Posts Tagged ‘islam’

This author was recommended to me as something completely different, something that could shock me back into myself. I’ve been feeling disconnected from myself, and a shock could be what I need. As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve realized that I need to get back to the piano. Playing music is important to me, but I’ve been neglecting it. I suppose part of this is that he isn’t in favor of having a piano in the house. I know they’re heavy, but they’re also meaningful. Meaningful things should have weight.

The thing that has struck me about Tagore is not his difference, but his similarity. His title points to the parallels between the domestic and public spheres, which I’ve been fascinated with for more than ten years. Think Sense and Sensibility. In fact, I tend to keep a strict delineation between the two. Which is why I don’t invite people to my house. Living with a family is challenging for me because I have to share decision-making and it’s difficult to have a physical space that is only mine. For instance, we took his daughter to a theme park yesterday, but he doesn’t like roller coasters. I was there to spend time with him, so I didn’t ride them. Do you know how dismal and dull theme parks are if you don’t go on the rides?

There are three narrators, but Bimala is the one I find most important. She’s stuck in a triangle with Nikhil and Sandip. Nikhil and Bimala have been married for nine years. He’s an intellectual, seems to be some sort of magistrate for the district, which is in Bengal, the northeastern part of India. A good bit of Bengal is now Bangladesh. Sandip is Nikhil’s friend, who is working for an independent India. Sandip comes over for a day or two, but he decides to extend his visit because Bimala is a special person. She’s not presented as especially beautiful, but she has something. Nikhil has been trying to encourage her to become his equal, but it’s not working. She just keeps being a traditional Indian wife, which to her means complete submission. The women tend to live separated from men, and Nikhil wants to spend more time with her. It’s countercultural, but it’s not illegal or irreligious. He pushes gently, and she remains unmoved. Her job is domesticity, and that means following strict conventions.

And then Sandip notices her. He doesn’t want some weird blurring of society’s gender roles. He doesn’t really want to bring her into a man’s world. To him, Bimala is a goddess. With him, she feels like the divine embodiment of the nation. She gains confidence, not by being invited to share her husband’s life, but by being put on the culturally approved pedestal. Sandip is really good with her (NB: I didn’t say ‘to her’). The prolonged seduction goes very well for a while; he’s a great manipulator, but not even the best can keep it up indefinitely. Eventually he has to make a direct demand, and she sees what he is but is in too deep to turn back.

With Sandip, it’s all about The Cause. His cause is the country. Under British rule, European goods have been flooding into the country. A vital part of claiming their national identity is rejecting foreign goods. Sandip and his followers use Any Means Necessary – if only one guy is still transporting imports across the river, you sink his boat. It looks like a nonviolent protest, but it’s not really. These people are ruining the lives of the very people they claim to want to save. So when Sandip asks Bimala for money to finance the cause, he asks for too much for her to get on her own. When she has to steal for The Cause, she knows she’s gone too far and starts trying to pull herself out.

Nikhil is very much an All Lives Matter type of guy. I don’t mean that he denies the importance of fighting against discrimination, I mean that he really values all lives. India is not as important as Humanity. He’s sort of a stand-in for Tagore, someone who believes that you can’t take away someone’s livelihood without giving him a life of equal or greater value. Home rule for India is important because of the systematic oppression of the Indian people by the English, not because it’s an inherent good. He has a strong value for people, while Sandip cares more about principles. And Sandip’s principles are ethnocentric and misogynistic. He tells people that he only cares about the country, but he’s really in this for himself. He found a way to rise in caste, so he is taking advantage of the personal benefits without being overly concerned about the Motherland.

My theory of life makes me certain that the Great is cruel. To be just is for ordinary men—it is reserved for the great to be unjust. The surface of the earth was even. The volcano butted it with its fiery horn and found its own eminence—its justice was not towards its obstacle, but towards itself. Successful injustice and genuine cruelty have been the only forces by which individual or nation has become millionaire or monarch.

That is why I preach the great discipline of Injustice. I say to everyone: Deliverance is based upon injustice. Injustice is the fire which must keep on burning something in order to save itself from becoming ashes. Whenever an individual or nation becomes incapable of perpetrating injustice it is swept into the dust-bin of the world.

