Posts Tagged ‘wilde’

May Books

Hello Down There (Michael Parker)

There’s a strong Faulkner influence here, but applied to the Piedmont of North Carolina in the middle of the twentieth century. I picked this up in the LGBT section of the bookstore, but there is no gay content (except for one homophobic joke). It’s more about drug addiction and (hetero) sexual mores. It’s a sad book, early in his career. I hope he has found happier subjects.

Basil (Wilkie Collins)

The story of a young idiot who gets deceived by a family of gold diggers. There’s some looking at the absurdity of marriage laws that prefigures Miss or Mrs?, and this also has what one of my professors described as the most graphically violent scene in Victorian literature, when Basil grinds his rival’s face into a freshly macadamized road. This is during the period when Collins rejects the marriage plot in favor of sibling relationships, but I hope that he’s not actually encouraging incest. The sister in this one is a real Angel in the House, so it’s frustrating – none of the women characters are believable. Collins will eventually get to where he writes complex, interesting women, but he’s not there yet.

Mr Wray’s Cash Box (Wilkie Collins)

This is a little Christmas novella. It’s not great, but it’s cute and heartwarming, though the ending gets a little capitalist for my taste. An aging actor sneaks into the church at Stratford and makes a mold of the bust of Shakespeare, but he’s too afraid to make more than one cast of it. He thinks the police are going to take him away for breaking copyright, but he doesn’t actually know the law. He’s fine.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)

Anne Bronte was the born-again religious one among the Bronte sisters, so while all of them quote the Bible out of context all the time, she does it with a little more piety than her sisters. She also relies on some of Milton’s ideas, the importance of growing and changing one’s mind and the worthlessness of virtue untested. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was seen as a little too sweet and innocent, especially when it was paired with Wuthering Heights, so this was her edgy follow-up. This book takes a hard look at alcoholism and its consequences. Some of her attitudes are surprisingly modern, as when Huntingdon talks about addiction as a disease and a compulsion rather than simply a habit. Also when Hattersley is helped out of it by strengthening relationships instead of being preached at. Some of the women are a little too Angel-in-the-House for me to appreciate them, and I question the wisdom of Helen’s returning to her husband after she left him for very good reasons, but as a whole it’s actually a really good book. Narrators reveal more of themselves than they intend, which is an effect I always enjoy.

Dangerous Personalities (Joe Navarro)

Navarro used to be a profiler for the FBI, so this book focuses on that sort of quick, targeted classification of people. He discusses four basic toxic personalities: Narcissist, Unstable, Paranoid, and Predator. At the end of each chapter there is a quiz to see if someone you know fits this type. The scoring leads to four divisions: safe, annoying, obstructive, and dangerous. I scored my guy as annoying in both narcissism and paranoia and obstructive in instability. It took me another month to get away from him, but I’m good now. I scored myself as annoying in instability, and it seems accurate. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to have tried to live with me consistently through the last seven years. Navarro’s examples tend to be serial killers, so he can seem a little over the top (as law enforcement officials tend to do), but if you remember to dilute his intensity, it’s an informative book.

If Nuns Ruled the World (Jo Piazza)

I got unexpectedly excited about this book. It’s not so much a story of faith as it is true stories of amazing women who do fantastic things with their lives. Most of them are activists – whether for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking victims – and some of them are just doing extraordinary things in their old age, like the one who didn’t start running until she was older than I am now, but worked herself up to compete in marathons, and continues into her eighties. It is true that these are women from a shared, specific faith community, but the good work they do goes beyond that community. In fact, they sometimes end up in conflict with the male leaders of their church because of the work they’re doing to make things better for everyone. Their stories can inspire anyone who wants to make our world better, Catholic or not, particularly those who are interested in women’s political activism.

