Sunday, June 01, 2008

Today's Reading: Noah

For the last couple weeks, I have been poking lazily through Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. At one point, I thought I might teach it, and may someday still, but the decision against it for fall meant that it often fell by the wayside for days at a time while I worked away at other things. I finally finished it this morning.

If you don't know the book, it's less a novel than thematically linked pieces of short fiction, and the 1/2 chapter is really an essay by Barnes on the intertwining of history and love. The common thread is Noah's ark: the wordworms on it, various sea catastrophes, survival, taking to the seas, what we might or mightn't find on Mt. Ararat, etc. And through many of them is the decidedly Barnesian, po-mo-lite tension inherent in the idea of history: what really happened, vs. the stories we tell about it, the fact vs. the fable. Barnes tends toward the notion of history as a collection of stories--this borne out not only by the fact that his history of the world is a seemingly random, non-linear, disjointed series of pastiches, but also by the way that his characters' lives are continually driven less by material circumstance than by the stories they tell themselves. He goes so far as to say so:

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. (240)

One of these overlaps are the thread of characters who go on monumental journeys, fueled by the idea of a mission from god. Noah's own mission, and two others that take them on pilgrimages to Mt. Ararat all suggest to a large degree that such drives are often quixotic, and that the blind fervor that propels them are as arbitrary as the psychotic break that sends another character in another story off into a boat with two cats to avoid an imaginary war.

Funny then, that later on the morning I finish Barnes's novel, while sitting in the Episcopal church today (I do that sometimes, you know), that I notice, "Hunh. The Old Testament reading is on Noah." And the sermon, by a retired bishop who's pinch hitting while the parish looks for a full-time rector, ties the three readings for the day together through the theme of obedience.

Now, obedience is a notion that I find troubling. It was blind obedience to what seemed like an arbitrary set of moral prescriptions that drove me out of the church in my late teens, and is a notion that I now understand as a less-than-arbitrary form of social control. (It's hard to want to believe in Foucault and a deity at the same time. And right now, Foucault makes more sense to me). And yet I ask for a kind of obedience from my children, from my students, even in a way, from Willow or from any friend (only inasmuch as I hope to obey as much as is sensible their wishes as well). As much as I am suspicious of authority and of power, I don't assume that authority and power are de-facto malevolent, any more than is the amorphous deity I try to imagine each week, or, for that matter, the very suspect theological institutions that propagate a very specific version of that deity.

So I sit in church resisting the idea of obedience, disagreeing with most of the sermon despite its being served up like so much pablum (I swear to god he tried to summarize the whole Cosby routine).

So why was I there? Happy to hear the story of Noah, yet loathe to hear it tied to a set of dicta to which I must be blindly obedient?

Because, like Barnes, I'm here for the stories (and the songs too...I sing in the choir for the sheer joy of singing in a choir). We take the kids for the stories, too, and when their teacher tries to tell them that magic and miracles are very different, we suggest that it's all pretty magical, just as much of the world is.

But back to Barnes's delusionary travelers. While I resist the obedience narrative being imposed on my Noah story, I am also leery of what seems like Barnes's casual dismissal of these journeys set off by a conviction. Even as I say that, I know about other quests set off by similar convictions: The Crusades, cross-burnings, 9/11, Kristallnacht, the two intifadas, European missionary imperialism, the list goes on and on. And yet those stories, those ways we make meaning of not only our lives, but all of existence as we know it, well, the belief in their magic is powerful stuff indeed.

Barnes's final chapter is a riff on heaven, where the first-person narrator describes the series of fantasies fulfilled in heaven, only to realize that those fantasies are finite, and ultimately begin to ring hollow. When he asks about god, his heavenly handler asks, "God. Do you want God? Is that what you want?" (298). Faith in this scenario is merely a projection of a human fantasy for authority, or an ordering principle. It's faith that's always the rub, isn't it? I'm not sure what fantasy I seek while in my choir robes, and what it means that it is composed almost entirely of doubt. Yet those stories about people willing to cram themselves into boats with animals for a delusion of providence still strikes me as compelling, and as worthy (and as troubling) a narrative for contemplation as any other I'm able to muster.

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