Sunday, September 30, 2007

His Horrible Old Condition

My second (and final) review of Burroughs for GCN, after Port of Saints. Published in 1981.

After I'd mailed off the review, I found a book on Burroughs, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (Seaver Books, 1981), by a British celebrity journalist named Victor Bockris. Printed on page 32 was a photo of Burroughs with his companion/amanuensis James Grauerholz, looking at a mockup for the dust jacket of Cities of the Red Night. It was identical to the published version, except for the subtitle, A Boy's Book, which, according to the caption, "was later removed from the jacket and title page." It stunned me; irrationally, I felt directly addressed by that picture. Of course the subtitle was probably removed for marketing purposes, lest some clueless bookseller stock it in the children's section. But still, it felt eerie.

The subtitle has been restored in some later editions, though not to the covers of the books as far as I can tell. I still wonder if it meant that Burroughs had more self-consciousness, and even humor, about what he was doing than I realized when I wrote these reviews. Later I saw footage of Burroughs reading his work aloud in Howard Brookner's 1983 documentary Burroughs, and realized for the first time how very funny Burroughs's writing could be. But still later, I learned from Dennis Cooper's obituary of Burroughs in All Ears (Soft Skull, 1999), that some of Burroughs's later works, possibly including Cities, were partially ghostwritten. That would fit -- parts of Cities of the Red Night felt slightly off, more like an imitation of Burroughs than the real deal.

Burroughs's influence continues to be felt, down to the hoaxer J. T. Leroy who wrote of junky street hustlers, and the extravagant violence of "extreme" cinema. I am still not innarested.


Cities of the Red Night
by William S. Burroughs
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981
332 pp.
$14.95 clothbound

The jacket blurb touts Cities of the Red Night as Burroughs’s “magnum opus, perhaps even more important than Naked Lunch. … equally shocking and provocative.” I don’t think so. The capacity of art to shock is like a narcotic: the user develops a tolerance and requires progressively larger doses as time passes to get the same, or any, effect. Since Life has outdistanced Art by several lengths since Naked Lunch appeared in 1959, it is probably to Burroughs’s credit that Cities of the Red Night, his latest novel, is not more shocking than his earlier work. It’s less so, I’d say, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m jaded. Naked Lunch was obsessive, dreamlike, surreal, and as casually cruel as a cat mutilating a mouse. The horrors Burroughs depicted so lovingly seemed only the superficial symptoms of a deeper, cosmic malignance probably too overwhelming to be faced. Cities of the Red Night is petit Guignol, done with wires and plaster casts and green pea soup. A sense of menace builds for awhile, but collapses well before the end to reveal that it’s just a fake, and a cheap one at that. Perhaps Burroughs wants to reassure us, though I doubt it. More likely he is a minor writer who has already said his say. For a writer who believes that words are a malignant virus, he surely is reluctant to take the cure.

I said in a review of Port of Saints, his most recent prior fiction, that Burroughs writes boys’ books: adventure sagas of idyllic masturbatory sex and extravagant but phony violence in a universe where there are no mothers. Cities of the Red Night is more of the same. This time we get a pirate subplot, and high time too, set in the early 1700s: a little group of teenaged boys run away to sea from Boston with an opium trader who turns out to work for a Captain Strobe. Strobe, who is based on a real 18th-century pirate called Captain Mission, is a sort of nautical Robin Hood dedicated to establishing a new society based on religious and sexual freedom, the abolition of slavery and the death penalty (except for bad guys), liberal opium rations and lots of cock. Instead of Madagascar, where the real Captain Mission’s colony was wiped out by the natives, Strobe encamps in Panama, where he easily overpowers the Spanish opposition and begins spreading like a radioactive virus over the isthmus.

There is also a subplot involving Clem Snide, Private Asshole (that’s what it says here, dear reader, no shit). Snide is sent on the trail of a boy named Jerry who has disappeared in Greece under suspicious circumstances. It turns out that he – Jerry, I mean, though it hardly matters – was decapitated in a bizarre sex-magic ritual and his head shipped in a crate labeled MACHINE PARTS to Lima Peru. Snide begins to prepare magical comic books about the Cities of the Red Night, where all manner of noxious debauchery is practiced. (It is never clear to me whether Burroughs actually considers this debauchery noxious or not. Sometimes he seems to disapprove, even while he is cataloguing the practices in enthusiastic detail.) There is some kind of power struggle between the minions of two powerful and evil women, queen bees as it were, which erupts into incredible violence without victory for either side.

