Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

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“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

The Golden Bough (Modern Library Nonfiction #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Shadow and Act.)

mlnf90It is somewhat difficult to obtain a decent print edition of the Third Edition of The Golden Bough without getting fleeced by some squirrely operator working out of a shady storage unit in the middle of nowhere. For nobody seems to read the whole enchilada anymore. This is hardly surprising in an age, abundantly cemented last week, when most people are more inclined to celebrate regressive stupidity, melting their minds in any self-immolating pastime rather than opening a book. But I was able to find an affordable edition with the help of a British antiquarian. I had no idea what I was in for, but some initial research suggested very strongly that I should not settle for the abridged edition that is much easier to acquire. Certainly the sheer time-sucking insanity of the Modern Library Reading Challenge, one of the many dependable bastions I have left in a bleak epoch, demands that I go the distance on all entries, even if it means becoming ensnared by a particular title for several weeks, often answering texts from pals checking in on me with fun little snippets from Estonian folklore quebraditaing somewhere within a “Fine. How are you?” Such is the life of a book-loving eccentric with a ridiculous self-imposed mandate that involves refusing to let terrible setbacks get in the way of happy rumination. We find hope and courage and new ideas and fierce fortitude in remembering that not a single authoritarian entity or pernicious individual can ever crush the possibilities contained within our minds, our hearts, and our souls.

The thirteen volume set landed at my feet with a promising thud after a month-long voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, where it occupied my reading time for many months and proceeded to change my life. I realize that such a claim may sound trite in light of the devastating and life-altering results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but, if there’s anything we can learn from Stefan Zweig’s suicide, we must never forget the importance of patience, of working long and hard to fight and endure while steering humanity’s promising galleon back on the right course even as we look to culture’s power to sustain our spirits in the darkest times.1

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough proved so galvanizing that I began to marvel more at trees and desired to spend more time beneath their magnificent branches. I began picking up the junk that other New Yorkers had so thoughtlessly deposited under their glorious leafy crowns. I began naming some of the trees I liked, saying “Hello, Balder!” (styled after the Norse god) to a beloved maple near the southwestern edge of Central Park. I started paying closer attention to the modest superstitious rituals that most of us take for granted, wanting to know why we feared black cats crossing our path (it started in the 1560s and originated with the idea that black cats were witches who had transformed their corporeal state) or worried ourselves into years of bad luck from walking under a ladder (it goes back to the Egyptians, who believed that walking under any pyramid would attenuate its mystical power). And, of course, I began to wonder if other superstitious rituals, such as voting for a vicious sociopathic demagogue to make a nation “great” again, originated from similar irrational fears. Despite being a secular humanist, I was stunned to discover that I had modest pagan proclivities and started to ask friends to engage in rather goofball offshoots of established rites in a somewhat libertine manner, much of which is unreportable. And if you think such a reaction is idiosyncratic (and it is), consider the strange takeaway that D.H. Lawrence memorialized in a December 8, 1915 letter:

I have been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy. Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty — that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness, which depends on the eye as its source or connector. There is the blood-consciousness, with the sexual connection, holding the same relation as the eye, in seeing, holds to the mental consciousness. One lives, knows, and has one’s being in blood, without any references to nerves and brain. This is one half of life, belonging to the darkness. And the tragedy of this our life, and of your life, is that the mental and nerve consciousness exerts a tyranny over the blood-consciousness, and that your will has gone completely over to the mental consciousness, and is engaged with the destruction of your blood-being or blood-consciousness, the final liberating of the one, which is only death in result.

When I finished Frazer’s final volume, I certainly wasn’t prepared to suggest that any part of my consciousness was tyrannizing the others because of some eternal human connection to myths and rites enacted to answer and make sense of the presently inexplicable. But Lawrence did have a point about the way humans are naturally drawn to unusual ceremonies and celebrations that go well beyond Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wearing the same shoes on game days, with the impulse often defying any steely rationalism we may use to make sense of our inherently animalistic nature, which any glance at a newspaper reveals to be quite frighteningly present.

