I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
Antecedents to Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir, Malik Sajad’s graphic novel about the writhing valley of Kashmir are not numerous. Born in 1987 in Srinagar, Sajad spent his formative years in Kashmir at the time of curfews and crackdowns, an experience documented in Munnu. This tumult was the result of the continuing political and cultural crisis that followed Partition, with both Pakistan and India claiming the Kashmir valley and thus dividing its citizens — some claim that Kashmir belongs to one of the two nations, while others demand its independence. This divide, also religious, was recalled by Salman Rushdie in The Paris Review:
When I was probably no older than twelve we went on a family trip to Kashmir…When we got to our rest house my mother discovered that the pony that should have been carrying all the food didn’t have the food on board. She had three fractious children with her, so she sent the pony guy off to the village to see what could be had, and he came back and said, There’s no food, there’s nothing to be had. They don’t have anything. And she said, What do you mean? There can’t be nothing. There must be some eggs — what do you mean nothing? He said, No, there’s nothing. And so she said, Well, we can’t have dinner, nobody’s going to eat. About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologise to you, because when we told the guy there wasn’t any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won’t accept any payment, and we apologise for having been so discourteous.
In Munnu, Sajad negotiates the private identity with the public crisis that has gripped the valley. In the monochromatic tiles and anthropomorphism of Munnu, Sajad is unsettlingly blunt about the brutality of army personnel in Srinagar, doing away with the idealism that mars debates in suburban Indian homes, often shaped by news channels, where sensationalists run amok, and Bollywood, which would rather engage in melodrama and merrymaking, and delegate the realism to its estranged cousin, the Parallel Cinema. Both these media are ridiculed in a single speech balloon.
Comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus are inevitable; in Munnu the Kashmiris, as endangered as their state animal, are drawn as Hangul deer, while their poachers or anyone beyond the valley’s limits, are humans. Spiegelman assigns an anthropomorphic quality to every nationality: the canine Americans, the porcine Poles. Sajad assigns, ironically, anyone not native to the valley a human form; the Hanguls — his mother, father, siblings, neighbors, and mates — are pitted against the Homo Sapiens. The sentimentality in such a choice is difficult to overlook. Sajad remains steadfast in his Hangul identity, never flitting between species.
Munnu bursts forth with the sparkling clarity of a neo-Romantic novelistic autobiography, bringing to mind the chronology of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Of course, Sajad’s unique medium of imbibition and narration force a negotiation with oral traditions. The section titled “Footnotes” opens with a glorious collection of panels and it is appropriately titled — smack in the middle of the narration of the boy and his family, Sajad charts the history of the valley, from its folkloric origins involving a terrorizing demon and the monk who engorged himself to become the valley and displace a dragon, to the Indian Army landing in Kashmir on October 27, 1947, the drawing of the so-called Line of Control between India and Pakistan., and the intra-wars of the militant groups. It is not as much of an afterthought as an addendum.
Whilst Spiegelman’s “Prisoners on the Hell Planet” adds an after-aftereffect to the mass incarceration ordered by the Führer, “Footnotes” is more of a succinct recapitulation of the treatment of Hanguls by the various waves of visitors to the valley. The prosperity of the valley as it thrived upon the Silk Route is on full display on the left supplemented by words from Abhinavagupta and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani.
On the right, the famous declaration of love by Amir Khusrau is cruelly borrowed first by the Mughals, then the Afghans, and then the Sikhs. “If there is a Paradise on Earth” paints the invaders in the guise of marauders as they are perched gloriously upon their horses while at their feet lie the Hanguls, first in their military garb, then their arrow-pierced corpses, then with their skulls and ribs laid bare. The decomposition is complete with each “It is here,” reminding one of Walt Whitman’s “heart, heart, heart” that imitates, gloriously, audibly, the “bleeding drops of red.”
The nuanced bildungsroman that is Munnu, the steady metamorphosis of the naive primary schoolchild to the blood-boiling political cartoonist, employed in his adolescence, is some distant cousin of Marjane Satrapi’s Marji in Persepolis. United by their experiences, both play a daily game of hopscotch with armed personnel which is an early entry into disenchantment with their lands: as a rectification for his physical abuse, Munnu’s father takes him on a tour of the old city on his bicycle while the conclusion of the novel contains a shady episode involving two men and a woman in a guarded auto rickshaw. An adjustment to curfews and crackdowns — to avoid being whisked away by armed men, at least — is the plight of the Spiegelmans, the Satrapis, and Munnu’s family. However it would be elementary to homogenize their experiences, just as it is elementary to conflate together the experiences of the North-East Indian states, Kashmir with Assam or Nagaland (the Naga experience, specifically, documented by Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home and Laburnum for My Head).
