New York Times reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on her mystical experiences

I’ve put up a couple of posts (here and here) in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, and today it’s reviewed in the New York Times by book-review editor Parul Sehgal.

You may remember that the book centers on an experience of the numinous Ehrenreich had in California when she was 17, exhausted from skiing and, she says, probably hypoglycemic. After years of pondering this event, Ehrenreich finally concluded that it gave some kind of evidence of Another Consciousness out there—even though she is an avowed atheist, one who says she knows there is no God. What’s confusing is Ehrenreich’s strong rejection of a deity, yet credulous assumption that the near-hallucination she had, probably based on physiological imbalances in her body, suggested something outside of herself, something beyond the material.

Sehgal notes this, and adds that Ehrenreich probably waited so long to write this book because it took her so long to get in touch with her own feelings. Victim of an unhappy childhood—her parents were alcoholics and her mother attempted suicide—Ehrenreich cut herself off from others, and abandoned her emotional distance from others only when her first child was born.  As Sehgal writes:

But as the metaphysical thriller this book so clearly wants to be, it’s rudderless. The trouble is that what Ehrenreich experienced isn’t so unusual. Literature is giddy with examples of the experience of the uncanny and the sublime, of our capacity for — if not outright susceptibility to — awe. And if it’s a prosaic explanation you want, science has no shortage. The hallucinations could have been brought on by low blood sugar or fatigue. They might have been dissociative episodes, and psychology could provide a number of reasons Ehrenreich might have been prone to dissociation in those particular years: She was miserably isolated, her parents were very much occupied with drinking themselves to death. And these are the only examples that Ehrenreich herself mentions. There’s a limp admission to that effect at the end of the book: “It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what happened to me when I was 17 represents a widespread, if not exactly respectable, category of human experience.”

But we’ve alighted on the real mystery of the book. It took Ehrenreich so long to learn that her visions were a part of human experience not because the visions were so foreign, but because human experience was altogether foreign to her, too.

. . . She learned to keep panic at bay, and people, too. She discovered early “the protective armor of solipsism,” and she found it hard to shake. . . . Only after she sloughs off the solipsism does life begin. “I fell in love with my comrades, my children, my species,” she writes. Her interests changed from chemistry and casual contempt to wages, war, suffering.

Well, Sehgal’s note that there are non-metaphysical explanations for these “numinous” experiences is fine, although by now hardly original. But I still have trouble understanding why only when one abandons distance from people can one begin to analyze such an experience, and come to realize (erroneously in this case) that it instantiated something beyond nature. It would seem to me that self-absorption would facilitate this conclusion.

In fact, I find the review unsatisfying, despite Sehgal’s awards for book criticism (I’m dubious, for instance, about Seghal’s claim that experiences like Ehrenreich’s “have always shown a marked preference for young women”; has Seghal read The Varieties of Religious Experience?). And the last paragraph, which initially sounds good, comes off to me as a Deepity (my emphasis):

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” These are the words of another young woman writing in her own journal some 10 years or so before Ehrenreich experienced those mysteries on the mountain. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal” couldn’t be more different from “Living With a Wild God” — O’Connor is on intimate, wheedling terms with God, begging him for favors (“Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel”), while Ehrenreich comes to a grudging acceptance of some inchoate Presence or Other. Still, they frequently come to the same conclusions — to work hard, see clearly, want purely. The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

The part in bold is simply bad writing and bad reviewing; an attempt to conclude a review by saying Something Important, even if it’s meaningless. In fact the “questions in the world” to which Sehgal refers are largely meaningless ones if they’re about transcendence, and I myself feel no obligation to any mystery, whatever that means. And what is the hedge “perhaps” the answers are few? What does that mean?  It’s an inconclusive ending to a review of what seems to be an inconclusive book.

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The Amazon reviews are surprisingly mixed, and sales not impressive, perhaps because Ehrenreich refused to impute her experience to God. Had she done so, this book might, like Proof of Heaven, topped the best-seller list.

26 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    “Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.”

    Not to be a buzz kill for Barbara, but this sounds too much like mood-congruent photopsia — especially if Ehrenreich was suffering from any manifestation of depression during this period in her life.

    • Merilee
      Posted April 27, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      Or detached retina?

    • krzysztof1
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      One is reminded of Michael Shermer’s well-known encounter with aliens while in a state of exhaustion during his Bike Ride across America experience.

  2. Gordon Hill
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Trying to explain the inexplicable? Not uncommon.

    • Posted April 27, 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      True, but there are at least 3 very good rational explanations for this experience. The law of parsimony would indicate something besides a supernatural (ie, unnatural) explanation.

  3. Robert Bray
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Classically romantic; classically ascientific. The romantic sublime makes one feel apart; the beautiful, a part. And ‘Nature’ is the fomenter or the conduit of the transcendent. The romantic goal is oneness with the divine. But neuroscience has erased transcendence out of possibility. What we have, and must hold, is the brain–both as the processor of experience and the creator of significance. So perhaps the arch-romantic was intuiting aright when he wrote, in ‘Tintern Abbey,’ ‘. . . all the mighty world/ Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create/ And what perceive.’

  4. Kevin
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Ehrenreich is struck by her own experiences in life because, to her, they are so interesting.

    Well, any person who thinks deeply about life thinks their life is interesting, we just do not always write about it as if it is something potentially beyond the physical.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I once read about an experiment where a group of people who had experienced an amazing coincidence — one which convinced them that a mysterious power was at work — were asked to write down all the details. They then ranked their story on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “ordinary coincidence” and 10 being “completely beyond any possibility of natural explanation.”

