“It’s The World That’s Strange”
Note: This is an edited transcript of a Brooklyn By The Book event that took place Wednesday, April 9, in honor of the publication of Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for Absolutely Everything. The public conversation was sponsored by Community Bookstore, The Brooklyn Public Library, and Congregation Beth Elohim. We are grateful to them, and to the book’s publishers for permission to print it here. —Eds.
Jeff Sharlet: There is some discussion in this book of what might be called a “mystical experience.” You write “It took an inexcusably long time for me to realize that this was a familiar, if not exactly respectable, category of experience.” I saw a few reviews saying this book is a departure from Ehrenreich’s concerns with class, but I disagree, I think it’s a profoundly populist book. It’s a book that could be described as strange in the same way that people talk about mysticism, only to the extent that we accept what is left out of a lot of contemporary autobiography, indeed a lot of writing, is this spiritual, the word that is often used to describe what you say in this book is “beyond the jurisdiction of language.” And I especially appreciate that phrase, because you don’t say it’s beyond language, you say it’s beyond the jurisdiction of language, and then what follows is a wrestling with that language that is invigorating, precise, and in its own way scientific. Which is something I think we should start with, because this is a spiritual autobiography and an intellectual biography.
Barbara Ehrenreich: I should say: I hate the word spirituality. It creeps me out. It sounds so…sweet. And cozy. Like, you’re going to be in contact with a very soft and sweet and loving God, which is not at all what is going on in this book. I think I was twelve when I figured out that people die. Well I mean I knew, intellectually, but I began to figure out, Hey, this is everybody. This is pretty widespread. And then came the big question, So, why are we here? Why are we here for just a few years and then snap, there we go? And I decided I was going to find out the answer to that. Along with everything else. I was twelve when I set out to do this. And I had a plan—which was to read everything, and to think. That is, to use logic, et cetera, and reflection as tools. Not divine intervention.
JS: And to write. That’s another thing I like about this book that could be called an investigative memoir: it’s not you sitting and summoning a ghost, but in fact you have primary sources, chief among them this diary. I have to say, that was the most dispiriting thing to read—this twelve-year-old diary where you write with greater clarity than I have yet achieved.
BE: I should say I restricted this journal to one or two important things. There was nothing in it about clothes or popularity or domestic politics, partly because we moved so frequently that I never had much of a community, but also because I didn’t think those things were required. I just had to create a record of my progress towards a truth. And when I started on this when I was twelve I thought: This could take me several months! I kept this file folder full of my journal entries, and only returned to it as an older woman. The only audience for this thing was me, the older me. I was writing to myself, like six months later or something. Not realizing it was actually going to be like five decades. And there’s a place where I wrote to myself, my future self, Well, what have you found out? What have you done with your life, basically. And that’s one hell of a thing to come flying out at you from across the decades, your teenage self asking if your life has been worth anything.
JS: The book is shaped somewhat by your parents, two remarkably unhappy people who seem to have been marked by a kind of exile from Butte, Montana. Let’s go back earlier than twelve and talk about who these people were before, and especially what your—great-grandmother was it?—did with that crucifix.
BE: My background is a mix of Irish Catholic and Scotch Irish; my maiden name was Alexander. And these were poor people. They were attracted, as were all kinds of people from all over the world, to work in the copper mines of Butte. Butte was a little city. It was not cowboy land, nothing like that. At one point it had a population of about 60,000, on the side of a mountain. It was a tough town. There was a certain amount of personal violence, but also it was a center of class struggle. The Butte miners formed their own union—it was not affiliated with any other union. And they could bring that city down if they wanted to. There’s something to be said about working with explosives as part of your everyday tools. I think it gives people a lot more confidence!
There was a spirit to it, which—even though we left Butte when I was very young—stayed with us. Part of that was our atheist tradition. Not everybody in Butte was an atheist, for sure—probably it was predominantly Catholic. But my father’s great grandmother had broken with the church. When her father lay dying in a little one-room house, she sent for the priest to administer last rites. The priest sent back a note saying he would come for $25, Which is unthinkable. So, a couple years later she herself lay dying—in childbirth, she was a young woman—and the priest showed up! He put the crucifix on her chest, and started the mumbling and everything. And she, as family history told it, with her last ounce of strength, threw that crucifix off her chest and across the room. That is a heavy legacy. You don’t go back on that.
It’s definitely unique to my family, definitely idiosyncratic, but there was a stream in the working class, the native-born but also the Swedes and Germans and all kinds of people, which was skepticism; “free thought” was one of the terms for it.
JS: It’s not only the atheism, but a streak of rebelliousness, and seems to find its real manifestation in science, in your father’s ability to ask “why,” and to work himself out of the mines because he has this questioning mind. But toward the end you say that when you ask “why” you are also asking “who,” and that leads you ultimately to the consideration of the “other”—
BE: Or others.
JS: Or others. And you get to these others via a spiritual experience.
BE: The experiences started when I was thirteen. It looked like a layer was being peeled off the world, and I was getting to see what was beyond that layer. To make this room, for example, into a sea of human faces, each with their own personality and back-stories, I’m doing mental work. You stop doing that mental work, it’s something else altogether. Now the psychiatric term for this is called for dissociation. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know it was supposed to be a psychiatric disorder. I thought it was kind of cool! Because it was a glimpse into another world. We live in a shared reality that we agree on. This a table—we’re together on that right?—and let go of that, and there is indeed something different, and strange.
JS: Speaking of other worlds, at this time you’re doing a serious course of reading in sci-fi—Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke—and you take them seriously as much as the philosophy and science. When did you start reading sci-fi?