There is still another subplot involving B-23, a mysterious disease caused by a radioactive virus, causing sexual delirium, spontaneous ejaculation of infectious radioactive semen, and death. Addiction to opiates provides some resistance to it. Burroughs aficionados will be interested to know that radioactive viruses, erogenous sores and rectal mucus are more prominent in this than in previous volumes, to the point of becoming leitmotifs if not actual characters. I believe that Burroughs considers erogenous sores cute: “It is a gang of naked boys covered with erogenous sores. As they walk the giggle and stroke and scratch each other. From time to time they fuck each other in Hula-Hoops to idiot mambo” (p. 222). Isnt’t that sweet? The Hanged Man, one of Burroughs’s fave sexual talismans from Naked Lunch, is also back.

It is beyond me how anyone could take this book seriously. In Naked Angels (a 1976 study of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac), John Tytell quoted Marshall McLuhan’s comparison of Burroughs to “a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our house,” and said that Burroughs’s method “is cleansing and purgative, however terrifying the implication” (p. 139). But it is hardly news that our society is in trouble. While Burroughs deserves some credit for having said so in the way he did during the 1950s, many other writers since then have colonized the territory he pioneered, and Burroughs now comes on more like a septuagenarian doing Trick or Treat at our door while flames are leaping from the roof of our house.

Nor is shocking the average American much of an accomplishment. I think it is more significant that Burroughs became widely read by the slightly more adventurous, and among the straight college boys with hip leanings I’ve known, Burroughs is (with Genet and Ginsberg) the queer writer most likely to be known to them. This is, I’m convinced, at least partly because he makes homosexuality sound like a boarding school in which there are no vacations Burroughs was in the days of Naked Lunch as guilt-ridden about fucking boys as he was about shooting junk, and his ambivalence was expressed full-blown in his writing. Sex, smack, and mayhem were fused into a “cry from hell,” as Newsweek called Naked Lunch. Homosexuality could be lumped together with addiction as part of Burroughs’s degradation, and there was little in his texts to argue otherwise.

Burroughs became quite influential, but how well he was understood is another matter At least two important rock bands, Steely Dan and Soft Machine, took their names from his writings, but not because they were prepared to deal with gay themes; and Hunter S. Thompson, who in his obsession with random violence and drug-crazed excess is a parody of Burroughs, substitutes football for sex of any kind in his writing. Homosocial, ; homosexual, no – at least in print. What straight males like Thompson, or Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan, or Norman Mailer (who said that Burroughs “may conceivably be possessed by genius”) could relate to, and borrow for their own use, was Burroughs’s virulent misogyny. Thus he became the Godfather of Gonzo.

Cities of the Red Night supposedly goes beyond warnings of apocalypse to offer a vision of an alternative: Captain Mission/Strobe’s Utopian communes. “I cite this example of retroactive Utopia,” Burroughs says in a foreword, “since it actually could have happened. Had Captain Mission lived long enough to set an example for others to follow, mankind might have stepped free from the deadly impasse of insoluble problems in which we now find ourselves. ... Your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century with Captain Mission. Only a miracle or a disaster could restore it” (pp. xiv-xv) But Burroughs offers only a sketchy and unconvincing picture of his utopia. For example, the death penalty is to be abolished under his Articles, “except for violation of the Articles,” which takes back with one hand what the other just gave. Since in Burroughs’s fiction the bad guys always wear black hats, it may not seem like a contradiction to him, but in practice it would work out to no change at all. Even in fiction Burroughs is too fond of blowing away the cops of his dreams ever to give it up.

There is also his treatment of women. On pages 111-112 Burroughs gives voice briefly (and for the first time in his fiction to my knowledge) to a woman character who does not “relish being treated as a breeding animal” without implying that she is a lesbian (an insult, from him) or a prude. Having paid lip service to this issue, he drops it. Women through most of the book, as in his writing in general, are either villains or breeding animals. Captain Strobe’s bold buggering buccaneers are almost exclusively male. As a fantasy, this might be considered (though not by me) cute or sexy; as a serious account of Utopia it is, to use the original meaning of the word “utopia,” nowhere.

Burroughs considers himself tough-minded and unsentimental (See, for example, the interviews in The Job [Grove Press].) But he really seems to think that a free human society can be established simply by declaring principles and killing of a few villains. If this were true, humanity would not be in the trouble we are now. It is very convenient, I know, to locate the source of unfreedom in evil controlling intelligences outside oneself, but it is a lie. I think Burroughs himself knows better, but if so he hasn’t put that knowledge into this book.