      Then they passed the experiences around the circle, and ranked them.

      You guessed it. They almost all judged their own experience as the most extraordinary of all, and found that the ones which happened to other people were far less convincing.

  5. Posted April 27, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I still very much prefer actually living with the very real and warm god on my shoulders right now (who’s wondering when I’m going to stop futzing around with the computer and get him some breakfast) than some memory of an hallucination from distant childhood.

    Seriously, folks: if you want to live with a wild god (and you should want to!), get a cat. Anything else is a pale imitation.

    b&

  6. Grania Spingies
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    “And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may be seeking us out.”

    Why attribute agency to it?
    It’s sufficient to say there are many things in the universe we don’t understand, and we will continue to try to understand them.
    There is no need to posit an entity.

  7. Posted April 27, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I really like reality, and there is nothing like knowing what is and is not real. Understanding is real power, and this power does not come from imaginary gods or false notions about alternative levels of reality. Were I to have had her numinous experience I would consider it a kind of strange and existential moment in my day to be enjoyed for what it was. Knowing what probably caused it, I would look for something else enjoyable like a cup of chai latte, or something else with lots of sugar.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I am about 40% of the way thru the book.

    Ehrenreich has a whole series of these uncanny experiences, but then finally one of them (after several others) seems to her like the presence of an Agency. (That seems to be Chapter 7 which I haven’t gotten to yet.) This thus takes her one step beyond the skeptical mysticism of Bertrand Russell re “Mysticism and Logic” who never attributes supernatural agency to any numinous experiences.

    Ehrenreich’s combination of a highly skeptical mindset and her general difficulty communicating with folks on a personal level is what makes these experiences a problem for her.

    So far she doesn’t talk about any other secular or quasi-religious literature about similar experiences.

    Some of the book is general memoir and some of the writing is quite sharp (especially her descriptions of the blandness of Los Angeles.)

  9. inkydisaster
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    The cover is beautiful, though.

    • W.Benson
      Posted April 27, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree, but nevertheless, a good comment.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    But I still have trouble understanding why only when one abandons distance from people can one begin to analyze such an experience

    It could be possible that she just had another interpretation on it now that she was a different person due to her psychological changes. She may be incorrectly assigning the experience to some sort of loving other she was unable to accept at the time, just as she was unable to accept the intimacy of others. She’s having a bit of a correlation/causation error.

    Personally, as someone who keeps others at a distance, I’d be more interested in how she overcame that particular defence mechanism than her association with god.

  11. Filippo
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Sub

  12. Prof.Pedant
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    “The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.””

    Running that through my Deepity to Prosaic Translator I get:

    ‘The questions we have about reality seem infinite, our desire to understand reality is so strong that mysteries seem to stalk us begging for investigation.’

    Running that translation through the D2P Translator once again:

    ‘It is fun to figure things out!’, with an alternate translation of ‘It is fun to think that we figured something out!’.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 27, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Or, not knowing is uncomfortable. I feel better when I have an answer.

      • Prof.Pedant
        Posted April 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. A pleasure so significant that a lot of people will attempt to fill their knowledge gap with anything labeled ‘answer’….even if they have to jam it into the gap.

        • Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          However, “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, I think it’s much more interesting that way” – or at least I try, since I am not very Feynmanesque. ;)

  13. Sastra
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to make an uniformed guess and assume that when Ehrenreich mentioned a supernatural interpretation of her experience to other people they responded the way they usually do: with flattery, excitement, support, and stories about their own Amazing Mystical Experience.

    And now I’m going to go further and speculate that if Barbara Ehrenreich is only now coming out of her shell then this warm, immediate bonding experience may have made as much if not more of an impression on her than the original experiences of Another Consciousness. It would be very, very tempting — consciously or subconsciously — to join in with the Enlightened and not go searching too hard for a reason not to.

    • Rich Cook
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      That is such a good point. My question about this formation of community around supernatural claims, is, why does it happen? Why is there a bias against skepticism in society?

  14. Dale Franzwa
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I think Ehrenreich suffers from faulty memory syndrome. Evidence? My own anecdotal experience. Back in 1948, I saw the movie, The Story of Dorian Gray (or is it Grey?) About a man who supposedly gives his soul to the devil in order to retain his youth. Over the years, I built up a scenario for the plot I thought was a perfect recall of the actual plot. Surprise, a few years ago I saw the movie again on TV. Guess what, the plot in my head in no way at all resembled the actual movie plot. The only thing I got right was that the movie was shot in black and white. Even then I missed the fact the picture (a painting of Dorian Gray) was in color (I thought it had been a photograph). I believe this was one of the earliest uses of Technicolor in the movies following WW II. So don’t rely on anything Ehrenreich attributes to her memory of her youth decades earlier (likely, it’s all fantasy).

    • krzysztof1
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      My impression was that she mostly relied on her youthful journal as the inspiration for her reflections in the book.

  15. krzysztof1
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    If you’re interested and have time, I posted my own review of Living with a Wild God as a comment to your previous post on Ehrenreich: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/when-good-skeptics-go-bad-isaac-chotiner-interviews-barbara-ehrenreich-about-her-mystical-experiences/#comment-801180

  16. Rich Cook
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    These kinds of mental experiences are apparently quite powerful. I have a friend who went to South America to take a certain drug and came back believing he had learned something about death. He is otherwise rational. My thought was, how could you think anything you saw while hallucinating was meaningful? But the personal experience of some hallucinations really changes peoples’ perception about what reality is. I wonder if I would be immune to such stuff.


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