My Higher Power
On Moby Dick, Jonathan Franzen, and Eternal Life
"What's your higher power?" It was my stepmother speaking. She was wearing a fuzzy white coat sucked tight to her body, something you would never wear unless you were auditioning for the part of the White Witch, except this wasn't an audition, it was Christmas dinner. A black fuzzy rope capped with black fuzzy balls on each end was draped over her shoulders—on another woman, it would have been an actual fur, but my stepmother has no problem with ersatz.
"You know—like, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish—?" she said.
We were at my grandmother's Southern California apartment. My grandmother was born a Quaker. My grandfather was born a Christian Scientist. My father always sang at church when I was a kid. My mom is a born-again Christian. My older brother follows people around the kitchen reading from the Bible. It was strange to be cornered by my stepmother like this, in this awkward spot between the living room and the dining room. She'd always seemed disgusted by earnestly religious people, but she's become very active in Republican politics lately and she's put on Christianity the way she puts on fuzzy white jackets.
"You have to have a higher power," she said, brushing some hair over her shoulder. And then, again, "Like, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish—"
I wasn't sure what to say—do I have a higher power?—when something darted into my mind. It was something Jonathan Franzen wrote in passing in a review of an Alice Munro collection of short stories for the New York Times Book Review in 2004. Something that seemed like something I agreed with, even though I remember not fully understanding it, which might be why it's stayed with me. A couple seconds on Google takes you straight to it:
Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.
When I say that fiction is my religion. It's ingenious how Franzen passes it off like that, casually raised and then casually dropped, as if the reader is already in agreement. To someone who's never thought of it before, it's the sort of statement that grows in your mind until it encompasses a bunch of things you've always wished you could articulate. Like how language, the stuff that thoughts (and books) are made of, is bigger than each of us and will outlive us all; it's something we're all part of, and yet it's independent of us; it's how we tell each other what is happening inside us.
I recently bought a Patagonia jacket that has a huge pocket inside the chest, and because we hadn't sat down to dinner yet I was still wearing this jacket and, in the pocket, my 851-page Modern Library edition of Moby Dick, thick enough to stop a bullet. I thought of the part in the beginning when Ishmael is watching the cannibal Queequeg worship a wooden idol and thinks/says: "I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, no matter how comical." I thought of the chapter in which the sailors wonder whether Moby Dick is immortal (he has been harpooned many times, and yet continues to swim) and ubiquitous (he has been seen on opposite sides of the Earth within small windows of time). Ahab's beef with Moby Dick is a beef with time and space itself, a confrontation with all of those things we pretend to have a handle on; Ahab is fighting against the howling, dimly perceived infinite. It's a fight he cannot win, a thing he cannot overcome, and yet he is maniacally determined to, the way certain people who want to live forever become Christians. These "strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful" thoughts (that's from chapter 35) were swimming through my mind and it was Christmas and my stepmother was looking fuzzy and I was feeling fruity, so I just said it. I said: "Literature is my religion."
My stepmother blinked.
"No, I mean, like, Christian, Jewish, Muslim—" she said.
I couldn't explain it. Passages passed through my mind that I would never be able to make into an argument: the cetology chapter; the freezing spray casing the ship "in polished armor"; a thrashing harpooned whale "bespattering" men in a nearby whaleboat with "showers of gore"; a stripped and beheaded whale dropping back into the water ("that great mass of death floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives") where other ships see it and think it's a small island and mark it down as such, so that for years afterward ships avoid the area "as silly sheep leap over a vacuum"; the "bread-faced steward" whose "whole life was one continual lip-quiver"; the part where Starbuck is standing outside of Ahab's quarters, debating whether to shoot him; the chapter on whiteness; Starbuck despairing, "I would up heart, were it not like lead"; the description of death while whaling as "a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity"; etc., etc. Not to mention all the passages that make me think about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.
It's a funny book, deeply weird—it goes in a hundred directions, it's full of knowledge and yet it mocks knowledge, it is discursive and yet its tension never lets up. You don't even really know where it starts; you just kind of wade into it. I felt goofy saying "Literature is my religion," and yet paragraph after paragraph of Moby Dick I've drawn squares around the way people outline paragraphs of scripture. The pages are weak with my handwriting. And lately, Moby Dick has floated into my mind in all sorts of situations: at work, in the Decemberists' music, in the movie There Will Be Blood, in the giddy panic of an airplane taking off. There've been literal invocations, too, everywhere lately—for example, in the theater piece vaguely inspired by Moby Dick at On the Boards a couple weeks ago. Someone who saw it with me said later, while we were flipping through Moby Dick: "Okay, the fucking play would have been so much better if they'd just stuck to this!"
My stepmother was looking at me like I was from Mars; you'd think she'd recognize that spiritual satisfaction radiating from a book is, well, not unheard of. Whatever. I changed the subject to territory she loves: politics. I mentioned Barack Obama and she asked me right away if I was aware that he was sworn in with a Koran.