There is more: the racist description of Arab and Latin-American youths as quasi-human sex objects (or E. M. Forster Syndrome); the pseudo-scientific jargon Burroughs uses as pretentiously as do the scientists he often ridicules; the borrowings from such pop-hip frauds as Aleister Crowley, Carlos Castaneda, and Wilhelm Reich; the invocation at the book’s beginning of deities of death, decay, and rotting genitals, which to my mind shows where this book is really at; and the maddening sense I keep having that Burroughs thinks he has written a book of major importance. Burroughs is not a liberated or liberating soul, but the artistic heir of writers like Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Wilde, whose celebration of the bizarre and scandalous was inseparable from their guilt over it. He is – I hope – the end of a tradition, not the founder of one. As the former, I can respect him somewhat, for he helped to kill off that tradition. As the latter, I can only quote his words from Naked Lunch: “You think I am innarested to contact your horrible old condition? I am not innarested at all.”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pollyanna Karenina

Selfish and Perverse
by Bob Smith
New York
: Carroll and Graf, 2007
376 pp.

When I first noticed the title of Bob Smith’s new novel, I thought someone had written an unauthorized biography of me. But it had laudatory blurbs by writers I respected, such as Armistead Maupin, so I checked it out of the library anyway. And you know something? It was a pretty good read.

Smith was a founding member of Funny Gay Males, a gay male standup comedy group, and the author of Openly Bob, one of those recyclings of bar autobiography and slightly stale standup material that are all over the place nowadays. I guess they’re not really a new phenomenon, though: from Mark Twain through Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I to Jack Douglas’s My Brother Was an Only Child and Cynthia Heimel’s If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?, such books are a publishing standby. But there’s a difference: the books of MacDonald, Douglas, et al. could render me helpless with laughter. The new, young-ish, gay writers like Smith or David Sedaris or Michael Thomas Ford leave me cold, and a bit bewildered. Where’s the laugh? There’s a certain smugness in Ford and Sedaris that I find off-putting, especially in Ford’s earlier books, where he wore his alleged inability to get a date almost as a badge of superiority. I find such claims a bit hard to evaluate: I mean, I haven’t met the guy, maybe there’s a good reason he can’t get a date. And these boys’ determinedly white-bread packaging didn’t help much either. I don’t remember anything about Openly Bob, except my recurring question: I paid money for this?

I didn’t pay money for Selfish and Perverse, which may help. Thank the gods for public libraries, the training schools (as some early 20th-century right-winger put it) of Socialism! But I do think that Smith did the right thing in turning to fiction. (So has Ford, though I haven’t tried his yet.) Selfish and Perverse didn’t make me horny, make me laugh, or make me want to fish for salmon, as Armistead Maupin promised, but it did carry me along, involve me, and entertain me reasonably well.

Nelson Kunker, who narrates, is a Wisconsin-bred gay thirty-something, now working as script coordinator for a TV show in Los Angeles while he tries to finish his first novel. First he meets Roy Briggs, an Alaskan salmon fisherman and archaeology student visiting his cousin Joe, a writer-performer on the show. Nelson and Roy hit it off very well, and romance is clearly in the offing when that week’s guest star, Dylan Fabizak, arrives. Dylan is built, charismatic, and damaged, having just been paroled after doing time for drug possession; he’s trying to rebuild his acting career. Smith smoothly maneuvers his leads to Alaska – Nelson to work on his novel and his budding relationship with Roy, Dylan to research his comeback movie role, as an Alaskan salmon fisherman. As Edmund White has pointed out, a gay love triangle can develop complexity impossible in a heterosexual one: any of the three males can potentially get involved with the others. Smith exploits that potential nicely here, so that each participant spends some time at the apex of the triangle.

Setting the novel in Alaska was a smart move: it gets the story out of the usual urban settings. Smith apparently spent some time in Alaska, getting to know people and places, and he used his experience well. Nelson meets a variety of people along the way, and happily, there’s no caricaturing of boondocks queens or backwoods hicks: their eccentricities and limitations don’t eclipse their humanity. Smith’s affection for all his characters, even the manipulative Dylan, sets Selfish and Perverse on a level above a lot of today’s gay fiction.

