The Case for God

I just started Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God last night. I laughed out loud at the first line of the Introduction:

We are talking far too much about God these days ….

The whole Introduction is brilliant, but I’ll just quote a few more lines from the beginning.

We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be accessible to anybody. “That book was really hard!” readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. “Of course it was!” I want to reply. “It was about God.”

Ms. Armstrong makes a point in the Introduction that seems important to me: that religion used to be a matter not of what you believed but of what you did. Not in the sense of good deeds, either, but in the sense of what you practiced in order to improve your connection with and understanding of God, or the Tao, or the Kingdom of Heaven or whatever you called it. Faith wasn’t about belief, but about devotion to your practice.

Mundus Vult Decipi

I finished Figures of Earth over the weekend. I have to say that I find Cabell’s view of women less perceptive than it might have been, to put it mildly. And the episodic story is maybe one or two episodes longer than it needs to be. I suspect I’d be happier with the structure if the four main women in Manuel’s life — Alianora, Freydis, Niafer, and Suskind — were somehow trimmed to three, though I don’t know which of them Cabell could have eliminated. Still, in spite of some faults, it’s a great book, and with a real kick in the last few paragraphs.

A favorite passage of mine, in which Manuel asks about the words on the coat of arms of the land he has just been given:

Mundus decipit, Count,” they told him, “is the old pious motto of Poictesme: it signifies that the affairs of this world are a vain fleeting show, and that terrestrial appearances are nowhere of any particular importance.”

“Then your motto is green inexperience,” said Manuel, “and for me to bear it would be black ingratitude.”

So the writing had been changed in accordance with his instructions, and it now read Mundus vult decipi.

Comfort Reading

Rereading Cabell’s Figures of Earth on the way home today. A favorite book of mine, and I noticed it was available on Project Gutenberg, so I downloaded it to my iPhone. I own two beautiful editions, one part of the 19-volume Storisende edition — signed and numbered and very handsome in green cloth with gold stamping — and the other the edition with the brilliant Papé illustrations. But I’d be nervous about carrying either one around in my backpack — I don’t own many books in such nice or scarce editions that I’d feel bad if they got scuffed up in my pack, but both of those I would, and I don’t even want to think about the possibility of losing a volume from the numbered set.

Figures of Earth is sort of a serious parody of a medieval French romance, about the made-up legendary hero Dom Manuel, who rises from obscurity as a poor and none too bright swineherd to eventually become the powerful and reputedly brave and wise lord of a vast estate. His power comes in part through a blessing that was also a curse: He is given the power to obtain anything he wants, but at a terrible price, for on obtaining it he then perceives its true worth.

What Paul Meant

Despite being already in the middle of both Little, Big and Thoughts without a Thinker, I came across a copy of Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant at a used book store on Monday and started it on the BART trip home. I’ve read and enjoyed his two companion books, What Jesus Meant and What the Gospels Meant, so I was eager to complete the set. Good book, too.

So now I’m in the middle of three books. It’s a bad habit of mine and I can’t even guess how many books over the years that I’ve laid down somewhere and forgotten I was in the middle till I came across them again months later.

But What Paul Meant is a fairly short book, a little under 200 pages and about the size of a trade paperback, and I’m not far from the end, so I’ll be back to the others soon.

The Turk

At the same time I picked up the Countryman book, I also picked up a used copy of Tom Standage’s The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. It’s a fairly light read, but very entertaining and full of interesting stuff. It seems to be a pretty complete account of everything that is known about Maelzel’s famous chess machine, from its invention (I didn’t know that Maelzel had in fact purchased it rather than built it, and that it had actually been built by someone else decades earlier — in fact, by the same man who built the mechanical orchestra for whom Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory) to its rather sad end gathering dust in a back corner of a Philadelphia museum, where it was destroyed in a fire in the 1850s.

