Thursday, July 8, 2010

Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother's Back

It's possible -- no one has proven that it's impossible, anyway -- that the universe is a vast booby trap, designed and constructed by a cosmic practical joker waiting for us to make a misstep so he can jump us while holding us responsible for our doom. It's possible that the universe is set up so that it's possible to kill a human being in such a way that it's impossible for them to go to heaven (78); even cremating a cadaver can prevent the spirit from finding its way to peace (91). It's possible that absolute good and absolute evil are at war in the world, and everything bad that happens to us is just collateral damage in that conflict; sorry about that (86). It's possible that we can persuade absolute good or absolute evil, or their many agents, spiritual and material, to do us no harm (or less harm, at least) for the moment through bribery, sweet-talk, flattery, and appeasement, or at least by burning sage (186) for protection. It's possible that what "white doctors call 'being sick' is more like an accident, like the person went off the road and the [molecules] forgot how to be" (190). And it's possible that if you're going to ask a sacred mountain to take care of a dead friend, you should be "careful not to say the name of the dead" (252).

What I find puzzling is that so many religious believers see the universe just this way, though they'll object to the bald way I've described their worldview here. Officially God is good, but when you listen to what believers say about him, "good" is not the word that comes to mind. And I'm not talking only about the Christian god here. The page numbers in the paragraph above refer to a novel I just finished reading, Going Through Ghosts by Mary Sojourner (University of Nevada Press, 2010), based on Native American cosmology and religious practice. (I should mention that it's not at all a bad book, even if its theology annoyed me.) Try this exchange between a living character and the ghost of a murdered one (124):
"What do your cosmic supervisors think about this place?" Maggie asked.
"They are busy with an earthquake about to happen in the Middle East," Sarah said.
"Busy" how? I wondered. Are they busy trying to prevent it, or busy trying to start it? Do earthquakes happen because the spirits are understaffed, or inattentive, or hungover? This sort of thing is supposed to be spiritually superior to the ways of the whites?

Near the end of the book, Sarah the friendly ghost, now happily "all-the-way-dead", is watching the living with her recently dead teacher Minnie (244).
They had been told they were only to watch, and it had been made clear that they were not to intervene in anything. "Sometimes," their teachers had told them, "we might drop something down in front of a human. We see which way they go. There is something else you can give them; we'll show you when you've learned to watch."
Sure, it's possible that the afterlife is like an American elementary-school classroom with the students gathered around an ant farm, or at best a university psychology rat lab. But is that the best of all possible worlds? What entitles the teachers to test the humans they observe with such smug detachment? Their superiority is assumed by the author, but not recognized by this reader.

To repeat: it may be that the world really is an obstacle course designed by a being with obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoia, and Tourette's syndrome, with a booby-trap at the end. What I don't understand is why so many people, given the opportunity to invent their own higher power, invent such nasty ones. The only comprehensible reason I can imagine is that the universe is a fairly inhospitable place; our lives are too often nasty, brutish, and short; so it makes a kind of sense to believe that if you're really, really, good -- if you bear up patiently and uncomplainingly under the worst suffering the Beings In Charge can inflict on you -- then they'll finally smile and tell you it's okay, you passed the test, you're a good little human and everything is going to be all right now. And maybe that's reality; who knows? But if it is, the Beings in Charge are still sadistic demons who should be defied, not deified.

But yeah, I know, a lot of people don't see it that way. Anyone else remember the Clerk's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?
The Clerk's tale is about a marquis of Saluzzo named Walter. Lord Walter of Saluzzo is a bachelor who is asked by his subjects to marry in order to provide an heir. He assents and decides he will marry a peasant, named Griselda. Griselda is a poor girl, used to a life of pain and labor.
After Griselda has borne him a daughter, Walter decides to test her loyalty. He sends an officer to take the baby, pretending to kill her, and convey it secretly to Bologna. Griselda makes no protest at this. When she bears a son several years later, Walter again has him taken from her.
Finally, Walter determines one last test. He has a Papal bull of annulment forged which enables him to leave Griselda, and informs her that he intends to remarry. He requires her to prepare the wedding for his new bride. Secretly, he has the children returned from Bologna, and he presents his daughter as his intended wife. Eventually he informs Griselda of the deceit, and they live happily ever after.
There's always been disagreement among readers about how to understand this story (and Chaucer himself sent mixed signals in the text), but it "was an enormously popular one, included in virtually all of the adaptations of Chaucer done for children and juveniles in the 19th and early 20th centuries". A lot of people evidently get off on this sort of thing; Story of O is considered unwholesome, but not the Clerk's Tale.

I also recall Albert Brooks's movie 1991 Defending Your Life. Brooks, who also wrote and directed, plays a guy who's killed in an auto accident.  His spirit goes to Judgment City, where you must defend your life before a cosmic court, who decide whether to send you back or promote you. He meets and falls in love with the saintly Meryl Streep, but of course the court separates them -- she'll move up, he'll be sent back. Brooks desperately runs after the tram she's on and braves even electroshock to follow her; the cosmic judges beam smugly at this proof of his merit and (as I recall -- it has been years since I saw it) change their verdict in his favor. Incomprehensibly to me, Defending Your Life got good reviews and is still a cult favorite. I prefer Kore-eda Hirokazu's non-sadistic 1998 fantasy After Life myself, but I must recognize that many people like to fantasize about being tested, even cruelly, and coming through the test successfully.

But I know this is a matter of temperament; for me, as I've said before, the universe feels less unpleasant if no one is out there watching all the horrors but doing nothing about them. That's leaving aside the thought that someone is out there making the horrors happen. No doubt my preference is as much wish-fulfillment as the belief that someone is testing us, "sending us the disaster to overcome", but I think the wishes we make reveal a lot about us.