The tools Sajad uses to contain his experiences into tiles is inspired partly by observing his father who etched patterns into wood and metal. Whilst Spiegelman conforms with an inky aesthetic with a consistent cross-hatching, and Satrapi a monolithic chiaroscuro, it seems that individual lines never crossing paths might as well have been a recreation of the texture of un-veneered wood. The Hanguls are as angular as matchsticks or the faces Munnu carves into pieces of chalk and fashions out of nibs of pencils to impress his schoolmates. The melting frames of the humans might as well be a Munch-ian nod or an homage to “Prisoners on the Hell Planet.” Sajad is acutely aware of the history of the genre: in the text he fawns over Joe Sacco’s fine hair detail, a DVD of Ivan’s Childhood is fodder for empathy, and R.K. Laxman’s Common Man is out of place and out of character in a fateful Delhi cyber café. Although the Laxman jab might have been a little foolhardy, Sajad has produced a probing visual memoir that translates anger and shame, perhaps incites it, too. More importantly, it delights with its recklessness; the strokes, sometimes practiced like an established language system as rich as Urdu, sometimes unshackled, flip the bird to censors.
Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story “Lihaaf” challenged heteronormative relations and landed its author in court. There was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Arundhati Roy too is a guest at the party. It is noteworthy that all this subjugation is for pieces of what we call fiction. Munnu is a revelatory testimony, resplendent with observation and direct, uninhibited interrogation of a state that makes Munnu a citizen of war who cannot meekly submit and cannot wildly revolt and must therefore compromise for a state somewhere in-between, a state that has characterized his own nation.
Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
1. The Revelation of St. Arbitron
“And behold, a door was opened, and I heard a voice saying, ‘In the name of Zarathustra and Inherit the Wind and the H.M.S. Beagle, I will cleanse thee of ignorance and iniquity.’ And I looked, and a throne was set atop the bestseller list, and on this throne sat Richard Dawkins, bearing in his right hand The God Delusion. And a great cry went up throughout the land, yea, even unto the last airport bookshop. Then I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven cigarettes, and upon his cigarettes seven flames, and upon his horns ten copies of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and verily, this was the one called Hitchens. The four angels of radio, print, television, and blog rested not day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy Hitch; the great day of his wrath is come.’ And he spake many hard words before going away to the green room of Charlie of Rose to sup on sandwiches of watercress and await the final victory.”
So, at any rate, apostles of secularism might recall the mid-Aughts a century from now. Those pre-Crash years also saw the publication of blockbuster critiques of religion by cognitive theorist Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and neuroscientist Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation). By the spring of 2007, when the distinguished British philosopher A.C. Grayling brought forth Against All Gods, a collection of “polemics against religion,” a movement—or at least, a cool name for one—had emerged: “The New Atheism.” But aside from a genre-defining profile in Wired Magazine, the New Atheism was written about more often than well, obscuring the really interesting question. What, aside from a common subject and a serendipity of publication dates, bound these writers together? What exactly made the New Atheism new?
One answer was, simply, the temperature of its rhetoric. Gone was the hedged irony of Voltaire, the allegorical grandeur of Nietzsche, the urbane agnosticism of Bertrand Russell; from titles onward, truculence was the order of the day. (Particle physicist Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, from 2007, surely deserves a special place in the annals of unsubtlety.) Gone, too, was the Grand Bargain biologist Stephen Jay Gould had proposed in the mid-‘90s: that science and religion coexist as “non-overlapping magisteria.” For Hitchens, a semi-pro talk-show guest, disagreeing to disagree may have been a point of pride. But for Grayling, an ethicist, it was a matter of principle. For too long, he argued, liberal tolerance had thrown a “diaphanous veil” over religion’s most illiberal drives—toward dogma, toward repression, toward conquest and sectarian violence. Dawkins was even more explicit: “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith,” he wrote, “it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden.”
To the New Atheists’ credit, their anti-jihad jihad was an interfaith affair, targeting not only bearded Wahabbists but Orthodox Israeli settlers and Bible-thumping televangelists. Hitchens derided the Bush Administration for “want[ing] to hand over the care of the poor to ‘faith-based’ institutions,” even as he bolstered the anti-Islamist case for its wars in Greater Petrolia. Dawkins warned of a “Christian Taliban” in the U.S.
