I found this in Barbara C. Sproul’s introduction to Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World. It has been a long time since I have thought of myself as a religious person or had much to do with people who are religious in the orthodox way many of my teachers were when I was in yeshiva. The description below would not fit most of those men and women, whose commitment to their faith I continue to respect and even learn from; but there were others for whom Sproul’s words seem tailor-made; and these others, of course, have brothers and sisters in all faiths.
Holding literally to the claims of any particular myth…is a great error in that it mistakes myth’s values for science’s facts and results in the worst sort of religiosity. Such literalism requires a faith that splits rather than unifies our consciousness. Thinking particular myths to be valuable in themselves undermines the genuine power of all myth to reveal value in the world: it transforms myths into obstacles to meaning rather than conveyors of it. Frozen in time, myth’s doctrines come to describe a world removed from and irrelevant to our timely one; its followers, consequently, become strangers to modernity and its real progress. Those of such blind faith are forced to sacrifice intellect, emotion and the honesty of both to satisfy their creeds. And this kind of literalism is revealed as fundamentally idolatrous, the opposite of genuine faith.
but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer, reading that puts me back in touch with myself just for the sake of that experience, that connects me to language in ways that are challenging and revitalizing, that affirms my right to claim a place in this world simply because I am, that shapes who I am and shows me possibilities of being I would not otherwise have imagined.
His question is a good one, but I don’t really have the time to dig into any of the books I was thinking about when I wrote that passage, so I thought I would answer him by sharing an excerpt of an essay I am working on. The excerpt, though not the essay, tells the story of how I began to read poetry and how that reading led me to want to write poetry, and so it is about reading that took place a long time ago, but the experience it talks about is the kind of experience I was talking about in the post. Regular readers of this blog will likely not need any background to understand some of the larger context, since I have written about it many times before, but for those of you who may not have read some of my previous post, it may be useful to know that part of the context for the excerpt is the fact that I was sexually abused as a boy and that reading and writing played a central role in my coming to terms with that fact. Here’s the excerpt:
The first volume of poetry I remember taking down from the shelf in the public library across the street from where I lived was Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I read the first eighteen lines or so of the first poem in the book, “Palimpsest: The Deceitful Portrait” (Aiken’s poem is the first one in the pdf), and I knew I needed to make poetry part of my life.
Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
and there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation… Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.
To say that I identified with the woman in these lines would be an understatement. I might have been keeping my own door well hidden and tightly locked — I did, after all, have real secrets to keep — but I also needed someone to open it who would hear my voice, as Aiken’s speaker had heard the woman’s, carrying it back into his own life and thus reducing, by however small a degree, her isolation. What I thought consciously at the time, however, was that I wanted to understand how Aiken had made that woman so real for me, how his words had left me feeling that his speaker had heard me too; and so I started reading a lot of poetry, taking books off the library shelf pretty much at random, jumping from Aiken to Frost to Sandberg to Eliot to Williams — I don’t remember if I read any women at the time — and finally to e. e. cummings, whose work, especially his sexual love poems, spoke to me at least as powerfully as Aiken’s poem did. Take, for example, the first three lines of the last poem in & [And], cummings’ second published volume:
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
Nowhere else in my life — not in the pornography I was looking at or the sex education clas-ses I’d taken, not in what my male friends who’d had sex had to say or in the sexual wisdom the adult men I knew occasionally chose to share, and certainly not in own experience — nowhere else had I heard a man state so plainly that, whatever else it might mean, being sexual with someone could also be about liking his own body. I desperately wanted to feel that way myself, and so I de-voured as much cummings as I could, trying to internalize his vocabulary and technique and then to use them in my own poems about sex, which I failed at for years, well into my early twenties, when I was sitting in the workshop where my teacher told us about her “cunt poem” challenge. In part, this failure had to do with my immaturity both as a poet and as a lover, but it also had to do with the fact that I couldn’t just write the consequences of having been sexually abused away. Learning to like my body meant unlearning the self-hatred, physical and otherwise, that I’d been taught by my abusers, and that meant puzzling through the particular form this self-hatred took in me.
I also thought it might be fun to list some of the books and writers that have had this kind of effect on me since then, even though the specifics might be very different. Here are some, in no particular order, that I see on my bookshelves right now, though most of them are books I read years, and some of them decades, ago:
I miss reading. I really do. In a big, big way. And it has, especially over the past couple of days, been making me very, very sad. It started after I read Joshua Bodwell’s article in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, “You Are What You Read.” “Not long ago,” he begins
I had an unsettling epiphany that probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise but nevertheless left me disheartened for the better part of an afternoon.