Sandip is concerned with his own greatness, and he doesn’t care who suffers, because he sees it as his right to be unjust to everyone. The only thing that matters is that Sandip remains comfortable and rises to the top. And yes, his sexual politics are as bad as his public policy.

We are men, we are kings, we must have our tribute. Ever since we have come upon the Earth we have been plundering her; and the more we claimed, the more she submitted. From primeval days have we men been plucking fruits, cutting down trees, digging up the soil, killing beast, bird and fish. From the bottom of the sea, from underneath the ground, from the very jaws of death, it has all been grabbing and grabbing and grabbing—no strong-box in Nature’s store-room has been respected or left unrifled. The one delight of this Earth is to fulfil the claims of those who are men. She has been made fertile and beautiful and complete through her endless sacrifices to them. But for this, she would be lost in the wilderness, not knowing herself, the doors of her heart shut, her diamonds and pearls never seeing the light.

Likewise, by sheer force of our claims, we men have opened up all the latent possibilities of women. In the process of surrendering themselves to us, they have ever gained their true greatness. Because they had to bring all the diamonds of their happiness and the pearls of their sorrow into our royal treasury, they have found their true wealth. So for men to accept is truly to give: for women to give is truly to gain.

As things progress, our three narrators start to realize that they don’t understand each other, but while they phrase it as a gender problem, I think it’s bigger than that. Does any person really know another? There are depths that stay hidden. We are always growing and changing, and even people who know each other well have to ask each other what they’re thinking. There is something isolating about being in existence.

There’s more going on. Think about Burke and Austen – there is no distinction between private and public spheres. Sandip and Nikhil represent their ideologies, the revolutionary new India and the colonial establishment. Bimala is the nation, caught between the two. In Tagore’s schema, the revolution doesn’t care about the individual lives of the poor; it only pretends to so that the leaders can enrich themselves and acquire power. The conservatives try to protect and take care of people. The poor may have only partial freedom, but the boundaries of their lives are invisible, like Pierre’s Ambiguities. The purpose of the maharaja is to make sure they don’t feel the ties that bind them, and Nikhil is good at it. Not good enough to stop Sandip’s influence, but good. His rule is sufficiently relaxed that disorder can grow up fairly quickly because Nikhil will not infringe on the revolutionaries’ right of self-determination. So long as they’re not hurting someone else. Sandip isn’t opposed to hurting others, and he ends up damaging himself in the process. Not physically, but he is disdainful of Nikhil’s intellectualism even though he spends more of his narration time on abstraction than Nikhil. Nikhil is interested in realities; Sandip is interested in justifying his self-centeredness.

So. Passionate manipulator vs intellectual idealist? It reminds me of the current presidential race in America. Sandip is Mr Trump, fighting to advance his position even though he’s unsuited to greater power, and destroying everyone he comes into contact with. He’s like the Russians who engineered a Communist revolution to concentrate an entire nation’s resources in the hands of a select few. Nikhil is like President Obama, idealistic and hopeful, struggling to guide people into happiness without the success he’d like. It’s difficult to make people both free and well behaved. I think Trump’s entire campaign is utter lunacy. The fact that the Republican Party chose a candidate that has no experience in diplomacy is baffling, and the fact that enough Americans admire him that he actually has a good chance of winning the election is proof of massive ignorance. People are afraid, so they trust the one who tells them they are right to be afraid.

In both the book and in reality, Muslims are an issue. For them, there is something more important than national identities or the rights and wrongs of politics. The world is full of suffering, but it’s possible to rise above the suffering by submitting one’s will to God. All kinds of suffering. The flavor of the suffering is immaterial, since suffering is temporary and God gives us the strength to overcome it. Accepting suffering is essential to submission and brings glory to God. These ideas are inimical to revolution, even the type of revolution Trump is working toward. Minimizing one’s own suffering thus is important and healthy, whether a belief in God is involved or not. Minimizing the suffering of others is dangerous and can lead to fanaticism. When a person believes that causing suffering that others submit to brings glory to God, that person is dangerous and the world needs him to have as little power as possible. Causing suffering is bad, I’d even say evil, and people who do it carelessly do not deserve to become President of the United States.

Tagore may not have been shock therapy, but it has gotten me reading again. I’m grateful for the suggestion; it’s provoked the response I needed. Thanks, E.

