Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quite a Character

I just finished reading Isherwood on Writing, Christopher Isherwood's lectures from the 1950s and 1960s, and it was entertaining stuff.  I don't think I learned much that was new from it: Isherwood recycled most of the anecdotes in his later published writing, such as Christopher and His Kind, or in interviews.  But it's still an entertaining read, and I envy those who were in the audiences for the original performances.

Not too surprisingly, I find Isherwood weakest when he talks about religion.  I don't consider Vedanta to be much of an improvement on Western religion.  If Agehananda Bharati is correct, Vedanta was influenced by Christianity, if only to react against it.  But that wouldn't matter if Isherwood made something interesting artistically out of his Vedanta; artists can and do make beauty out of junk.  But as with (for example) Madeleine L'Engle or C. S. Lewis, Isherwood's attempts to use his religion in his fiction ended up distorting the story and the characters.  At best, in A Single Man, Vedanta provided a frame for the character's life, a metaphor for his death.

In the lectures Isherwood is a bit more successful.  His vocation as a writer predated his religious conversion (or reversion), and that fact may have kept him grounded, since his lectures are mostly about writing from his own perspective.  One lecture is devoted to "The Writer and Religion," but in "What Is the Nerve of Interest in the Novel?" he talks about the double vision a writer (and a reader) must have:
In other words, ... however apparently sordid or distressing or tragic or grim the circumstances of a novel may be, underneath all of this there is a great lift of exhilaration in reading about it.  Let us try to think why this is so.  The saints have almost all been unanimous insofar as they've expressed themselves on the subject in saying that in some way which the rest of us can't understand everything is finally all right.  It is marvelous.

In one of the Hindu scriptures is the saying "In joy the universe was created, in joy it is sustained, in joy it dissolves."  Now of course on the level of our everyday experience this is a hard saying and seems to be an unfeeling saying, a saying which expresses a kind of indifference toward human suffering.  And what I meant to point out is that this is not at all the case.  But the fact remains that some of these great men of compassion and mercy did in fact, in the midst of terrible suffering which they were working all through their lives to alleviate, nevertheless rejoice.  There is a charming anecdote in the life of Ramakrishna of one of the wandering monks tho used to visit the temple at Dakshineswar on the Ganges, where he lived.  He used to come out of his cell twice a day and sit on the edge of the Ganges as though he were a spectator in the theater, and clap his hands and say, "Bravo! Excellent!" as though the whole universe were an enormous theatrical performance [65].
I think Isherwood would have done better to say that it is not necessarily the case that the saying he quotes expresses a kind of indifference toward human suffering -- not "not at all the case."  It depends on how it's used, and by whom.  Some teachers have used this doctrine specifically to express not merely indifference but callousness to human suffering -- that of other people, at least: they take their own very seriously, and report that the Universe agrees.  (Mother Teresa apparently took a similar view, but when she got sick she utilized all the soul-sucking materialistic resources of modern Western medicine.) 

In The Karma of Brown Folk (Minnesota, 2000), Vijay Prashad told how the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- probably still most famous as the Beatles' onetime guru -- viewed the poor.
In 1967, during the Summer of Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave a revealing press conference in New York City.  "The hungry of India, China, anywhere," he noted, "are lazy because of their lack of self-knowledge.  We will teach them to derive from within, and then they will find food." ...Some reporters found the Maharishi's statement to be unacceptable, and one asked, "Do we have to ignore the poor to achieve inner peace?"  The Yogi answered, "Like a tree in the middle of a garden, should we be liberal and allow the water to flow to other trees, or should we drink ourselves and be green?"  "But isn't this selfish?"  "Be absolutely selfish.  That is the only way to bring peace, to be selfish, and if one does not have peace, how is one to help others attain it?" [60-1]
The Maharishi was not unrepresentative of Hindu (or other) saints, from what I can tell.  I think statements like his should be borne in mind when reading Isherwood's "terrible suffering which they were working all their lives to alleviate."  I also remember how the Reverend Jesse Jackson defended himself against allegations of indifference to AIDS by explaining "that he had spent nights in AIDS hospices in Texas and California during his 1984 presidential campaign, a move he compared in symbolic value to the way Jesus just before his crucifixion, stayed with Simon the Leper" (Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics [Chicago, 1999], 347).

