend Brother William, and I like Casaubon’s girlfriend in Foucault’s Pendulum. That’s about it.

But generally, despite his great skill in writing, Eco writes books that I can’t agree with, but can’t argue with either. He has a vast wealth of historical knowledge and a deep, deep cynicism; all I have is my faith in people. As I think over time, my own personal history and not the history of global events, I think Eco is wrong about people. Perhaps they are a bit gullible, but they’re not evil, and they’re not stupid. Love is just as natural as hate, though it’s harder to manipulate. Sex is not weird or wrong; loving copulation is as natural as breathing, with similarly healthful effects. People are good, and the world is a beautiful place: two facts that Eco’s characters shut their eyes to, and they then call their blindness truth. I don’t generally think of myself as a person of faith, my faith in religion or God being almost nonexistent, but I believe in people. I love them – I love you. And because you are a human being, I believe you are good, you are strong, and you are beautiful. This faith remains unshaken.