What We Might Discover in the Heavens

Discovery of HeavenFor the past few weeks I have been making my way through a dear friend’s favorite book, Harry Mulisch’s sprawling novel The Discovery of Heaven. I have been away from my little world of epiphanies mainly because I have been so deeply immersed in sorting out the truly personal; it has seemed impossible to pull such insights into the broader context of these public pages. This hefty volume of fiction may also be partly to blame for my silence, however.

So much of the inspiration for this blog comes from the various spiritual texts that I have been exploring. For months I have neglected reading and writing fiction almost entirely, nourished by narratives that seemed to describe the plot of the entire world. Characters and a storyline seemed too constrictive, and, dare I say it, unnecessary. Then I read a book like this, so full of philosophy and Big Ideas (with an extra large capital “B” and a really big “I”) that I know I cannot possibly be absorbing it all, seeing as I am distracted by the lives of a handful of Dutch intellectuals living through the legacy of Hitler and countless other dramas of modernity. I am mute in the face of all that this book achieves, generally unable to add more words to the tapestry Mulisch has created.

I struggle with some aspects of this novel: its hyperintellectual acrobatics (conversations between an astronomer and a linguist? oh my) and a sexism so pervasive that you barely even notice the cloud it casts. (Oh, wait, that’s just reality of their world that I can ignore, right? For now I reserve commentary on how applicable that description may be to this world.) At the same time, I cannot help but be entranced by a story that is framed by two angels discussing the ways they manipulate the creation of humankind – what accidents of history became necessary so they could bring certain individuals to life at exactly the right time in accordance with “the Chief’s” plan. In a time when religion and science clash over the origins of this universe a book about Heaven’s indignation at the earthly power of science seems more than timely.

One idea that has really struck me is steeped in much more astrophysics that I could possibly understand or do justice, but I must try. Muslisch take us to a complex series of telescopes have been built on the grounds of was once a camp that held Jews before they were transported to Germany. The inordinately wise and sensitive boy named Quintin states:

Max once told me that we see the stars as they used to be. So on the stars they see the earth as it used to be. If the people on a star that is forty light years away from here look at us with a very powerful telescope, then they must be seeing what happened here forty years ago, mustn’t they?

I am not sure how well this quotation encapsulates what it is much longer conversation, but what I hope to convey is way that his question touches on the simultaneous nature of time. Every moment that has ever been lives on in a constant journey deeper and deeper in space. The earth is surrounded by concentric rings of history. All events exist into infinity. Nothing that has happened ever truly disappears if one stands at a certain perspective far away from this world. Isn’t that exactly where we have placed God for so long?

In some ways this makes me shiver, to realize that every heinous aspect of humanity and each shame filled moment of my life I’d love to forget still reverberate through the cosmos. At the same time, however, anything that still echoes through creation like that might yet be able to be redeemed. Perhaps this is a great argument for forgiveness and that nothing cannot somehow, eventually be transformed by love?

A Reader’s Treasury of Misfortune

Recently I have noticed that my capacity for violence and ugliness in “entertainment” has diminished sharply. A girl who barely flinched when she saw Braveheart in the theater now cannot stay in the room during Pan’s Labyrinth and can barely make it through many of the movie trailers shown during prime time. A distaste for blood and gore isn’t all that surprising, I suppose, but it seems strange when a student of literature finds the typical tragedies of modern prose increasingly unbearable.

Last month I read a novel I wouldn’t usually pick up – Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys – and last night I read an article that I wouldn’t usually come across – “The Man Who Got Away (Thank Goodness!)” by Amy Dickinson. These two pieces have several things in common: both had been acquired in airports; the novel is an “Oprah book” and the article is in this month’s O magazine; both stories are about heartbreak and disintegrating families in upstate New York; and both left me wondering.

What is it about Oprah and airports? It seems that people like me who generally curse glossy magazines with their cover stories about “effortless” exercise plans can reconcile the “guilty” pleasure because the incitement to “Live Your Best Life” is a little less damning than the pointy hips and pouty lips splashed over Cosmo. But is there something about her brand of media that particularly appeals to people in transition? I mean that both in terms of time zones and personal growth. I’m a little hesitant to comment on the whole Oprah industry because I worry about the commodification of quick and easy life changes, but at the same time really respect the way that she has made the spirit a part of public discourse that seems truly inclusive (if consumer driven).

But really, it was not one woman’s empire that concerned me, but the tension I felt between these two narratives. I read most of Oates’s book in one day and in that process recalled why I haven’t read anything by her in years. The novel was like passing a one hundred mile highway pile-up at a snail’s pace except that the tragedies contained within those pages were not the fiery type from which you can distance yourself due to the unimaginable scale of it all. The series of misfortunes in this book were cramped and familial and ridiculous, but compelling and almost believable because human nature can be so tender and fragile and bizarre. Basically it is about the perfect family that falls apart in the aftermath of the only daughter’s rape: the father disowns her, the parents’ marriage dissolves, the brothers plan the perpetrator’s murder.

Dickinson’s article describes her father who walked out on her family and their farm. As the title indicates, she believes it was all for the best and that the rest of the family excelled in his absence; she sees her father’s life as a pitiful cautionary tale. It all seemed a little too pat and moral, but then it cannot be easy to give a complete portrait of one’s father in a few thousand magazine words. What struck me was that even without the salacious elements that are the signature of an Oates novel, there is more than enough drama in this world and there are more than enough readers who want to hear all about it.

I write about all this because I still cannot decide what I think about the validity of the comparison I am attempting to draw. In some ways, Dickinson’s article almost excused Oates’s book for me; it was fictional license that made the pain drag through 400+ pages and hang upon rape and murder, but there might have been a flash of real life at the core that gives the book validity. I am also left to wonder whether The Mulvaneys was really lacking something or whether, as the reader, I was either suffering from compassion fatigue or just a refusal to accept that much misfortune.

Is my withdrawal from what constitutes popular culture with its celebratory brutality and its focus on dissolution a sign of my increasing sensitivity, or a refusal to engage with reality, or the sign of a charmed existence that grants me distance from what I consider unsavory? Where is that line between glorifying suffering and elucidating it so that it can be met with compassion beyond the screen or the page? Is it really as pervasive as I seem to think right now and how on earth do we benefit and grow from this public cult of pain?