Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Longest Way Round

I have recently re-discovered 'Out of My Bone', a collection of Joy Davidman's letters throughout her life, to various people; ex-husbands, fellow poets, publishers, critics, cousins. She died at 45. There is an extract of her essay that explores her journey from atheist to Communist to Christian, which I am going to give you all the pleasure of reading through small installments. She is now of my favourite writers, not because of the content, but because of her style, her language, her unique way of articulating exactly what I struggle to put into words. Hope you enjoy!

When I was fourteen, I went walking in the park on a Sunday afternon, in clean, cold, luminous air. The trees tinkled with sleet; the city noises were muffled by the snow. Winter sunset, with a line of young maples sheathed in ice between me and the sun - as I loked up they burned unimaginably golden - burned and were not consumed. I heard the voice in the burning tree; the meaning of all things was revealed and sacrament at the heart of all beauty lay bare; time and space fell away, and for a moment the world was only a door swinging ajar. Then the light faded, the cold stung my toes, and I went home, reflecting that I had had another aesthetic experience.I had them fairly often. That was what beautiful things did to you, I recognised, probably because of some visceral or glandular reaction that hadn't been fully explored by science just yet. For I was a well-brought up, right-thinking child of materialism. Beauty, I knew, existed; but God, of course, did not.
A young poet like myself could be seized and shaken by spiritual powers a dozen times a day, and still take it for granted that there was no such thing as spirit. What happened to me was easily explained away; it was "only nerves" or "only glands". As soon as I discovered Freud, it became "only sex". And yet if ever a human life was haunted, Christ haunted me.

My own parents were Jews, but their story differs only in degree from that of many Christians. Their religion of the letter rather than the spirit heartened the Jews to endure fire and terror and murder through a thousand years. But it was kept going by persecution, as a dead man in a crowd may be kept on his feet by the pressure of those around him. With the persecution removed in America, the corpse collapsed. Many Jews got rid of the traditional forms of Judaism, but kept a vague and well-meaning belief in a vaguely well-meaning God. However, my father declared proudly that he had retained the ethics of Judaism, the only "real" part of it and got rid of the theology - rather as if he had kept the top floor of our house but torn down the first floor and foundation. When I came along, I noticed that there was nothing supporting the ethics; down it crashed.

I declared my own atheism at the age of eight, after reading H.G. Wells's Out of History. In a few years I had rejected all morality as a pipe dream. If life had no meaning, what was there to live for except pleasure? Luckily for me, my preferred pleasure happened to be reading, or I shouldn't have been able to stay out of hot water so well as I did. The only lasting damage my philosophy caused me was near sightedness.

Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Mind is only a set of conditioned reflexes, and anyway most people aren't rational like ME. Love, art and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy was only.

Portrait of the hapy materialist; and yet it is no more than half the picture, for, like most adolescents, I was really two people. The hard, arrogant young atheist was largely what psychologists call a 'persona', a mask, a surface personality for dealing with the world. In the greedy, grabbing, big city, middle-class world I knew, this seemed the sort of persona that was wanted. But underneath the surface my own real personality stirred, stretched its wings, discovered its own tastes. It was a girl with vague eyes, who scribbled verses - scribbled them in a blind fury, not knowing what she wrote or why, and read them afterward with wonder. We call that fury "poetic inspiration" nowadays; we might be wiser to call it "prophecy".

This inner personality was deeply interested in Christ, and didn't know it. As a Jew, I had been led to feel cold chills at the mention of his name. Is this strange? For a thousand years Jews have lived among people who interpreted Christ's will to mean floggings, burnings an closed universities. If nominal Christians so confuse their Master's teaching, surely a poor Jew may be pardoned a little confusion. Nevertheless I had read the Bible (for its literary beauty, of course!) and I quoted Jesus unconsciously in everything I did, from writing to verse to fighting my parents. My first published poem was called 'Resurrection' - a sort of private argument with Jesus, attempting to convince him (and myself) that he had never risen. I wrote it at Easter.

The cross recurs through most of my early poems, and I seem to remember explaining that Jesus was a "valuable literary convention". Those verses were mainly the desperate question; Is life really only a matter of satisfying one's appetites, or is there more?

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