Foreword | September 01, 2005
This issue reminds me of the classic similarity between religion and literature.
We sometimes assume that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a time when thinkers became sensitized to the struggle and uncertainty of nature and life. It truly was one of the most creative and turbulent periods in the history of thought. Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein all depicted not just conflict but systems of disparity between what seems to be and what is. In literature as well as the sciences both the obvious and the hidden struggles of life were being looked at with new intimacy and understanding. Flaubert, Zola, Chekhov, George Eliot, Hardy and Henry James wrote about characters from the poorest of the poor to the leisure class, and about subjects as varied as the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, the bleakness of Victorian marriage, psychological determinism, ruinous personal choices and the peculiar hazards of innocence. What they wrote remains as influential today as does the science of that period.
Yet if Victorian literature displayed a new sensitivity to such issues, it was hardly the birth of it. The word “agon” doesn’tjust appear in Greek tragedy but is its most important theme. Contest, struggle, suffering and the disparities between the apparent and the real—these are core literary themes and one of the key parallels between religion and literature.
The enduring religions all portray what might be called the oxymoron of suffering: If life is to be thought good, why must we suffer? In Genesis, the mythic parents of humankind are banished from the Garden of Eden into a world of conflict. This story evokes the dream of heaven on earth, recognizes that we don’t live in such a place and offers a metaphorically credible reason why: the basic human flaws of willfulness and perversity forever thwart our desire for a perfect world. In the New Testament, the agony of Jesus is the central “mystery” by which Christ saves humankind—an idea that always struck me, depending on my state of mind, as either bizarre or strangely profound. As I grow older (like everyone, sharing my own bits with mortality), it makes increasing sense to me—at the very least as an affirmation that suffering and even death may be anything but meaningless.
Jesus was a Jew who spoke Aramaic and who lived in a brutal corner of the Roman Empire. The four gospels, apparently dating from 55 A.D. to 125 A.D., all describe Jesus’ preaching about the apocalypse—a belief not uncommon in the Roman Palestine of those years—yet it was hardly the limit of his principles. Love and good works were as important to him as the immanent end of the world. Some historical theologians see Jesus'”apocalypse” as the destruction of the current Jewish state rather than the simple annihilation of the world. But whatever the case, there’s little doubt that Jesus’ philosophy, as well as what happened to him at the end of his earthly life, were as full of shadow and struggle as any Greek tragedy.
The Buddha lived five centuries before Jesus, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Siddhartha Gautama was apparently born a prince, lived a long life and evolved what is regarded by some as more a philosophy than a religion, yet despite such differences between their lives and beliefs, there are surprising similarities. Like Jesus, he was a young man who, at around thirty years old, abandoned his apparent destiny in search of answers to basic questions about the mortal condition. Siddhartha’s quest began when he left his protected home and was shocked by the pain and suffering that he saw in the everyday world. Like Jesus, he was drastically dissatisfied with life as it was normally, casually led. Both Buddha and Jesus were philosophical radicals who counseled giving up common earthly beliefs for the sake of what they saw as the true nature of things. Buddha’s Noble Truths began with his belief that life by its very nature involved suffering. Desire is the main cause of suffering; suffering ceases with the cessation of desire. There is no other way out.
The most important single document of Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita, takes place on a battlefield; it begins with warrior Prince Arjuna asking Krishna, reincarnation of the god Vishnu, why so many people must suffer and die in war, a condition that in the Bhagavad-Gita becomes a metaphor for life in general. Learning through struggle and suffering, losing it to gain something better back, dying to one’s old ways so that one may more fully live—these subjects are common to Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.
The authors in this issue concern themselves with some of these perennial religious and literary questions—the peculiar wisdoms that arise from life’s struggles and from losing things that matter to us, whether big or small.
Big for Kim Brooks’s protagonist in “We Think the World of You,” where the protagonist falls into depression, the classic hell state of today; big as well in Penelope Lively’s wonderful “The Mozambique Channel,” the tale of an English au pair who is forced to leave Egypt with her charge and the girl’s mother when Rommel invades the country. The war faced by Peter Gordon’s father in the story “Fish” is so disheartening that I fear describing it would make you avoid reading it;but, trust me,”Fish” is one of those wonderful stories where what abstractly seems like the worst is not that, not by a long shot. David Shuman’s story “Stay” is a parable, equally wonderful, about the miraculous power of love in the face of mortality.
E. J. Levy’s essay “Home is Where the Heart Aches” concerns a thought-provoking and rarely articulated subject: She asks if the concept of “home”— belonging to a place—is really that simple and clear cut. Jason Anthony’s essay “Song of Hypothermia” describes living for weeks in a remote Antarctic station in the company of only one other man. He vividly depicts the dreamy, strange experience of surviving and continuing to function in the ceaseless cold and katabatic winds.
Lewis Dabney’s feature on Edmund Wilson is excerpted from his new authorized biography Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); it focuses on Wilson’s early days as a critic, his friendly rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald, love affair with the bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay and tempestuous marriage to Mary McCarthy.
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