Smith tries a bit too hard for snappy epigrams. Though they don’t get in the way, they never quite hit the bull’s eye. For instance: “The fantasy of having sex with a straight man never appealed to me, because I was a writer and could complete the narrative and knew I’d probably end up cooking and cleaning for him.” (This line inspired me to get Sam “Phil Andros” Steward’s 1966 story collection $tud off the shelf. In “Sea Change,” the narrator encounters a ‘straight’ man who ends up cooking and cleaning for the gay man he hooks up with. Steward’s stories are dated and sometimes painful in some of their attitudes, especially about race, but they effortlessly achieve the humor and depth that writers like Smith struggle for in vain.)

Or: it’s “a harsh fact that expressing too much individuality means you’ll always be single. I loved reading about eccentric characters in novels but understood that in the real world, wearing a monocle will restrict your sex life to masturbation.” That’s tough talk for a character named “Nelson Kunker.” (Why is it that gay fictioneers like to give their characters such clunky names? At least Smith is kinder to his than Ethan Mordden.) Smith has a bounty of these aperçus, roughly one per page. (I did like the name-play that I swiped for the title of this review, though.) Selfish and Perverse would be unbearable if it weren’t for Smith’s ability to get his characters to reveal themselves through their behavior – which is a good sign for his future as a novelist. There is still a coolness, a distance, in his writing that I hope he’ll outgrow. On the other hand, he has managed to sustain a 370-page story without breaking a sweat, no small achievement for a first novelist. I’ll watch for his next novel on the library shelves.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nineteen Eighty-Four and a Half

At the time I wrote this review, I hadn’t yet read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, though I’d read quite a lot of Bradbury’s work in junior high and high school. I recall starting Fahrenheit 451 once, maybe in my freshman year of college, but didn’t get very far. I think I found it weak compared to Huxley and especially Orwell. I finally read it this past summer, and will write more about that some other time. It’s only worth mentioning here because I now recognize how much N. A. Diaman borrowed from Bradbury: The Fourth Wall, as I guessed in this review, took a lot from Fahrenheit 451. Not the “exploratory sex,” of course – Bradbury is a bit squeamish about bodies and sex (see his horror stories in The October Country), and the relationship between the hero of F451 and the young woman he meets is cloyingly chaste, while Bret’s organizing by sex is more a Sixties New Left thing…. But more of that another time.
N. A. Diaman published more fiction, most recently in 1997 as far as I can tell, but I haven't read any of it. I should at least have a look sometime at his 1978 debut, Ed Dean Is Queer.
Published in Gay Community News sometime in 1981.

The Fourth Wall
by N. A. Diaman
Persona Press, Box 14022, San Francisco CA 94114
128 pp.
$4.95 paper

I had hopes for The Fourth Wall. Self-published but well-packaged, it promised “a unique fresh style blending contemporary cinematic imagery with the sparse precision of the French nouveau roman.” Mr. N. A. Diaman, author of an earlier novel, Ed Dean Is Queer, had presented his work well. Professionally, even. I wasn’t impressed by the “nouveau roman” business, but at least he was ambitious.

The Fourth Wall is a negative utopia (or “dystopia”) set a few centuries in our wake. Mr. Diaman has borrowed from Orwell’s 1984 a nearly-omnipresent television screen (but unlike Orwell’s, these do not transmit, only receive) and a charismatic leader, and from Huxley’s Brave New World a consumer culture whose members are kept pacified by recreational drugs (though recreational sex is frowned on here). After a violent and prolonged civil war, control of North America has fallen into the hands of the telecommunications industry. The “fourth wall” of the title is the giant television screen which covers the fourth wall of, apparently, every room in every dwelling. Books have been forbidden (Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451?), but an underground movement preserves them for select initiates.

The story centers on young Bret Hamilton, a member of that underground who thinks he may have found a new acolyte in Var, a young man he has met and slept with. Bret has just been promoted to a new job as television cameraman for the federal government, beginning with the broadcast of a major address by the President. During this broadcast, the President collapses and dies, but it turns out that his “death” has been staged to cover his retirement: the President wants to disappear from public life and return to scholarship, his first love, and this, supposedly, is the easiest way to make the transition. Bret accidentally stumbles on the Truth and has a brief dialogue with the President, who is impressed by his intelligence and cajoles him into keeping the secret. Bret then returns to Var’s arms, ready to teach him to read. It is not certain whether Bret will keep the President’s secret, or if it matters.