I won’t get to all the books I want to read in my lifetime.
For the average reader, this is one of life’s relatively benign epiphanies; as a writer it’s a serious limitation. After all, writers are readers first. Most of us were consuming books long before we ever picked up a pen or pencil, and confronting the fact that there is a limit to the number of them we will read feels a bit like realizing there’s a finite amount of oxygen in the room.
I don’t really buy the oxygen metaphor, but I endorse wholly the idea Bodwell is trying to get at. Indeed, a jolt of regret ran through me more strongly than I have felt in a long time when I read the words “writers are readers first,” because I can’t remember the last time that statement would have been saying something true about me. Sure, I read. I read for school, both material that I am teaching and that my students write; I read the newspaper and articles in magazines; I read blog posts and occasionally the discussion threads they spawn; I read emails and memos and occasionally scholarly articles and other similar material that feeds my academic work; but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer, reading that puts me back in touch with myself just for the sake of that experience, that connects me to language in ways that are challenging and revitalizing, that affirms my right to claim a place in this world simply because I am, that shapes who I am and shows me possibilities of being I would not otherwise have imagined.
It’s easy to lay the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of my adult responsibilities – having a job, needing to work extra hours because we need money, being a partner to the woman I married nearly twenty years ago and a parent to a thirteen year old boy – and, to some degree, putting the blame there is not inaccurate. Those responsibilities do take up time I could otherwise spend reading. It is also true, however, that I simply have not prioritized reading the way I used to, not so much in terms of how much time I can give to it, but in the sense that I’ve made choices about how to use my time that have pushed the kind of reading I am talking about here to the margins of my life. I did not start this post thinking about New Year’s Resolutions – since I don’t really believe in them anyway – but it is appropriate that I should be starting it on New Year’s Day, the day after I finished the first book in a very long time that I read just because I wanted to read it – though I didn’t start reading for that reason (about which more below) – Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.
Fish divides his book into the two sections named in the title, treating the first, roughly, as a discussion of form and the second, more or less, as a discussion of content. Of course, since the two are not really separable, his analysis of one often bleeds over into an analysis of the other. Nonetheless, the distinction is useful, since it allows Fish to ground a lot of what he has to say in the notion that a sentence is a material thing, like paint, an object with a structure and characteristics independent of the particular content the sentence has been fashioned to convey. Too many people who want to write – at least this is true of too many of the students I meet who say they “lo-ove” to write (and they almost always turn “love” into a two syllable word) – just don’t get this. Here is the first paragraph of Fish’s book:
In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will have in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other. (1)
There are few pleasures that I enjoy more than getting my hands dirty in the tangled mess that the sentences of my first drafts usually are; and if we’re talking about poems, in which case you need to add to that mess the lines over which the sentences break, and perhaps a meter and/or a rhyme scheme, then the pleasure is even greater. Right now, there are two piece I am working on, an essay and a poem, each one needing revision. I have set them aside until I finish prepping my technical writing class for next semester – I am writing this post to take a break from that preparation – and I can’t wait to be able to pick each one up again and give to revising it the solid chunk of time that it will need (and deserve).
So I have been reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces to prep for my myth and folklore class, and I really like this quote, not so much because I agree with everything it says or implies – that is something I would need to think more about – but because the complexity of what it says appeals to me:
And likewise, mythology does not hold as its greatest hero the merely virtuous man. Virtue is but the pedagogical prelude to the culminating insight, which goes beyond all pairs of opposites. Virtue quells the self-centered ego and makes the transpersonal centeredness possible; but when that has been achieved, what then of the pain or pleasure, vice or virtue, either of our own ego or of any other?
I also found myself thinking when I read this passage, and I continue to think this as I make my way through the book, that Robert Bly and most of those who relied on Campbell in fashioning the ideology of the mythopoetic men’s movement back in the 1980s and 90s really narrowed and impoverished Campbell’s vision when they hung it on the political agenda of recovering and repairing (or whatever) traditional masculinity and manhood. They clearly did not take to heart what Campbell says is the “prime function of mythology and rite:”
to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.
