James Joyce in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

Bust of Joyce on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Strathern’s James Joyce in 90 Minutes is a fun and very informative little book. I already covered Strathern’s thoughts on Joyce & Modernism. Here are the biographical highlights I want to remember…

  • 1882 (Feb. 2): born in Rathgar – middle class suburb in South Dublin
  • 1888 (6 years old): sent to Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare which was regarded as the finest Catholic school in Ireland.
  • 1892 (10 years old): father lost his job and was never able to find regular employment again. Took on various part-time jobs including soliciting advertisements for a Dublin newspaper. James dropped out of Clongowes and schooled himself. His mother helped but she was responsible for 13 children and James’ father was abusive toward his mother and increasingly unavailable. (As a teenager, James had to pin his father down to keep him from seriously injuring his mother while his mother fled to a neighbor.) The family moved from neighborhood to more impoverished neighborhood which made James very familiar with Dublin districts.
  • 1893 (11 years old): Sent with brother Stanislaus to Belvedere College in Dublin. Was an excellent student. (Remained there until University.)
  • Teenage years: began to lose faith and experienced a dark night of the soul. Began writing poetry. He explained to Stanislaus “There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the mass and what I’m trying to do. I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.”
  • 1898 (16 years old): entered University College, Dublin, the city’s Catholic University. Was supposed to rival Protestant Trinity College which had educated Oscar Wilde and philosopher Bishop Berkeley. But when Joyce entered, the Jesuits were imposing a rigid Catholic orthodoxy which created an air of mediocrity. Joyce attended irregularly.
  • 1900 (eighteen years old): wrote a long review of Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken which was extended into an 8000 word review of Ibsen’s entire work. It was accepted by a prestigious London publisher. Ibsen read the review and sent Joyce a letter of thanks. Joyce wrote to Ibsen: “Ireland has produced nothing but a whine to the literature of Europe.” What he meant was that he sought to establish a real Irish tradition, not the current literary tradition of Ireland which was almost completely composed of Anglo-Irish or Protestant writers who were middle or upper class. (Joyce was a Celt with a Catholic background and he did not subscribe to middle-class mores.)
  • Joyce identified with Ibsen’s characterization of the feminine in large part because he was also imbued with a “feminine delicacy of touch”. His Catholic sexual repression had left him deeply ambivalent about his own sexuality. He was highly sexed and highly repressed which led to a perverse obsession with intimate bodily odors, a fetish he retained for the rest of his life.
  • He began having sexual encounters with prostitutes which were necessary for him as an artist and as a man. However, it created in him a deep shame. He also drank way too much.
  • Began writing prose he called “epiphanies”. This was a theological term referring to a heightened sense of consciousness in which a vision of the godhead or religious revelation takes place. For Joyce the revelation was spiritual but without any religious content or sacred meaning. His epiphanies occurred “in a vision of the soul of the commonest object… in the vulgarity of speech or gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.”
  • 1902 (20 years old): Graduated from University College, Dublin. He moved to Paris with the goal of becoming a writer. Four months later, he learned his mother was dying and he returned home. She died a few months after that and Joyce took a job as a teacher in Dublin to help care for the family, but his father spent what little money they had on alcohol. Joyce spent 10 days in Martello Tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty and began writing Stephen Hero based on the spiritual progress of Joyce himself (epiphanic formative experience).
  • 1904 (22 years old): met Nora Barnacle who had run away from her home and was working as a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel. They met for a second time on June 16 which became the most famous date in 20th century literary history. Nora was 19 and still a virgin, but she slipped her hand into Joyce’s pants and brought him to orgasm while standing on the street. That changed Joyce’s life. Joyce continued drinking, however. He got into a fight and was looked after by a Jewish man, Alfred Hunter, which also assumed deep significance for him. Joyce ran away with Nora in October.
  • 1905 (23 years old): Nora and James moved to Trieste and convinced Stanislaus to join them. Stanislaus took a teaching position which allowed Stephen to write but James became “his brother’s keeper” and Nora and James began fighting. James continued to drink way too much and Stanislaus would sometimes have to carry him home. Realism & symbolism were the two main contending literary movements at the time. Joyce combined the two. His writing was utterly realistic but also suffused with symbolic meaning. Symbol and reality became one.