goldenboughset

More importantly, The Golden Bough changed everything I thought I knew about storytelling and myth. It forced me to see commonalities within many cultures. To cite one of Frazer’s countless comparative examples, consider the way that humans have approached the bear hunt. After the Kamtchatkans had killed a bear and eaten its flesh, the host of the subsequent dinner party would bring the bear’s head before the assembled guests, wrap it in grass, and then conduct a panel of sorts where the host, serving as a moderator only slightly less ballistic than Bill O’Reilly, would ask the bear if he had been well-treated. Much like many wingnut “journalists” irresponsibly publishing claims in Slate today without robust evidence (and failing to tender corrections when pwned), the Kamctchatkan host would blame the Russians. The American Indians likewise implored the dead bear not to be angry for being hunted and would hang the bear’s head on a post, painting it red and blue rather than donning it with vegetation. They also addressed it, much in the manner that dog owners chat with their uncomprehending pets when nobody’s around. The Assiniboins also held feasts after a hunt and also mounted the bear’s head, shrouding it in strips of scarlet cloth, and respected the bear so much that they offered the head a pipe to smoke, not unlike the poor dog who sits outside Mets games with a pipe in his mouth. And looking beyond Frazer, one finds in Alanson Skinner’s Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux a similar bear’s head ceremony that involved sharing a pipe before the participants took a bite from the bear’s flesh and, with the old Finnish custom of karhunpeijaiset, a bear’s head mounted upon a young tree, venerated and addressed as a relative or the son of a god. And according to the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Arsenyev (and I found this bit by sifting through James H. Grayson’s Myths and Legends from Korea), the Udegey people of the Russian Far East also had a bear ceremony and believed, “To throw the head away is a great sin….The cooked bear’s head is wrapped in its own skin with its fur outwards and tied up with a thin rope,” with a communal ceremony quite similar to the Finns.

I could go on (and indeed Frazer often rambles for pages), but there’s an undeniable awe in learning that something so specific about bears (head mounted, party organized, head covered, bear respected), much less anything else, arose independently in so many different parts of the world. It proves very conclusively, and perhaps this is especially essential for us to understand as we reconcile a vast and seemingly incurable national division, that humans share more in common with each other than we’re willing to confess and that the seemingly unique rituals that we believe define “us” are quite likely shared many times over in other parts of the nation, much less the world.

The reason it took me so long to read The Golden Bough was not because of its many thousand pages (aside from some sloggish parts in the Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild volumes, the books are surprisingly readable2), but because my imagination would become so captivated by some tale of trees esteemed above human life or a crazed orgiastic release (see Saturnalia) that I would lose many hours in the library seeing how much of this was still practiced. It has been more than a century since Frazer published the Third Edition, but his remarkable observations about shared rituals still invite us to dream and believe and to perceive that, Frazer’s regrettable references to “savages” and “primitives” notwithstanding, we are not so different from each other.

Frazer’s explanation for these common qualities — epitomized by the famous J.M.W. Turner painting (pictured above) sharing the same name title as Frazer’s capacious opus — rests in the sylvan lake of Nemi and an ancient tale in which a priest-king defended a singular tree. The priest-king, who was an incarnation of a god wedded to the world, could only be overpowered by a fight to the death and, if he was slain, he would be replaced by his victor, with the cycle perpetuating ad infinitum. Frazer believed that nearly every story in human history could be traced back to this unifying myth, with most of the tales triggered by our imagination arising out of what he called “sympathetic magic,” whereby humans often imitate what they cannot understand. So if this meant building effigies or participating in elaborate and often unusual rituals that explain why the sun scorched the crops to an unsustainable crisp in the last harvest or helped more animals to multiply for grand feasts next season, magical thinking provided both the bond and the panacea well before Robert B. Thomas came up with the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

There are two components to sympathetic magic: the first is Contagion, or physical contact, which involved a transfer of “essence” by physical contact (among other things, this would account for why humans have been especially careful about bear’s heads, as described above); the second was Similarity, whereby “the magicians infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

One of The Golden Bough‘s most fascinating volumes, The Scapegoat, reveals how a human belief in “essence” may be the root of our most irrational fears. Contagion often led to humans trying to transfer their disease and miseries to other people, if not reinforcing their own biases about people or groups that they disliked. I am indebted to the terrific podcast Imaginary Worlds for steering me to the work of Carol Nemeroff, whose psychological considerations of Frazer’s findings are are especially constructive in understanding disgust. Nemeroff and her colleagues conducted a series of studies in which they placed a sterilized dead roach in a glass of juice and asked subjects to eat fudge that resembled dog feces. The natural reactions (recoiling at the roach and the shit-shaped fudge) showed that sympathetic magic is still very much a mainstay of our culture.