From the viewpoint of someone writing narrative, however, Isherwood was pointed in the right direction.  A novelist will probably write about bad people, and about terrible things that happen to innocent people.  In order to write good fiction,
it seems to me that the novelist works simultaneously on two levels and that he must, as it were, succeed and come through to us on both of these levels if he produces work of a first magnitude.  On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged.  He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good ... But, surely, in a great novel, there's something else again.  While all this struggle is going on the novelist is not only down there, covered with mud and blood, fighting and suffering with his characters, but he is also up above.  He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything, and enjoys it.  Because, of course, in the world of art if something well done it is enjoyable.  One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children.  It is quite, quite immaterial.  This sense of joy, contact with life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name [66].
Though I basically agree with this, it reminds me of something I heard years ago in a philosophy class I audited.  The professor said that someone had suggested that when we speak of the goodness of God, we're talking not about moral goodness but technical goodness, as we might say that Shakespeare was a good playwright even though he wrote about murder, treason, and other immoral things.  He gave a reference, but I wasn't able to track it down.  The obvious objection I see to this suggestion is that it's false: when people (whether laypeople, clergy, or philosophers) talk about God's goodness, they almost always mean moral goodness. (Of course "moral goodness" also means "righteousness" or "justice" much of the time, which in Christian and some other traditions primarily involves the spectacular punishment of sinners, for the edification of the good.  This ought to be mitigated somewhat by the Christian doctrine that we are all sinners, but in practice those Christians who bay for blood on the sidelines never consider that they deserve the pitchforks and burning brimstone too.)

The world is not "an enormous theatrical performance."  For that matter, the creepy monk who clapped and cheered the show at the Ganges was not a spectator but part of the "show" himself; Alan Watts, who explicated a form of this doctrine, always understood that.  Is it useful, perhaps, to think of the universe as such a performance?  I don't think so; as I've said before, drawing on Peter DeVries's fiction, I'd much prefer that there is no one watching the horrors that happen in the world -- and not only to us -- than that there is a Cosmic Spectator, applauding or weeping as the story demands, but doing nothing about it.  Many people, I recognize, take the opposite view: it comforts them to think that God sits in Heaven, wiping away tears over their suffering but doing nothing about it.  Just his sympathy is enough for them, though they also pray for his intervention, inconsistently enough.

I think Isherwood had it backwards.  Gods are characters in the stories people invent about them.  Those stories are an enormous cycle of folk art, to which all believers contribute.  (And even non-believers: The poems I wrote thirty-odd years ago on Biblical and religious subjects were my additions to the canon, since as a human being and a product of Western "civilization" they are part of my heritage.)  We tell these stories, as we tell most stories, partly to create an imaginary world where "the good end happily, and the wicked unhappily; that is what fiction means"; partly to imagine how things might be better or might be worse, to put our wishes and fears into words in order to try and master them; and much more.  These stories, like any others, can be analyzed and criticized.  Believers generally want the stories of their tradition to be exempt from criticism, though retelling with adaptations is a form of criticism.  But they feel the same way about secular stories they love: they don't want them picked apart, though they'll happily trample on stories they dislike that other people value.  Nobody's stories are or should be exempt from criticism, and I've previously discussed my own bewilderment over the kinds of stories that many other people find edifying.

The relation between art and the world, reality and fantasy, is vexed and disputed.  It's not surprising that people should believe that because we can tell stories that resemble real experiences, that stories are themselves "real."  I don't propose to try to settle that here.  It's when people try to give stories priority, to imagine that they are real and the world is their shadow, that I object.

If I remember correctly (it has been years since I read Beyond Theology), Alan Watts explained that in Hindu doctrine the universe is the stories God tells himself for his own entertainment and edification, to scare and amuse himself, and he loses himself in them the better to suspend disbelief and be carried away by his stories -- even to the point that he forgets that they're his stories, and believes that they are "real."  I learned a lot from Watts, but here I think he too had it backwards.  What he described was human beings and the stories we tell, not the gods.  I suppose that's why his metaphor (or allegory?) worked as well as it does: mythopoesis, the making of myths, is a familiar activity, and we create the gods in our own image, so of course they'd do it too.