Archive for the ‘death’ Category

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Booklog: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

August 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Read: 7.21.07
Rating: Good

(I’ve been waiting to post this to avoid any spoilers, but by now you’ve had plenty of time).

At a certain point I began to expect too much from Harry Potter, to the point where a letdown was all but assured. I’d say this came in three stages: (1) the day I finished book four in a frenzy, and Dumbledore spoke of a war beginning — clearly this is the moment when the stakes were raised and I realized I was reading something that was already very good and had the potential to be engrossingly wonderful; (2) when most of my best friends caught on as well, and we found ourselves hypothesizing and dissecting and generally getting way too excited about what was and probably still is a children’s book (or, at least, an adolescent’s book), and, more specifically, (3) when I opened Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a few minutes after midnight and saw this epigraph by Aeschylus:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

Ohmygod! the nerdiest aspect of my being screamed: an epigraph! by Aeschylus! from The Libation Bearers! I love Aeschylus! Surely this book will be magnificent!

But then it wasn’t. It was good, and in different ways than I expected. What happened was that my favorite aspects of the series — “what’s going to happen to my favorite characters?” “how will this mystery be resolved?” “is Snape a good guy or not?” etc — were less than stellar in this concluding book; but its surprising reach, that the arc of Harry Potter would approach that of high tragedy, nearly made up for the book’s other weaknesses. This at least, I told myself for at least two weeks after finishing, was a major success.

Now I’m not so sure. I was willing to convince myself that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the series in general, was serious — certainly not “great literature,” but something close, at least in terms of the Big Ideas of Theme, Message, and Meaning. Written down a level, to be sure, but getting there, reaching for it, and sometimes grasping it. I was crying, after all, at the end of each of the last three books — didn’t this count for something?

Now the backlash has begun, as a result of Book 7’s disappointing conclusion. I’m not a fan who had an ideal ending in mind, and I still don’t, but I wish Rowling hadn’t tried to have it both ways. Sam Anderson, writing for New York, explains what I mean. The whole paragraph is very funny, so I’ll quote in full:

I’m not opposed to happy endings per se — I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.

Right on! And about that “Epilogue,” my final, non-tear-stained, analysis is roughly: are you fucking kidding me! What kind of writer deems it a good idea to conclude her seven-volume epic with the worst piece of writing in the entire series? (But apparently, not everyone thinks so: Stephen King finds the epilogue “gorgeous.” For my response to this, see the words in italics just above.)

Really, though, at the end of the day, the Harry Potter series is more in the line (okay, at the front of the line) of a top-tier blockbuster movie franchise or comic-book story-arc. (This is one reason why the movies are so good.) Think Spiderman. There are plenty of awesome characters, some marvelous plot developments, plenty of reference to significance that the form can’t quite hold, plenty of contrivances, and most importantly, lots of things that make you think: “That was awesome!” This is a good thing, but not much more than that. I wish she wouldn’t have fooled me with the Aeschylus.

Recommended further reading:

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary

The reaction Mr. Anderson reports is very similar, albeit more composed, to what I experienced around 7:30 on Saturday morning (a nap wasn’t really a possibility for me).

Sunday, 6:38 p.m. Page 738. And here’s the cop-out. Harry Potter is actually Jesus Christ. It turns out that, because of the purity of his sacrifice, he doesn’t actually have to die — he gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed humanity

Tetsubo Productions – Wherein It’s Completely Legal Now So Bite Me

Another reading diary, this one much longer and completely hysterical. This gentleman, judging from his story, had a — ahem — hard time getting “a hold of” the book.

Page 7: Voldy: “That Potter lives is due more to my errors than his triumphs.” I refer you to David R. Henry’s old maxim about fiction: when the characters themselves echo common complaints about the plot, there are Issues.

Dispatches: Harry Potter and Hallowed Death

This 3quarksdaily post is everything mine is not: thoughtful, well-written, and fair.