I read this on Project Gutenberg, which leads me to distrust the ellipses. I read a book on PG once that had whole paragraphs missing. This is a good book, sort of sad, but beautiful. And it’s a warning. Electing Trump will give us the worst case of Buyer’s Remorse in American history. Don’t do it. Do whatever you can to prevent this, even if it means voting for a woman you don’t really believe in. He must be stopped. Some people talk about moving out of the country, but will that be safe? Is there any corner of the world that will be safe if DT has access to the American military?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, a book that doesn’t remind me of unfortunate periods of my life. In fact, this book reminds me primarily of The Wizard of Oz. Shocking, yes, but hang on, I’ll explain.

Our protagonist comes to a new world, full of things he doesn’t quite understand. Falk doesn’t understand anything, actually. His mind has been erased. The novel begins with him in a pre-linguistic state, just like being born. He grows up in a small, peaceful community, somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Not grows up physically, but mentally. After the time most of us spend between birth and school, he leaves home on a journey to discover who he is. He travels across a post-apocalyptic North America – this is later even than most of Le Guin’s novels because the League of All Worlds has collapsed – in order to find the city that will tell him who he is, that will restore him to himself and give him his home. Es Toch is the city of illusions, just as The Emerald City is in Oz. It’s even built of vaguely transparent green not-quite-glass (over the Grand Canyon!). In Baum’s Emerald City, visitors have to be given green-tinted spectacles so that they see the city as emerald. In Es Toch, there’s mind control.

The premise is, that millennia from now people develop their latent telepathic abilities. But it’s a slow learning process and we can’t control our minds (and hence our communication) well. We can only tell the truth. Then, a race comes from far beyond the familiar stars, beyond the League. The Shing know how to mindlie, so they can easily defeat humanity and the allied alien races. When everyone trusts, the dishonorable prevail. But there’s a small colony of former Earthlings who want to return home, and they’ve developed their mental abilities beyond even the Shing. The Shing can lie telepathically, but the people of Werel can catch them at it. The trick becomes, healing Falk’s mind so that he can foil the Shing and save the world.

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.

This idea, that relationship is bound to physical touch, is one of the problems that haunt my life. I think it’s also one of the reasons I like going to a mostly gay church, even though I kind of expect everyone to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. Gay men, taken as a group, seem to be unusually affectionate. I get tons of hugs, and even some beijinhos, the European-style kisses of greeting that denote simple friendship. And this after only attending three times, and having a friend of a friend to situate me in their network of relationships. I need physical affection (not just sex); without it, I mentally wither and die, like a flower without water or sunlight. Which is why, even though I’m in a tough spot with finances, I’ll drive an hour and use four gallons of petrol to attend a church I don’t know I believe in.

So he played for time, trying to devise a way out of his dilemma, flying with Orry and one or another of the Shing here and there over the Earth, which stretched out under their flight like a great lovely garden gone all to seeds and wilderness. He sought with all his trained intelligence some way in which he could turn his situation about and become the controller instead of the one controlled: for so his Kelshak mentality presented his case to him. Seen rightly, any situation, even a chaos or a trap would come clear and lead of itself to its one proper outcome: for there is in the long run no disharmony, only misunderstanding, no chance or mis-chance but only the ignorant eye. So Ramarren thought, and the second soul within him, Falk, took no issue with this view, but spent no time trying to think it out, either. For Falk had seen the dull and bright stones slip across the wires of the patterning-frame, and had lived with men in their fallen estate, kings in exile on their own domain the Earth, and to him it seemed that no man could make his fate or control the game, but only wait for the bright jewel luck to slip by on the wire of time. Harmony exists, but there is no understanding it; the Way cannot be gone. So while Ramarren racked his mind, Falk lay low and waited. And when the chance came he caught it.

Whenever I try to examine my beliefs, I run into this same duality. I was raised as a Christian, but when I got divorced I revolted against it and moved to the Muslim world. Islam was strong enough to untether me from Christianity, but not strong enough to bind me to itself. I see the logic, I do the critical thinking, I trust that in time I’ll see the harmony of the world. But I’ve also seen the beads on the patterning-frame; I have had enough mystical experiences that I can’t completely ascribe to mental illness. Is there a mysticism that isn’t tied to theism? There must be. Maybe, instead of running from or denying spiritual experience, I should be seeking it out more urgently. Even if I don’t trust or fully believe in God, these experiences have helped make my life more bearable. They help me feel less alone. They teach me about myself. There is value in this type of experience, no matter what cosmology others ascribe to it.