Today, though, the religious foment that seemed just a few years ago to be a species-level threat looks more like random variation in a global evolution toward unbelief. Barack Obama may have been the first U.S. presidential candidate to have to leave his church in order to be elected. Gay marriage just became legal in New York. Osama bin Laden is dead, and the largely secular character of the Arab Spring has muted talk of a Second Caliphate abroad. The Great Economic Stagnation has, give or take a few mosques, redirected our attention from cultural quiddities to our credit-card statements. If a turn toward fundamentalism were truly the alpha and omega of the New Atheist story, we might expect the latter to have run its course.
Instead, it’s proven strangely durable; witness such recent titles as The Divinity of Doubt and The Christian Delusion and The Belief Instinct and The Religion Virus and Against All Gods (no relation), not to mention Stenger’s The New Atheism and Harris’ The Moral Landscape and Hitchens’ The Quotable Hitchens and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ. How to square this abundance of supply with the dwindling of demand? A solution appears when we turn to what is in many ways the most ambitious and interesting of these second-wave works, Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. It is, surprisingly, that the New Atheism’s quarrel isn’t really with God after all.
2. Bringing Down the Velvet Hammer
To the fine art of sacrilege, Grayling brings a lighter touch than Dawkins, the New Atheism’s Cardinal Newman, or Hitchens, its Torquemada. (“I’m the velvet version,” Grayling has said.) Where God is Not Great was content to assert that “The serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy…than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books,” The Good Book aims to demonstrate it. That is, rather than pump out another polemic, Grayling has “conceived selected redacted arranged worked and in part written” a huge and entirely God-free compendium of what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said,” from Plato to Cato, from the Metamorphoses to The Origin of Species.
This would be a major intellectual achievement in its own right. Owning The Good Book is like having the entire Western Canon on Shuffle (or, depending on your place in the culture wars, being stuck with The White Man’s Greatest Hits). And it’s possible to treat it not as an argument at all, but as a desk reference… or even a cheap alternative to freshman year of college.
Still, there’s a distinctly New Atheist provocation in Grayling’s decision to format his diverse sources in the manner of that other “Good Book.” A one-man Council of Nicea, he has arranged his source material thematically, scrubbed it of attributions, rendered prose into numbered and vaguely iambic verse, and filled in gaps with his own transitional passages. The seams are nearly invisible. What we see instead are fourteen cohesive “books,” with titles like “Proverbs,” “Acts,” and “Parables.” Grayling’s ambition, clearly, is not just to secularize religious accounts of the human condition (à la the Jefferson Bible); it’s to supplant them.
How successful is he? It may be useful to think back to the criteria for belief systems William James laid out a century ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience (still the best book you’re likely to find on the subject of faith.) By James’ first measure, “philosophical reasonableness,” The Good Book blows most scripture out of the water. “The forces underlying everything” in its “Genesis” are the empirically verifiable laws of physics and biology. The apple in this garden is Newton’s. And the scientific account of creation leaves little room for the repressions and mystifications of monotheism. No Adam’s rib, no original sin, and no hang-ups about the body and its urges:
If an individual should be presented to another of the same species and of a different sex,
Then the feeling of all other needs is suspended: the heart palpitates, the limbs tremble;
Voluptuous images wander through the mind
It’s interesting that heterosexism should persist even here, but Grayling’s commitment to objectivity helps dilute it. (Later, in “Acts,” he’ll handle the ancient Greek practice of pederasty with nary a blush.) At any rate, it’s hard to imagine The Good Book driving readers to disown family members on account of sexual preference, or to stone to death women accused of adultery.
The Good Book comes on equally strong in James’ second category, “moral helpfulness.” When God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son,” Cicero’s argument against vice in the name of loyalty (paraphrased in a section called “Concord”) might have come in handy. And to the New Testament’s ethic of judgment (“Whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God”), The Good Book counterposes the urbane empathy of Walter Pater:
Not to recognize, every moment, some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of their ways,
Is, in life’s short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
Is virtue possible in the absence of brimstone and damnation? In fact, as the title suggests, a coherent philosophy of virtue is The Good Book’s signal accomplishment.