The Path of the Green Man: Gay Men, Wicca, and Living a Magical Life (Michael Thomas Ford)

This was a fantastic book. Ford introduces us to the basic concepts of Wicca and a little of their history, with ideas for meditation exercises. Along with the nonfiction, he also writes an allegory where the green man travels through the wheel of the year, hitting the eight celebrations commonly celebrated by modern pagans, and meeting gods from a variety of (mostly European) traditions. I loved this book and it meant a lot to me.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)

The first time I read this book, I had a hard time staying with it because I couldn’t find the mystery that kept the story together. It’s so long and digresses into so many details, and it’s great that Rowling didn’t stop world-building after the first book (so many fantasy authors do), but at almost nine hundred pages I felt my attention wavering. This was the second time, though, and when you know that Harry’s emotional state is the mystery and not just an obnoxious by-product of being fifteen, the book makes more sense. Rowling really hits the connection between Harry and Voldemort hard in this one, and that focus will grow toward book seven. There’s a lot of conflict between Harry and society as a whole, not just with his friends, which we saw less of in previous books. The atmosphere of conflict extends to the Weasleys, as Percy cuts himself off from the rest of the family. There’s a general sense that everything is getting bad, so it’s easy to assume that Harry being a little bitch all the time is just part of the general malaise and not proof that Voldemort is taking over his mind. It’s a much more complex and abstract problem than we had before, and as the dumb jock, Harry isn’t really equipped to handle it. Oh, and while it’s great that Ernie Macmillan has finally developed a personality, I think it’s a shame that that personality is Pompous Ass. Luna Lovegood makes her first appearance here, and she makes me very happy. I’ve heard people complain about the worthlessness of wizards who never use magic unless it’s dramatically appropriate; the Hogwarts kids learn Cheering Charms in year three, get tested on them in year five, but never use them outside of class. They literally know a spell to make each other happy, and they stubbornly refuse to do it. I do not understand.

 

June Books

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (ed. Devon W Carbado and Donald Weise)

This was a strange anthology. The writings are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, and the divisions didn’t always make sense. Discussions of the United States government’s attitude toward African nations and toward Americans of African descent seem to me to overlap, so why not put them together? It also seems that the majority of Rustin’s work was in action rather than in writing or speaking. While his command of rhetoric is impressive, even he implies that he is most effective at organizing events and movements rather than speaking at them. Rustin’s style is highly educated, which can alienate his less-educated audience. He’s not as popular today, not only because he didn’t go down in a blaze of glory, but because people today aren’t impressed by erudition. People who seem smarter than others are feared and distrusted, not valued. It was probably the case at his time as well. Because my own education in twentieth-century history is not great, I hadn’t realized how much World War II had done for civil rights. The ground was prepared when all those soldiers were forced to mix together; knowing people of color helped whites to understand their value. Rustin started his work shortly afterward, in the late 1940s. The book focuses on the 1960s, as do the superficial discussions of civil rights movements in United States classrooms; it’s misleading because it ignores the gains of the 1950s as well as the fact that drinking out of the same water fountain doesn’t solve everyone’s problems. We’re still struggling with racism all over the world. The two crosses in the title refer to the fact that Rustin was both black and gay, but while he was an activist who was gay, he was not a gay activist. When Stonewall happened, he did not build on the momentum to organize a movement. His focus was on race, and dealing with that identity took up most of his time. He spoke about being gay some, but by the 1980s people only wanted to hear him talk about Martin Luther King. So yes, his sexuality and the prejudices about it (and the imprisonments because of it) were an obstacle to his visible participation in the civil rights movement, but even after twenty years he didn’t have much to say about it. I’ve been talking about those identities that make him similar to me, a gay man working on a second graduate degree, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of what he did for communities of color in the United States. He worked with the bus boycotts made famous by Rosa Parks, and he organized the March on Washington. He was an amazing person at the forefront of cultural change, and the improvements in our laws and culture toward ethnic differences are due to him and his influence. He didn’t do it alone, but what he did changed the course of history.