  • 1907 (25 years old): Completed “The Dead”, the final story in Dubliners.
  • 1909 (27 years old): Convinces several businessmen from Trieste to open a string of cinemas in Dublin. His Volta Cinema was the first cinema in Dublin. The scheme failed and Joyce was in financial ruin. This year, he also heard through the grapevine that Nora had been in love with someone else before she met James. He felt this was a betrayal, much like what he had written about in “The Dead”, and it became a major theme in later works.
  • 1914 (32 years old): Completes Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a reworking of Stephen Hero. This novel is not as “realistic” as Dubliners. The novel shows how the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist movement threaten to stifle the spirit of the artist, Stephen Daedalus. The interplay of Good and Beauty that is the central aesthetic theory proposed by Stephen comes from Thomas Aquinas. Joyce rejected Catholicism, but he also recognized its strengths and used them. The close of the novel conveys Stephen’s deepest worries and aspirations, but also the beginning of his literary talent. This book was an article of artistic faith, not autobiographical. He had trouble getting the book published and then finally received help from Ezra Pound. Dubliners was published and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in an influential London literary magazine.
  • This year, WWI began. Stanislaus was thrown into a camp for enemy aliens and James & Nora decided to move to neutral Switzerland. Nora spoke Irish, English and German, but James said her English and German weren’t comprehensible to an Englishman or a German. Now she had to learn another language. Joyce began writing Ulysses, which was even more autobiographical than Portrait yet more objective. The entire novel takes place on June 16, 1904, the day he met Nora. We experience the day as though we are inside the heads of the main characters. Harriet Weaver, a 41 year old unmarried English Quaker woman admired Joyce’s work and became his benefactor. Joyce had a disease that caused him to go completely blind in one eye and virtually blind in the other. Weaver helped pay his medical bills.
  • 1918 (36 years old): The first episodes of Ulysses began appearing in New York’s The Little Review. They continued to appear until 1920 when the magazine was sued by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Joyce moved back to Paris where he thought his writing would be better appreciated.
  • 1922 (40 years old): Ulysses was considered unpublishable, but is finally published by Sylvia Beach who owned Shakespeare and Company and admired Joyce’s work. It was published on Joyce’s 40th birthday. Stephen and Bloom are very different characters. Stephen is intellectual, meditative, has an extensive vocabulary, is more exotic and skillfully employed. Bloom has a more rapid-fire inner monologue which matches the outward attentiveness of his mind. (Like Joyce’s father, Bloom is an advertising man for a newspaper. Bloom also is taken from Alfred Hunter who took care of Joyce when he 22 and in the bar fight right after he met Nora. However, there was another incident when Joyce got drunk after finding out about Nora’s previous love affair that Bloom is based on as well: John Byrne had to take him home and he lived at 7 Eccles Street.) Joyce wanted to create an exact replica of Dublin so that if it was ever destroyed, it could be recreated from Ulysses.
  • Early 1930s: Lucia, Joyce’s daughter, was mentally ill. Joyce consulted Carl Jung but he could do little to help. Jung told him: “You are like two people going to the bottom of the river, but where as she is drowning, you are diving.” Meanwhile, Joyce continued to have operations on his eyes which were subsidized by Harriet Weaver. She had spent a huge amount of money on him by this point. Joyce continued to drink heavily. Despite his drunkenness and blindness, he began working on Finnegan’s Wake.
  • 1939 (57 years old): Finnegan’s Wake is published. It was called the ultimate literary carnation of Shame’s Voice (Joyce called himself Shame’s Voice) and was considered to be an “aberration of genius”. It was literature as puzzle. We have to abandon our habitual notions of meaning and preconceived notions of reading to “understand” it. Younger generations liked it. Samuel Beckett said that Finnegan’s Wake “is not about something; it is that something itself.” Joyce was a very ill man as Europe entered WWII.
  • 1940 (58 years old): The Nazi’s invaded France and James and Nora moved back to Zurich.
  • 1941, January 13 (59 years old): James Joyce fell ill with an ulcer and died, penniless.
  • 1951. Nora died.
  • Ulysses became known as the novel that most characterized the 20th Century. Bloomsday is celebrated every year on June 16 around the world.
  • “The Dead” is often listed among the top 10 greatest short stories ever written
  • Finnegan’s Wake is considered a cult work for gifted connoisseurs, including Nobel-prize winning American particle physicist Murray-Gell-Mann. The name “quark” came from Gell-Mann based on a passage in Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark. And sure as any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt

Even Silence Has an End is Ingrid Betancourt’s account of being kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and held in captivity for 6 years in the Colombian Jungle.   It’s a gripping book – I had difficulty putting it down.  Every time I put it down I wanted to pick it up and find out what happened next.  At the same time, however, it left me feeling unsettled.

I think this may be the second hostage memoir I’ve read.  I remember reading an account of an American man held hostage in Korea (I think it was Korea – it’s been a while).  He and his fellow hostages came up with a means of communicating with one another by making scratching sounds on the wall.  They were not allowed to communicate directly so they somehow figured out how to decipher the scratching sounds.  The author of this memoir was extremely grateful for the company of his fellow hostages.  I can’t remember his name or the exact details, but his amazing capacity for gratitude despite his immense hardship has remained with me for years.

I didn’t sense that same sort of gratitude in Betancourt’s account.  It felt more like forced tolerance.  Of course, she was in captivity for 6 years.  That is an excruciatingly long time.  And she is female, not male, which I’m sure creates completely different considerations.  By Betancourt’s account, her fellow captives were often mysteriously at odds with her.  She blames it on lies their captors told to intentionally put them at odds with one another.  I don’t doubt this is true.  I think what troubles me is that Betancourt seems to take great pains to portray herself as an enlightened, loving, self-reflective heroine; but she paints her dark side just a tad too brightly given the disconnect she experiences with her fellow captives.  Something feels just a tad disingenuous.

I think what most bothered me was how she presented the woman who had been taken hostage with her.   Maybe the story was entirely accurate, but if you’ve been taken hostage with someone, what is the benefit of betraying her in a negative light?  According to psychologists, hostages are generally supportive of those who have been held hostage with them, no matter what sort of crazy degrading behavior they have exhibited.  Betancourt’s portrayal of Carla Rojas was especially problematic for me – especially when describing the interaction of both women with the baby.  I sense a hidden agenda.

Of course, we all have our hidden agendas.  So even if Betancourt is presently unwilling or unable to deal with certain parts of her psyche, her willingness to provide such a detailed account of her captivity is amazing.  I can’t even begin to imagine going through what it is she went through, and for six plus years!!  Who can even imagine what it would be like to be tied to a tree by a chain from your neck for months on end, without knowing how long you will be chained?  Or having to request permission to go to the bathroom, which isn’t actually a bathroom, but a frequently used putrid hole full of insects?

Maybe her fellow captives have reason to take issue with her, just as she may have reason to take issue with them.  I have no idea.  Whatever the case may be, clearly Betancourt is an incredibly strong female with an immense sense of self.  I’m glad to have read her book.

Faith, Interrupted by Eric Lax

I sincerely appreciated Eric Lax’s Faith Interrupted although I don’t entirely relate to Lax.  He was the son of an Episcopalian minister and grew up with an unquestioning faith.  My family was far less religious and I was constantly questioning what I was being taught in church, when we went.  But in a sense, I was also unquestioning.   All my questions were within a certain boundary that I didn’t dare go outside.  For the past five years, I’ve been venturing beyond those bounds and it makes my relationship with institutionalized religion extremely uncomfortable.

Lax wrote:

I still felt connected to the Episcopal Church and closely followed its internal doings through clergy friends and my parents, but it was more an institutional attachment I felt than one that connected me with God.  I derived a sense of inclusion and security from my relationships with the bishops and clergy I knew well and liked, and who liked me.  I felt part of the Church, an insider in a genteel and socially prominent faith.  Unfortunately, this meant I found comfort more in feeling connected to the establishment than to the Holy Spirit.

That’s how I feel about Methodism.  I feel a profound loyalty to the institution and have several friends who are Methodist ministers. But feeling a loyalty to an institution is far more materialistic than it is spiritual.

