Posts Tagged ‘music’

The people marketing this book claim that it completes a trilogy begun by The Rainbow and Women in Love, which is of course complete bollocks. The previous two are joined by having the same major characters, and there isn’t even a hint of Brangwens in this book. If we’re talking about theme instead of character, well, doesn’t Lawrence work through issues of love, marriage, sex, and freedom in all his novels? If it were theme, what would separate these three from the rest of the oeuvre?

Aaron is a Midlands coalminer, and on the surface things seem all right – wife, children, tradition, etc. But at Christmas his daughter breaks a glass ball that he had been putting on trees since he was a kid, and without this symbol of unbroken tradition he goes completely off the rails. He runs out to buy candles for the tree and maybe have a pint, but he ends up sleeping with one of the gentry instead of going home that night. From there, he goes deeper and deeper into the Bohemian world, first to London and then to Italy, because there’s a certain inevitable attraction between Lawrence characters and Italy.

The title references the Biblical story of Aaron, Moses’s brother. Aaron used a staff to perform Moses’s magic tricks, including the one where the staff buds and grows flowers like a tree without being rooted in earth. Our Aaron has a flute, and while it’s not magical, it is often the source of Aaron’s power. His friend Lilly makes the comparison explicit and wonders what flowers will grow from the flute – the answer seems to be that with musical talent and a handsome face all sorts of doors are open to one, no matter what his background. His rootlessness begins with sleeping with a man (the first time?), and he has several other opportunities of the same type. This being Lawrence, there’s nothing graphic or explicit about same-sex lovers, but he creates the opportunity for it, and there are some men in his book that seem like gay couples, even though we didn’t talk about that sort of thing in 1922. Aaron has a major emotional crisis the first time he sleeps with a woman – he had had affairs before he left his wife, so I guess he only had to get away from her to sleep with men. It’s the going back and forth that he has a hard time with at first, like bisexuality is harder to swallow than being at either end of the Kinsey scale. By the time he gets to Italy, though, he’s past that. So yes, I suppose you could also argue that Aaron’s rod is his cock because this book is more about what he does with that than what he does with his flute, and we are revving up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a few years later.

In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realised this. He was a musician. And hence even his deepest ideas were not word-ideas, his very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.

The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly. But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was music.

Don’t grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this damned fellow wasn’t half clever enough to think all these smart things, and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he wasn’t, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to prove that it didn’t.

I don’t recall Lawrence speaking quite so directly to the reader like this in his other books, but I might be wrong. As with his other novels, there’s a little bit of action and then a lot of analysis of that action, and a lot of dialogue about abstract concepts, which I suppose is Lawrence’s way of selecting his audience. A lot of the ideas center around Lilly, either because he’s giving them voice or because Aaron is trying to understand his friend’s influence over him. Aaron goes to Italy because he’s following Lilly, and he really loses his sense of peace when he’s too much away from him. It’s sort of like how I’m feeling for New Guy – he works six days a week, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. And I get lonely and sad when I don’t see him, as if my equilibrium is becoming dependent on him. This process kind of scares me; with the Midwestern Man, he was only attracted to me as long as I didn’t need him. Once my emotional wagon got firmly hitched to his star, he lost interest, and things only got really great again after I decided to leave him. New Guy doesn’t have the same issues, so maybe he’ll still love me if I rely on him, but it’s hard for me to trust that.

At first, Lilly’s talk about relationships focuses on independence. The ideal is two people who can stand on their own two feet, emotionally, economically, rationally, and in all other ways, but who choose to stand close together. I like the sound of it, it’s an image that appeals to me strongly — probably because I spent eight years being needed, but a lot of that time I didn’t feel wanted. I have no desire to get back into a relationship where I am undesired but necessary. Lawrence’s discussion of Aaron’s relationship with his wife feels uncannily familiar, where a marriage ends up being a struggle for one party to feel powerful and the other to feel loved. In the end, though, Lilly changes his mind and decides that it really is about power and submission – either you’re strong enough to bend the entire world to your will or you find someone you can submit to. This leads to the sort of elitism that I’m not fond of, the sort of thinking that creates Hitlers of us all, and it ends the book with the same sort of abruptness that Women in Love did – that one ends with Birkin realizing he believes in the possibility of romantic love between men, this one ends with Aaron realizing he is in deep submissive love with Lilly, both of them steps too far to pursue at that time. It’s like the book has to end when it gets to the point that society won’t accept, even though that point has been the goal the entire time.

