I am an atheist. However, it's not quite as simple as that. My mother tells me she's agnostic, although she was raised as a Christian; my father, grandfather and great-grandfather define or defined themselves as atheists. That means I was brought up without God, albeit with respect for other people's beliefs. I never made a conscious decision to reject religion and the existence of God, but rather never believed there was a God in the first place. I think this is a fairly unusual experience in many places, although it may be becoming more common and I've met many people from the former GDR with a similar story. I've talked to people who say we need a new term because atheism is a negation in itself. I think it's perfectly adequate though.
What being a fourth-generation atheist means, though, is that I automatically take a fairly rational approach to life. I'm not the kind of person who believes in fate, or horoscopes, or even certain aspects of alternative medicine that rely on us believing they work (I don't want to convert anybody; please do me the courtesy of not trying to convert me back). If I don't like a situation I'm in, I'll try to get out of it or change it. Of course, I'm aware that I grew up in a country with a long history of Christianity, which has soaked into all aspects of its culture and can't have left me untouched either. Earlier this year, I read Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, but it struck me that the author's apparent craving for organised ritual seemed like a way of replacing religion with something else, and that's not something I personally feel a need to do. I have attended about four religious rituals in my life, three Christian weddings and a Sufi Muslim shrine offering. So another thing I don't know how to do is worship – which, again, is not something I would consider rational.
However, there is at least one area of my life that isn't rational: emotions. Fear, sadness, guilt, and that one I'm prone to overusing the name of: love. I don't know whether I fear and love differently to someone who fears and loves God as well as other objects. But I do know I have these unruly forces in my life, no matter how hard I try to blame them on chemicals. I remember as a teenager reading a quote attributed to Fay Weldon, which I can't find online: Love is just your hormones trying to get you pregnant. It's nonsense, of course, at the very latest when we apply the word to objects other than persons (or to men, or to lesbians, or to post-menopausal women as subjects, all of whom feel love, right?).
As you know, I love German books. Obviously I don't love all of them, unconditionally or indeed exclusively. That would be akin to worship, and anyway I don't think anyone would be capable of such a thing, not even people who work for the Goethe Institut. I don't even love everything one particular writer has ever written. There are people who do that though, I believe: idolise particular writers. As the word suggests, it's a religious kind of behaviour. So perhaps an atheist book-lover loves books differently to a religious book-lover.
And here's another word I overuse: magic. I don't believe it exists in a literal sense. I don't believe a man in a sixth-floor flat can shake bones over you and help you find a husband, or contact the spirits (which, obviously, I don't believe exist either). But I find it's a useful term for describing the way a spark of enthusiasm leaps from one person to another – say from a writer to a reader. I'd say there's a pinch of magic in publishing. I recently used the word to describe what foreign rights people do: they second-guess which books will work in different countries, and it seems like more than good luck when it works. Of course, my rational mind insists, we only hear the success stories. But still, there are magical phenomena where pure enthusiasm – and yes, that's love too – spreads.
I've been talking to people about what happens when you read books for a living. In a way, of course, I'm a prime example, if we consider translation as extremely close reading involving interpretation and reproduction. But reading and analysing isn't my main occupation. The examples I've been thinking about are professional literary critics and literary scholars. Last night I spoke to a scholar who said she'd never want to write about the writer she adored (idolised) as a teenager. I know I don't even want to re-read the writer I put up on a pubescent pedestal – she can never be as good as I imagined she was. And a friend told me about meeting a bunch of critics at a party, who were very jaded and spent the evening moaning about books and literary events. Is it that being paid to take literature apart on a regular basis robs it of its (God-like) mystery and allure? Like finding out the Wizard of Oz is a small man with a smoke machine behind a curtain?
It seems to me, although I could be wrong, that professionals lose sight of the magic and the love that makes literature exciting. Scholars are expected to take a Mr Spock-like perspective of writing, at least in their professional lives. Mr Spock being the proto-atheist in popular culture, perhaps, unable to understand even emotions because they're not logical, captain. Love is out of the question under the circumstances, I assume. And some critics must become immune to the magic, I suppose, and the love fades and fades as they become more and more, well, critical. Except for those exceptional critics who can still feel it or at least express it convincingly. There are people who say love feels stronger when you're younger, first cut is the deepest and all that, although I don't agree.
Are you wondering how I'm going to tie this all up? So am I; this is one of those Kleistian ideas-in-progress posts. I suppose I take a non-religious approach towards books, often a blunt one, but not actually a rational one. I'm happy enough with that for the time being.