I was in a Spiritual Directions group in our Methodist Church which was incredibly uncomfortable for me, even though the members of the group were amazing, lovely women.  Spiritual Direction is supposed to be about exploring your own spirituality without judgment or condemnation, but I felt judged because the members were so intent on trying to get me to adopt various versions of a personal God.  I simply can no longer believe in a personal God. That’s not to say I don’t think God can be personally experienced.  I have had a very personal experience of what I call God. But a personal experience of God is not a personal God.  The two are very different.  The overwhelming advice was to realize that God considers me His precious child.  It was a sort of mantra – “I am a precious child of God”.   I know the women are trying to shift the idea that we are sinful to something more positive, which is undoubtedly beneficial.  But I simply cannot understand God in this way, anymore.  God doesn’t create sinfulness and preciousness. We do. God transcends human egoic judgment.  But how can you explain this to “believers” without judgment or condemnation?  You really can’t, because they tend to view it as a negation of God even though it’s merely the realization that our ideas of God are not God.

Maybe I’m more like Eric Lax’s friend Skip, the Episcopal Minister, than I am like Lax.  I’m extremely comfortable with mysticism, contemplative prayer, and Father Keating.  I don’t struggle with that like Lax does.  It makes sense to me. But I repeatedly try to find a place within institutional religion and I just can’t seem to find one beyond a social connection.

Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby

Welcome to Utopia, Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby is a nonfiction book about a little Texas town about 180 miles from where I live. Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.  The book started out as an assignment to find an American town that had not yet been affected by the popular culture.  Something about people who were not yet “swallowed whole by the all-consuming, trend hungry maw of Hollywood.”

I have never lived in a small town but my roommate in college was from a very small town.  I ended up dating a guy from her small town for 3 1/2 years (almost my entire college career) so ended up quite familiar with the characters from that little town.  They were like the characters in Utopia.  Many of them ranch owners, ranch hands, restaurant owners, grocery store owners.  They were hard working, tough, intelligent, kind hearted, opinionated, and mostly conservative.  I was in love with that little town.  The newspaper had articles explaining how a local boy broke his arm or that a local restaurant was getting a new state of the art oven.  Everybody knew everybody and who they were related to and how (with the exception of the oil field workers who came through seasonally).  Many of them were extremely gossipy and even sometimes seemed to be outright hateful.  But it was clear that in the end, the town rallied behind its citizens.

I liked it so much that when I decided to teach school, I chose a teeny tiny little town that required a long commute.  It was a little bigger than Utopia because it had a football team and it had just gotten its first McDonalds.  That was a HUGE event.  The marching band was present at the grand opening and the kids were elated.  That was over 25 years ago.  It’s not a small town anymore.  It’s an exurb.  I’m not sure what’s become of my friend’s hometown from college.  I haven’t been back since college.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Karen Valby’s book on Utopia.  It follows the lives of four people: a teenage boy who can’t stand country music and dreams of getting out of Utopia, a teenage girl who is the only African American girl in the school, the mother of multiple sons who have joined the army, and an elderly gentlemen who used to own the local grocery store.  He still shows up at the store every single morning for a male coffee drinking ritual that has been going on for decades.

It’s kind of sad to think that the remaining few towns like Utopia are becoming a thing of the past as corporate America takes over.  I hate to see them go!  Of course, I live in suburbia.  I’m part of the problem.

Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

Yesterday, my son and husband were extremely excited to be able to get Netflix on their iPhones. Meanwhile, I was on the last chapter of Chris Hedges latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle which makes me a bit hesitant to add Netflix to my iPhone.  (Not to mention David Lynch’s admonition against watching a film on a telephone.)

I appreciate Hedges arguments.  I’m just not quite sure what to make of his conclusion that we are on the fast track to totalitarian rule.