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (Isak Dinesen)

Confession time: I don’t remember a whole lot about this book. Dinesen’s stories are slow and beautiful, some are realistic and some are fairy tales, but I’ve had so much upheaval in the last two weeks that it seems like I read this book in another life. The most famous one from this collection is Babette’s Feast, due to the slow film that was made of it. It takes a lot of effort to stretch forty pages to fill that much movie. I watched it a few years ago with a friend who said it was her favorite, and we saw different things in it. The story is about a famous French chef who flees from war-torn Paris and finds shelter in an unusually conservative community of Lutherans in Norway. After several years, she wins a lot of money and spends it all preparing a dinner for her friends like the ones she used to make for the wealthy French. If I remember correctly, my friend saw it as a story of artistry and giving one’s best, even when people don’t appreciate it (or know enough to appreciate it). Reading the story, though, I agree that it has to do with the place of the artist in society, but it’s not about love and gratitude. Babette’s feast is a judgment. When she arrives in town, they teach her to make alebread and fish, like she doesn’t know how, and she is forced to kill her creativity for twelve years making these shitty meals for people that she really does come to care about. Someone who can make a turtle soup that people would die for can certainly make bread and fish a sight better than these unoriginal household cooks, but they don’t want her to. The story is about everyone ignoring and undervaluing her gifts, and her feast is a way of saying, “Look at what I can do! Look at what you’ve missed! Look at the talent that your stupid religion has hidden under a bushel!” It’s a story that condemns society for not giving artists free rein to express themselves. It’s a dumb religion that says, God gave you the ability to make the world vibrantly beautiful, but you have to keep making it greyly small because that’s what makes us comfortable.

Quill Me Now: The ABCs of Spellcraft (Jordan Castillo Price)

This is a short little novella, but I thought it was a lot of fun. In this world, magic requires two parts: a picture painted by a left-handed Seer and a saying written by a right-handed Scrivener. Dixon is from a family of Scriveners, though he isn’t really one himself, and he meets a sensitive Russian hunk with a real gift for painting Seens. I’m attracted to the idea that words have power, and that using them carelessly can have unfortunate consequences. Hurrah for paranormal gay romance. First of a series.

Ombria in Shadow (Patricia A. McKillip)

High fantasy. Ombria is a kingdom full of shadows, where people seem to drift through time. I deeply love Patricia McKillip, but I wasn’t as pleased with the ending of this one. The book starts with the death of the prince and the casting off of his mistress – she finds a way to sneak back into the palace to continue raising the prince’s son, whom she loves as if he were hers. Mistress isn’t a title that is often accorded respect, but she’s effectively the new ruler’s stepmother, and they have a close bond. The dead prince also leaves behind a bastard son, whom many people would like to see seize the throne, but he’d rather spend his time drawing the things about Ombria he doesn’t understand. The third candidate for protagonist is the witch’s foundling, a young woman raised on the idea that the witch made her of wax who is now trying to figure out what it means to be human. These three marginal figures work together to protect each other and the young prince, because getting him to the throne is what’s best for the kingdom. Then there are the two witches – the one who lives in shadow realizes suddenly she’s been a mother for twenty years and is confronted with her own love for her waxling, and the one who lives in the palace is caught up in political maneuvers to consolidate her power over the kingdom. While things are vague the book is mysterious and exciting, but when the mysteries are revealed the book just ends. I prefer the revelation to come at the end of Act II, where characters use their new knowledge to guide the community to a resolution (after some thrilling and climactic confrontation befitting Act III), but this isn’t a Victorian sensation novel. Nor is it a romance, or a Bildungsroman, or any other of the labels we use to simplify the discussions about stories. I don’t think it’s fair to define a book (or anything else) by what it isn’t, but that’s where I end up when I try to explain this one. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the shadow – this is a book that just isn’t.

Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson)

The unnamed narrator tells us about her affairs with married women. This book is deeply and beautifully sensual without being pornographic. She tells these stories in no particular order, as we do when we talk about our past to someone we’ve met only recently. Things can get a bit jumbled up, even though she gives us names for all of these women. There are a couple of men, but they rarely get more than a paragraph. Halfway through, suddenly, this becomes a book about cancer and loss, and while I don’t know if I would make the same choices that these people do, I was really engrossed by their story. This is a fantastic book, where as usual, Winterson probes into the heart of what it means to love.

Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure (Michael G. Munz)

The Greek gods return to earth in a fun comic novel. Apollo tries to solve the mystery of Zeus’s murder with the help of a television producer, a lovesick anti-hero, and the muse of comedy and sci-fi. In the end they have to defeat the Titans, because apparently that’s the part of Greek mythology that captures the imagination of contemporary writers. Can’t we just leave the Titans in peace? In some ways I found the characters frustrating – Ares is a really unkind Southern stereotype with inconsistent dialect markers, and the anti-hero is harshly sarcastic at inconvenient times. I suppose I just get disappointed when characters don’t use their power for the good of others, and none of the gods do.

The Godmakers (Don Pendleton)

Do not confuse this with the Frank Herbert novel that came out a couple of years later, nor with the anti-Mormon film (and novelization) a decade after that. I will be the first to admit that many of the books I have read over the past few months have been a bit insubstantial, or fluffy. Life has been stressful and I’ve needed relaxation more than intellectual stimulation and growth. However, this is the only one that I would actually call trashy. This is shit science fiction at its shittiest, the type of story that makes Barbarella look like high feminist drama. Characters use heterosexual sex to access higher dimensions of psychic energy, resulting in paranormal abilities. It’s very sex-positive, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic as well. Adolescent wish fulfillment for incels.

Time Must Have a Stop (Aldous Huxley)

A strange book. It sometimes seems a bit like Dorian Grey, the young man learning about life from older, wealthier friends. But while Huxley makes Sebastian the center of the book, he doesn’t seem to find him very interesting. Sebastian’s uncle dies of a heart attack partway through, but his presence lingers on as we see him suffer in the afterlife and experience seances from the ghost’s point of view. Uncle Eustace keeps trying to hold onto an individual identity even when the painfully shining light tries to absorb him into a universal consciousness. This is the part of the story that attracted me, much more than the privileged teenager whining about finding evening clothes (a symbol of respectability denied him by the father who insists on breaking down class boundaries). Women characters are there to support Sebastian, acting as mothers, lovers, or evil crones. One of the fascinating things about this book is the setting, written in 1944 but about 1929. We’re on the cusp of a crash that author and audience know is coming but the characters don’t. Death gives Eustace some prescience, and the epilogue flashes forward to Huxley’s present, but those fifteen years don’t actually change Sebastian all that much. More experience means that he’s a handsome womanizing poet, not a handsome womanizing poet wannabe. I guess Huxley is right; I mean, as I look over my own life, it seems like there’s a lot of change, but the person I am has actually been pretty consistent. There were things that I thought were important that turned out to be superficial, and I have improved dramatically in self-knowledge and self-esteem, but the self in question is still the same. I enjoyed Huxley’s poetry; putting it in the mind of a teenager in the process of thinking through his art gives him a chance to show the revision process and a bunch of half-finished fragments of thought. It might not be as interesting to people who don’t write or study poetry.

