Monday, August 30, 2010

The Sound of Inevitability

Before I discuss what I want to write about tonight, I need to do some basic setting up. One of the reasons I have had so much trouble with my novel in the last few months is because I devoted an insufficient amount of time at the beginning to explaining the beliefs and assumptions which had shaped my worldview at the time of the events I’m describing—strange, otherworldly assumptions, for the most part, but essential to understanding the insanity with which high school ended, and my subsequent mental and emotional collapse. Half of all storytelling, I’ve discovered, is the way you set things up. Yet I had gotten so focused on building the arches, I forgot to lay the stones.

But you know, I love complexity and complication. Couldn’t live without ‘em. One of the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays that I especially appreciate is the ease with which his characters find themselves in difficult, almost impossible circumstances. Hamlet hates his uncle. The ghost of his father appears and reveals that he was killed by Claudius. Hamlet now has a motive for revenge—but is utterly unable to act. Why? For about a dozen different reasons, and those critics who have tried to render a simplistic explanation for his motivations are mistaken. Hamlet is not, pace Laurence Olivier, “the story of a man who could not make up his mind,” it is far, far more than this. It is the story of a man who was prevented from killing his uncle because he feared for his sanity; because he suspected that the apparition he had seen might be the devil; because, as next in line for the throne, he couldn’t afford to present an appearance of instability and chaos to the people of his kingdom and their enemies across the way; because Claudius was cunning, yea, almost as cunning as the prince himself, and Hamlet knew that in this most direful of all acts, the execution of a head of state, and his own kin, canniness and caution were needed. Yet he couldn’t continue delaying this doom, not forever, because the nets were circling round him, there were several other people, some with armies, seeking to avenge the deaths of their own fathers either on the unfortified iron of the state, or on Hamlet’s neck; Claudius was growing more murderously conscious of his purpose with each day that passed, his school mates had proven unsympathetic and treacherous, and his mother—and his love—were in the most calamitous distress.

The more I consider the matter, the more it seems that literature was made to analyze this very thing. Looking at just one example from my own life, we can see the role that my misunderstanding of fate played in shaping the Quixotic adventures of my final year of high school and my subsequent collapse. There’s a section in the newly-revised edition of my second chapter where I describe my belief that certain calamities are so horrific, they can send shockwaves “backwards, into generations past.” Thus I became convinced that my One, True Love would be killed in a gruesome and violent manner early in her life, an idea which was reinforced by the very passion with which I held it—surely I would never have clung to such a horrible presentiment with such unwonted ardor if I wasn’t imbibing the fumes of some future event. Right? The fact that I believed this so steadfastly was the clearest indication of its truth. The inevitable conclusion, of course, was that the event had been predestined and (like Trinity’s death in The Matrix) was therefore inescapable.

It was this pall of inevitability lingering over the events of my life which leant it much of its tragic, dark-hued coloring. When I learned that a certain person would be tempted into doing something not at all in her best interests (or in anyone else’s), my immediate conclusion was that God had given me this prophecy so that I could have the dubious pleasure of watching it come to pass and being powerless to stop it. Mortimer and Petunia largely shared in this deterministic understanding. After I had finished explaining that I felt my relationship with this girl was predestined to end badly, because all my relationships with women were predestined to end badly, because all of them were fractal precursors of a fearful-to-think-upon future catastrophe (see how convoluted it all got?), Mortiner was deeply sympathetic. “Don’t you see,” he advised, “you have to remember the Greek tragedies—they saw the future, and they did everything they could to prevent it, and their preventing it is what caused it. You cannot outsmart the future. That’s like Satan trying to prevent God winning in the end. You cannot outsmart the future.” (This warning is all the more eerie and prescient given that the thing we were trying to prevent did, indeed, happen, in a way that we had never imagined). “It’s like in the play X, there are two choices, and you can take either one of them, but there’s still only one future, because the future already knows which choice you’re going to make.” (Oddly, Petunia repeatedly expressed similar sentiments in her correspondence from that time, where she fretted over how she was inescapably predestined to kill the Antichrist, who of course turned out to be Mortimer, and why I was taking advice on inevitability from a man damned to hell from before the foundation of the world is anybody’s guess).

Yet not only is this bad philosophy, it’s bad theology. And not only is it bad theology, it’s bad Calvinist theology. I’m only beginning to learn that the world frame of fatalism on which I’ve been hanging my faith for the last ten years bears almost no resemblance to the actual Calvinism that actual Calvinists actually teach. However, in this essay I’m less interested in what actual Calvinists actually teach than in what I believed at a particular time, and the reasons why to this day I find it still so, well, inescapable, and why it’s affected my thinking and circumstances in the ways it has.

