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.
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.