“So much love, too much love, it is our madness, it is rotting us out, exploding us like dandelion polls.”
– John Updike, Rabbit Redux (1971), p.97
About two months ago, America was shook by the campus shooting in Rosenburg, Oregon. One week ago, the world was mourning for Paris, Beirut and Bamako. Now, most of the popular rhetoric is centred on how to save Western liberal democracies from terrorists, if not from themselves.
This is a pressing imperative, but amid the hubbub of fear-stoked sound and fury, I feel that an equally important, if not more fundamental, concern has been overlooked. Perhaps the root of our problem has more to do with books than with bombs:
How do people interpret texts, whether it be the Bible or the Koran, the Constitution or Coriolanus?
Or, why do some people go bat shit cray cray just because someone else’s understanding of the same text differs from theirs?
There’s no denying that turbulent times lie ahead for post-millennials.
(1) Politically, the Cold War dualism of ‘you bad me good’ is giving way to a much more pluralistic world order (but continues to characterise the way politicians think);
(2) economically, Wall Street capitalism has had its fair share of bad rep since the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis (but continues to be the force that makes the world go round);
(3) environmentally, more ice caps are melting than Teslas are being sold (but continues to be a fact rejected by climate change deniers);
(4) spiritually, followers of the Judeo-Christian Bible have begun to feel the wrath of some Koran readers and the scorn of Dawkins’ protégés (but continues to be the biggest religious demographic group worldwide).
It’s safe to say, then, that our planet is becoming more unsafe by the day. The knowledge of this breeds anxiety, and with it a desire for alternative havens of security. What’s ironic, however, is that one man’s security often ends up being another’s cause for insecurity, and so goes the logic of our dog eat dog world.
To a certain extent, legal constitutions and religious scriptures help remedy this Hobbesian problem, which is also why most people still turn to them for arbitration whenever conflicts come to a bottleneck.
Yet with this irony having been (seemingly) resolved, there arises a greater, trickier paradox: the absolute decrees in constitutions and scriptures must, ultimately, fall under the jurisdiction of relative subjects, of people who understand the same words differently because they each have different value systems and worldviews.
It’s like me telling my students not to see things in black-and-white terms, only to be told “but words aren’t colours, so while a blackboard is definitely black and a whiteboard is definitely white, a ‘black’ term to you could mean a ‘white’ term to me, so there”. Cheeky, but touché.
Beyond the realm of creative fiction, then, it seems that the tag “open to interpretation” is more the warning label on a Trojan horse, than an invite for readers to go to town with Missus Meaning. Had Missus Meaning been from Shakespeare County, she’d be the girl-next-door dudette who chills with all the guys and never gets offended, not even when you point out that she’s got butterfly arms.
But if we’re looking at the kind of Missus Meaning who hails from Scriptural Kingdom or Bill of Rights Province, then any reader-suitor who tries to get first dibs on her will probably have to battle it out against her vast legion of suitors, some of whom are dead set on being the Lancelot to his imaginary Guinevere, even at the expense of his and others’ lives.
The point is, you could turn Hamlet inside out and most people wouldn’t give two hoots, but ‘misread’ the Bible, the Koran or the Constitution, then suddenly interpretation becomes an intensely personal issue, where all bets are off, one’s ego is placed at stake, and bloodshed becomes a real possibility.
I don’t know anyone, bar John Updike, who can reflect on this human faculty in as lyrical a way as he does in Rabbit Redux, specifically at the moment when an 18-year old runaway named Jill Pendleton explains to her lover’s son Nelson why man’s ego is the genesis of all evil:
“The world is what God made and it doesn’t stink of money, it’s never tired, too much or too little, it’s always exactly full. The second after an earthquake, the stones are calm. Everywhere is play, even in thunder or an avalanche… I used to look up at the stars and there seemed to be invisible strings between them, tuned absolutely right, playing thousands of notes I could almost hear.”
“Why can’t we hear them?” Nelson asks.
“Because our egos make us deaf. Our egos make us blind. Whenever we think about ourselves, it’s like putting a piece of dirt in our eye.”
“There that’s thing in the Bible.”
“That’s what He meant. Without our egos the universe would be absolutely clean, all the animals and rocks and spiders and moon-rocks and stars and grains of sand absolutely doing their thing, unself-consciously. The only consciousness would be God’s.”