I have a friend who’s working through similar ideas of bisexuality and polyamory in her life. She’s currently got a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and they all know about each other and accept the situation as it is. In talking about it, it seems that she needs to be both dominant and submissive – she’s a forceful person, so she needs someone she can order around and control, but she also needs the experience of being with someone who awes her, who can take command of the situation and make her obey. It’s a little more sadomasochistic than I want in my relationships, but I think about my experience on both sides of the sexual fence, and I can understand it. Being a top makes me feel powerful, but also anxious about my performance. Being a bottom makes me feel loved, but also a little passive. I’m not balancing them both at the same time, though. I don’t need to use sex to make me feel like I’m in control of my own life, and I certainly don’t want to be with someone who will overwhelm me into subjection. A bedroom is one place where I want to be able to set aside issues of power and control and just relax with someone I love.

This is also a novel about coping with World War I. The war is over before the book begins, but everyone is still thinking about it, talking about it, seeing the immediate effects of it. The war may be part of the reason for Aaron to embark on this quest for identity. It’s like the war blew up the entire world, and people haven’t figured out how to put it back together. Aaron didn’t fight because the country still needed coal to operate during the war, but it still left him unmoored, like Darl or Shadrack. And eventually historical events break his flute, so the only thing he has in the end is this friend who will never commit to anything, the one person who refuses to let anyone rely on him. Ultimately we are all alone, which is why it’s so important to enjoy one’s own company. If alone is our natural state, we should learn to love it.

Maybe alone isn’t everyone’s natural state. Maybe not everyone’s nature is the same. Learning to love myself in solitude has been a hard lesson, though, and it’s something I don’t want to lose, no matter whom else I fall in love with, no matter how many times.

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As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

slade house

Well, it isn’t often that I gobble a book up all in one go, but this one I did. I have some time off from work this week, and not much to do aside from reading, knitting, and trying to remember to eat, so there was no reason not to. The book also reads a lot faster than the other things I’ve been reading lately.

As I was reading yesterday morning, I noticed something strange: the air here has suddenly gotten cold in the morning, so when I looked out the back window, I saw a clear day in early autumn, where some of the leaves are turning but there’s still a lot of green. But when I looked out of the front windows, I saw a wintry day covered in frost. I didn’t know if there was a lot of fog, or if there was a sudden icing over of the trees across the street, or what. It was disorienting, as if I were seeing into two different times, occupying a middle ground between what I thought was the present and the future. Later I walked over to the front windows and saw that they had frosted over in the night, as evidenced by the water still on the panes as the sun warmed the world. In real life there are perfectly rational explanations.

But in fiction there aren’t. Once every nine years, someone gets lured into a mysterious mansion and they’re never heard from again. These people are a series of first-person narrators, so we get to see what happens from their perspectives. They find their way through a tiny door set in an alley, where a pair of mystical fraternal twins leads them through a sort of Mind Theatre which always ends with a very Clive Barker-esque ritual murder, thus ensuring the twins’ survival. Their lives are unnaturally extended, and their ability to project thoughts and images into other people’s minds is sort of par for the course for a Barker villain.

