4.20.2009

Literature as Religion

Appropriately: a little story, somewhere between fiction and memoir, first:

This weekend I was sitting on a couch in my living room, my wife on the futon. We hadn't spoken or blinked in more than an hour, except to call out the answers to Jeopardy questions. Then a commercial came on advertising some product, emphasizing the "Green" nature of the product. My wife goes, "They're ruining another word!" I laughed and knew what she meant right away. My wife, a poet with a refined ear for the lyric, continued: "It's just like blackberry." She was upset about two years ago when everyone was buying BlackBerry cellphones because she wanted to use the word "the way it used to mean" in one of her poems, but was dismayed at the techno-pop connotations it had picked up.

Anyway, when all of this took place, I was planning my blog-essay on literature-as-religion in my head (yes, even while answering most of the Jeopardy questions). My wife's observation reset the whole frequency of my thinking, though: I realized seconds after we quieted down from that giggle that they've been ruining words for centuries and centuries.

For the past three or four years, I've worked very hard inside my head to reclaim the word religion, if only for myself. I've been working so hard at it that I seem to have forgotten that almost-nobody else was doing the same internal work. In 1997, convinced that "religion" consisted of "what took place in all the churches in town on Sunday," I left religion for good, I thought.

Then I spent ten years forgetting about religion and reading literature (here I want to define my term: by literature I mean precisely philosophical essays, criticism, memoirs, plays, poems, stories, novels, so-called "holy texts," and, if you need a special category to make you feel included, "Theory"). The years of reading culminated in an experience that I have used as the source of my reclamation of the word "religion." The best way I can explain this is to say that what was a mostly-detached, non-participatory intellectual endeavor became a physical, three-dimensional, immersive experience. Read the paragraph around the phrase "hymn of dialectic" on this page, if you're interested. To this day, the difference between what I had been doing and what I found myself doing toward the end of that experience is as stark in my imagination as the difference between studying the chemical compound water through a microscope and getting baptised in a river. I mean, reading critically and reading experientially are way different.

At the same time, I've been aware that others have not shared in my experience, and still understand religion to be what I understood it to be in 1997: in its worst form, "Christianity" as practiced by people in starched shirts and ties on Sunday right after dunking some donuts in coffee and right before making sure to hit the 48-hour sale at the mall before all the good stuff is gone. In other words: the state policy.

So anyway, that "immersive experience" was what allowed me to start rediscovering a lost meaning of the word "religion." In my understanding of the term, authentic-religion is not something you do, so much as it is something that happens to you if you are doing what you believe in with courage and determination.

When I say "Literature is my religion," this is what I mean: the practice that follows from a foundational belief in the power of reading literature can ultimately lead to a moment when words are made flesh. I take Whitman's advice here to be precisely literal:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem. (See also)
The literary experience may be understood as the culmination of the slow process of literary practice. One may practice literature for years without experiencing a change in their core identity -- but if they are lucky, they will eventually feel (again: even physically) that everything they have known as their identity is excavated and tossed aside as refuse.

And here is the strangest fact of all: almost all of those who practice this religious discipline with me do not understand that they are the devouts, the real true believers. Those who practice with me believe (their belief is implied by the fact that they determinedly peruse the ancient alongside the contemporary) that there is a power woven through the fabric of everything that never settles on a shape, but that does leave discernable hints in places it has visited.

Like every religion before it, the literary way is, ostensibly, capable of being corrupted. Practitioners -- those who have not had the literary experience -- may become fixated on one of these hints left along the trail, mistaking the hint for the power itself (as when, for example, Jesus was mistaken for G-d). But the power moves on, and disciplined practitioners, mentored by those who have been lucky enough to have the experience, seek to find more recent hints, believe that revelation is happening today, is being published by Cambridge and Oxford, Harvard UP, and maybe even on blogs.

Let me say with some conviction: there is nothing "wrong" with holding on to a favorite hint, especially if it is one you discovered yourself somewhere along the trail. Only continue to understand that these hints are like good luck charms at best: pointing the way, but not the way itself. I keep copies of Moby-Dick like the superstitious keep rabbit's feet, but I try (but who ain't a sinner?) to remember that even Moby-Dick is not the thing itself.

The more I read about the ancient religions the more I am convinced that its adherents would not have recognized "religion" the way that we define the term. Theirs was not an occasional diversion or a part of their whole lives: it was their way of life. I think of the early adherents: Jews leaving Egypt, Christians leaving the Holy Land, Buddhists leaving Hinduism -- I suspect most of them had no intention of starting a new "religion," at least not the kind of religion that currently pervades the Western world. I think they were braves who risked taking up a new set of values, beginning a new way of life -- I think they were willing to let go of aging doctrines in favor of direct (or nearly direct) revelation in the present. I think we are like that now, those of us who practice the literary way of life.

Stay devout, brothers and sisters. Keep up your practice -- trust that the power that moves through everything will aim at you in good time.

2 comments:

fenhopper said...

yeah -- going back to the very difficult and therefore still-unembarked-upon direction of my posts -- this is part of what i'm getting at: i don't see secular as a word for 'non-religious' and religious as word for 'non-secular'. a life is always secular -- by definition. and religion is your entire life -- by definition.

so the separation of church and state has to be something other than what has been argued for a while now. the separation has to be between the role of the government and your own duty to your faith.

Casey said...

Yeah, I accept that... that first paragraph, anyway.

Maybe it's time for you to develop this notion on your Fenhop. In my reclaimed-vocabulary, the word "church" equates almost perfectly with what the pundits call "citizenry" or "the people" -- it must be a universal term or it is of little interest to me.

In that light, though, it's difficult (maybe not impossible) to imagine a social contract that does not rely on (again, what do we call them?) "shared assumptions." I'm very familiar with the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century... it never occurred to them to separate religion from politics because religion provided a workable political system (the book of Acts, basically). Religous dissent was political dissent... see Roger Williams, for example.

But I'm not completely sure I understand your second paragraph -- feel free to elaborate. Here or, better yet maybe, elsewhere.