Indeed, sympathetic magic drives most of our cherished rituals today. In one of his most controversial (but nevertheless true) observations, Frazer observes in Adonis Attis Osiris that, although the Gospels never cited a hard date for Jesus Christ’s birthday bash, Christians have adhered to their churchgoing rituals with the same practiced regularity one sees in fundamentalist homophobics holding up cardboard signs that misquote the Bible to reinforce their hate. The original celebration date of Christ’s alleged birth was January 6th. But because heathens celebrated the birthday of the Sun on December 25th, and this was often a draw for the Christians because the heathens were more fun, the Church agreed to set December 25th as the official day. If Christmas did not exist, it would be necessary for humankind to invent it. For such useful observations, The Golden Bough is incredibly handy to have in one’s library, if only to remind us that most of our beliefs, the recurring rituals we are expected to adhere to, are predicated upon some ancient explanation that we failed to shake from the Magic 8-Ball of our daily existence. So Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t need to stand for the national anthem. While this conformist rite is admittedly improved from the Nazi-like Bellamy salute, standing for The Star-Spangled Banner is little more than a quaint superstition that one is pressured to participate in to “belong.”

Frazer’s scholarship, while impressive, is sometimes inexact in the effort to find a Theory of Everything. Midway through putting together the Third Edition, Frazer was challenged by Dr. Edward Westermarck, who pointed out that fire festivals did not originate from fire reinforcing the sun’s light and heat, but rather a need to celebrate purification. Frazer did correct his views in Balder the Beautiful, but it does leave one contemplating whether sympathetic magic served as Frazer’s knee-jerk goto point in his noble quest to reconcile several folkloric strands.

Still, one cannot disavow the conclusion that much of our behavior is not only similarly ceremonial across cultures, which would indeed suggest a common source. Frazer managed one last volume, the Aftermath, in 1937, just four years before his death. While this volume is little more than a collection of B-sides, it does have leave one wondering what Frazer would have made of Nuremburg rallies or even our current default mode of walking like zombies in the streets, heads down, eyes bulging at the prospect of another chapter in a Snapchat story. The gods and the sympathetic magic may be a tad more secular these days, but we still remain seduced. Myths and stories and rituals are as old as the Chauvet Cave paintings. One cannot imagine being human without them.

Next Up: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek!

The Bat Segundo Show: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #444. He is most recently the author of Religion for Atheists.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking pragmatic forms of belief.

Author: Alain de Botton

Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of turning other people onto enthusiastic concepts, why religion draws extremists on all sides of the debate, attempting to fight capitalism through a new belief system, the Agape Restaurant, Susan Cain’s Quiet, including introverts within community-based ideas, the Day of Atonement, mandatory voting in Australia, attempts to reach people who are not inclined to forgive, voluntary mediators, a temple for atheism, the need to feel small, feeling small through extra human forces, the power of awe, aesthetic uses of science, being awed by the city and knowledge, the mass appeal of Proust and Tarkovsky, South Park, competing notions of awe and boredom applied to the same idea, religion as a populist medium, the upside of vulgarity, high and low culture, Tarkovsky as a joke high culture figure, superbia, egotistical notions in getting to know someone through prosaic conversational questions, social status as a way of fending off other people, dependence, religious distinction through coherent brand identities, role models, reductionism and marketing, responding to architecture, touching people through their senses, São Paulo’s prohibition of advertising, religion’s reliance upon advertising, making a public claim for certain states of the soul, the Kony 2012 campaign, the pros and cons of shame, how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone, how technology forces humans to relearn essential concepts, and how human life is in permanent competition with superficial biases.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?

De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.

Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?

De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.

Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?

De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.

Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?

De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.

Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…

De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.

Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.

De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.

Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?

De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.

Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?

De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.

Correspondent: Mediators.

De Botton: Mediators.

Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.

De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.

Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?

De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?

Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?

De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.

Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.

De Botton: Sure. Of course.

The Bat Segundo Show #444: Alain de Botton (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #309.

Brian Evenson is most recently the author of Fugue State and Last Days.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Latching onto toccata.

Author: Brian Evenson

Subjects Discussed: Knowing when a story concept has legs, ideas that never come to anything, the origins of “A Pursuit,” The Open Curtain, maintaining surprise, text sources vs. personal experience, writing fiction moments that hit two simultaneous emotions, grisly moments and descriptive detail, the reader’s imagination, revision and rhythm, not showing work to people, the surprise of audience responses, Bjorn Verenson, certain similarities with characters in “Ninety Over Ninety” and publishing people, Morgan Entreiken, determining the precise moment in which a story ends, open endings and critical theory, story concepts as building blocks for novels, similarities between “An Accounting” and Last Days, conversations between stories, bureaucratic language, investigating religious communities, solitary figures being pursued by men vs. the recurrent theme of community, expanding on conclusions from Ryan Call’s Collagist essay, literalisms and tributes to pulp, challenging the assumptions of “human,” translating, Antoine Volodine, how a line from The Savage Detectives inspired a short story, dwelling upon consciousness, intertextual aspects, absurdity and violence, characters who plunge into dark chambers to experience horror, being the dungeonmaster at 12, knowing the environment, Evenson’s concern for numbers and scales, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, postmodernism and theft, and the satisfaction of genre literature.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

