Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

Sea Change

MelvillesBiblesMy reading list is long, and it grows longer all the time. I read both fiction and non-fiction with equal avidity. Given that there are so many books I want to read, it is unusual to read entire books a second time (they should be kept for reference’s sake, of course). Two exceptions to the multiple reading trend have been, for me, the Bible and Moby-Dick. In reading Ilana Pardes’Melville’s Bibles, I discovered I’m not alone in according Melville nearly biblical status. As a book itself, Melville’s Bibles went on my reading list as soon as I learned of it. You see, Moby-Dick was added to my personal Deutero-Canon as soon as I closed its cover. Perhaps before. It was an assignment for a seminary biblical studies class on wisdom literature. My high school wasn’t one that required the novel, and all I knew about it previously was that it was a big book about whale hunting. I knew so little.

Pardes looks at Moby-Dick, and other literature, both by Melville and others, through the lenses of biblical characters. Of course there’s Ishmael. And Ahab. Melville, however, knew his Bible well, and to understand his work on a deeper level so must his reader. Job’s there. As is Jonah. Jeremiah, Elijah, Micaiah ben-Imlah, and even Rachel. Pardes takes these characters and shows how they appear, generally in Moby-Dick, spread across a variety of characters. More than one Ahab and Ishmael walk these decks. All the while, she notes, Melville himself wasn’t a typical “believer.” He struggled with the deity that he just couldn’t find. The end result is a compelling analysis of literature and human nature.

This brief study has a disproportionate number of insights. I frequently found myself stopping to ponder what I’d just read. Perhaps that’s to be expected in any book that brings two weighty canonical works together in such a gam. (If you can’t recall what a gam is, reading either Pardes or Moby-Dick will remind you.) Encountering Moby-Dick the first time was like finding a lost book of the Bible. I had no idea, however, at the depth of comparison. Pardes shows just how deep that ocean is. Melville’s well-thumbed, indeed, annotated Bible does play a role in all of this. Perhaps he didn’t intend all the connections readers like Pardes find, but that doesn’t make the connections tenuous. They’re clearly there. Canonical works are like that. Moby-Dick, indeed, is an iconic book and Pardes is a very capable Captain to guide a reader through it.

Ships Ahoy

Huge ShipsI’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor. Some time ago a humorous list of improbable book titles was circulating the internet. One of those books was How to Avoid Huge Ships, by Captain John W. Trimmer. Privately published, it surely made its author little money, and it quickly became one of those books with hilarious, bogus reviews on Amazon. My family, knowing my predilection for seafaring (at least in imagination) and my love of irony, found an overpriced, used copy for my birthday. I was glad to have it, but wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. I don’t own a boat, and my efforts to live on the coast have always been thwarted. But then, I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor.

How to Avoid Huge Ships, subtitled I Never Met a Ship I Liked, is one of the most parsimonious books I’ve ever read. Trimmer, a veteran of many years at sea, writes with paternal concern for those who have no apparent sense of reason. Large ships, as most of us with a modicum of physics realize, can’t stop or turn quickly. Yet, in this spellbinding little book, Trimmer reports, and even provides photographic evidence that smaller, private boats often deliberately cut across the bow of these fast-moving juggernauts. As he points out, no license is required to drive a boat, and most small boat pilots have no training. Accidents and fatalities occur. People destroy exorbitantly priced yachts by not moving out of the way of what can truly be called a monster. And like an impatient father, he’s somewhat weary of it. The style is so unpretentious that it might redeem self-publishing in an era when common sense doesn’t interest commercial book houses.

Aware of his own literary limitations, Trimmer bemoans not having an exalted final chapter of great wisdom. He’d already won me over, however, with the simplicity of his sermon. Get out of the way of massive ships. It is a gospel for those with ears to hear. He even points out that the non-seafaring Israelites had respect for ship pilots (citing Ezekiel on Tyre, with decided hints of Melville, intentional or not). I’m not likely to be on a ship soon, but I have survived a horrific hovercraft trip across the English Channel that forever taught me the true respect for the sea. And I know, if I ever find myself again upon the waves, I will consider myself fortunate for having read this wonderful little book.