Hedges claims that a growing majority of us are living in a fantasy world thanks to the increasing oligarchical rule of corporate America. For instance, we are obsessed with a celebrity culture. The fame of celebrities disguises those who posses true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite.  Hedges says it is as though we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid figures on Plato’s cave, and it is a fantasy that is specifically designed to keep us from fighting back.  Hedges calls reality shows like Big Brother “a celebration of a surveillance state”.  People are increasingly willing to be placed on round-the-clock video monitoring and this is problematic.  The use of hidden cameras in these shows reinforces the notion that not only is it normal, it is enviable, to be constantly watched.  You, too, can have celebrity fame simply by being willing to have cameras on you 24/7.  Constant surveillance used to be something we feared.  By manipulating our fascination with celebrity, the elite have made it seem like something we want.

Meanwhile, we are experiencing an epidemic of illiteracy in North America.  Nearly 1/3 of us are illiterate or barely literate and this number grows by 2 million people a year.  42% of college graduates don’t read another book for the rest of their lives!  (Statistics are similar in both Canada and the United States.) Instead, we are bombarded with spectacle.  Hedges finds this extremely disturbing because he says it hasn’t been since the fascist dictatorships or maybe the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages that content has been so ruthlessly and skillfully controlled. We are allowing propaganda to be a substitute for ideas and ideology.

Hedges says that our faith in illusions has become a secular version of being born again…

These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths.  They encourage us to bow down before the cult of self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith.  It is to become an apostate.  The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.

As an example of the cruelty of the corporate state, Hedges turns to the pornography industry.  There are 13,000 porn films made every year in the United States, most of these in the San Fernando Valley.  In 2006, porn revenues exceeded $97 billion which is more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink combined.  Porn is very lucrative to large corporations like General Motors and AT&T that receive 80% of all porn dollars spent by consumers (through DIRECTV, Adult Pay Per View, etc.)

Porn is becoming increasingly mainstream, and it is also becoming far more cruel than it has ever been.  Women endure horrible acts of degradation and extreme violence.  Porn has always been about male power, but today it is about the expression of male power through the physical abuse and torture of women. Hedges quotes Robert Jensen who wrote, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.

What does it say about our culture that cruelty is so easy to market?  What is the difference between glorifying violence in war and glorifying the violence of sexual domination?  I think that the reason porn is so difficult for many people to discuss is not that it is about sex – our culture is saturated in sex.  The reason it is difficult is that porn exposes something very uncomfortable about us.  We accept a culture flooded with images of women who are sexual commodities.  Increasingly, women in pornography are not people having sex but bodies upon which sexual activities of increasing cruelty are played out.  And many men – maybe a majority of men – like it.

Hedges says that porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our culture.  Porn is now fused with the mainstream commercial industry and has evolved to its logical conclusion.  “It first turned women into sexual commodities and then killed women as human beings.”  It’s no wonder we don’t blink when hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan are killed.  It’s no wonder we can throw our mentally ill out onto the street, imprison millions of our youth for non-violent drug crimes, and deny health care to the poor.  According to Hedges, “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”

Hedges turns from the mainstream cruelty inherent in the porn industry to America’s elite universities which have become overly specialized and reliant upon the corporate hierarchy.  Hedges says that the development of specialized vocabularies amongst so-called experts in these specialized fields are meant to thwart universal understanding.  “It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions.  It destroys the search for the common good.  It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny specialized fragments.  This allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions.”

Hedges claims that the bankruptcy of our economic and political senses can be traced directly to an assault against the humanities.  By neglecting the humanities, the elite have been allowed to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions.  “Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed.”  Those in charge “have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system…They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil.  They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.”

Universities are becoming nothing more than glorified vocational schools for the corporations, and must adopt the values and operating techniques of the corporations they serve.  “The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience.  It has created an elite class of experts who seldom look beyond their tasks and disciplines to put what they do in a wider, social context.  And by absenting themselves from the moral and social questions raised by the humanities, they have opted to serve a corporate structure that has destroyed the culture around them.”  Ironically, the universities are training students for vocations that will soon no longer exist because “they have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained.”

Hedges views the Positive Psychology as a further method of corporate control.  He says, “Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis… It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.  Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan.”  This is an interesting argument and one I hadn’t fully considered previously.  I’ve liked what I’ve read of Positive Psychology, but I haven’t paid attention to how it is being used within corporations.