evensonCorrespondent: Do you need to have a source text more than, I suppose, a personal experience? I mean, I could inquire as to whether you had sex with a mime. I don’t know whether you have or not.

Evenson: No, no, I didn’t. I did meet someone, after I read that story aloud, who had had sex with a mime. It made me think that maybe I could have gone even farther in that story than I did. But not a lot of it is from personal experience. I mean, I think the things that are from personal experience are not the things that you would expect. So in “Younger” and in “Girls in Tents,” you know, when I was a kid, I used to make tents out of blankets. Which I think a lot of kids did.

Correspondent: I did myself.

Evenson: Yeah. But my daughters never did. So there is a kind of personal thing there. There’s a moment in one of my stories — I think actually that it’s in The Wavering Knife, in that collection — in which someone is taking bread and squishing it until it makes a ball of bread. And that’s something that’s incredibly vivid to me from my childhood. But the main thrusts of the plot and those sorts of things are not personal experience so much. But they do respond to a lot of other things.

Correspondent: But then you’re also dealing with a lot of mutilation and violence.

Evenson:Correspondent: Like, in particular, Last Days. I mean clearly, I see that you are a zero according to that particular scale.

Evenson: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: Unless there’s something you’re not showing me.

Evenson: No, no, no.

Correspondent: How do you get into that particular mind set to make a narrative along those lines real when you have not personally experienced it?

Evenson: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s the old famous story. Well, Stephen Crane never experienced or witnessed any kind of war. So how does reality come about for you? When do you know it’s real when you haven’t experienced it? Or are we underestimating verisimilitude and not always capitulating to that wonderful imagination?

Evenson: Well, I really do think a lot about how things would feel. Even if I haven’t experienced them. I really see myself as partly a — I don’t know quite how to describe it, but I want to create a world that the reader experiences as if they’re living through it more than something that they can see as a representation on the page. And to do that, I spend a lot of time thinking how things would feel, how things would occur. What would happen to a limb if you did something to it in Last Days. And I read a fair amount and try and figure things out that way. But mostly it’s just trying. What you say. The primacy of the imagination. Trying to imagine yourself into a space where you really are experiencing something on the page in a very visceral way. One of things that people say about my stories, both for better and for worse, is that there are stories that you don’t forget and there are stories that you feel like you’re suffering through them in some ways. While the character suffers. And as a writer, I think that’s very much what I do. I try to put myself very much in the position of the characters in the story. So in Last Days, there’s all these moments in the hospital bed. And trying to figure out how you see around the curtain if you have one kind of mirror and another kind of mirror. If you can’t move this bar to your body, then what do you do? And I took a lot of time thinking very seriously about that and trying to figure out what would I do.

(Image: Beowulf Sheehan)

BSS #309: Brian Evenson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #240. Ms. Robinson is most recently the author of Home.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding the relationship potential of malfunctioning XLR cables.

Author: Marilynne Robinson

Subjects Discussed: Revisiting the Gilead universe, Lawrence Durrell, Robinson’s aversion to sequels, the parable of the prodigal son, the role of letters and text within Gilead and Home, text as a lively and disturbing realm, affirming identity by chronicling detail, seizing the day, Bob Marley, the depiction of the home in Housekeeping in relation to the vertical landscape, “home” as a value-charged word, listening to vernacular hymns, characters who listen to the radio, music as the great common ground, music and memory, banishing certain words, whacking sentences down, characters and educational background, the advantages of not speaking, circular food in the Boughton household, the virtues of toast, family meals and communion, the frequency of dialogue in Robinson’s novels, the predestination colloquy in Gilead and Home, James Wood’s review, the advantage and limitations of third-person perspective, interpretation vs. living the events, the shifting definition of sin during the 20th century, Iowa and anti-miscegenation laws, the Chrysler DeSoto vs. Hernando De Soto, the Kennedys, secular figures within novels, Jonathan Edwards, hypocrisy and religion, the origins of character names, the role of judgment within family, Das Kapital and Jack’s Marxism, the history of The Nation, the writer-reader relationship, using a BlackBerry, and parody and the contemporary novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the tale of the prodigal son, which of course comes from Luke 15:11. The onus of guilt in that parable, however, falls largely on the son. Specifically, the quote is “Father I have sinned against heaven, and before thee / And am no more worthy to be called they son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” But Jack, he calls his father “Sir.” Not “Dad.” Although there’s a slight discrepancy near the end. He works on the DeSoto of his own accord. He’s often summoned to play on the piano and the like, and also work in the garden. But he’s sometimes an unapologetic sinner. And other times, he drowns his sorrows in alcohol. So the interesting question here about the prodigal son is: The framework of the Scriptures is clearly there in this book, but I’m curious as to when you decided to launch away from that. Likewise, was this actually a starting point? Or was it an intuitive process of trying to obvert what we know about that particular story from Luke?

