It's been an abominable summer for reading. But Thursday night at Tim's parents' house, I picked up Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson's new memoir), read 90 pages, and then had to take it home with me so I could finish it early on Saturday morning. I am now on a Winterson kick. This is why--she says:
"Christ's injunction that his followers must be twice-born, the natural birth and spiritual birth, is in keeping with religious initiation ceremonies both pagan and tribal. There has to be a rite of passage, and a conscious one, between the life given by chance and circumstance and the life that is chosen.
There are psychological advantages to choosing life and a way of life consciously--and not just accepting life as an animal gift lived according to the haphazard of nature and chance. The 'second birth' protects the psyche by promoting both self-reflection and meaning.
I know that the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning, where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning. But the principle remains good. I saw a lot of working-class men and women--myself included--living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.
A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce--we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses . . .
We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning--it it not yet clear how this will happen.
But for the members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington, life was full of miracles, signs, wonders, and practical purpose." (67-68)
And she says:
"There was a person in me--a piece of me--however you want to describe it--so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.
That part of me, living alone, hidden, in a filthy abandoned lair, had always been able to stage a raid on the rest of the territory. My violent rages, my destructive behaviour, my own need to destroy love and trust, just as love and trust had been destroyed for me. My sexual recklessness--not liberation. The fact that I did not value myself. I was always ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Didn't that have a romance to it? Wasn't that the creative spirit unbounded?
Creativity is on the side of health--it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.
The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn't the creative Jeanette--she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life." (171)
So much of how she describes her ideas (the human significance of religious ritual) and her upbringing (the results of growing up in a house where a compelling, sometimes comforting religion became twisted together with extreme instability, irrationality, and unhappiness), and her work to become healthy and sane through her own writing (she notes in the book that from the very beginning, she had to pit her own narrative against the narrative of her adopted mother) chimes--almost uncannily--with my own thoughts and experience. Forgive my presumption. It is exhilarating to find a kindred spirit. And also that books are still here.
(If you've got an hour to spare.)
(If you've got an hour to spare.)