This is the second novel of Le Guin’s obscurity that I’ve read, and it shares more with Rocannon’s World than it does with The Dispossessed or Always Coming Home. It’s more traditional 1960s sci-fi/fantasy; it’s all mythic journeys and manliness. The very few female characters are like Bond girls, either useless or evil. The female scientist is so marginal that her name seems to change several times over the course of the book: at first Rayna, then Ranya, finally Ranna. Maybe these are different women, but they play the same minor role and Falk seems to be referring to a single person. The gender exploration and insistence on female worth will come later. But still, this was a good book for me at this time. Thanks, Catherine, for reminding me of an author who is good for me.

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not the kind of book I willingly pick up at the store. It’s hugely thick and tries to unite several genres, all of which represent humanity and the world as darker, scarier, more evil than I believe them to be. But when a student says, “I know you like novels, so I got you one as a going-away present,” I can’t refuse.

The last time I read a book this long from beginning to end, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Seriously, this book is fucking massive. There were a few times I mentally edited his prose to eliminate unnecessary words (I don’t believe in coincidences, especially in fiction, so the phrase “it just happened to be” really irritates me), but it’s not something I could do much of. His prose is fairly tight, and he keeps the story moving pretty quickly. Every now and again you get a glimpse of a lovely bit of figurative language, like

But there was nothing, just a gale of fear blowing down the lonely corridors of his mind.

but normally he avoids anything that isn’t literal. It is what it is, as it is, and there’s not much to say about it. What commentary there is, is often cynical and snarky:

nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.

Which happens early on, when it’s still a murder mystery, and sounds so very Dashiell Hammett that I can’t fault him for it.

We start with murder, then go on to spy thriller, end up at 9/11 conspiracy theory, then they all sort of get jumbled up together. It may seem that this genrebending might be the biggest narrative problem, but I think it’s his sequence. The first half of the book is weighted with flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, so that the order of events is rather confused.

I have the most difficulty forgiving Hayes for his first-person narrator/protagonist. The first problem is at the linguistic level. Pilgrim’s speech is almost entirely British, which is almost wholly nonsensical. He’s an American. He spent a number of years living in Europe, but as the leader of a supersecret spy organization, he wouldn’t have spent that time hanging out with Londoner chums or watching Doctor Who. For their linguistic patterns to rub off on him, he needs either to be interested in language for its own sake or to spend a great deal of time talking with Englishmen he likes well enough to want to blend in with them. Neither of those things is true for him. He’s so insulated and ethnocentric that the Britishisms just don’t make sense. My occasional British usage is more logical because most of my friends for the last two years are British, and I tend to adopt the speech patterns of the people I love; I’ve also been teaching English from British texts, so I’ve been confronting the basics of the language from a British perspective. Still, I know to use only one l in words like traveled or canceling (Brits use two).

The second problem is with his supposed identity as the agent so secret that no one can touch him. He makes so many mistakes that it’s kind of embarrassing. Most of them are necessary to move the plot forward, but if the plot demands that you make your superagent an idiot, maybe the plot needs to change. Pilgrim retires from the spy business and writes a book about his cases, changing the details and his identity to preserve state secrets. A New York policeman reads the book, finds the tiny hints he drops about his personal life, tracks down his real name, and follows him to Paris where he has been living in hiding for a few years. Really? Really? What kind of crap intelligence agency would let this book be published, or not track down their supposedly greatest asset when he is careless enough to publish all the clues you need to get at him? Seriously. If a homicide detective were better than the combined powers of the CIA and the NSA, then their entire personnel rosters would have been eliminated a long time ago.

Problem Three is misogyny. It’s a little like being in a modern James Bond movie, where all women are either useless or evil. There are one or two good competent women we don’t see much of, but the rule is that women are not to be relied upon. I should probably throw homophobia into the mix here, because there’s a killer lesbian (no gay men, sorry). She outsmarts Pilgrim, but she’s unremittingly evil. The book is largely about relationships between straight men, lots of father-son mentoring stuff and never-leave-a-man-behind-unless-he’s-dead values. The phrase “I love you man, no homo” practically drips from the pages.