Lime Gelatin and Other Monsters (Angel Martinez)

Another short paranormal gay romance novella. I get on a kick sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Kyle Monroe is a police officer in Philadelphia’s paranormal division, and while everyone there has magical abilities, they’re all bad at them, like the guy who accidentally lights things on fire when he’s angry, but only achieves little smolders rather than large conflagrations. They’re kind of like X-Men who haven’t had any training, so they just flail about with their unusual abilities and try not to hurt each other. Kyle absorbs the powers of those around him and controls them even more poorly, kind of like what I do with picking up on other people’s emotions subconsciously and then inventing reasons for me to feel this way. He gets a new partner, a giant beautiful man of southern Asian derivation, so it’s all police procedures and Indian food, with some gay sex thrown in. It was a fun little story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)

The kids are sixteen, and romantic relationships are starting to take over the plot. They’re also swearing more often. Draco Malfoy and Professors Snape and Dumbledore play larger roles than they have heretofore, with Dumbledore taking a more active role in Harry’s education and the antagonists finally actually plotting to do evil things. We also meet Narcissa Malfoy, who is one of my favorites. There’s a big political storm brewing around her, but all she cares about is keeping her family safe and she will do anything to accomplish that, which makes her a lot more like Molly Weasley than people ever acknowledge. Mrs Weasley, poor dear, spends a lot of time worrying about everyone. Fred and George have become successful businessmen without having finished high school or attempted college, which is great to see, and people start to acknowledge that Ginny might be the most powerful witch of the series. The death at the end of this book always makes me sad, though I have plenty of other reasons for that just now. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it’s over. One of the things that gets me about this series is that while Rowling is fantastic about retconning the Horcruxes and other plot elements, she does not do so well with retconning the school system. We seldom see students doing things that Harry and his friends can’t do yet, like trips to Hogsmeade or Apparating in the earlier books. We see adults doing serious magic, but there’s very little of the intermediate steps between where Harry is as an eleven-year-old and where his teachers are adults. Fred and George seem to represent the zone of proximal development for Harry, but even they are consistently more advanced than he is. It’s like, being raised by Muggles and not that good at academics, Harry isn’t really interested in doing magic, or he thinks that all magic is so far above him that he can’t even try. Finding the old Potions book in this story is the first time that Harry experiences magic as power he can access and not just a symbol of the social acceptance he was denied at his uncle’s house. Looking at Snape’s notes and revisions and experiments, he finally shows some actual interest and passion for something other than sports, so I’m disappointed in Hermione for trying to squash that. But she’s got enough of her own problems in this book, so I don’t judge her too harshly. A lot of people talk about the Slytherin House as being evil, but that’s not their defining trait. Think about Professor Slughorn as Head of that House. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just hyper alert to power and the way it moves. He likes it, he likes its benefits, and he likes being seen as close to people who have it. But he’s not willing to put others in harm’s way to get it, nor does he enjoy the suffering of the powerless. Slytherin isn’t about being evil or serpentine; it’s about understanding relationships of power and staying aware of how social structures affect people. Which is why I identify as Slytherin even a little more strongly than I do as Ravenclaw, the House of learning for its own sake where books are more important than people. This book is definitely building to the series finale/climax of book seven, much more strongly and intentionally than we’ve seen before.

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

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RIGHT AND WRONG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So once I was showing Casablanca to a group of high school students, and when we reached the relevant moment, I explained to them the 1940s sex scene: two people kiss, the music gets louder, then we fade to a shot of (at least) one of them smoking, fully dressed. One of the students refused to believe that Rick and Ilsa have sex. I reminded her that it was strongly implied, and then Rick half-way apologizes to Laszlo for it when they’re saying goodbye at the plane. But no, she didn’t want to believe it. I guess for some people, love is only romantic if it’s unconsummated.

Similarly, one must not expect too much detail from Gide. The book was originally published in 1902, before gay sex was something people described in print. This way, each reader can decide for himself whom Michel has sex with and whom he doesn’t; I identify with his story so strongly that I don’t want him to do it with all those ten-year-olds, but . . . maybe he does.

The title implies that Michel is a person who reflects on the human experience and draws useful generalizations from it, but his conclusions are immoral. I’m not sure I would characterize them quite that way, but then, I have troubles of my own with the moral/immoral dichotomy. At the time of my life that this book reminds me of, someone described me as being “between gods,” and I think that phrase describes Michel more accurately.