We also meet Sonia and Weslex, Bret’s conformist parents. They aren’t villains, though, just an ordinary middle-aged married couple. Weslex goes to his five-hour-a-day job, and Sonia spends her day selecting their dinner by number from picture cards, popping pills, and watching television.

Unfortunately, Mr. Diaman is neither a very good writer nor a convincing storyteller. Sparse his prose may be; precise it is not. No doubt he intends to parody bureaucratese, but such phrases as “the abstract eye that is the symbol of the telecommunications center at the fourth wall of the capital” are what I’d call vague, not precise. Var has “dark curly hair” but no attempt is made to say just what color it is. Bret is not described at all. Vague. Var wears a street uniform, the standard all-weather costume for men in the city.” What does it look like? Vague. If anything, Mr. Diaman seems to be avoiding language of any exactness. But instead of evoking a conformist, dehumanizing society, this lack of detail suggests that Mr. Diaman did not bother to work out the details.

Having the President retire by faking his death is not clichéd – it’s inept. I was uncomfortably reminded of plot twists in fiction I wrote in high school. And the confrontation between Bret and the President is worthy, in its stilted profundity, of Ayn Rand. That is not a compliment.

what about individual human rights, freedom and democracy?
the president laughs.
archaic words. the rhetoric of another era. that all went out with the twentieth century. unrealistic vague concepts. too inefficient for our present complex society.
but bret is not convinced.
those ideals were worth pursuing even though we failed to achieve them fully at any time in the history of this nation.

I’ve been toying with the idea that Mr. Diaman doesn’t think much of Bret’s “alternative lifestyle.” Certainly I don’t: Bret recovers his individuality by eating organic food, collecting antiques, and the practice of “exploratory sex.” Then he feels entitled to condescend to more prosaic souls: “they seem so preoccupied with themselves that they hardly notice one another. … he wonders what it means for them to be alive.” But I can find no irony in Mr. Diaman’s treatment of his hero. Does he really think that eating home-baked bread and being “creative” – another vague word – will make conformity crumble? I hardly think that the city and subculture that gave us the Castro Street Clone are in a position to level the charge of conformity against anyone else. And if anyone replies to this admittedly cheap shot by pointing out that just because people dress alike it doesn’t mean they think alike, or that they aren’t still human beings, I would agree readily: that is my complaint against Bret, and against Mr. Diaman’s book.
It is easy to advocate that people use technology “to enrich instead of impoverishing their lives” but it is not so easy to work out how this is to be done. It is easy to grumble that a “happy, healthy, comfortable world” is also a “dull, predictable, boring world,” but it should not be forgotten that an exciting, unpredictable world is also a frightening, unstable one; I recommend to Mr. Diaman a 1940 story by Robert A. Heinlein, “Coventry,” for a classic handling of this theme. In such books as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song, to name just three, questions about conformity and the use of technology have been posed, and vividly and originally explored.

If Mr. Diaman has anything of his own to say on these or other matters, he hasn’t said it here. He has merely invoked them to lend an air of trendy seriousness to an extremely slight and undeveloped tale. And this saddens me. Small lesbian-feminist presses such as Daughters, Inc., have given us valuable fiction and exciting new ideas, and some important poetry has come from small gay male presses. N. A. Diaman has the resources, evidently, to do something of the sort for gay male fiction. I hope his next offering will have content which is up to its packaging.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame On You!

Recently I was reading Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea’s Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Vanderbilt UP, 2007), and found this interesting passage on page 58:

It is important to remember that the shame and potential danger were man-made, not God-given, attributes of the body. Mark Jordan, professor of religion at Emory University, reminds us: “Certainly it is not God who is ashamed of human gender – or God who pulls back from the shame meant to be inflicted on Jesus by crucifying him naked. We are the ones ashamed of our human bodies when we want to humiliate them.”

I agree that the body is not shameful, though not necessarily because I’m an atheist; many atheists do consider the body shameful. But I wonder how Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan know how Yahweh feels about it. “Certainly,” in particular, is a strong word; I can’t help suspecting that Jordan uses it because it’s impossible to be certain.

Even if Yahweh is not ashamed of human gender, it doesn’t follow that he doesn’t want human beings to be. (For what it’s worth, though, the Bible depicts him as quite squeamish about the body and its fluids, except for the blood shed in sacrifice and in the massacre of his many enemies.) God’s ways are not our ways, or Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi as the Romans used to say. According to Genesis, the man and woman he created were not ashamed of their nakedness until they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And then their eyes were opened, and they were ashamed. “Their eyes were opened” indicates that they were ignorant before, they were blind but then they saw that their nakedness was shameful.