In Deathly Hallows, after five hundred pages of strangely penitent plot starvation comes an emetic span in which the main storylines, and masses of other loose ends, are tied up within a hundred pages: plot bulimia.

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Booklog: Blood Meridian

August 13, 2007

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Read: 8.4.07
Rating: Very Good

Blood Meridian is a multi-faceted assault on meaning. Certainly, it is well-known for being a deconstruction of the “myth of the Western,” and its fetishized violence, but below this surface, the text sets itself against all efforts to extract meaning from nature, from violence, from history and even from life itself. Any meaning present in the world, according to Judge Holden, whose voice dominates the book, is imposed upon the world by the man who is wise enough to realize that life itself has none.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian is loosely based on historical events that took place around the border of Texas and Mexico in the middle of the 19th-century. The action follows the path of “the kid,” a fourteen-year-old drifter who falls in with a band of scalphunters led by the ruthless John Glanton; but the dominant character is certainly”the Judge, an otherworldly figure who is responsible for nearly all of the book’s main passages and who leads the assault on meaning. Among the book’s characters, the majority of whom are impossibly reticent, only the judge understands, interprets, and speaks. The other members of Glanton’s gang pass through life, doing their best to remain unimpressed by it: killing, drinking, whoring, but never thinking — in short, doing their best to avoid meaning in all its manifestations.

The assault on the meaning of nature is voiced specifically by the Judge early in the book, yet it also is prevalent throughout the narration. As Glanton’s group of scalphunters traverse the terrain, the Judge often acts as botanist and historian, taking samples from the landscape and sketching them into his book; he then typically destroys the specimen. When a member of the party asks his purpose, the Judge replies “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” and goes on to expose the view that “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” To the objection that the task of understanding everything on earth is impossible, the Judge explains:

The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

It is important to note that the Judge does not merely study nature as a means to understand it — he wages war against nature with the intention of defeating it and bringing it into submission. The only meaning that it has for him is as an enemy.

For the Judge, war is both meaningless and the only chance man has to enforce his meaning on the world. It is meaningless in that it is always present, and it is useless to discuss it:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

War is thus also compared to stone in its actuality; thus, it is another thing to enforce meaning upon. In war, the Judge has an arena in which to set himself against others and dominate them. The only possible meaning of life is existence over non-existence, and war continually feeds his need for enemies against which to test his continued existence.

When considering the significance of Blood Meridian, it does not do to consider only the words of the Judge, for it is clear that he is an evil character, and that whatever moral compass the text does have points away from the Judge and towards something else. However, the fact that no other voice counters his, and that the even-toned nature of the text does not encourage the elucidation of other meanings, leads me to believe that the assault on meaning is not only voiced by the Judge, though it may be led by him. Consider this passage, typical of the book’s narration, which describes the party’s march across the desert:

The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

First allow me to say that this is magnificent; McCarthy’s prose, at its peak, is unrivaled. The phrase “optical democracy,” wedged within this passage, speaks marvelously to the book’s depictions of the landscape and the culture in which Blood Meridian is set. In this land where difference is annihilated, and rock and man approach sameness, the importance of the Judge’s quest for dominion resonates.

The violence of Blood Meridian is breathtaking in its banality and the casual nature in which it is committed and described. Anyone approaching the text looking for “redemption through violence” (I’m not sure what this means) will find none. Violence itself has no meaning, and no one group or person is above another in the committing of it. Glanton’s band is originally hired to hunt down Apaches, who are depicted as ruthless killers who not only kill and scalp but hang dead babies in trees as a warning to their enemies. Clearly, one would not have to climb very far to reach the moral high-ground with these “savages,” as they are unflinchingly called, as an enemy. But the members of Glanton’s scalphunting troupe are not interested in morality; they kill, rob, and plunder with the same thoughtlessness as the Apaches. The only person in the text who succeeds in rising above thoughtless killing is “the kid,” who still kills, but is often depicted as hesitant, and in one case spares the life of a man he was meant to eliminate. However, the kid’s voice is never sufficiently fluent, and his reasons for his action or inaction remain mysterious to the reader. In contrast, the Judge not only explains his own thoughts and motives but those of the kid as well:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Here me, man. I spoke in the desert to you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

