Saturday, May 27, 2006

What Have I Been Reading? Thanks For Asking

I've made a conscious effort to do more reading and writing lately, going so far as to sit down and write a letter by hand to my sister last weekend, and let me tell you, everyone should do this. It feels good for you, like you're doing something you should have done a long time ago. If books aren't your thing, then at least you might want to peruse the periodicals, and not just the newspapers. There's a whole world out there to learn about, people. Get cracking. You only live once.

Anyway, this conscious effort led me down a fun alley when I was busily sitting at Murky Coffee near Eastern Market last Saturday reading a collection of Osip Mandelstam's semi-fiction about growing up in pre-Soviet Russia, translated as The Noise of Time. I do occasionally wonder whether reading this sort of thing is really worthwhile other than as a way to pass the hours, and I always come away thinking a good book is a good book, no matter where or when you read it. People are always just people, after all, and reading about bygone eras isn't so much different than the magical feeling some people get when they're reading the Bible, so what's the difference? If you stick to reading about the here and now, you'll just get depressed and won't take a very long view of history. The thing about Mandelstam in particular, though, is that he was a very, very good writer in addition to living an interesting and tragically shortened life (the Soviets nabbed him for having an imagination), and you can never read too much good writing -- he was mostly known as a poet, and it shows even when he's talking about the usual stuff of walking around with his nurse when he was a kid, seeing military parades, noticing unusual people, wondering what was going on in the rest of the world, etc. It may be a little writer-geek of me, but I can't get enough of this stuff these days. I've gone through a phase of buying books about the first three or four decades of the twentieth century and actually sitting down immediately to read them and loving them. (Joseph Roth's Report From a Parisian Paradise, which I mentioned previously, is another of these. And Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise is sitting by my bed waiting its turn.) This is not unheard of, since I do tend to read books in blocks rather than completely at random, but it's been a while since something stirred my blood. I usually read from the neck up. This has been a little more enjoyable.

Speaking of neck-up, I started picking at, of all things, David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which I bought because it was on sale for practically nothing and have actually enjoyed so far. It was written about three hundred years ago, so you'd expect the thing to be a little prosaic and clunky, but it's surprisingly light on its feet. It's written as a conversation between three characters (who have names from Greek antiquity but never really existed) with three distinct positions on the existence of God, and that's it. They talk about whether and how to prove God's existence. It's not long at all -- just enough to make Hume's point without going overboard, I suspect, although I haven't gotten very far and I don't know what the point is yet.

Without delving too deeply into the meaning of faith, let me share an anecdote: about nine months ago, maybe more like six, I was talking to a friend who told me she used to be interested in Islam but had lost that interest after taking a religious studies class. It just no longer appealed to her. Her boyfriend has always been a dabbler -- some of you readers will recognize who I'm talking about -- and had taken her along to mosque a few times, but neither of them were really living it, just experimenting, and she wondered aloud about why she'd been attracted and then repulsed by what had essentially not changed a bit in the span of her contact with it. Sort of put on the spot to reply, I said something like "You know, religions have their strong points, and they speak to something most people feel deeply in some way or other. They may be more or less internally coherent, and you can have a world view including the teachings of a religion and still live a normal day-to-day life. But to me, if you step back, you don't need any of it. You can be a good person and just take life as it comes." And this struck her, for whatever reason. I think a lot of people have never thought of it that way. There's this idea that the Search For Faith is something that starts driving you at some point, and you either take up the call and lead a spiritually meaningful life or you don't heed it and live in some impoverished wilderness of the shallow. That's a total crock of beans, friends. You don't have to be actively faithful, in any religious sense, nor a militant atheist in order to make sense of what's really going on in the universe. No one ever can really make much sense of it no matter what they do or how hard they try anyway, so you shouldn't beat yourself up if you don't pick and choose a world view and stick to it. Take experience and what it teaches you, and listen to the questions you ask yourself, don't discount the unlikely and don't forget to look at the night sky -- that's my prescription.

I also kind of go back and forth on the certain value of physical, non-"religious" habits like meditating. I like to sit and be quiet, and when I do it I generally make an effort to keep my back straight. Sometimes I'll light incense, and usually I'll keep the window open. But I don't think of myself as having a meditation practice, the way Buddhists like to think of it. I don't make a daily effort to sit on my bed and clear my mind. I don't doubt that it has certain objective benefits, but then again so do pushups, and I know a lot of Buddhists who don't do enough pushups. There's no one thing or set of things that everyone has to do to live a meaningful and creatively relevant life. I think we should all remember that.


Blogger nolo said...

nice post. You'll enjoy the Hume.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Lapp said...

It's about time someone complimented me on my writing, which I have to say has been really sterling lately. Thanks as always for gracing us with your humane presence, learned one.

12:44 PM  
Blogger charvakan said...

Nolo, I praise this glory hound's writing every time I see him. He just can't get enough adulation.

Yeah, Hume is cool.

9:40 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home