Since Yahweh also created various creatures to be unclean or otherwise impure, it can hardly be claimed that he would not create something inherently shameful. I know, Genesis also says that after creating the world, he looked at what he’d made and saw that it was good. Either “good” and “unclean” are compatible (and I’m glad I’m not a religious believer, so it’s not my problem to try to reconcile them), or he changed his mind later. And deities are entitled to change their minds.

Of course, as an atheist I don’t consider the Bible to be authoritative for me. But Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan are Christians (Frawley’s an ex-Catholic Episcopalian, Jordan still Catholic as far as I know), and it would be nice to know where they got their certainty about their god’s intentions and opinions, since other believers, equally sincere and convinced, would not agree with them. (That includes the believers who wrote the Bible.) It’s convenient to be able to blame whatever you don’t like on human beings, letting your god off the hook for everything, and it’s a hallowed tradition in religious discourse, from the Hebrew prophets to the present. So you get one prophet who says that Yahweh wants fatted calves and grain offerings on the altar, and another who says that Yahweh never wanted or asked for sacrifices, and look at these scrawny blemished cattle you’re giving him! (This appears to be the ancestor of Woody Allen’s beloved Borscht Belt joke: “The food is terrible here.” “Yes, and such small portions.”)

But atheists aren’t off the hook either. Atheism in itself, the lack of belief in gods, doesn’t tell you much. Like religion, it has no moral content by itself. I find myself increasingly bothered by atheists, including those whose books are getting a lot of attention lately, who talk about Religion as though it were something independent of human beings, something autonomous with a mind of its own. Look at the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’s current best-seller: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, human beings invented religion. (The most devoted religious believers are generally quite happy to agree that other people’s religions were invented by men – just not their own.) But How People Poison Everything, though more accurate, wouldn’t be quite as transgressive for Hitchens’s purposes.

Religion’s not even a discrete ‘natural kind.’ Richard Lewontin noted that “sociobiologists provide adaptive stories about natural selection for a universal human tendency to form religions, although most cultures, including the classical Greeks, have no separate social function (or word) that corresponds to the modern Western category ‘religion’” (The Triple Helix, Harvard University Press, 2000, 77).

Why, then, did people decide that human bodies are shameful? I wish I knew. Jordan and Frawley-O’Dea see the belief as the wicked contrariness of human beings, but if their God exists, he made us prone, at the very least, to fall into that error, and he mysteriously failed to keep it out of his Holy Scriptures. It’s not just a Christian or Jewish tendency, either, but one common to many cultures. The Latin word for external genitals, for instance, is pudendum, “shame.” Which suggests to me that it can’t simply be blamed, as many atheists like to do, on wicked priests trying to control people’s minds. Shame is “natural”, for what that’s worth. Human beings couldn’t be manipulated by shame if we weren’t prone to it. We put shame into our cultures because it was part of our natural heritage as mammals, primates, Homo sapiens. (Homo pudens might be a more accurate name for us.)

But the rejection of shame is no less “natural.” (Contrariwise, “shameless” is a sexually-tinged English word implying a wicked human refusal to be ashamed of our bodies.) I’m told that John Shelby Spong, notorious for his polemics against fundamentalism, has said that he views God not as an external being, but as the “highest and best” in human beings. It seems to me that people have other qualities in mind when they invent their gods, including (or especially) Yahweh: pettiness and hysterical vindictiveness, or bloodlust and an inordinate fondness for virgins. If people were going to invent an embodiment of their highest and best, they could do better than the pantheons they’ve created so far. (I don’t believe Hitchens would do any better than anyone else: he shares, for instance, Yahweh’s squeamishness about body fluids. I’ve noticed that many male atheists are as uptight about human sexuality as any priest, mullah, or prophet. If they were put in charge… but let’s not go there, at least not today.)

I’d concede that people have put our best and our worst into the gods we’ve created. Frawley-O’Dea and Jordan want to blame the worst on people, while giving Yahweh the credit for the best; many atheists seem to want to do the reverse, which is odd if they really don’t believe in Yahweh. But many, I suspect, still do believe, back in the recesses of their tiny minds. But that kind of splitting-off, denying part of the self and blaming the bad part on something (or Someone) outside, is a major reason why we’re in trouble now.