The kid’s resistance to the voice of the Judge is the book’s main act of heroism, but it too is a rejection of meaning, not the creation of it. The Judge here speaks of history, hinting that if there is any meaning to be drawn from events, it is applied after the fact. The kid’s insistence on making judgments on his own actions, instead of simply acting and surviving, is to the Judge a sign of weakness and will lead to his annihilation.

As is hinted in the quote above, Blood Meridian also contains an assault on history. The kid and his thoughtful approach towards violence will not make the history books. This is textually rich on two levels. First, Glanton and the Judge, Blood Meridian’s two most violent characters, are the only ones based on historical fact (although from what I have gathered the history is very sparse). Second, it must be remembered that the kid is the book’s main protagonist, and its hero if it has one, so passages like the following have double-meaning. The kid lies in a swoon, recovering from surgery:

Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In short: even history will not provide meaning. But should we expect the text itself, which “heroizes” the kid, to do so?

During the book’s final section, which takes place over a decade after the demise of Glanton and his gang, the kid, now referred to as “the man,” encounters the Judge, who is eager to reminisce. The setting is carnivalesque, and the Judge, looking around, offers his opinion that life is analogous to a dance in which we all participate, “and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the even consists.” In the pages that follow, the Judge’s assault on meaning is made manifest, and takes on a larger target: life itself. He tells the man that they are playing

A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar that bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?

Again, and more clearly, meaning is assaulted, and only existence is propped up in its place. The Judge lives life as if it were a game where the enemy is death itself, and there is nothing more. Therefore, when the book comes to a close, and the Judge finally succeeds in killing the man, his victory is complete. The book’s final words are: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” He is the winner; meaning, and its last resort, death, are both defeated.

What is one to make of a book whose message is so impossibly bleak? James Wood, one of my favorite critics, asserts that the Judge should not be confused with McCarthy, and I am certain that this is true. However, it is very troubling that no other voice is included in the text to counter the sever eloquence of the Judge. Wood believes that this is a serious flaw, present in McCarthy’s work as a whole:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders. (source)

I agree wholeheartedly: Blood Meridian has no borders within the text, and the effect is absolutely crushing. The only possible counterweight to the voice of the Judge is the conscience and judgment of the reader, who must surmise a method of responding to the book’s assault. It is a deeply personal struggle, and a difficult one.

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Now I want to re-read Middlemarch

August 9, 2007

A. S. Byatt’s shower of praise in the Guardian won’t shed any new insight into Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it will remind you why “It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.”

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.”

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The Reason for the Peloponnesian War

June 21, 2007

I’ve never posted a video on this blog before, but there’s a first time for everything. Here is theorist/philosopher Slavoj Žižek talking about why loves theory:

Via the Continental Philosophy blog.

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Booklog: Slaughterhouse-Five

April 27, 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Read: 4.15.07
Rating: Good

Last week, upon hearing that Kurt Vonnegut had died, I immediately put Slaughterhouse-Five into my bag before heading out the door. I’ve intended to read it for well over a year now, and the man’s death was a clear indication that the time had come.

I’ve read at least two other novels of Vonnegut’s: Breakfast of Champions as a teenager, and Cat’s Cradle between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I enjoyed both books, and remember Cat’s Cradle very fondly — my hope was that Vonnegut would improve upon a re-visit. Sadly, this was not the case: I certainly do like this novel and Vonnegut’s trademark style and approach, but I think my taste for him has withered for the time being. There’s no telling how one will feel about an author later in life, but I think Kurt Vonnegut and I are through for a while.