Michel begins the novel as a Puritanical scholar with a fortune and no living family who marries a woman he barely knows. In defense of this decision, Marceline seems pretty awesome. It’s like she has this enormous store of love that she needs to share with someone, so when she marries, it all goes to her husband. He immediately shows signs of tuberculosis, so they head down to Algeria for him to recover in the dry climate. His recovery is slow, but it seems to be complete.

Eleven years ago I was a Puritanical scholar with no fortune and an enormous family who married a woman I barely knew. In defense of this decision, I have no defense. I was lonely and desperately wanted to get married because that was the only way I would allow myself to have sex. I found a beautiful girl in the same situation who had nearly all the same interests as I have, and we did it. I have an odd mix of logic and romance, so logically I understood that there’s not just one soulmate out there for each person and that any two people who are committed to a relationship can make it work; I believed all the best things about her and knew that we were in love, so we were going to be ridiculously happy. We were, after all, dolls from the same set. [Nothing is worse than seeing a Ken look-alike marry a Cabbage Patch Kid. Or, for that matter, Malibu Barbie with Raggedy Andy.] Three weeks after we got together I proposed, six weeks after that we were hitched. She had an allergic reaction to a birth control shot and was taking medicine for a seizure disorder that we later found out she didn’t have, so she was really sick at first. Her recovery was slow, but it seems to have been complete.

During his illness, Michel discovers his body for the first time; he begins to see it as something valuable that needs to be cared for and respected, not just a carrier vessel for his big old brain. He also begins to find value in the bodies of others, particularly the little Arab boys in the neighborhood. He’s so fond of them that he ignores acts of petty thievery or other small crimes. This discovery of the body is what drives him away from his faith and studies – most people I know went through this as teenagers, though I hit it at twenty. I was a missionary, so I didn’t have an opportunity to drift away from my faith, but I did develop a taste for the company of other men. Nothing sexual as yet, but this was the first time in my life I had a number of close male friends, and I rather liked it. After I was married and I started paying attention to my same-sex desire, it also had the effect of driving me away from faith. Traditional Christianity is so inimical to homosexuality that I don’t understand people who do both. [I don’t have to; their lives are their business.]

When Michel is well enough, they move back to France. He gets infatuated with a number of young men, most of whom do not return his affection. His old friend Ménalque, though, is definitely up for anything. Michel has become disgusted by the conformity of ‘good society,’ but he’s not yet ready to give it up. When Ménalque gets frustrated by the inconsistency of the rumours about him, he says:

“Leave all that nonsense to the papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself, for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in an action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.”

“That may lead far,” I said.

“Indeed, I hope so.”

I rather like Ménalque, and I’m sad there’s so little of him in the book. I’d like to be more like him; alas, I still care too much what people think of me. I do seek to be natural, though, and following a whim is a good enough reason to do something. Like Ménalque, I hope that this attitude will lead me into a great variety of new experiences.

In one of their conversations, Michel and Ménalque briefly equate the moral sense with the sense of property, and I think that conventional morality is very strongly linked to ownership. Isn’t sexual morality based on the idea that one person belongs to another? Back when Adam and Eve were in the Old Testament garden, they were told to have dominion over and to subdue the earth. There’s this idea in Christianity that the world is ours as stewards, and it’s our duty to God to become financially successful by using our resources to the best of our abilities. Somehow, the glory of God is inextricably tied to the size of Christians’ bank accounts. If you look back at Jesus’ parables, it’s kind of alarming just how many of them focus on being successful in business. They claim those are only symbols that the wealth-obsessed Jews would have understood, but when you read an allegory too many times, the symbols seem more and more literal, and Christianity has been telling these stories for two thousand years.