Number Four is with the ethnocentrism I mentioned earlier. Pilgrim has a fairly extensive education, which normally has a tendency to decrease the belief in superiority based on nationality, but no luck for him. He then spends his adult life living abroad, and contact with other cultures also usually has a tendency to make people think better of them, but again, no luck.

These were the same guys Carter had described as garbage wrapped in skin.

He points this out not to contest it, but to agree that all Saudis are worthless. I’ll admit that his portrayal of Saudis angers me the most, because I’ve spent the last two years living among them and despite the systemic injustices, I’ve seen that they’re really very kind. I don’t think any person is really garbage; we’re all a mixture of good and bad things. Saudi men have been raised in a culture that values adherence to tradition over critical thinking, but that doesn’t make them bad men. They benefit from society without putting any thought or effort into it, much like white American men of the upper middle class (and by that I mean Protagonist Pilgrim). When you take into account the assumptions about the world that they have never thought to question, I think most of them are actually more worthwhile than their Western counterparts. Seriously, America/Europe: stop judging the rest of the world for not sharing your cultural ideals.

Another bit that’s kind of funny, but shows that the guy we’re reading is a bit of a dick:

On one particular evening he left a message while I was attending one of my regular twelve-step meetings. By this stage, I had switched my patronage to AA – as Tolstoy might have said, drug addicts are all alike, whereas every alcoholic is crazy in his own way. This led to far more interesting meetings, and I had decided that, if you were going to spend your life on the wagon, you might as well be entertained.

The Moriarty to this American anti-Holmes is called The Saracen. He’s a conservative Saudi disgusted by the laxity of Jeddah and Bahrain, so as a teenager he fights the Soviets in Afghanistan. He becomes a doctor too, then works for the advancement of his people. He’s very much like Pilgrim, only he has a family and faith in God. Unfortunately, those loves in his life lead him to engineer a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox and unleash it on the United States, to weaken the enemies of Allah, obviously, but also to weaken the power of the al-Saud family, who had his father publicly beheaded. He wants to get back at them for what they did to his father and, in his eyes, what they continually do to weaken the nation’s devotion. He’s an extremist with a personal vendetta that involves killing entire continents full of people. He’s not typical, but despite comments like

At last the West had encountered an enemy worthy of our fear,

there aren’t any counterbalancing characters. The Saracen is compared to the guys who performed the September 11th attacks, but any typical Saudis/Arabs/Muslims are seen through his eyes, so Hayes can represent them as weak and compromising. Or through Pilgrim’s eyes, when they’re either comic relief or incompetent and corrupt.

Hayes seems to see corruption everywhere. I suppose there’s more of it than I imagine, but I don’t choose to believe that it’s the only constant in the world. Here’s the highest level of American government (only six or seven people are in the room):

The only thing they agreed on was that there should be no change to the nation’s threat status: it was at a low level and, in order to avoid panic and unwanted questions, it had to stay there. But in the two hours that followed, the atheists and the God-botherers took to each other’s throats on almost every idea, then suddenly teamed up against the president on several others, split among themselves, formed uneasy alliances with their former opponents, returned to their natural alliances and then sallied forth on several occasions as lone gunslingers.

Okay, so that isn’t the best example of corruption, but it doesn’t make the government look particularly effective or praiseworthy either.

Even when Hayes is writing about a concept I like, like love, he manages to make it seem bad.

People say love is weak, but they’re wrong: love is strong. In nearly everyone it trumps all other things – patriotism and ambition, religion and upbringing. And of every kind of love – the epic and the small, the noble and the base – the one that a parent has for their child is the greatest of them all.

That doesn’t seem bad, but love is the tool that Pilgrim uses to manipulate people. He’s a bit like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin – to bring down your enemy, strike at the heart. Pilgrim doesn’t just use it on his enemies, though; he uses it on his friends and colleagues too. Love is strong, but it makes people vulnerable, and vulnerability can be exploited by an unscrupulous covert agent. It doesn’t affect him as much because the people he loves are dead. He’s loveless and cruel, but with a sarcastic sense of humor and an exciting story that keep us reading.

I suppose one of the baselines for the love of books is, Would you read it again? I don’t think that I would. I just don’t want to spend that much of my life in Pilgrim’s violent, corrupt world where America is everything and the rest of the world is only important in its interactions with the United States. Once was good, but once was enough.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.