The most enjoyable aspects of Vonnegut’s style are closely tied to its shortcomings: he is a highly amusing writer, ruthlessly clever. His prose oozes dry irony, and his best sentences have a quick bite that is wholly his own. There is much to praise in Vonnegut’s application of this style to Slaughterhouse-Five‘s big scary topics: massacre, death, and war. His cutting, counter-cultural tone centers around the stoic phrase “So it goes” that marches through the text. Whenever a death or tragedy is mentioned, “So it goes” follows immediately. At times Vonnegut’s placement of the phrase is gut-wrenching, at others light and humorous. For example, take these paragraphs from page 101. At this point, Billy Pilgrim, the book’s protagonist, is lying in bed at a mental institution, next to a man named Eliot Rosewater, who is also a WWII veteran:

Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.

[Three paragraphs later]

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table — two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

A fine stoicism and humor colors Vonnegut’s “So it goes”. These two qualities are the best of what Vonnegut’s writing offers.

My trouble with Vonnegut’s writing is when it becomes too cute. Take, for example, the three paragraphs that come between the two I just praised:

So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

I find these short, one-sentence paragraphs, with their italics for emphasis, pithy and way too precious. I realize I’ve just sectioned off one half-page of a novel, but I did so because it so clearly demonstrates the highs and lows of Vonnegut’s style.

Vonnegut is, first and foremost, a stylist, and whether the reader enjoys his books depends on the reader’s own sense of style. This reader believes that Vonnegut is a shining example of a very old brand of stoicism, which he has successfully updated into modern times by restyling it, draping it in irony, knowingness, and cutting humor — traits that very successfully appeal to modern sensibilities. In Slaughterhouse-Five, his ideas are not large or deep, but his topic is, so his stance of detachment and sardonic wit operates in place of traditional analysis and insight. It’s something, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s for me.

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Species of Sentimentality

February 28, 2007

In an excellent review of Joan Acocella’s new book Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, Joyce Carol Oates draws attention to this paragraph, in which Acocella is considering a recent biography of Primo Levi:

…Even if Levi did commit suicide [as the biographer argues], it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it. That’s the case with mystery novels, but not with lives. Nor do we have any reason to believe that life should not be sad. Many lives are sad, and fraught with double binds, which just means conflicts. We make of them what we can, then throw up our hands and die. The things that Levi made of his life — Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table — are in no way diminished by the possibility that he killed himself. They may even seem more remarkable and moving: the darker the night, the brighter the stars.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience II: “Circumscription of the Topic”

January 25, 2007

(This is the second of a planned twenty part journey through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience lectures).

In his second lecture, “Circumscription of the Topic,” James aims to set down exactly what he means when he talks about “religion.” Like the first, this lecture is introductory in tone, as James outlines his general scheme and establishes a clear method of considering his subject. At the very end, James promises that in his next lecture he will “abandon the extreme generalities” and “begin our actual journey by addressing ourselves directly to the concrete facts.” If this means that the next lecture is going to be even better than this one, than you can color me excited.

The primary point of lecture two is to define the word “religion” in a way that will allow James to talk about the aspects of it he finds most interesting, namely, the intense religious experiences of those who think they are in touch with the divine. James explains that he is not interested in determining what the “essence” of religion is, since he does not think this to be a plausible goal; religion, of all things, is not easily reduced to a single trait, as “such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arise doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing.” To help in this regard, James again explains that he is going to ignore the institutional aspects of religion in their entirety, hoping instead to “confine myself as far as I can to personal religion pure and simple.” With this in mind, James sets down his working definition:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

The slippery word here, as James immediately recognizes, is “divine” — what does this mean? He insists on holding to a broad definition of the divine, which will umbrella religions such as Buddism, which recognizes no personal deity, and Emersonian idealism, which focuses primarily on a law or force which inhabits the universe. In short, even if a religion has no gods, it still falls under James’s conception: “we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.”

Coming at it from a different angle, James defends his choice of definition by claiming that “religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?”