I finished it last night, and reading it has caused me to want to go back and reread (yet again — I’ve probably read this book ten times) the chapters of Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders concerning the narrator’s years as a boy traveling back and forth across Canada with a third-rate carnival, working secretly inside Abdullah, an alleged automaton that does card tricks. So between Countryman and Davies I’ve spent most of the afternoon reading instead of doing something useful.

The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel

John is the gospel I know the least well, and part of that is that I’m repelled somehow by all the emphasis on miracles — not that the other three gospels avoid miracles completely, but the miracles are few enough and there is enough other stuff in between them that I can ignore them and concentrate on the parables and other teachings.

But a few days ago I came across a book on John, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, and it was written by William Countryman, who wrote a very good book on the morality of the Old and New Testaments with the great title of Dirt, Greed, and Sex. That book for me was one of those on-first-looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experiences, revealing to me all sorts of connections and contexts for various parts of the Bible that I had not seen or noticed before. So I picked up the book on John on a whim — it was only four bucks in a used book store — and I’ve started it.

Probably half my books come from used book stores, and it’s kind of amazing and a little frightening to me to think back and realize the extent to which my thinking has been shaped over the decades by books that just randomly happened to be on the shelf and catch my eye in this or that used book store. Some of the books that have most seriously influenced me, I picked up on a whim because they were on the 99-cent table and looked kind of interesting. It’s a bit humbling and disturbing to wonder how different a person I might be if somebody I never knew had not decided to get rid of that old book when he or she did, or if somebody else had seen the book and decided to buy it the day before I walked into the bookstore.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve started reading the book on John, and even though I’m not very far into it, I’m surprised to already be seeing something about John that I have never noticed before, even though it seems to be right there on the surface and which shows how uncarefully I have read it before. Because while it’s true that John’s gospel is irritatingly thick with miracles, Jesus also accompanies them with a recurring commentary on how shallow a person’s faith is if miracles are the reason for it. For some reason I’ve always been so turned off by the miracles in John that I never let myself notice that the attitude Jesus is said to take toward them is one I can certainly get behind.

On the other hand, Jesus’s first miracle in John, the wedding at Cana, is always going to have special associations for me because of the breathtaking way that Robertson Davies developed it as a metaphor in What’s Bred in the Bone, which may be my favorite novel ever. So I can give John that one.

Listening to Prozac

I’ve been away at the Billy Club’s Halloween gathering this weekend; I come home today, probably calmer and more in balance. I’ve spent a fair amount of this gathering off on my own, taking walks and meditating and reading. I wrote a short poem (three quatrains) yesterday, and on Thursday night after a long meditation I had what still seems three mornings later like a very good idea for a new opera adaptation.

One book I’ve been reading — as ever keeping up with the very latest in best sellers — is Peter Kramer’s 1993 Listening to Prozac. I have been diagnosed as having a dysthymic personality myself, and I started taking an antidepressant a few years after my brain surgery, to pull myself out of a long dark funk that had developed after the surgery and that I hadn’t been able to shake, despite my recovery going well enough that I was not only working again after eight months but soon making half again as much money as I had been before the tumor. So for me, reading a book like this isn’t just a dispassionate interest in psychology (though there’s certainly that, too); it’s also seeing whether I recognize myself in any of it, and whether it has any useful or helpful insights for me.

The book is about what we can learn about personality and human behavior from watching the effects that Prozac and other antidepressants have on various people. I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but the chapter titled “Sensitivity” in particular contains a lot of stuff that is fascinating as an insight into how our brains and personalities work, and that also seems personally very relevant. The gist of the chapter is that it looks as though a lot of things we think of as personality disorders are maybe better thought of as the normal adaptive behaviors that you would expect from someone who is more sensitive than usual to the pain of loss or rejection; that if someone is experiencing a more acute pain from certain things than most people do, you can only reasonably expect them to develop different coping behaviors from others. If Event X causes a mild, brief feeling of disappointment in one person but three days of intense and crippling emotional pain in another person, it’s only to be expected that the second person will develop more extreme ways of behaving so as to avoid all risk of Event X happening at all costs, and those behaviors might look like a behavioral problem or personality disorder to someone like the first person.