Grayling’s scriptural ambitions, however, impose on the text a split personality. At any given moment, it speaks with the wise man’s Apollonian serenity. In the exhaustive and exhausting aggregate, though, The Good Book starts to seem anxious that no one’s listening. This anxiety comes to the fore in the penultimate chapter, “Epistles,” which takes the form of father-to-son letters and reads like Hamlet, if Hamlet were a two-hour monologue by Polonius. Over and over, the writer warns his son that “jokers,” distractions, and “weak minds” are all around. We begin to hear echoes of the other New Atheists: of Harris’ attack on “moral relativism;” of Dawkins’ intolerance for semi-believers and Possibilitarians; of Hitchens’ call for “A New Enlightenment.” What elevates “stronger minds” above the masses, in The Good Book, is faith in a very particular strain of the humanist tradition. In fact, that faith is what united the New Atheists all along.
3. Forever and Ever, A Meh…
“Humanism,” as Grayling circumscribes it, is pragmatic, rationalist, and skeptical only in a narrow, scientific sense. The great pessimists and naysayers who haunt Western philosophy appear here and there in The Good Book—a soupçon of Hume in “The Lawgiver,” a dollop of Schopenhauer in “Lamentations.” (Interestingly, these are where the book comes closest to achieving James’ third criterion, “immediate luminousness.”) But in its basic outlines Grayling’s humanism is that of the nineteenth-century positivists, who built a philosophy around their belief in the perfectability of human nature. For Grayling, and for the other New Atheists, reason doesn’t just answer questions about our origins and our ethics; it moves us toward that city on a hill where, The Good Book promises, “the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realized at last.”
But expressed this nakedly, the vision seems Whiggish, even naïve. And certainly outdated. For four centuries after Copernicus uncentered the Earth, reason was on the march, claiming more and more of the territory previously arrogated to religion. In the fields of biology and cosmology and paleontology, angels rushed out wherever wise men dared to tread. (Grayling, alone among the New Atheists, has emphasized this historical long view: “Today’s ‘religious upsurge,’ is a reaction to defeat, in a war that it cannot win.”) More recently, though, various experiments in the sphere of culture—laissez-faire economics, Politburo politics, literary Deconstruction—have suggested that irrationalism persists, or even thrives, where religion has been elbowed aside. (A Good Book-style anthology limited to the post-1960s period would echo Ezekiel, by way of the Byrds: “overturn, overturn, overturn.”)
To the beleaguered humanist, the hard sciences of the 21st Century offer scant consolation. Indeed the great boom-discipline of the age—neuroscience—suggests that where reason exists, it is, no more or less than its opposite, a mere byproduct of electricity and chemistry, a ghost in the machine. The New Atheists make various attempts to countenance this; in this way they are cousins of the modish authors of Blink and Proust Was a Neuroscientist and The Wisdom of Crowds. Harris goes so far as to suggest, in The Moral Landscape, that brain-imaging studies may lead to a new science of morality. So far, though, Neurobiological Man so far bears little resemblance to the rational paragon of the humanist imagination.
Moreover, the humanists’ triumphal account of scientific history focuses on the Newtons and Darwins while overlooking the folks tinkering in the lab. Herbert Marcuse long ago pointed out the patent irrationality of the world order to which such tinkering, in the form of the atomic bomb, gave rise. And in the information technologies currently transforming our lives, applied science has allowed us to redraw the line between fact and belief, offering the body politic an inoculation against scientific consensus. On comment-threads and twitter feeds, Arnold’s “ignorant armies” can clash ad infinitum. Evidence is whatever we can Google. No wonder the New Atheists feel like an aggrieved minority.
“The truth explains everything,” runs one of Grayling’s “Proverbs.” It’s an article of faith for these writers. But they must sense, even as they affirm it, that the real threat to the cult of human reason in the 21st Century is not the religious, but epistemological. We live today under the dispensation of what one contemporary wise man calls “truthiness.” In the great ecumenical marketplace of our culture, belief systems thrive not on compulsion, or verifiability, but on narrative interest. This helps explain why, with better-defined enemies in disarray, the air has started to leak from the New Atheist balloon—why Dawkins’ forthcoming riposte to J.K. Rowling, The Magic of Reality, sounds so distinctly un-magical, and why Grayling’s Good Book, laudable in its aspirations, is ultimately more fun to think about than to read.
This is not to say that the scriptures of this particular group of unbelievers hold no interest for us. But even a half-decade on, we can see that they’ll someday seem exactly as remote—exactly as poignant—as the lapsed religions they sought to supplant. That is, the New Atheism now appears to us godless cosmopolitans like any other faith: as noble, as fallible, as wondrously, humanly, world-historically beside the point.