What separates them from my beloved Mr Barker’s characters is that they’re really bad at being evil. Their illusions are sloppy, and the victims generally figure out what’s happening and try to escape. There’s enough of a soul left for them to appear as ghosts later and warn the next. However, like a good fairy tale or myth, they’re too late because the new victim has already eaten or drunk something and so can’t leave. Another problem is that they leave traces – it would be simple to treat these narratives as separate short stories, but they’re not. After the first victim disappears, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s, the second is a detective investigating the disappearance, the third is a college student in a paranormal club, the fourth is her sister who’s come looking for her, and the fifth is a psychiatrist studying the abductions and the narratives of the witnesses. Or maybe I should say, witness. Fred Pink sees the boy and his mother right before they go, and then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out the truth.

That first section of the book is not a deep exploration of mental difference. The victims in this story are all people whom society doesn’t work for, outsiders, and the syndrome makes Nathan very pick-on-able at his school. In 1979 there weren’t any of the advanced medications or treatments or interventions we use now, so he self-medicates by stealing his mother’s Valium. I suppose it’s hard to be a proper horror novel victim when you’re high on anti-anxiety meds, but he realizes that he can drop physical items through the cracks in time, and is thus influential in bringing about the end.

The 1988 detective is divorced and unhappy – I’m not saying those two things are connected, but I also don’t feel sorry for him because he refers briefly to a domestic violence incident that these days would have led to a restraining order. Good police officers don’t hit their wives. The presence of Gordon Edmonds, though, really makes me wonder about Mitchell’s identity politics. (Give me a second. I’m circling back to this, but we need to mention the Timms sisters first.)

In 1997 Sally Timms is a college student in a Paranormal Society, lost in unrequited love for Todd, one of the other members. Her sin against society is being overweight, for which she was bullied mercilessly in school. In 2006 her sister Freya is a journalist trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance, and keeps fielding texts from her girlfriend while time is going all out of joint around her.

Okay. In real life, death is often a senseless tragedy, and we try to create a meaning for it. In fiction, authors choose who lives and who dies, which means that there are no accidental deaths. Authors kill people because deep down at some level the writers think the characters deserve it. The wife-beater I can understand, but the others seriously bother me, now that I’m thinking about it. Mitchell even draws our attention to their differences, as if on the surface being bullied can increase a person’s psychic potential and abilities, but going deeper, being bullied at school identifies people as targets and even the author can’t resist knocking them down and stealing their lunch money. Asperger’s Boy, The Lesbian, and The Fat Girl all have to die because their author is removing those who are different from society. He may be doing it in a sympathetic way by giving them voices, but he’s doing it all the same.

If you watch British television and film, you’ll have noticed two things: one, that unlike in America an actor can become famous and successful while looking sort of ordinary and not drop-dead gorgeous; and two, that the British crowd people (NPCs) are much thinner than the Americans. Yes, we have a serious problem with weight in our country, with literally two-thirds of the population considered overweight or obese, but while we talk about body-shaming here, it’s nothing like over there. I heard a story of an English teacher in the U.K. teaching his Asian students the word excessive, and he showed them a picture of a sumo wrestler, hoping they would pick up on the excessive weight. It was a teacher fail because in Japan sumos aren’t considered fat, and I was rather surprised he would have chosen such a culture-specific body-shaming example. But from all that I see and hear, it seems like it’s much more culturally acceptable to be horrible to fat people in Britain than it is in the United States.

I feel like I should say something about the homophobia, overt in 1979 and 1988 and implied in 2006, but to quote R.E.M., “This story is a sad one told many times.” I don’t want to keep talking about how people hate me for . . . I’m having a hard time finishing this sentence, because what precisely is it they hate me for? I don’t love differently than heterosexual conservatives; when I fall in love, I feel the same way about it that anyone else does, and I do the same sorts of things with that person that anyone else would do. Maybe I fuck differently than they do, but I don’t invite them into my bedroom to watch. Maybe they hate me for being open about liking something that they can’t imagine liking, but I don’t understand why this reaction is so much more extreme than when I tell people I like liver and onions.