Stonefaced

Railsea Imagine, if you will, life on the open sea. Back in the whaling days. Days before enlightenment really took hold. Transpose that thought onto railroads. In a day of huge moles and other underground creatures. Days when no one can imagine where the rails end. That might give you the slightest glimpse of China Miéville’s Railsea. I haven’t read too much of Miéville’s fiction, but I have read enough to know to expect a reality distorting romp through very interesting places. In this take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Miéville takes some noteworthy risks in providing his characters with a native religion. Fiction authors sometimes find religion a constraining topic. Consider Salman Rushdie. More often the restraint appears to be a lack of imagination on the writer’s part—although we can’t define religion very well, we all know what it is and what it’s supposed to look like. Miéville, although in backstory, provides a new religious world where the gods are called Stonefaces and everybody believes in angels, and the explanation of where the railways came from is “theology.” Even our erstwhile Captain Ahab is chasing after her “philosophy” in the form of a giant mole that seems to have taken her arm.

With a sensitivity I’ve rarely found (the fault could well be entirely mine), Miéville utilizes religion, particularly Christianity, to construct an alternate universe. The gospel therefore appears as godsquabble, and to suggest there is anything beyond the sea of rails is literally heresy. Our protagonist Shamus ap Soorap on his voyage of discovery ends up riding to heaven on the rails only to find that there is yet even more beyond. Although religion itself is not central to the story its adjuncts are, creating an entire mythos of life on the railroad. It this world it is clear that wood and trees are related, but no one quite knows how; some suppose an evil god planted false evidence to deceive them. There’s even a healthy dose of the Odyssey thrown in, with the Medes having to pass through a mountain dwelling monster, the siller, and the Kribbis Hole.

But aren’t we really on the ark once more? For surely the bedeviled Pequod was a shadow of the same. In Miéville’s fantasy world, the open ground unpopulated by islands is dangerous. All kinds of innocuous creatures burrow out and will eat the traveler who is not safely ensconced on a train. As if to underscore the Noahic connection, Sham ends up on an actual boat on an actual endless sea. I’m pretty sure Homer never read Genesis, but the parallels between Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible were long ago recognized by Cyrus Gordon and his colleagues. Miéville continues the tradition. Stranded on an island, Sham tries walking on the rails (read walking on the water and you’ll get the picture) until his faith fades. There are many who declare that religion has outlived its usefulness, but if an author can bring Melville, Homer, and the Bible into an intensely creative story, I think I’ll have to beg to differ.

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Shelley, Byron, Trelawny, and Ahab

“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.

Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.

Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.

Woeful Wisdom

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” Herman Melville takes the credit for this passage. It is one of the many pericopes that make Moby Dick the greatest book ever written. Those who know me only as a biblical scholar may be surprised to read that, but I invite anyone who has ever instantly fallen in love with 1 Chronicles 1-9 to reply and argue the point.

Although Moby Dick has fallen into the provenance of books that are kept alive only by required high school and undergraduate required reading lists, this novel still comes back to me at many points in my life and fractured career as both a solace and a warning. Melville was clearly a man tormented by his search for meaning. He drew heavily on the Bible for Moby Dick, likening Ishmael to Ecclesiastes at one point, and the whaling haunts of New Bedford to tophets. To appreciate Moby Dick deeply, one must be familiar with the Bible.

Is this the Bible, or what?

Considering the great changes that are taking place in society, I often wonder if we have reached a breaking point. In my university life, I see students absolutely frantic to achieve an A in an easy class, one that would not have broken a sweat in my undergraduate days. Their anxiety is real; grade inflation has forged the B into the new D, or F. Yet these same students know nothing of life apart from the internet. In times like these, I betake myself to the Catskills, and with Melville, turn my eyes upward, seeking madness.