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Living with a Wild GodReview - Living with a Wild God
A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Grand Central Publishing, 2014
Review by Anthony P. Bober
Jun 3rd 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 23)

Ehrenreich's book and title surpass the issue whether use of an upper-case 'G' disqualifies her claim as atheist.  (More later.)  Rather, what impels you to snatch this long sip of autobiographic bildungsroman qua intellectual history is considerations such as these:

– She touts more honest self-revelation than Montaigne admits to in his essays.  Her medical trauma and (not so advanced) age cancel restraint.  (May she well outlive her worst fears.)

– Her writer's register approaches earnest oral confidence.

– Her journaling model inspires prescient teens while it extorts response from a future adult emanation (235):  "What have you learned since you wrote this?"  (While on this page, begin reading the book four lines above from 'Then,' as from the ledge of a crescendo, recalling your own journalistic writings.)

– She writes from struggle and search.  To Montaigne, again, in paraphrase:  stab the words and they bleed.  She revisions selected journal entries from her teen years.

– Aging intellectuals find confluences with her experience.

  "Sometime in my thirteenth year . . . things began to assemble themselves into what I call the 'situation' . . . .  At this point I set my goal for life, which was to find out why. (1)"  Had I known her then, I might have repeated what Clark Moustakas said to us humanistic-clinical psychology students:  "'Why?' is a useless question."  So responded this sociologist:  You thus get rationalization, meaning where there is none (except as we impose it:  "Man is the measure. . . ."), and conventional response--Bacon's, not Ehrenreich's, fifth idol, fear of oppositional disorder.  Moreover, literary critics, for example, roundly unearth 'right-brain' revelation unexpressed by or unknown to a writer.  Moustakas might tell her that it suffices to develop the 'what' of experience or experiment as fully as you can, for within that unfolds the 'how,' as well as the other less problematic w-words.

Gate-crasher of unknowns Ehrenreich misguidedly reports exasperation with that monster of literature, law, mining engineering, color theory, novelized elective affinities uniting acid and base, Goethe, who happily probes the known but (229) 'quietly revere[s] what is unknowable.'  "Why 'revere' the unknowable?  Why not find out what is?" she says.  Logically, no one can find out the unknowable, but intense revering deconstructs walls blocking the unknown, as Ehrenreich does.  Moreover, tremendum, below, which she reveres in Otto, using his Other as her final theme, is what she inconsistently condemns here.  We cannot rule out a bad translation.

It is possible to question Ehrenreich's use of an upper-case 'G' in the title as inconsistent with the atheist's minimal denial of existence to any god--(236) "There may be no invisible creaturely 'beings' afoot. . . ." she similarly says.  Yet she adds (203), "I told my children that there is no God, no good and loving God anyway. . . ."  Indeed, the book reduces midway to a lower case usage (137), including a kind of acceptance of 'gods,' to the upper case again toward the end, like a fontal bowtie.  But this critique is not quite on.  What is her 'real' purpose?  Among other ingredients of an answer is her grandmother's hurling across the room a crucifix laid on her by a priest--who previously would not come out to her own dying father without out a guarantee of twenty-five bucks (2)--which may well linger in the author motivationally.

Few readers have led a life as hard as hers.  Both parents drink to excess; her relatives do some strange things; life in Butte is boring and environmentally challenging; she experiences a continuing crisis of meaning as would be addressed in logotherapy; she over-invests in existentially straight-jacketing concepts while pressing a drive to make meaning in answer to 'why,' encouraged by the model of her brainy, bigoted father's delayed schooling and critical spirit; she feels herself intellectually isolated, repeatedly calling herself solipsist; she engages an unsatisfying strategy for dealing with emotion leading to her early career in a cold, objective discipline, only later to follow a more feelingful path, capped by the need to recapitulate a meaningful and productive life.

It saddens me to see how she imprisons herself, still, within that DSM , (53-4, 68, 125, 134-5, 141, 198, 202) with its mental-health categories of doubtful validity.  It is as if escaping one church she submits to an APA college of cardinals--those champions of flat-line life--who promote either vague and 'bureaucratic' von Bertalanffian categories or disorganized garbage-can concepts.