This week I’ve been celebrating Halloween not just with a scary book, but with another viewing of the Harry Potter movies. At the last one I got all weepy, not over all the people who die or the attack on Hogwarts, but over the Malfoys. In the midst of all this huge conflict of good vs. evil in which all the wizarding world is taking sides, the Malfoys choose each other. Narcissa may not be a good person, but whenever we see her she is acting out of the love she has for her son. It’s a great, overpowering, maybe in some ways frantic and excessive love, but it’s love nonetheless. They’re in the middle of the final battle, in that lull between attacks, and Voldemort offers the students a chance to join his side – Draco’s parents beg him to come over, and since he’s been a minor antagonist all along we expect him to, but all he does is quietly and gently take his mother home. The books and films go on and on about the love of Lily Potter, but only the Malfoys turn their backs on both good and evil and choose each other over all the world. Even Lucius, Voldemort’s lapdog, leaves his Dark Lord’s army to stay with his family.

Which leads me back to Sally and Freya, the two sisters whose love for each other damages the forces of evil so that they can be defeated.

I wish Sally’s last known place of abode could have been prettier. For the millionth time I wonder if she’s still alive, locked in a madman’s attic, praying that we’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open. For the millionth time, I flinch about wriggling out of inviting my sister to New York the summer before she started uni here. Sally wanted to visit, I knew, but I had a job at a photo agency, fashionista friends, invitations to private views, and I was just starting to date women. It was an odd time. Discovering my Real Me and babysitting my tubby, dorky, nervy sister had just felt all too much. So I told Sal some bullshit about finding my feet, she pretended to believe me, and I’ll never forgive myself. Avril says that not even God can change the past. She’s right, but it doesn’t help.

Which drops me at the last thing I wanted to say. Despite all of the horror novel trappings, this is a book about Grief. It even gets capitalized and personified a couple of times. Stripped away to the basic bones, this is the story of an extraordinary woman who can’t deal with her grief in constructive ways, so the unmanaged feelings lead to paranormal abilities and all sorts of damage. I don’t mean to judge her for this; Grief is personal, overpowering, and no one else’s business. Grief is the expression of love for someone who cannot return it. I nearly wrote ‘the final expression,’ but I don’t think it’s that. Grieving is the process whereby we learn how to continue to love someone we have lost. There is nothing final about it.

For fans of Cloud Atlas, this may seem like an odd direction for Mitchell to have moved in. I have The Bone Clocks on my shelf but haven’t made time for it yet, so maybe there were intermediate steps that I missed. But Mitchell’s writing is still excellent and engaging, and like me, you may find that this is a book you don’t want to put down. It’s a good thing it’s short.

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.

As you may recall, a few years ago I read Escape from Freedom, and quoted long sections from it in the coming-out blog. This volume claims to be an extension of that book, continuing from the discussion of authoritarianism and its attractions onto the subject of ethics. This book was written and published back in the 1940s, which means that he refers to all humanity as Man, so women may feel more connected by changing the pronouns to she and Man to Woman, though since the author is a man, he may refer to specifically masculine issues as if they were universal, and since I am also a man, I won’t catch it all the time. I’m sorry for any inadvertent sexism on my part. Another thing to note is that he uses italics like mad, so all emphasis in the following quotations is his, not mine.

This is a treatise on atheist ethics, and as such it really appeals to me. In Christianity, we are taught that ethics is largely a matter of pleasing the absent-yet-omniscient authority figure, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of fear of punishment. Sometimes the love and fear of punishment get mixed up together. However, removing the external authority from the equation, atheists are seen as people who cannot be trusted because they’re not trying to please the same authority. How can murder be wrong if there is no god to send you to hell for it? Well, as any experience with actual atheists reveals, a person who doesn’t believe in a god still has values, principles by which she lives her life. In many cases the atheist succeeds in Christian values better than Christians – atheists believe they are good because they do good things, while Christians believe they are good because their bad deeds can be excused.