Hedges says that it’s use within corporations, makes it possible to claim that those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes are somehow ill when they may have a legitimate claim to their negative attitudes (lack of appropriate pay, insufficient health care, over worked, etc.) Positive psychologists often make arrogant, vague claims using a religious tone. They have learned to manipulate social behavior and by promoting social harmony under the guise of achieving happiness, they have designed a mechanism for conformity.

According to anthropologist Laura Nader, most oppressive systems of power, including classical Western colonialism and proponents of globalization, make use of the idea of social harmony as a control mechanism.  Nader claims that the drive for harmony always lends itself to covert censorship and self-censorship.  The tyranny of harmony, when pushed to an extreme, leads to a life of fantasy that shuts out reality.  It slowly dominates and corrupts the wider culture.  (Again – think Brave New World!)

Hedges says, “The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion…Here in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain.  Here, we are all happy.”

So what is to become of us? Hedges thinks our future is bleak. “Never before has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over.” And there is little President Obama can do to stop it. It’s been in the making for decades and cannot be undone with a few trillion dollars in bailout money. Hedges points to those who saw it coming… Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader.  Also, social critics who wrote books immediately following WWII – David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), C. Wright Mills, (The Power Elite), William H. White (The Organization of Man), Seymour Mellman (The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline), Daniel Boorstin (The Image: A guide to Pseudo-Events in America), and Reinhold Niebuhr (The Irony of American History) – have proven to be prophetic.

Hedges says that fear and instability has plunged the working class into profound and personal economic despair which, unsurprisingly, drives them into “the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation.  And unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed.”

Hedges says that the moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk and we will become Weimar Germany, unprepared to deal with the backlash of a betrayed and angry populace.  Christian demagogues and simpletons like Sarah Palin and loudmouth talk-show hosts will make promises of revenge and moral renewal, while the elites retreat into the shelter of privilege and comfort.  The rest of us will be left to the mercy of a security state.  He quotes George Orwell, “A society becomes totalitarian when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.”

Hedges says there are powerful corporate entities that do not want to lose their influence or wealth and that are waiting for a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control.  Hedges says the tools for doing this are already in place.  “These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing descent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy.  And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.  By then, exhausted and broken, we may have lost the power to resist.” The worse reality becomes, the less we want to hear about it and the more we are willing to distract ourselves with manufactured illusions.  This is what eventually happens to a dying civilization.

But Hedges says this will not be the end of hope, because the power of love has always been greater than the power of death.  Love cannot be controlled.  It constantly rises up to remind a society of what is real and what is illusion.

Thoughts on The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

I finished Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, quite a few days ago. When my husband asked me what I thought of it, the main thing that I kept trying to get across is how amazed I was by how much ground Carl managed to cover in so few pages. Despite the title, it’s really not a very big book – just 300 pages.  But it does cover a substantial amount of material in those 300 pages!  It’s truly quite an accomplishment.

I wrote a post about 75 pages into the book about how I was a bit troubled by the idea of “selling mysticism”.  Having finished the book, this still troubles me.  The book could potentially be categorized as a guide for aspiring mystics which would be OK except based on my understanding of mysticism, an aspiring mystic is an oxymoron.  Had the book been titled The Big Book of Christian Spirituality or The Big Book of Contemplative Christianity or something just slightly less ambiguous than “mystic”, it wouldn’t trouble me in the least.

It’s not that I think of mysticism as something magical, unattainable and only for the few. Nor do I consider mysticism to be “special”.  Mysticism is simply a term that expresses a human potential that is very difficult to explain in rational terms. The trouble with writing a guide for aspiring mystics, as I see it, is that by turning mysticism into an achievable goal, we weaken that potential rather than strengthen it.  The Buddhists say that the desire to be enlightened is a direct obstacle to enlightenment itself.  Desire is desire is desire, even if it is for something lofty like enlightenment or being a mystic. What we seek we will forever seek.  Realization does not necessarily require a quest, it is the quest. Eventually, we have to abandon the quest for our object of desire and “leap”.  In the old French text, “The Quest of the Holy Grail” was not called “The Quest for the Holy Grail”.  The title has been distorted by a goal driven culture.  Consider the difference between a “Quest of God” and a “Quest for God”.  The two barely resemble one another.  One is focused upon a journey (process), the other upon an end result/acquisition (a goal).

