Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 25, 2014

Barbara Ehrenreich, _Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything_

IS BARBARA EHRENREICH really, as the jacket flap announces, "one of the most important thinkers of our time"? She is a terrific journalist--one of those, like Garry Wills or Malcolm Gladwell, who are more worth reading on a given topic than most experts--but the claim still feels like a stretch, to me.

Well.  Moving on.

Living with a Wild God is a memoir with a very specific focus. As a teenager, Ehrenreich had a series of peculiarly charged psychological episodes, in which her powers of perception suddenly, as it were, amped up to a paranormal level, seeming to reveal to her some not-exactly-human agency in things. Sometimes the episodes would have an all-is-one feeling, but the most powerful one, contrarily, conveyed a profound apartness and desolation--like the experience Henry James, Senior (the novelist's father) called his "vastation."

Someone brought up in a religious tradition would likely think of these episodes as mystical experiences, but Ehrenreich, raised by atheists and in those days aiming at a career in the sciences, rejected that possibility.  Nonetheless, she kept a journal in which she (among other things) pondered what the experiences might have meant.

In her early twenties, she got inadvertently sidetracked into anti-Vietnam-war activism, and a whole other life opened up: she became an organizer, a movement journalist, also a wife and mother...became Barbara Ehrenreich, in short, and stopped thinking about the episodes, which had become less frequent, less intense.

About 2001, collecting her papers for a university archive, she comes across the journal, and starts thinking again about the experiences. She is still an atheist, but the life she has lived and the topics she has researched in the intervening years now lead her to wonder if there is indeed some non-human Presence or Other that, for the time being, we are unable to detect or measure, but which we may eventually discover to be as real as microbes, or sub-atomic particles, or black holes, or other entities that existed long before we humans were able to ascertain their existence.

Interesting book.  It often, occasionally for pages at a time, seemed to be turning into a more ordinary memoir, dwelling on her parents, or her teachers, or her early interests without too keen a concern to stay focused on the book's putative topic. Ehrenreich emphasizes that the book is not an autobiography, but any number of pages to which one might open randomly would persuade a reader that an autobiography is exactly what it is.

Still, given the ever-expanding literature on experiences of this sort, and given the way accounts of such experiences veer almost immediately into religious speculation, having a non-believer's account of how such an episode feels together with a non-believer's speculations about its causes is helpful.

Coincidentally, the day after I finished Living with a Wild God, I read a fine essay by Sallie Tisdale (in Conjunctions 61) about her underwater encounters with manta rays, and her sense of the power of engaging with non-human intelligence seemed to resonate with Ehrenreich's. Of one such meeting, Tisdale writes, "I felt blessed--not by some imagined connection, not by recognition or a meeting of minds, but by the strange that will remain forever strange and by its strangeness tell me who I am." Ehrenreich's book is another testimony to the preciousness of that strangeness.

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