I mean this not as a defense of Campbell, or even, really, an endorsement of what he has to say; but as someone who spent an awful lot of time reading and critiquing Bly and others, I am struck by how wrongly they seem to have read him – at least as far as I can tell from my limited exposure to what Campbell is saying in this book.
For a variety of reasons that I will probably write about over the next couple of months, I have decided I want to change the nature of my online presence, beginning with the look and focus of this blog. I need to start putting writing and my identity as a writer, a published writer, back at the center of my life, where it has not been for far too long, and while the primary way I will be doing that is by making more time in my life for my writing and the reading that feeds it – not to mention trying more systematically to get my work published – I have also been thinking that I need a more dynamic website and that means changing WordPress themes. I liked Erudite, the theme I’ve been using for a while now; but I want a site that will make it easier for people to see where I am reading, what I have published, how to buy my books, to connect with me if they want to – and Erudite is not really set up for that. So that means that the look of this blog will be very fluid while I decide which theme I am going to use, so please be patient with me.
Not much time for posting these days. Too much teaching and grading and dealing with the situation at school which only seems to be getting worse. Right now, it appears as if the administration has used the pretext of a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse of our college email system, specifically involving the college-wide listserv that we use to communicate with the entire campus, to impose a pre-screening of any email that anyone wants to send to the entire campus; and it is very clear that the result of this pre-screening, even if it is not the intent, has been to censor certain communications that are critical of the administration. It’s not a free speech violation, apparently, since they have not closed off all avenues of communication – though this situation does make it more difficult to get information out to the entire campus in an efficient manner – but it does raise serious questions about the administration’s commitment to academic freedom. And it is depressing.
But it is also Chanukah, and I want to share with you this video that my wife shared with me on Facebook. It’s just plain fun and it lifted my spirits. I hope it does something similar for you:
I confess that I am among those Jews about whom Professors Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler write in the introduction to their recently published The Jewish Annotated New Testament who tend to “believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion.” My experience with Christian missionaries and proselytizers of all sorts has made it very difficult for me to see the Christian Bible as anything other than a tool for persuading me to give up my own religious tradition as obsolete at best. I realize this is not rational. The book is a book, nothing more; it’s the Christians who have tried to put the book in my hand or who have brought quotes from it to prove to me the error of my ways who deserve the suspicion and distrust that I feel. Nonetheless, like any irrational belief, this one has been hard to shake, and I have tried, even assigning portions of the New Testament in one of my literature classes as a way of forcing myself to read it. I read it; I taught it; but it left a bad taste in my mouth and I have not picked the text up again.
I am thinking about this because The Jewish Annotated New Testament got a write-up in The New York Times this weekend, and it seems that even Jewish Biblical scholars have developed the habit of not dealing with the Christian holy book in their work. As Mark Oppenheimer, the article’s author writes:
As any visitor to the book expo at the [American Academy of Religion] conference discovered, there is a glut of Bibles and Bible commentaries. One of the exhibitors, Zondervan, publishes hundreds of different Bibles, customized for your subculture, niche or need. Examples include a Bible for those recovering from addiction; the Pink Bible, for women “who have been impacted by breast cancer”; and the Faithgirlz! Bible, about which the publisher writes: “Every girl wants to know she’s totally unique and special. This Bible says that with Faithgirlz! sparkle!”
Nearly all these Bibles are edited by and for Christians. The Christian Bible comprises the Old and New Testaments, so editors offer a Christian perspective on both books. For example, editors might add a footnote to the story of King David, in the Old Testament books I and II Samuel, reminding readers that in the New Testament, David is an ancestor of Jesus.
Jewish scholars have typically been involved only with editions of the Old Testament, which Jews call the Hebrew Bible or, using a Hebrew acronym, the Tanakh. Of course, many curious Jews and Christians consult all sorts of editions, without regard to editor. But among scholars, Christians produce editions of both sacred books, while Jewish editors generally consult only the book that is sacred to them. What’s been left out is a Jewish perspective on the New Testament — a book Jews do not consider holy but which, given its influence and literary excellence, no Jew should ignore.