Carl is obviously aware of this conundrum.  He provides an entire chapter on Christian paradox because he says that mysticism is “all about paradox”.  I agreed with the vast majority he listed but disagreed with a few, too.  Especially, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Perfect love casts out fear.”  True, love casts out fear.  But “the fear of the Lord” isn’t “fear, or dread or existential angst”.  It’s Awe.  Which, of course, doesn’t require a belief in God but works just fine if you do believe in God.  And of course I have a problem with – “Mysticism is the quest for God.  You cannot seek God unless God has found you.”  Obviously, I do not agree that mysticism is the quest for God.  Nor do I agree that all love is about seeking a beloved.  Love is a choice and a journey.  Not necessarily a quest for a beloved. Carl says things don’t work out at the end of Romeo and Juliet, but they do. The House of Montague and the House of Capulet, after decades and possibly centuries of being at war with each other, are reconciled in the end. Romeo and Juliet’s youthful, trusting love was not in vain. To me mysticism isn’t about seeking God.  It’s the realization that we are already One with God.  It is trust in God because God is trust.  (Jeremiah 17:7 NASB.) Even though everything is a mess, all is well.

Carl says mystics would be at home in Missouri, the “show me” state, because seeing is believing.  But I think what mystics understand is that it’s really the other way around.  We don’t actually believe it when we see it.  We see it when we believe it.  How we choose to perceive the world is a choice we make.  I do, however, fully agree with the paradox he used with the Missouri example:  “Mysticism is about experience.  Mysticism cannot be limited to experience.”  Mysticism is rational because it is based upon experience.  Mystics warn that our experience should be tested before trusted – is this an authentic experience or something generated by my own egoic drive?  But at the same time, mysticism is not limited to experience because it is transrational. That is a beautiful paradox!

Carl says mysticism is like tofu.  Not a bad analogy in and of itself, but he goes on to say, “If tofu’s strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever dish it’s cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture on its own.”  True, tofu is extremely adaptable.  But my husband and daughter will eat tofu straight from the carton.  They like it that way.  Maybe that’s a little weird, but there are others like them.  And anyway, the spiciest spice does not define taste or texture on its own anymore than does tofu.  What is tasted requires a taster.  The taster’s judgment about what is tasted is based on personal preference, not on the actuality of what is tasted. The apparent lack of defining taste or texture in tofu is not its weakness. That is its strength.  Just as tofu does not require a savory dish to make it palatable, mysticism doesn’t have to take on a particular religious dogma in order to be perceived as beautiful.

Nietzsche was not religious, but is considered by many, including me, to be a mystic.  He likewise inspired numerous people of various religious and non-religious backgrounds who are considered by many to be mystics:  Martin Buber, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Paul Tillich, Jung, Rilke, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence…  (Toward the end of his book, Carl says that “at the heart of eternal being is ever-evolving becoming”.  That’s very Nietzsche!)  Tofu is just fine on its own for lots of people. So is mysticism.  Maybe you like tofu in savory dishes better than you like it plain and prefer mysticism expressed through beautiful religious symbols and practices.  But that doesn’t mean it must be expressed in that way. It’s simply a matter of personal preference.

Of course, in all fairness, Carl’s book is specifically about Christian mysticism and was likely written primarily with Catholics in mind.  I belong to a mainline Methodist Church which is big into things like Prevenient Grace and the Quadrilateral (the balance between and within scripture, tradition, reason and experience).  Our church was founded by a mystic, John Wesley – “the reasonable enthusiast” – so I don’t think many Methodists would have a problem with Carl’s book.  (Enthusiasts in Wesley’s day were the crazy charismatic types who were more concerned with magic and the spirit world than the rational world.  Wesley was called an enthusiast because he had mystical experiences, but he was also a solid rationalist.)  As far as I can tell, nothing in Carl’s book counters Methodism and I don’t think it would offend anyone except, perhaps, disgruntled ex-Catholics and the more literal among us. It might be the perfect book for some people in our church although I can only imagine the more ecumenical being interested in reading it because it is so heavily Catholic. Most with an ecumenical bent would likely already be familiar with what Carl has to say because the problem with covering so much ground in so few pages is that Carl can’t go as deeply into these concepts as he is definitely capable of going.

