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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

sick souls

I've recently been reading again from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a book developed from a series of talks he gave at the Gifford lectures on natural religion in Edinburgh in 1901-02.

The first three lectures lead in with a general discussion of his topic--looking at religion primarily from a psychological point of view. Lectures 4 and 5 are together called "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness", and deal with optimistic religious experiences, using as his main example the "mind-cure" school of religion that seemed to be all the rage at the time he was speaking. This held that one can quite abruptly change one's life for the better by having faith in the guidance and help of a higher power, visualizing health and happiness, and refusing to dwell on or even acknowledge pain, illness, or depression in one's life. As James demonstrates, this approach had proved itself to be widely effective and powerful--indeed could not have become so popular if it had not.

But in lectures 6 and 7 he moves on to "The Sick Soul"--the opposite outlook, which does not deny pain and sin, but looks these right in the face, acknowledging them to be a permanent feature of the human and even cosmic landscape. I'm still working my way through lecture 6, but already have been exposed to some powerful remarks that remind me very much of some of my Buddhist studies, which likewise emphasize the futility and impossibility of finding lasting happiness in life, so long as one relies on clinging to impermanent things.

As James says,

Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world: in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.

In illustration of this, he quotes Goethe in 1824:

I will say nothing against the course of my existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.

Whew. Or this, from Robert Louis Stevenson:

There is indeed one element in human destiny, that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.

Sobering words. They seem to suit my mood at the moment. Reading as much history right now as I am, especially sweeping views of the whole of human history (I've just finished Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race), it's hard not to see it as a march of folly, the gradual acquisition of more powerful means to achieving the same dismal ends.

The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, writing in the 1930s, saw militarism as one of the main features of a decadent and moribund society, a kind of social disease that would prevent the arising of a decent human civilization for as long as it persists. Well, we live in a world that is vastly more militarized than it ever has been, with more killing power distributed into more hands.

Being the biggest and best-armed is no help. Toynbee points to the legend of David and Goliath as the example of how supreme power breeds complacency, and brings about its own destruction through means it feels no motivation to foresee. Even when a heavily armed power toils to stay up to date, upgrading its military systems, as the ancient empire of Assyria did, it eventually reaps the whirlwind of militarism.

Assyria dominated the Middle East from about 1000 to 650 BC, but its oppressive strength bred tremendous resentment in its neighbors, and eventually all the conquered rose against it and destroyed it. When the Greek general Xenophon led his 10,000 mercenaries back from Persia toward the Black Sea in the 5th century BC, he passed Nineveh, the ancient fortified capital of Assyria. He and his men were amazed to find such a vast and heavily built city utterly vacant. Xenophon was unable to discover the truth about who had built the city, or when. The very name of Assyria had been forgotten.

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