Robinson: Well, I have a slightly different interpretation of that story than the one that’s generally circulated.

Correspondent: I think so. (laughs)

Robinson: You notice that the prodigal son says, “I am no longer worthy to be called thy son.” But from the father’s point of view, this is never an issue. He doesn’t ask for the son to satisfy any standards of his. He doesn’t ask for confession. He doesn’t ask for some plea for forgiveness. He sees his son coming from a distance and wants to meet him before he knows anything about him, except that he’s his son coming home. And I think that the point of the parable really is grace rather than forgiveness. The fact that the father is always the father. Despite and without conditions. And this is true in Boughton’s case. As far as he concerned, Jack is his son. And that’s the beginning and the end of it. Jack is not able to accept his father’s embrace.

Correspondent: It’s basically approaching a parable or a well-known story from a kind of cockeyed manner. Really, it comes down to this notion of the text as Scripture. I think certainly in Gilead, that was the case. And in this case, you have them throwing away letters. You have, of course, the love letters that are thrown down the drain. The letters that Jack sends out, which come back RETURN TO SENDER. And of course, they’re schlepping off a number of magazines to Ames, who lives down the block. So this is very interesting to me. Whereas the first book dealt explicitly with this idea of text as this panacea for loneliness, this book deals with disseminating the text out to other people, or getting rid of text. Which is why I ask the question as to how this relates to Scripture. Is text really something for us to cling onto in this? Whether it be a book or whether it be the Bible? Whether it be religious or literary or what not, there are matters of interpretation in life that go well beyond text and well beyond the idea of fulfilling this need to cure loneliness.

Robinson: Well, I think of text — by the analogy to Scripture that you’re making — I think of it is as something that is lively and disturbing. Disruptive. I mean, for example, say that Ames’s best hopes are met and his son receives the voice of his father when his son is an adult, that would completely jar the sense of memory, the sense of proximity to another human person, and all kinds of things that we think we understand. The letters that come to Jack and the letters that don’t come to him — they’re central. They’re alive, even though they are profoundly problematic. And I think of, in a way, text and Scripture as active in that way. As a sort of eccentric presence in human experience.

BSS #240: Marilynne Robinson (Download MP3)

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The Myth of Karma

One is tempted to look upon an array of serendipitous factors, particularly those that are strange and unfavorable, and find some cosmic justification for karmic retribution. Some are tempted to attribute this casual anarchy to a deity, but I prefer to embrace the innate timbre of chaos and exist within these wild whorls as naturally as possible, while likewise respecting the rights of those who require an explanation to be taken up among similarly bewildered but ultimately good-natured people on a weekly basis. Just don’t proselytize. That’s all I ask.

karma.gifMy morning started with a knock on the door. While I usually sleep like a log, I am particularly sensitive to unusual sounds. I was wispy-eyed, wearing a Jack Daniels shirt and boxers. The JD tee had been slipped on last night because it was clean, loose-fitting, and therefore comfortable. Had I known that the person knocking at the door was the property manager of the apartment building, I might have put on something different. But there was barely any time to think and the voice didn’t sound like a salesman. I was disoriented. The apartment was a mess, because I had been extremely busy trying to meet deadlines, which further embarrassed me. The purpose of the property manager’s visit involved investigating a leak from my radiator that was plaguing the neighbor downstairs. To add insult to injury, I pointed out to the property manager, with a surprising vocal lucidity, that a leak was coming from the apartment above me that I had neglected to report. It’s quite possible that this property manager had encountered other tenants who were dressed worse (or perhaps not at all), had their apartments in worse shape, and had permitted some plaster cavity to linger much longer than I had. But as far as I was concerned, this property manager was taking mental notes about my diseased character and the slipshod condition of my apartment, which he would then factor into some elaborate ledger about the curious and possibly mildly negligent people who dwelt in the units he managed. By my own exacting standards, I was a terrible tenant. Never mind that I have always paid my rent on time. But I’ve always had a minor sense of terror about the relationship between tenant and landlord, and this wasn’t helped when I moved out to New York and learned that, unlike California, one must renegotiate the lease every year, as opposed to permitting it to continue on month-to-month once the one year term has been satisfied.