I actually bought the book hoping it would provide a bridge between paganism and Christian mysticism since Carl was a pagan in a previous life. I have lots of Unitarian Universalist friends who are very skeptical of Christianity.  Most of them are UU Pagans.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this book will provide much help in bridging that particular gap.  However, having once been an integral part of Catholicism for a decade of my life (and that I continue to be involved with it through my husband’s family), I do think Carl’s book will likely be very helpful to many people within the Catholic community.  It speaks their language and is solidly grounded in Catholic tradition.  I plan to purchase another copy for my husband’s brothers and sister to share. They have all been active Catholics their entire lives and have likely never once missed a weekly mass.  But it’s only been within the the last decade or so that they have developed a more spiritual interest in their religion.  When I met my husband, he was contemplating becoming a Jesuit priest.  Not sure why he had such strong spiritual leanings so young while the rest of his family did not, but it was definitely his spirituality that attracted me to him. Had I read this book 20 years ago when I was first becoming Catholic (primarily for his sake – I was already deeply rooted in Methodism), I would have devoured it and would have wanted to discuss it with every person willing to discuss it with me.  I also think the decision to become Catholic would have been much easier for me.   Of course, can’t say it makes me want to return to Catholicism now that I’ve left it, but that’s another matter altogether.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

As long as we acknowledge that mysticism is, at its heart, about a deep and profound mystery that cannot be put into words, we can (and, perhaps should) acknowledge that it is precisely in this dimension of mystery that people of different faiths and different wisdom traditions can relate to each other – not in a spirit of competition of hostility, but in a genuinely open, compassionate, and respectful manner. (p. 64)

First of all, mystical Christianity is less about attaining unity with God and more about creating the inner emptiness where you can offer God hospitality.  (p. 161)

So again we enter the realm of paradox.  Mysticism is a journey; and it’s not a journey.  It’s a climb up the mountain; it’s a transformation that happens right here, right now – no movement necessary.  Since paradox is at the heart of mystical experience, the journey/not-journey becomes yet another key to unlocking the depth of the Christian mysteries.  (p. 184)

The paradox at the heart of mysticism emerges from the paradox of being human.  That which is infinite cannot be be squeezed into a finite container, no matter how grand and noble and beautiful that container may be.  (p. 191)

Mystical Musings

For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.

I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them.  That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too.  Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious.  I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing.  I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism.  It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold.  It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.

Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream.  He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power.  Professional marketers are aware of this.  Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market.   Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.

The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature.  In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.

Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited.  It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge.  I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism.  Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place.  It resonated with my experience.  Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic.  Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics.  More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others.  But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking.  I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example.  I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves.  So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me.  But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely.  What is the point of doing this?  To gain converts?

Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view.  Fair enough.  But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view?  Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives.  His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better.  This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days.  (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)

Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  This doesn’t seem right to me.  I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe.  Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.

Carl writes:

Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”.  Is union with God, etc. an end result?  If so, an end result of what?  Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do?  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism.  Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.

Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God.  Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly?  I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.

God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions.  Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God.  But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate.  The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God.  For the Jains, God is perfect Being.  When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God.  What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem.  Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue.  (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!)  Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all.  There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism.  All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman.  Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.

Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea.  That’s not necessarily true.  Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit.  The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit.  I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.

In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer).  Look at it this way…

  • Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential.  In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”.  Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
  • Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) –  fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life.  In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”.  Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff.  Human sensual experience.  Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God.  Thatness is based on human experience.  This is the individual experience of infinite potential.  God made flesh.  The Son.  God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
  • Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings.  In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer.  Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones.  It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God.  It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.

I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too.  The Trinity exists everywhere.  It is NOT unique to Christianity.  Why would it be?

Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown.  Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”.  What is that if not pantheistic??  Carl writes:

A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.

Mystical unity?  To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism.  Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it.  Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”.  But come on!!  God is a metaphor.  We don’t understand metaphor anymore!  If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all!  It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book.  My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious.  I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.