Unfortunately, though, just because something is bad theology doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The fact remains: That thing did happen. Every semester ended in the most dramatic manner, normally without my own connivance. Prophecies were continually fulfilled. If I was so wrong all along, why could I never escape it? This was one of the conundrums at the heart of my emotional collapse on Christmas morning of 2004. I had been hiding since Graduation in the belly of the whale; I wept, I fled in terror, the iron entered into my soul, etc., etc.; I had breezily concluded that my life was nothing more than a romantic quest that I could never solve, and that somehow in my unfathomable brilliance I had concocted all the prophecies (and their fulfillments!) to sustain my mind in mystery and awe. And yet… and yet, Galileo would say, it was true… which suggested at the very least that I would never be able to escape my prophetic calling—obviously, since here it was again. Inescapability—it’s everywhere!

Now it would be erroneous to argue that my current acquiescence with respect to the calling is another validation of the verity of my previous conception of fate. I was given the choice to flee, and flee I did for several years, but I returned with willingness. In the end, it is that single fact which I expect will break the hitherto-unassailable, because unexamined, chokehold of malevolent misunderstandings. That, and perhaps also my eventual (you might even say inevitable) realization that a wholehearted belief in a vengeful and arbitrary determinism is the ultimate, determining factor in deciding what we fight, and what accept; and, by extension, what occurs, and what does not.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Answers that Need Questioning: Dostoevsky, the Millennium, and Freedom

My reading of the first hundred pages of The Brothers Karamazov has given me some new ideas about the manner in which the subject matter of the novel ought to be approached. You look at a man like Dostoevsky; his power wasn’t so much in the answers he presented as the questions he asked. This is deeply freeing, not least because I have so many questions. When I finished the fourth chapter of my novel a year ago next week, I had resolved that the importance of my novel was in giving understanding; in teaching. One of the great realizations of the summer was that I could not know everything, and no one would hurt me for it.

The strength of a novel, in fact, is in not knowing everything. Walter Russell Mead this morning wrote a fabulously scintillating review of a novel by Rajendra Pachauri, the now widely-reviled former head of the UN International Panel on Climate Control. The novel is entitled Return to Almora, and remains sadly unavailable here in America, but Mr. Mead has done an artful job of satiating our excitement in the meantime with a foretaste of the many pleasures to be found there.

The intellectual vapidity and narcissistic self satisfaction of the book is unsurpassable. Politics, science, religion: characters spout the most shopworn cliches in the apparent belief that they are uttering profound truths. After Sanjay writes an angry letter to the editor denouncing Ronald Reagan for reasons that will sound silly to the reader but are evidently convincing to the narrator, Senator Chuck Sommers, the junior senator from Pennsylvania begs Sanjay to be accepted as a student of meditation — and speaks to him about the importance of enlightened political action. To quote Pachauri’s own scintillating prose and sparkling dialog:

“Sandy, you must work for larger causes in which you believe,” Chuck Sommers said, putting his arm around Sanjay’s shoulder. “I greatly admire what you are doing to bring peace to so many human souls. But we must also bring peace on earth. There is too much strife around us, and too little compassion. Political leaders use people and events for their own narrow purposes, putting a spin of superficial nobility and righteousness on everything. We have to raise our voices against this evil.”

Sharp, focused, useful: that is our Sanjay’s political approach. As for the politics of Shirley MacLaine, here is how Pachauri describes them:

“Shirley talked about the rally in which she had come to take part. She had decided, along with a few other committed people to protest US foreign policy and to demonstrate in favor of pro-choice legislation. She would handle General Zia and Pakistan, a bit later on, after she had mobilised support from other quarters.”

That is pretty much the level of ‘intellectual’ conversation in the book. No one really struggles with ideas; no one grapples with logic or evidence. No piece of platitudinous claptrap is ever contested, and no religious doctrine or precept ever seriously interferes with anyone’s desire to do as they please. In Return to Almora, at least, the truth is what ‘we’ think, and we recognize it not because we sift evidence and chop logic. We perceive the truth because of who we are; some people just happen to know what is right and, fortunately, we just happen to be that kind of people. Whether it is the impending doom of the glaciers (whose disappearance is a recurring minor theme), the errors of American Republicans (another theme), or the superiority of Hinduism to all other religious traditions (the dominant underlying message, expressed with extraordinary naivete that is almost but not quite endearing), we are guided by the inner light rather than anything so vulgar as logical disputation.


This is the very thing that you are not allowed to do in a religious novel, or, really, in any novel. I haven’t read any of the novels of Ayn Rand, for example, but from what I understand, her greatest failing as a novelist is believing so strongly in the truth of her ideals that her characters become one-dimensional vessels, heroically strutting about, square-jawed and muscular, conversing with one another at length about the virtues of unfettered capitalism, free of all doubt and regret.