The visit encouraged me to clean the apartment. At least partially.

I then attempted to find out why a good deal of checks owed to me had not been cut and had learned in nearly every instance that someone had been sick and that this surprisingly recurrent factor had caused many wrenches to clog up various hillocks of machinery. That not one of these checks would come through was, of course, quite unfortunate. It meant that the next few weeks of my life were likely to involve a considerably more penurious existence than I had anticipated. I then began scrounging around the apartment for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, which I laid out in several stacks on my desk and later used to buy a bagel.

I then learned that I had been screwed over by the MTA. They had charged me twice for my monthly Metrocard. Forty minutes of my time was lost attempting to rectify this. My bank was exceedingly unhelpful. The MTA was slightly less unhelpful. But it was resolved after I was forced to adopt a bulldog temperament — not something I’m altogether proud of — to make things happen. One small victory after a few existential calamities.

Despite all this, I remain calm and hopeful. There is someone on this planet who had a worse day than I did. It isn’t schaudenfraude that makes me think this way; just a relative sense of where I stand and how fortunate I am. It’s much better to maintain some hard but by no means humorless fortitude in order to empathize. Even though I maintain an existence without religion, there is a small part of me that wishes to draw a correlation here that I know is quite false. I want to think that the same factors which spawned this morning’s motley madness likewise resulted in the unwonted earthquake in the United Kingdom or William Buckley’s death (the latter, in turn, made me think of Sam Tanenhaus, who must surely be regretting his decision not to finish his Buckley bio). This is entirely unreasonable, I know. But there remains a considerably visceral part of me that causes me to contemplate such associations of existence and to occasionally endorse them — particularly if I’ve had a few drinks.

But I don’t think I really believe in karma. I observe good people who are screwed over. I observe incorrigible people who are rewarded for being assholes. The correct thing to do in life is to try and be as good as possible. But it’s also important to be as true to who you are as possible. And often this truth gets in the way of being good. There is, I must confess, a great delight I frequently experience in being bad. Of course, my sense of bad is rooted in a baroque set of ethics that would take too much time to explain. But I try not to go out of my way to hurt people. And if I do hurt people, which is often unintentionally, I try to atone with positive actions to others.

The standard understanding of karma is this: what goes around comes around. I find this to be less true in practice than it is in principle. I suppose I believe that if you are ultimately true to who you are, you will encourage other people to be true to who they are. And if karma is rooted upon this sense of personal truth, then I approve of this. (And this seems to be more philosophical than religious.) But this karmic idea is more rooted in action, as opposed to some cosmic overseer who lays down the law for the universe.

If karma is rooted on coincidence, however, I cannot subscribe to it. And I don’t see how any reasonable person can fully put their faith in this. In fact, the sooner that other people understand this, the sooner we can put the self-help industry out of business. Really, they’ve made too much money exploiting human suffering.

The universe is based on one simple Newtonian precept: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While this rule applies to gravity, I think it likewise applies to life. But since human beings decide how or when or if they wish to respond, one simply can’t anticipate when that “equal and opposite reaction” will occur. (And sometimes, it occurs from the unlikeliest of sources.) Hence, the giddy vales of chaos. Which is a lot more fun than sitting around worrying about when something will happen.

So I look at this morning’s unpleasant events and I figure that it’s something I can write off as a reaction to something bad I’ve done somewhere along the line. And I look at the good things that happened today, such as taking notes on some really good stories in Marshall Klimasewiski’s Tyrants (who I’ll be interviewing in person tomorrow at 7PM at McNally Robinson; details here), listening to the pleasant rustle of the plastic sheet beneath my bagel as the door to my neighborhood cafe was opened and a great gust came in through the aperture, and making a glum-looking boy, who was throwing paper detritus at me in the cafe, laugh.

There’s certainly an ignoble self-justification of my own character flaws here, but nobody’s perfect. (I’m certainly not a saint.) Certainly the universe isn’t. But if it were, then life wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.