BE: I was drawn to it for the obvious id reasons, childish reasons. I loved it. Only later did I realize that science fiction was one of the few cultural spaces that allowed for any speculation about the nature of the deity, or deities. You could not talk about that in the world of mainline Protestantism, or Catholicism: “I’d really like to know more about this god and um, what’s his biochemistry, what’s he like?” No. No going there. The Catholic answer, and I know this from my friends, was “it’s a mystery,” or “This is all God’s plan, don’t ask any questions.” And then of course in the atheist world, you couldn’t even think the question! So, science fiction allowed people—including some very smart rational people like Arthur C. Clarke, who was in fact a scientist, earlier—to throw out notions of a deity that was totally unaffected by monotheism. The monotheists have a “one perfect being” model of deity. That’s kind of an innovation, considering that probably through most of history the deities or spirits or whatever they were called were multiple, and very often animal-shaped. Or part human, part animal. Suddenly we’ve got this perfect guy, who looks like us in some way.
JS: At one point you call monotheism deicide.
BE: Well, because an awful lot of deities had to be killed to make for that one guy!
JS: In the book you describe trees that are more interesting than people, and that if you want a study of moods, you might want to look at the ocean—and none of this has the feel of nature writing. “Nature” is a term that I know you dislike in a similar vein as spirituality. Too sweet. So I wonder, in the process of those mystical experiences where everything is stripped away and everything becomes unnamed, is that related to your ability to see animation in trees, in the ocean, to see beyond that singular figure of God?
BE: Well I think the tragic thing about monotheism—and also about science, as I lump them together here—is they require that the rest of the world be dead. There’s this famous quote from Plutarch where a ship is going by and they hear the cry, “The great god Pan is dead,” and that marks the fact that the pantheon of the Greek gods has now given way, or will give way soon, to the risen Jesus, to this one-or-sometimes-three-part god. So, monotheism, all the other spirits and gods—done. And science! The Cartesian worldview is that the world is dead, except for human consciousness. It was only in the last twenty years or so that science began to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of animals. And creativity. So I find the two kind of similar. As compared to a worldview more like my own, where it’s not all dead. There’s a lot going on. It’s a happening place.
JS: How do you feel about the term animism?
BE: I like the term animism. The heart of animism is the idea that the world lives. Everything lives. That there is something pulsing and vibrant in the world—big change from the Cartesian worldview that it’s just us looking at matter, dead matter.
JS: It took you a long time to get to that point of view. At one point you say if this were a conventional autobiography, all of the first nine chapters—the bulk of the book—would be a chapter called “childhood and early influences.” One of things I like best about this book is that you take your childhood self very seriously. There’s no cuteness, and there’s also no dismissal of the kind of things that we might sort of dismiss as “adolescent.”
BE: Yeah, I don’t like the fact that in our culture “adolescent” is used as a pejorative word. There’s a tendency to think that when you’re young you can ask these big questions. I remember Anthony Soprano, Jr., got into this, and it was very endearing; he was reading all things, including the philosopher he called “Neetch.” But the idea in our culture is then we put those things behind us. If you were to keep raising those questions when you’re thirty, then there’s something really wrong with you. I vehemently disagree. I think we have a lot to learn from our younger selves, and a lot more respect to be extending out to young people.
JS: Until this book you had never discussed this mystical experience that happened on a skiing trip, in 1959. You come up with two rules: you never speak about it, and you can never recapture it. And yet some of the vital important work of the book is, if not to recapture, then to document that experience. Tell us about that experience, on the skiing trip.
BE: Well, the central event which occurred when I was seventeen. I didn’t know what to call it. It was only years later that I discovered phrases like “mystical experience.” I knew I had been changed by it. It was an event that was both ecstatic and shallow, if you can combine those two. I had no idea that anyone else had had such an experience before me. I concluded, being a rational person, that it must have been a mental breakdown. And that I was not going to talk about it with anybody, because I didn’t want to be judged insane. It is very strange, things you’ve never spoken about in your life are now—we’re talking about it. It’s embarrassing!
But I could not completely put it away. I’ve had a busy life—all kinds of intellectual pursuits, great family, all sorts of things, activism and involvements—but I could not ever get that out of my mind. And increasingly in the last couple of decades I was coming back to that, in different, sometimes somewhat indirect ways, like with the fascination with the history of religion, anthropology, and biology.
JS: And yet—that kind of orbit around the experience is not the same. How do you write about the mystical experience? You say it’s beyond the jurisdiction of language, and then you go on to write about it really carefully and accurately. Can you tell us more about sitting at your desk and thinking, Okay, now I’ve come to the big moment, and how do I write this thing that’s beyond words?
BE: I was very much reinforced by the realization in the last ten years or so, maybe more, that other people had had similar experiences. And the reason I hadn’t noticed many of them was that they were couched as “religious experiences,” and that didn’t interest me as an atheist. And then I really started getting curious about what goes on with these events. Can they reveal any truth, or are they completely delusional? And, besides—this business of something being unspeakable? If I’d spent fifty years developing my writing skills, I should sure as hell be able to find the words!
JS: What are the political implications of saying those experiences are strange, making then exotic and peculiar, and “something’s wrong with Barbara, because she might care about these things”?
BE: I come out of the women’s movement in the 1970s when there were so many things that we couldn’t talk about, but we learned to talk about—things like having been raped or molested or sexually harassed. It made me somewhat averse to secrets. Not that everything has to be shared and told without limits, but if something is always suppressed, you never talk about it. To me that’s a signal that we better start talking about it.
I think it’s the world that’s strange. Here we are, on a planet. If you’ve ever had the sense of seeing the earth as a whole planet—for example watching its shadow pass by the moon—this is a fragile situation! We’re here a short time. Amazingly, we in this room are all here simultaneously, alive simultaneously. I think we should try to figure out, What is going on?