An antidepressant, then, can be thought of as something that lessens that senstivity, with the result that the personality slowly changes, sort of in the way a lifelong limp would gradually disappear if a surgery removed whatever it was that was making it painful to put much weight on that foot. It’s a hypothesis than explains a lot of unusual things about how the drugs work on people.

I can see myself reflected in this chapter in a lot of ways — a number of the patients Dr. Kramer writes about remind me of myself, such as in my shyness and difficulty in approaching other people in certain situations where I fear I won’t be able to take a rejection in stride; the very long time I grieved, and very painfully, for my friend David Sherblom (Dr. Kramer writes about someone who grieved three years for a loved one, which was more or less my situation); the painful feelings of rejection I sometimes experience over things that even I can see are objectively no rejection at all. Over the decades I’ve learned to deal with these painful feelings in more useful ways, and I’m usually pretty good now at not letting the fear of the painful feelings or even the painful feelings themselves govern too much how I behave; I can do a passable imitation of a gregarious person if I need to (and I don’t have to keep it up too long!) or let myself feel emotional pain without feeling driven or controlled by it, recognizing and subverting the negative patterns of thought I can slip into in times of stress.

But it’s also true that it feels as though the effect of the antidepressant I take has been to lessen the intensity of those painful emotions, which is what the chapter is about; and over time, as I’ve grown better accustomed to being sent merely into a mild downer by things that used to send me into a tailspin, I’ve become more confident in certain kinds of situations. It may well be that that’s been because my fear of those downers has lessened as the downers themselves have lessened in intensity.

So that chapter has given me an interesting new way of looking at what goes on within myself.

Help, I’m Being Victimized by Gay People Trying to Exist in My Universe!

Google News reports 74 news articles — 74! — on J.K. Rowling’s comment that she thought of one of her characters as being gay. Many of them are disapproving or even blatantly hostile — headlines like “If Dumbledore is gay where’s the proof?”, “Leave It Alone”, “J.K. Rowling’s Big Fat Mouth”, “Harry Potter Author Plays Dumb, Acts Surprised at Reactions to Gay Character”, on and on.

Barbara Kay in Canada’s National Post wrote — under the headline “Dumbledore has been diminished”, for crying out loud —

There is something very odd though about Dumbledore being singled out from the huge cast of adult characters in the books as having any sexuality at all. Some of the characters in the books are married, many more are single. …

My emphases. In Ms. Kay’s universe, saying that a character is married to someone of the opposite sex and maybe even has children with that person does not say anything about his or her sexuality. Saying that a character had one homosexual infatuation in his remote past, though, is apparently tantamount to rubbing the readers’ noses in his soiled bedsheets. It’s “singling him out.”

Seems to me that Ms. Rowling’s real crime is that she is not cooperating with the desire of people like Ms. Kay to preserve their illusions that everybody normal and decent can be safely and tacitly assumed to be straight.

I love this, too:

However, as a symbol for gay activists eager to inculcate knowledge about human sexuality at the earliest possible age, Rowling’s revelation has been a marketing godsend.

That’s the most important thing about this in Ms. Kay’s mind: When Ms. Rowling says in public that she thinks a gay man could possibly be a wise and positive influence on children, she is enabling child molesters. And Ms. Rowling is supposedly the one saying inappropriate things here.

Ms. Rowling didn’t rub anyone’s nose in Dumbledore’s sexuality, she answered a direct question about how she viewed Dumbledore’s life beyond the borders of the book and she answered it honestly. She never said that she intended the reader to understand that Dumbledore is gay; in fact, she has explicitly said the exact opposite, that her intention is that the average child will see it as a friendship and only adult readers who are sensitive to it will pick up on the hints.

Everyone has the right to create their own delusion and live in it. But when you’re complaining about the mere existence of people like Ms. Rowling who don’t share your delusion, and you’re turning it into some kind of personal attack on yourself — you know, they have pills for that nowadays.

