Tuesday, 25 June 2013

On Atheism and Literary Reception

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.


Peter said...

"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."

Interesting, though I've usually seen this kind of thing described as a substitution effect: the atheist is more likely to worship a writer because they don't have anything else to worship. And this seems to fit the anecdotal data I can think of; for example, the David Foster Wallace cult members I know are less religious than average, not more.

But as you say, maybe it's more a question of how you were raised than your current beliefs.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I have anything coherent to say in response to your wise post, but I did love it. And loved how you neatly avoided the cliché that art can replace religion in a post-atheist society.

Funnily, as a literary scholar I increasingly envy literary critics, with their permission to let their passions shine through. I generally do show when I am angry or delighted at a book in my work, but at the same time that's not the main point of literary scholarship. I would love to write reviews out of conviction for a living, and to develop committed aesthetic stances rather than coolly explaining the passions of others.

kjd said...

@Peter: I can't speak for anyone else, and I presume few people would admit to abusing writers as false gods, but I don't think we have an innate need to worship. I'd put it down to people seeking that substitution, whereas second, third, fourth-generation atheists don't feel the lack.
*Very* much based on conjecture, though.

kjd said...

@Helen - again, as atheism gets passed down in families, perhaps we won't seek replacements for religion because we've never had it.

And to get to your secret longing: given a perfect world, unlimited time and all those other impossible things, why on earth shouldn't you write reviews? With your academic background and your sound writing skills, you could pitch to newspapers and magazines.

Hey, you could even redress the balance of coverage of international writing! I'll sneakily send you the email address of the Guardian's books editor, if you like.

EP said...

It's not a German book, but you might want to look at an old work called "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James. It addresses some of these issues in a very interesting way. A bit academic in places, but well worth reading.

Another one you might want to look at is "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong.


Anonymous said...

@Katie, I've just finished a long review essay on Claustria for Austrian Research Uk, and hope to use it as a calling card for some more journalistic work... so the email address would be very much appreciated! Thank you!