Man can react to historical contradictions by annulling them through his own action; but he cannot annul existential dichotomies, although he can react to them in different ways. He can appease his mind by soothing and harmonizing ideologies. He can try to escape from his inner restlessness by ceaseless activity in pleasure or business. He can try to abrogate his freedom and to turn himself into an instrument of powers outside himself, submerging his self in them. But he remains dissatisfied, anxious, and restless. There is only one solution to his problem: to face the truth, to acknowledge his fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate, to recognize that there is no power transcending him which can solve his problem for him. Man must accept the responsibility for himself and the fact that only by using his own powers can he give meaning to his life. But meaning does not imply certainty; indeed, the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. If he faces the truth without panic he will recognize that there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively; and that only constant vigilance, activity, and effort can keep us from failing in the one task that matters – the full development of our powers within the limitations set by the laws of our existence. Man will never cease to be perplexed, to wonder, and to raise new questions. Only if he recognizes the human situation, the dichotomies inherent in his existence and his capacity to unfold his powers, will he be able to succeed in his task: to be himself and for himself and to achieve happiness by the full realization of those faculties which are peculiarly his – of reason, love, and productive work.

Here we see part of the journey my life has been on. I used to ‘abrogate my freedom and turn myself into an instrument of powers outside myself, submerging myself in’ church and the prescribed nuclear family. But, as Fromm points out, I was ‘dissatisfied, anxious, and restless.’ Still am, in many ways. I faced my fundamental aloneness, and still feel it acutely, but it still produces that feeling of panic that I need to get over. In the last five years, I seem to have been searching for another authority figure to take the place of the church that I lost, but rejecting in a panic all the ones that come along. Like Jane Eyre, I’m looking for another role as servant, but being choosy about the type of master I get. Yes, part of this refers to the job search, but it more closely describes my search for love. I want someone whom I can give my life to and who will take care of my needs in return. The fact that it’s not working doesn’t tell me my idea is flawed, just that I haven’t found the right man yet. Fromm disagrees. Meaning in my life isn’t going to come from masochistic submission, but from actively pursuing the activities that make me feel alive. The other day I was crocheting dish scrubbers out of veil netting for him to sell, and I realized that this type of commercial activity doesn’t fit Fromm’s definition of productivity; working on projects for my family does. I don’t want to be someone who sells; I want to be someone who gives. The things that make me feel alive, the most myself, are writing, reading, and making music. Teaching is good, but primarily insofar as it allows me to read and write, and help others to do the same. Fromm talks a lot about productivity, but gives the best definition near the end of the book:

In contrast, humanistic ethics takes the position that if man is alive he knows what is allowed; and to be alive means to be productive, to use one’s powers not for any purpose transcending man, but for oneself, to make sense of one’s existence, to be human. As long as anyone believes that his ideal and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it can not be found. He will look for solutions and answers at every point except the one where they can be found – in himself.

The only place we can find knowledge, especially ethical knowledge, is in our own minds. When we read or listen to someone’s ideas, we bring them into our minds and decide if we want to keep them. In the mind is the only place we can bring objects or abstractions to know them. So if we want to know something, like the meaning of our lives or the proper manner of living, we have to look inward, not outward. Being productive means using our abilities to create the best version of ourselves we can be. It means developing our abilities to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, there are some attitudes that prevent our complete development: the sadism and masochism that come from authoritarian attitudes, and the hoarding and marketing that come from capitalist attitudes. Fromm spends a good bit of space expounding on these blockages, and he predicts a lot of my behaviors in his discussion of masochism and marketing, but he also gives me hope:

There is no person whose orientation is entirely productive, and no one who is completely lacking in productiveness. But the respective weight of the productive and the nonproductive orientation in each person’s character structure varies and determines the quality of the nonproductive orientations. In the foregoing description of the nonproductive orientations it was assumed that they were dominant in a character structure. We must now supplement the earlier description by considering the qualities of the nonproductive orientations in a character structure in which the productive orientation is dominant. Here the nonproductive orientations do not have the negative meaning they have when they are dominant but have a different and constructive quality. In fact, the nonproductive orientations as they have been described may be considered as distortions of orientations which in themselves are a normal and necessary part of living. Every human being, in order to survive, must be able to accept things from others, to take things, to save, and to exchange. He must also be able to follow authority, to guide others, to be alone, and to assert himself. Only if his way of acquiring things and relating himself to others is essentially nonproductive does the ability to accept, to take, to save, or to exchange turn into the craving to receive, to exploit, to hoard, or to market as the dominant ways of acquisition. The nonproductive forms of social relatedness in a predominantly productive person – loyalty, authority, fairness, assertiveness – turn into submission, domination, withdrawal, destructiveness in a predominantly nonproductive person. Any of the nonproductive orientations has, therefore, a positive and a negative aspect, according to the degree of productiveness in the total character structure.

So, no one is wholly good or bad, and no one quality is absolutely bad. Everything I have and am can be used in constructive ways. I just have to be vigilant, to make sure that I don’t end up overly submissive.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship a lot lately, all the ways it isn’t working, why I’m still in it. He’s not helping me become the person I want to be. Part of it is his personality – he wants everyone in the house to be together all the time, which is natural to his Myers-Briggs type, but it means that he sees the desire for solitude as a disease. The things that help me become a better me generally require solitude, so I’m harming my personality with all of this together time in order to reassure him that nothing is wrong. Another issue is that he doesn’t enjoy writing, reading, or making music himself, so he doesn’t see the importance of them to me. I often see academics in couples, and I’ve wondered why that is. At one time I thought there was some snobbery involved, at another I thought it was just a lack of opportunity to meet nonacademic people. Now I’m thinking that it’s because academic work creates habits of mind that are incompatible with certain lifestyles. He and I aren’t working out, not because it’s anyone’s fault, but because we don’t want to develop the qualities we see in each other. There have been other warning signs that he’s not interested in keeping me happy, like when he said that he refuses to have a piano in the house, or when he told me that he could not handle me expressing my emotions all the time, or when he borrowed my child support money and didn’t pay it back. He always has reasons and excuses, but they all boil down to the fact that he’s not willing to nurture an environment where I can grow and be happy.

Why do I stay here, then? Because I can’t afford to live anywhere else. Living in the United States is expensive, and none of my jobs here really give me enough to live comfortably. I saved some money when I was in the Middle East, but that’s all gone now. I barely make enough to pay my bills, even though I’ve been teaching for ten years now. I’ve been making barely enough money to pay my bills for ten years. The state of education in this country is really depressing. A professor once told me that the primary difference in his life between being a student and being an instructor is that now he could afford to buy juice; or in other words, he made a little less than five dollars a week more than he did when he was on assistantships and student loans. And he was a department head at the university. Macron promised a home in France for all the climate-change scientists; I wish he’d do the same for English teachers.

I’ve been gearing up to apply for other jobs, and the gearing up process is lasting a lot longer than it should. In thinking about this, I’ve realized that it scares me, a lot. Not only because change is scary, but because I want to settle down and stop moving so much, but I don’t trust that life will allow me to do that. I’m afraid to make a change that I won’t want to change from. I’m afraid of ending up . . . anywhere, doing anything. I’m afraid of reaching the end of the story, when the wandering protagonist has learned his lessons, finds a home, and lives the rest of his long happy life in a few short sentences on the last page. I’m exhausted, but still afraid to slow down.

The assumption that man has an inherent drive for growth and integration does not imply an abstract drive for perfection as a particular gift with which man is endowed. It follows from the very nature of man, from the principle that the power to act creates a need to use this power and that the failure to use it results in dysfunction and unhappiness. The validity of this principle can be easily recognized with regard to the physiological functions of man. Man has the power to walk and to move; if he were prevented from using this power severe physical discomfort or illness would result. […] The validity of this principle is apparent with regard to psychic as well as physical powers. Man is endowed with the capacities of speaking and thinking. If these powers were blocked, the person would be severely damaged. Man has the power to love, and if he can not make use of his power, if he is incapable of loving, he suffers from this misfortune even though he may try to ignore his suffering by all kinds of rationalizations or by using the culturally patterned avenues of escape from the pain caused by his failure.