Though she seeks escape through 'mystical' experience, her brief survey of a field beyond her training has her, for example, giving credence to Rudolph Otto's mysterium tremendum, little more, in fact, than the apotheosis of a boy's fear of the authoritarian eastern-European father of the time. 'Numinous,' by the way, (230) does not equal 'holy.'  Latin 'numen' is the 'nod' that one with charismatic power passes to the next as from the top of his head, given that the Greeks (and Romans?) viewed that psychic-mental energy as ranging from the genital seeds through the emotive mind just above the diaphragm out through the top of the head.  There are too many misconstructions of topic and person--Teresa of Avila as 'hysteric,' for example (217) or Max Weber's (110) disenchantment or demagication of the world--that belie lack of long-reasoned scholarly research.  Is her cell biology the 'hard' science or is the cultural-behavioral so?  With deeper understanding she could have realized that mystical experience has no inherent connection with theology or religion, except for accidental liaison usually conditioned by a psychology-free zeitgeist in which 'religion' offers the only path to the experience, though through a fluffy lexic expression.

Having as she must the physiological knowledge to write of mystical experience in convincing bodily terms, she unfortunately falls, in many places, into the easy and misleading expedient of claiming that epilepsy's aura provides a model.  However, such an experience is negative in nature and not growthful.  "[L]arge numbers of neurons start firing in synchrony . . . [producing] an unstoppable cascade of electrical events. . . ." (123)  Unattested, this is no doubt the non-epileptic, neuro-religiously framed 'spillover' of the University of Pennsylvania neurologists, d' Aquili and Newberg.Even more, she should be able to explain the neuroendocrinological process through which people experience visual mystical fire (116, 218), perhaps as the perisympathetic suffusion of peripheral venules and arterioles as well in the visual apparatus, giving such incendiary screening as R. M. Bucke describes in the early biographical section of his cosmic-consciousness opus.  In the early spring of his thirty-sixth year, he and a friend read Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and Whitman, no doubt supported by liquid intoxication.  On the long midnight hansom ride back, the Canadian psychiatrist suddenly felt wrapped "by a flame-coloured cloud," thinking it "some sudden conflagration in the great city," only instantly to realize "the light was within himself."  "Directly afterwards there came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash . . . which ever since lightened his life."  Again, no negative epileptic aura here.

Had we had a chance meeting, I would have told her that mystical experience:  is always positive, James to the contrary having denied it to himself, is always 'effable' after a few deep breaths, and always results in an integrated experience that glues together the widest ranges of human capacity for insight, though its absence makes it exquisitely missed.  I recall the thesis title of a humanistic psychology student of the previous cohort--Linda Walterreit--"the moment when everything comes together--all at once."  For the literary, that moment capsulizes a plethora of struggled-after informed experience of the 'aha' type.

Upon death a hitherto unpublished final entry popped out of her red portfolio of journal sheets:  "I realize, too late, that the distance and rejection I felt in my own family, notwithstanding closeness with my sister, combined with my being left out of the crowd as a competitive intellectual atheist, left me only nature to commune with.  I now know that I should have leveled my guns at a conceptually deficient mental-health cabal, allowing me to poetize my inner connection with nature, rather than to put it outside of myself under a microscope.  My social critiques brought me closer to me, the place I should have started from.  I should have paid more attention to works such as Itzak Bentov's Stalking the Wild Pendulum and Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics.  I go to the worms having done the best, the only, thing I could have done.  So is it with us all.  'Too late' did I say?  Corny but true:  Better late than never.  Yet from high school I recall the words of Tennyson:  "I envy not . . . the linnet born within the cage. . . .  'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Forgive me, if you will, this literary conceit!  Surely Ehrenreich drives on vibrantly kicking out books.  Though the entry be bogus, I sense her well enough to claim it captures her existential crisis.

A fourfold glossy marketing sheet refers to "the out-of-body incidences [sic]" when "the trees step[ped] out of the forest . . ."  Repeated reviewer screenings show no such forest movement; nor is there any out-of-body incident, though as early insomniac she'd be entitled to such.  " . . . [T]he trees crept back into the woods (48)."  She implies but does not report any creeping out.  Apparently they quote a journal version that did not creep into the text.

On a practical level, dates attached to her journal entries, even indicating 'junior high' or 'college sophomore,' would have better placed a time line where anachronisms occur.  An index, and there perhaps some terms explained, could help when multiple screenings of the pages fail to turn up what you know is there.

Consider, then, this read as from one struggling human to another.  The relentless snap, crackle, pop of thought and writing reach any reflective reader who in the end must tease out the exact sense of her atheism while enjoying nodes of intersection between two lives.



© 2014 Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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