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Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything Paperback – April 21, 2015
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"The factor that makes each of [Barbara's] books so completely unique in American intellectual life is her persistent sensitivity to matters of social class. She can always see through the smokescreen, the cloud of fibs we generate to make ourselves feel better about a world where the work of the many subsidizes the opulent lifestyles of the few. That, plus the fact that she writes damned well. Better than almost anyone out there, in fact."―Salon
"As personal a piece of writing as she has ever done... A surprising turn for Ehrenreich, who for more than 40 years has been one of our most accomplished and outspoken advocacy journalists and activists."―The Los Angeles Times
"Until reading LIVING WITH A WILD GOD I counted the Mary Karr memoir trilogy as my favorite from a contemporary literary figure. Now, Ehrenreich's memoir is tied for first place with Karr's books... Thank goodness [this book] exists. It is quite likely to rock the minds of readers who dare open to the first page."―Houston Chronicle
"A smart and enjoyable read... Ehrenreich maintains a grip on a sensible skepticism about religious matters - and a positive hostility toward the idea of unthinking faith - while avoiding the narrow-minded excesses that more zealous atheists sometimes fall victim to."―The Chicago Tribune
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Living with a Wild God focuses on a set of dissociative moments experienced by Ehrenreich during her childhood and teen years. Uncanny insights into the nature of being? Encounters with the divine? Brain freeze explosions? An atheist, Ehrenreich refuses to give a conventional religious interpretation to what happened. In fact she doesn’t want to corrupt the purity of experience by interpreting or defining these moments at all. Okay, but then why write a book that keeps circling back to these incidents only to back away from explaining why they feel so crucial to her life story?
What results from all this is a weirdly unsatisfying memoir. We get the story of a brainly misfit growing up in a dysfunctional household headed by an alcoholic father and miserably unhappy, abusive mother. Ehrenreich’s enjoyably snarky voice, which works so well in most of her writing, falls flat here. Other than a nicely mean account of her adolesence in LA (like the Kerouac of Big Sur, she hates the California sun) the author skates along the surface of her life story, meting out a kind of impersonal contempt to everyone including her solipsistic youthful self. High school, college, grad school, marriage, motherhood, the anti-war movement… blah, blah.
I was now, according to my kindle, 80% of the way through the book. Suddenly, bam! A whole new kind of writing starts happening. In a deeply personal tone, Ehrenreich tells us why she wrote Living with a Wild God. Middle aged, with her second marriage crumbling and progressive politics rapidly diminishing as a force in American political life, she sank into depression. (How many of us followed that trajectory?) Returning to investigate her youthful dips into the twilight zone offered itself as a strategy to beat back the pain and sadness. In turn, engaging new sources of knowledge outside of what might be called the rationalist paradigm seems to have given Ehrenreich the healing energy to do ever more good work.
I’m still of two minds about her book. Why the choice of such a dispassionate, skeptical mode of address to narrate the story of her early life? But on balance, whatever Barbara Ehrenreich cares to say, I’m glad to listen.
This is a work that deserves to take its place next to Henry James and Rudolf Otto, not because it finds answers to the basic questions of human existence, but precisely because it does not. It makes the quest itself central and is willing to posit the notion that we may in fact know far less about the universe than we might like or even need to believe (the concept of belief itself being problematic). Most importantly for me, there is a recognition that experiencing the Other does not frequently reveal transcendent benevolence. This is truly the wild God of the title, not the domesticated Being commonly understood by contemporary adherents of religion.
This is a compelling work worthy of revisiting by the reader and perhaps by the writer. This is a quest that is not readily concluded.
The book has two focuses of interest: first, her experience itself, which includes vivid accounts not only of what we might call uncanny moments but also of a very difficult childhood with two unhappy and finally alcoholic and suicidal parents. Ehrenreich writes about her parents with a detachment that is well short of clinical, but it's a detachment we can well understand as being the product of strategies that she, an unusually self-conscious, articulate child, devised to survive her relationship with these parents. She doesn't over-analyze, however: she contextualizes, and her adolescent encounters with uncanniness, along with her solipsism and precocious reading are set forth without any tightly connecting web of causes and effects being drawn between them. Her turn to social activism, while she was a graduate student in molecular biology, is as unpredictable as anything else in her telling of the various strands that made up her younger life, because before she made that turn, she was prone to denying altogether the possibility of interesting consciousness in "other minds." And when she does take the turn to activism, she does not fly to the other extreme and become an overflowing fount of "feeling" -- she is still empirical, practical-minded, and conscious of herself as a rather strange creature.
The other focus of interest is the possible meaning of her "uncanny" experiences, one of which, at Lone Pine, California, in 1959, was particularly intense and upsetting. These experiences she sees as almost beyond language, and even as she tries to put them into words, she's always warning against both her own wording and the wording that religious believers and psychologists might be tempted to use about them. Her final two chapters are meditations on these experiences, and they invite the reader to consider the possibility of a "life" in the universe that is beyond categorization and that she is pretty sure the categories of monotheistic religions just don't "get." She is talking here not of what she believes -- "I believe nothing," she says -- but of what might possibly be believable. The actual experiences of religious mystics like Meister Eckhart, the ongoing examinations of consciousness and possible intentionality in animals, and the parasitic and symbiotic relationships of micro-organisms with hosts are all adduced, not to "explain" what happened to the young Barbara but to remind us that there are forms of life, relationship, and consciousness that we would do well to keep an open mind about. I found the book compelling in its storytelling and intriguing in its implications -- I couldn't put it down.
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Certainly I really, really, truly enjoy Ehrenreich's prose. I wish more people wrote with such grace!Read more