Physiological symptoms of unhappiness! Yes! I have those! I’m having a hard time sleeping lately, and I cough all the time. I’ve been thinking that it’s from all the second-hand smoke, but it may be from the stress of being unhappy in this relationship. [Cue “Adelaide’s Lament.”]

In fact, happiness and unhappiness are expressions of the state of the entire organism, of the total personality. Happiness is conjunctive with an increase in vitality, intensity of feeling and thinking, and productiveness; unhappiness is conjunctive with the decrease of these capacities and functions. Happiness and unhappiness are so much a state of our total personality that bodily reactions are frequently more expressive of them than our conscious feeling. The drawn face of a person, listlessness, tiredness, or physical symptoms like headaches or even more serious forms of illness are frequent expressions of unhappiness, just as a physical feeling of well-being can be one of the “symptoms” of happiness. Indeed, our body is less capable of being deceived about the state of happiness than our mind, and one can entertain the idea that some time in the future the presence and degree of happiness and unhappiness might be inferred from an examination of the chemical processes in the body. Likewise, the functioning of our mental and emotional capacities is influenced by our happiness or unhappiness. The acuteness of our reason and the intensity of our feelings depend on it. Unhappiness weakens or even paralyzes all our psychic functions. Happiness increases them. The subjective feeling of being happy, when it is not a quality of the state of well-being of the whole person, is nothing more than an illusory thought about a feeling and is completely unrelated to genuine happiness.

I think about how things have changed in this last year with him. My job was a little uncertain, but I felt really good about myself, the way I looked and my ability to direct my life. Now, my job is secure, but I hate myself for having gained this much weight, and I seriously doubt whether I can make my life work or not. Even though I felt really hurt back then, I was still basically happy with myself; now, I’m just unhappy all the time. I love him, despite all the badness, but loving him isn’t making me happy or my life better.

The experience of joy and happiness is not only, as we have shown, the result of productive living but also its stimulus. Repression of evilness may spring from a spirit of self-castigation and sorrow, but there is nothing more conducive to goodness in the humanistic sense than the experience of joy and happiness which accompanies any productive activity. Every increase in joy a culture can provide for will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preachings of virtue could do.

And of course, part of me thinks that I deserve this, because most of my brain is still wired in the authoritarian manner of my youth. I’m working at overcoming it, but it’s going to take a lot of time yet. Notice how the authoritarian mindset reverses mental health and illness:

Paradoxically, the authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of the feeling of strength, independence, productiveness, and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from the feeling of obedience, dependence, powerlessness, and sinfulness. St Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin have described this good conscience in unmistakable terms. To be aware of one’s powerlessness, to despise oneself, to be burdened by the feeling of one’s own sinfulness and wickedness are the signs of goodness. The very fact of having a guilty conscience is in itself a sign of one’s virtue because the guilty conscience is the symptom of one’s “fear and trembling” before the authority. The paradoxical result is that the (authoritarian) guilty conscience becomes the basis for a “good” conscience, while the good conscience, if one should have it, ought to create a feeling of guilt.

I want to be happy in a simple, straightforward way, not in this twisted weird guilt/goodness trap. I’ve often thought that amnesia would be a good solution, as in When God Was a Rabbit. Fromm points out that happiness means valuing ourselves, that creating happiness requires making our own happiness a high priority, but my default habit of mind is to find someone I can make more important than myself and lose my independent self in creating their happiness. Which is toxic and doesn’t work. I think this is why I really am happier spending a lot of time alone – then, I don’t have anyone else’s happiness to attend to. It’s great, because keeping other people happy is exhausting.

I thought I was doing better, mental health-wise, but I clearly still have a lot of work to do.

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.