He is, of course, correct. No Jew should ignore the New Testament, especially for the irrational reasons that have led me to do so for most of my life, and so it is nice to know that an edition of that text now exists which uses as an editorial and critical framework a perspective that counts me as an insider.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adrienne Rich’s essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, mostly because I’ve been talking to the student in my class from South Asia whose parents are trying desperately to marry her off. She came to my office yesterday and I ended up talking to her for more than an hour, missing the class I was supposed to be teaching, because she started using expressions like maybe I should just end it all when talking about her anger and frustration and rage at feeling so utterly helpless in her situation. When I asked her what she meant, she said she was thinking of just surrendering to her parents and doing what they want her to do, that maybe marriage – any marriage, to any man – was really the only way she would ever get out from under her parents’, but mostly her father’s, rule. Still, I thought it better to keep her talking than to leave her to go teach my class.
I don’t want to reveal too many details of her life, for obvious reasons, but I learned a lot more about her in this conversation than I had in the brief discussions we’d had before. She is the youngest child in her family and so finding a suitable husband is an important goal for her parents. Once they do so, they will have fulfilled one of their primary obligations as parents to their daughters and, in fact, my student is not entirely opposed to the idea of marrying a man her parents find for her. She just wants him to be someone she feels compatible with, someone in whom she can find something that attracts her; but the men they bring for her to meet, while they are well established and could take good care of her, in the way that “good care” is defined in her culture, they have all been, she says, not only boring, but really, really (to her taste) ugly. What she wants is the freedom to choose her own husband. She’s pretty clear that her first choice would be a man from the same culture and religion – though she’s not opposed to marrying outside the first group – but she wants him to have at least a little bit of the Americanized identity that she has. (Even there, though, her experience has not been good. She met a guy whom she thought fit the bill, but as soon as the started going out, he started wanting to check her Blackberry to see whom she was calling and who was calling her.)
Adding to the agony of her situation is how isolated she feels. I am the only person, according to her, to whom she has told her entire story – including the married boss she used to respect and who has recently started making passes at her – and she is surprised at herself that she has done so. She doesn’t have a whole lot of trust in Americans’ ability to comprehend much less empathize with her situation, having been burned a couple of times when she tried to talk to her friends, none of whom were able to wrap their heads around the cultural context in which she lives, even though she is living here in the States, and some of whom actually blamed her for not leaving, as if leaving one’s family, especially a family that might disown you for doing so, would ever be a simple thing. On top of that is the fact that telling anyone about her family’s private life violates a very strong cultural taboo that interprets such revelation as one of the worst kinds of disloyalty both because it sullies the family’s honor and reputation in the community and exposes the family to whatever use its enemies (in a social, not a military sense) might make of the information.
One of the reasons she trusts me is that I know something about Islam and about the kind of culture she comes from. (My wife’s culture is similar.) And so she is not worried that I will think she is weird or weak or “bringing it all on herself” – each of which is a reaction she has gotten from other “outsiders” she has tried to tell – and she recognizes that I respect her desire to find a solution that somehow harmonizes with her parents’ (and community’s) religious and cultural expectations, while allowing her the freedom she wants. (Whether or not that is possible, of course, is a whole other question.) And yet, of course, what she needs to do is talk to other people, to know that I not unique in this respect; and especially what she needs is to find a community of women from whom she can draw strength, who will help her to feel less alone in a way that I simply cannot do, because of both my gender and my age. (I am, after all, old enough to be her father.) So I have encouraged her, and I will encourage her again, to register for a women’s studies course; I have given her contact information for South Asian women’s organizations (and I know she has called at least one of them); I have told her about the student women’s group on campus; and I have, of course, told her she is welcome to keep coming to talk to me, but there really isn’t much else that I can (or should) do.
One of the themes she kept weaving through our conversation was that she was thinking of running away, but of doing so in a manner that would leave her parents thinking she was dead. This way, they would be able to mourn her and move on and not have to live with the constant worry for they would feel and the shame of having had a daughter they could not control. It didn’t matter how many times I gently suggested that there might be other ways of leaving that would at least leave open an avenue of return or a channel of communication – that other women in her situation have done it – she kept coming back to the idea that it was better for her parents to think she was dead than to have live with the knowledge and the shame that she was off somewhere, not properly married, living who knew what kind of decadent and depraved American life and so completely lost to them even if she were to show up right then on their doorstep.
It could not, I would not, argue with her anymore. I don’t know her parents and it’s not my place – and, anyway, I am not qualified – to give her advice. All I could think when she left, though, was that I had just witnessed a prime example of compulsory heterosexuality at work, and it really, really, really sucked.