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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, February 04, 2008

soul bribery

Back at the rock-pile.

This morning the temperature has dropped back below zero (Celsius), relatively cold for this resort city washed by the warm Pacific. Crusts of aging snow web the darkness with white.

And this morning, so far, I have keyed notes from three research books: Isis in the Ancient World by R. E. Witt; Goat Husbandry by David Mackenzie; and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

As I read and then type my research works, I'm often struck by how they offer a highly relevant commentary on my own current life. For example, lately my thoughts have been circling around money. This morning I typed these words (a compressed extract) from James's book:

We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference--the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. When we are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion.

It is true that so far as wealth gives time for ideal ends and exercise to ideal energies, wealth is better than poverty. But wealth does this in only a portion of the actual cases. Elsewhere the desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation. The cause would need its funds, but we its servants would be potent in proportion as we personally were contented with our poverty.

The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

Strongly put--but no more strongly than it should be. "The unbribed soul"--those words have the power to haunt one, and they should haunt one.

From time to time I ask myself: has my soul been bribed? I do not chase overtly after wealth these days, but I do live a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle in one of the world's richest societies. I own my own house and my own car (shared ownership in each case). On a world scale, I'm one of the rich. Have I sold out?

It's not a completely straightforward question. In the main, I am not governed my money or financial gain. But I do worry about my ongoing solvency, and no doubt this concern affects my thinking and my decisions. I recognize in myself the "cowardice" and "corruption" named by James: the timidity and compromise that steal over one invisibly when presented with the possibility of loss or even of reduced gain. When you calculate what your beliefs or integrity may cost you, you put a dollar value on your principles, and in so doing, turn them into mere economic entities. You're a worshipper of Mammon.

I was again amazed to think that James's words were first published in 1902. Even from his vantage, society had gone soft, had agreed to exchange whatever principles it may have had for creature comforts. I think of my similar surprise in reading Sister Carrie in 2006, published in 1900: Dreiser's depiction of the materialistic and consumeristic wasteland of America as he saw it. It is as though even then people had taken their motto from the Bible:

If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

(Interestingly, both Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32 and Isaiah in Isaiah 22:13 put this phrase in quotations, but it's not clear to me whom they're quoting. People usually point back to Ecclesiastes, but the phrase as such does not exist there--not in my Bible, anyway.)

Well then. Am I a sellout? Answer: partly. But only partly!


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