If my translation of the Psalms has taught me nothing else, it’s demonstrated amply that the Bible was never the question-quenching, sorrow-stifling book I once believed it was. There are times when it’s not so much a sermon as a two-way disagreement. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest.” There’s a delightful passage in Psalm 39 where David (in the Hebrew) begs the Lord to turn away His face, “that I may smile again, and regain strength, before I go hence, and be no more.” He seems to think he would be better off if God forgot about him altogether. Job regularly exhorts his sympathetic friends for thinking they can comprehend the ways of God. At the end of the book, the Lord reiterates this point.

The world is too complex for simple answers. This is as prominent a theme in the Bible as it is in Dostoevsky. “The words of the wise are as goads; and as nails driven by the masters of assembly, which are given from one shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). Goads are long, nail-like devices which shepherds use to herd sheep towards safer pastures, when the sheep are proving (if you’ll pardon the expression) intractable. Solomon is suggesting that he wrote the present book as a goad to inspire his readers towards deeper thought. He doesn’t necessarily believe, for example, that the spirit is consumed with the destruction of the body (Ecc. 3:19), or that it is better to have been miscarried than to live (the bulk of Chapter 6). He’s engaging in a (remarkably effective) rhetorical strategy to “goad” his audience into thinking critically about the nature and purpose of their existence under the sun. It’s the same strategy used by Jesus in the Gospels when He answered the Pharisees’ questions with questions. (Side note: The advice columnist Ann Landers was once asked by a reader, “Why is it that Jews always answer questions with questions?” Ms. Lander’s response was, “How do you expect them to answer?”)

This, I suppose, is the difference between novelists and theologians. Theologians give answers; novelists ask questions. Both, however, have their place. In the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus returns to fifteenth-century Spain, performs a few miracles, and is immediately taken in to be questioned by the Spanish Inquisition. The old arch-inquisitor fixes him with “jealous leer malign” and demands that He speak; but Christ says nothing. There follows a long speech, in which the Inquisitor reveals that the Catholic Church has willingly usurped the role of Christ on earth by accepting the three temptations which Christ resisted in the wilderness. The devil tempted Christ with miracle (the turning of stones into bread), mystery (the leaping from the temple), and authority (the kingdoms of the world). Christ refused all. The Inquisitor explains that this was utter folly; folly which the Catholic Church has now undone, with the understanding that human beings cannot bear to be free. “For in those three questions,” says he, “the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.”

Of the temptation to miracle the Inquisitor notes:

"Choosing “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, “Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!” And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same. Thou didst know, Thou couldst not but have known, this fundamental secret of human nature, but Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone—the banner of earthly bread; and Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven… I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born."

There is something almost Kierkegaardian in the manner with which Dostoevsky refuses to accept the traditional meanings of standard texts. In its own way, it anticipates Borges. Everything is challenged. Dostoevksy was a believer, not a blasphemer; as with Kierkegaard, he seems to have believed that the inability to question the accepted interpretations of the sacred was the greatest blasphemy of his age. Here he suggests that the reason God shrouds Himself in mystery and leaves us guessing at His mere existence is because, if He revealed Himself with unassailable clarity and evidence indisputable, as Richard Dawkins has insisted that He do, we would immediately worship Him in the wrong way. In worshipping God the Supreme, the Incontrovertible, the Proven, we would have hewn for ourselves an idol; and we would fall to worshipping that idol, rather than the true and living God. It’s the old, old story of the calf in the desert; only the Inquisitor (rightly or wrongly) suggests that it will continue even after His return.

Think of it this way. Even if your wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, and you have every guarantee that she’ll remain that way to the end, you still don’t want to love her for that reason only. Otherwise, you’re not really in love with her at all. Christ came to earth in meekness, not in power, because He knew men worship authority and indomitable strength; thus, when He resisted their attempts to make Him king, they did away with Him. And He will not return to the earth until the people of the earth are desperate for a king who exercises His power not through tyranny, but love. He will “execute kings on the day of His wrath,” that’s true! But a few verses earlier in the same psalm, David prophesies, “Your people will offer themselves to You freely in the day of Your power” (Psalm 110:3). He is meek and He will reign in meekness with a rod of iron. If that was the kind of king men truly wanted, Christ would have returned a thousand years ago. Men claim that they want peace and freedom, but what do they want, really? They want to be ruled over; they want to be told what to do; they want to be controlled. The natural inclination of man is to seek someone to control him. That’s why in America we have a “soft tyranny” of entertainment and distraction. Unconsciously, we all must truly sense that our superiors are keeping us in line by offering this endless train of toys and gifts; but, as Booth said, what do you do when the people want to be controlled? The promise of the Millennium is something altogether different, and, to the natural mind, more frightening: real freedom. Christ offers men real freedom in the age to come. But they don’t know what to do with it; don’t even want it, really; which is why in every age they sell themselves to sin.

“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” Why? Because he wills it so.