Once Michel leaves France, as he leaves conventional moral ideas behind, he also gets rid of his property as quickly as he can. I’d like to have fewer things, but I get sentimental about my possessions, especially old letters and my children’s artwork, and I have a weakness for buying books, videos, and clothes. Michel seems to throw money at whatever is in sight. This third part is characterized by frenetic movement; he’s running out every night, through winter in Switzerland and all up and down Italy, then Tunis and Algeria. He says that he feels driven as by a demon, and there is some urge riding him throughout this journey. I assume he’s having a variety of unmentioned sexual experiences, but Gide isn’t writing the gay man’s Fanny Hill. He seems more interested in Michel’s intellectual development than in his sexual development.

And where is Marceline in all this? Michel still pretends to love her, but during the night that he spent with Ménalque, she had a miscarriage and started showing signs of tuberculosis. Her illness keeps pace with his casting off of conventions, so by the time he sleeps with an underage Arab prostitute even though he’s attracted to her brother, Marceline dies. His love for her seems tied to his adherence to society, so you could say that she lives by his love alone, and when that’s gone, so is she. She keeps trying to bring him back to the world of faith and approved society (he seems to spend all his time with farmhands), while he keeps pushing himself away. He’s fascinated by the worst in people, so he keeps drawing it out. While I agree with him that

Every kind of thing goes to the making of man,

I think it’s important to nurture what is good. When I lived with my kids, I became aware of the great potential for violence in my character; I love my kids, so I didn’t act it out. In this case, I agree with Marceline:

Don’t you understand that by looking at any particular trait, we develop and exaggerate it? And that we make a man become what we think him?

Yes, Marceline, yes. This goes back to Sartre’s comment on intersubjectivity: we negotiate our identity with the people around us. Sometimes we agree with what people say of us; sometimes we form an identity in opposition to the messages we get from others. I would have liked to see more detail in this third section because this discussion is all academic. We don’t actually see Michel corrupting people, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Who is worse for having known him, except her? And he hardly thinks of her at all. Perhaps his three friends who come to save him in the framing narrative, because their ideas are rocked by his story, and they can’t point to where he began to go wrong. But most of the characters appear briefly, with no past and no future. We don’t see how he changes them.

The end of my marriage was rather different. Yes, as I became aware of and learned to accept my homosexuality, I became less invested in the relationship, as Michel does. But my ex spent that time raising a growing family and becoming stronger in her faith, and as I left Christianity she embraced Catholicism. Since the separation it has been important to her always to seem as if she’s doing emotionally better than I am, so I pretend to believe her. I don’t know how she really is, but taking care of her feelings is no longer my job, so I don’t worry about it too much.

I differ from Michel primarily in what being gay means to me. I don’t think it makes me an enemy of society; I don’t think it makes me evil. It makes me different than most people, but different doesn’t mean wrong or bad. It’s just . . . different. I’ve always been different; I grew up in a place with a significantly different accent than the people around me, and I was the only kid I knew who liked to read. Football, Southern accents, heterosexuality, none of these are right. They’re just more common (in some places). Homosexuality is natural to me; God made nature; therefore, God made me gay, so it can’t be wrong of me to be this way. Besides, according to Psalm 37:4,

Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

I was busy delighting myself in the Lord, and looked into my heart to see what desires were there, and what did I find? The desire for men. I can’t belong to a community that sees gay sex as evil or wrong because my desire for it came from God. If you believe that God exists and inspired the Bible and all the et ceterae that go along with that. But even if I don’t believe in God or anything else, that’s still no reason to go looking for evil. Bad stuff will come without my searching for it.

I feel as if this book is unfinished. I want Michel to find peace with himself and his sexuality. I want his conflicts to resolve. It’s like he left on a journey and the story ended before he arrived at his destination. He left one god, but hasn’t found the next. Maybe Gide’s point is that this struggle with oneself and with society never ends, but still. I think it can, and even if it can’t, don’t we read and write fiction to imagine new possibilities? To sample experiences that we won’t actually have? To complete what’s left undone, to correct the world’s flaws, to bring hope? As it is, the book ends in about the same place as Women in Love, almost articulating the reality of love between men, but not quite there yet.