(p.136, Penguin edition)
I’m not so sure about the repeated ‘absolutely’, since absolute certitude, as the seed of fanaticism that blocks out all other voices, has never done humanity much good. I do agree, though, that ego is a bitch, both to the self and for the world at large. It empowers and deludes the mind in turn, and depending on which side your pendulum is more inclined to swing, those who are more empowered than deluded go on to become successful politicians and deal-breakers, while those who are more deluded than empowered go on to become Donald Trump.
Unlike Updike, Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t quite buy into the whole God-created-all shebang, which could partly explain why these two authors were never on chummy terms with one other, despite their overlapping literati circles. One’s a Harvard-educated WASP and a literary realist, whereas the other’s a WWII veteran and a countercultural postmodernist.
Small wonder, then, that in his 1991 memoir Fates Worse than Death, Vonnegut sees the need to shed some sobering light on (a) why the world should take it easy when it comes to reading sacred texts like the Bible, and (b) why it is important to pay attention when reading quasi-sacred texts like the Bill of Rights:
(a) Why the world should take it easy when it comes to reading sacred texts
There’s a hilarious section where Vonnegut, in characteristic piss-taking spirit, ‘rewrites’ the lyrics to the Latin mass promulgated by Pope St Pius V in 1570 at the Council of Trent. Regarding a certain ‘written book’ (i.e. the Bible), this is what the author has to say, vis-à-vis the 16th century original:
The changes are slight, but significant. With an ingenious sleight of hand, Vonnegut dissolves the authority of ‘must’ – that terrifying modal verb of top-down decree, by turning a pronouncement of inevitability into an open-ended query. In exchange for God’s grand perspective of “the world”, Vonnegut prefers something more granular, something closer to the ground on which man can tread in this life – “the ashes”.
But if this reference is reminiscent of remains, then it should also serve as a reminder of rebirth, as per the proverbial phoenix that rises from the ashes of its predecessor. Interestingly, this myth was retold as an allegory for Christian resurrection by Pope Clement I, born fifteen centuries before Pius V.
Anyhow, Vonnegut isn’t a fan of holy texts, that much’s for sure. And so he asks God nicely, very nicely, in the supplicatory tone with which Oliver Twist begs Mr Bumble for gruel, to please stop being God and come chill with the mortals over a pint of bitter or two. Just to, you know, check in on how his peeps have been faring since Adam screwed things up forever. Atheists back then, it seems, were way more diplomatic.
(b) Why it is important to pay attention when reading quasi-sacred texts
I feel bad for the people who write up state documents. All of that dry-as-dust bureaucratese means they’re either born dull or always bored to death. Or both, which officially makes them the sorriest bunch in the First World. Trust Vonnegut, though, to find hilarity in just about the most unhilarious piece of writing, as he scorns those who quote out of context the Second Amendment in Chapter 8. It’s one of my many favourite moments in the book:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” sayeth Article II of the Bill of Rights, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Perfect! I wouldn’t change a word of it. I only wish the NRA and its jellyfishy, well-paid supporters in legislatures both State and Federal would be careful to recite the whole of it, and then tell us how a heavily armed man, woman, or child, recruited by no official, led by no official, given no goals by any official, motivated or restrained only by his or her personality and perceptions of what is going on, can be considered a member of a well-regulated militia.
I used to be very good with guns, was maybe the best shot of my company when I was a Private First Class [in the Second World War].
But I wouldn’t have one of the motherfuckers in my house for anything.
(p.81, Vintage edition)
Given the rising appeals among the American left to change the Second Amendment, this memoir from two decades past serves only to reinforce Vonnegut as a national prophet, although I’m not quite sure he would have liked this so much. If anything, the author’s probably turning in his grave over the recent gun shootings in Charleston and Rosenburg.
But the problem doesn’t just lie with the violent perpetrators, says Vonnegut, the politicians are to blame as well, because by wilfully misreading the constitution, they tacitly validate those who hijack the amendment as justification for violence.
Meanwhile, I look forward to not going bat shit cray cray tomorrow when some of my kids show up without having done their week’s reading. Honestly, between misunderstanding a book and not even bothering to read a book, I’d pick the former any day.
Otherwise, my students can expect something like my revision of Vonnegut’s mass below:
“Le mal se fait sans effort, naturellement, par fatalite; le bien est toujours le produit d’un art.”
[Evil is done without effort, naturally, it is the working of fate; good is always the product of an art.]
– Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (1863)