The next part of the essay makes distinctions between different ways of reacting to the totality of existence, and whether or not different stances qualify as religious. Voltaire’s scoffing attitude, the “all is vanity” approach, is certainly not religion. An ironic stance towards the whole is not religion; religion nearly always indicates a serious frame of mind. Even tragedy has value from the religious point of view, for it it is considered a purging force that paves the way to deliverance. Coming back to the definition of the divine, James says: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.”

With this in mind, James returns to the point he made in his first lecture, that religion can best be understood by considering the most extreme examples of it. The common sense plea James makes resonates with truth:

Hesitation as to whether a state of mind is ‘religious,’ or ‘moral,’ or ‘philosophical,’ is only likely to arise when the state of mind is weakly characterized, but in that case it will be hardly worthy of our study at all. With states that can only by courtesy be called religious we need have nothing to do, our only profitable business being with what nobody can possibly feel tempted to call anything else.

At this point in his lecture, James turns to a subject that holds great weight, and proves to be deeply fascinating: distinguishing between a “moral” stance towards existence and a “religious” one. Recognizing that there could very easily be some blurring between the two, James attempts to determine the critical difference, and succeeds admirably. Explaining that “at bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” James points out that morality is concerned with acquiescing to the universe, while religion is concerned with embracing it. It is a difference of mood: the moralist (represented here by Stoicism in general and Aurelius specifically) consents to his place in the universe, and even submits to it, whereas “the Christian God is there to be loved” — “the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics.”

James then moves deeper into this territory, hoping to identify what about religion makes it distinct from morality. Strangely, James shifts back and forth between Christianity and religion without explanation, using the two terms nearly interchangeably in the last portion of his lecture. This serves his purpose, and allows him to make the points he clearly wishes to make, but it is a weakness in his argument, and attention must be paid to it. What James says next about the sacrificial, self-abasing aspects of religion apply very well to Christianity, but not so well (to use James’s earlier example against him) to Emersonian idealism. Take this passage which describes the comfort religion gives to those who feel the shortcomings of their “decaying organism”

But whereas the merely moralistic spurning takes an effort of volition, the Christian spurning is the result of the excitement of a higher kind of emotion, in the presence of which no exertion of volition is required. The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well — morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.

This is a long quote, but essential to understanding what comes next. James claims that the crucial aspect of religion — and its chief value — is how it “comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands.” Religious feeling adds a whole new level of experience to a person’s life: “when the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which would otherwise be an empty waste.”

I want to stop the summary here and draw attention to the fact that James is here portraying a very pessimistic view of life and death. True, our lives are a struggle with death and decay, for which we often need solace and explanation. However, I think it’s worth it to advance another view: that life owes nothing to us, and that we should be happy to be here at all. This, bastardized, is the view taken by Carlyle’s professor Teufelsdrock in Sartor Resartus (see this post).

In the next to last paragraph, James writes:

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute

To this I say: yes, we are all dependent on the universe, and religion does provide an answer to the seemingly brutality of this fact, in that it promises that there is another, greater, meaning, even — usually — promising eternal life beyond our short earthy voyages. In this view, renouncing the earthly has clear benefits. However, if there is no eternal life, nothing beyond what we see and experience on earth, then the comfort and “extra level” that religion offers is misleading, false, and detrimental to true happiness.

If you believe that there is another life, then renouncing the less pleasant elements of this one makes sense. If you don’t, and are convinced that this life is the only experience you will ever have, then renunciation holds no purpose, whatever its value for your happiness may be. My chief criticism of James’ point is that our being “dependent on the universe” is not a strong enough reason to renounce it. James thinks that “we shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy, and to practice some amount of renunciation, great or small, to save our souls alive.” I agree with the first half of this proposal, but denounce the second; I have no choice but to depend on the universe, but I can choose to affirm it, regardless of whether or not it has a total meaning, because I am convinced that there is nothing more to it that what it gives me and what I can take from it.