And Don’t Even Get Me Started on What Was Really Going On Between Emma Wodehouse and Harriet Smith

Dave pointed me to Jeffrey Weiss in the Dallas Morning News joining the chorus of Oh no it’s not that I’m homophobic no no no it’s because I care passionately about the nature of literature that I am so very very upset about Rowling saying she thinks of one of her characters as being gay:

With the greatest of respect, I’d like to say something to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling:

Shut up. Please.

Stop talking about what Ron will do for a living, whom Neville will marry, what kinds of creatures Hagrid will raise.

I’d have a lot more faith in Mr. Weiss’s pose of being equally upset about these other revelations as well if he’d uttered so much as a peep of protest at any of them instead of waiting for the first non-heterosexual tidbit to register his complaints. And isn’t it adorable how he blatantly expresses his hostility toward Ms. Rowling and at the same time pretends to be only doing it in jest? Thus indulging in all the intensely satisfying emotion of homophobia without having to take responsibility for its unattractiveness. Later he even writes “Jo — can I call you Jo?”, making a joke out of a display of arrogance and disrespect. A little problem with passive-aggressiveness, have we?

Then he abandons even the pose that he minded the earlier revelations:

I guess I don’t want you to stop explaining completely. I’d love to know more about what inspired some of the plot details in the books. If you want to dish about how you decided on those particular inscriptions for the headstones, how you came up with the names for the characters, or how you cleverly planned the religious underpinnings of the broad arc of the story – I am all ears.

But telling us that Dumbledore is gay, as you did last week? Why would you do that?

Maybe because it was true? Maybe because some of Ms. Rowling’s fans want to know more about what it was really like for her to write the book? And Mr. Weiss admits that he’s fascinated in all that, too — until it gets to finding out that Ms. Rowling thinks that putting one count ’em one gay character in a series of seven character-rich and increasingly bulky books might be a valid literary choice.

You gotta love this, too:

Based on what you decided to put in the books, I can imagine that Dumbledore once had a girlfriend or that he was so emotionally crushed by guilt that he sealed himself off from romance or that he was one of those rare men for whom romance never really came up …

In other words, Mr. Weiss is angry because Ms. Rowling has not participated in the preservation of his illusion that an author he likes cannot possibly have imagined that a character he likes could be gay.

If it were really a matter of Ms. Rowling inventing a character’s gay orientation after the fact, Mr. Weiss would be free to continue thinking whatever he wanted to think. If a long-lost diary entry revealed that, say, Agatha Christie always thought of Hercule Poirot as a werewolf, or Herman Melville thought of Ahab as a hermaphrodite, you’d think, oh my god, that is really weird, and then you’d go back and skim through a few chapters to see if you’d missed anything. And you’d conclude that if that’s really what he or she thought, there really isn’t any trace of it in the book, and you’d file the fact away under Literary Curiosities and never let it affect how you thought about Death on the Nile or Moby-Dick again.

But that’s not the case here. Remember: Fans all over the Internet have been speculating about Dumbledore for months because there are genuine hints in the last book. And what Mr. Weiss is upset about is that he wanted to be able to read the book without having to pick up on those hints, and now he can’t any more. Because the hints are really there, and now that they’ve been called to Mr. Weiss’s attention, he can no longer go back to not seeing them. He will never be able to read the books again without seeing that thread, and that it was there all along. Nor has Ms. Rowling left it possible for him to pretend to himself that he hasn’t seen it, or that fans arguing that Dumbledore is gay are imagining things that are not there.

The Harry Potter books were a place where he could pretend for a while that a man who isn’t attached to a woman must be that way because he once had a girlfriend or is crushed by heterosexual guilt. A romantic fantasy world where admirable men are much more likely to be asexual by nature than gay. Where he could pretend for a while that gay men don’t exist.

And now the books are not such a haven for him any more.