“Why Do We Die and What is the Purpose of Life?”
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Living with a Wild God
author: Barbara Ehrenreich
publisher: Grand Central Publishing
pub date: 04.08.2014
pp: 256
tags: Religion

A. C. Grayling on Living with a Wild God

“Why Do We Die and What is the Purpose of Life?”

July 2nd, 2014 reset - +

FOR SOMEONE who can write with such incisive lucidity and elegance as Barbara Ehrenreich, it must be hard not to find exactly the right way to express what feels inexpressible. This is the challenge she sets herself in recounting her “quest” — an apt choice of word — to make sense of the world and the strange encounters that she has had throughout her life.

There is no other memoir of childhood and youth quite like this one. The closing chapters briefly take the story into later life, but the body of the book is about a teenager with a form of “dissociative disorder” — if “disorder” it is. Ehrenreich found that episodes of dissociation were triggered in her by bright light, exhaustion, or low blood sugar, and their effect was to drain significance away from ordinary things to reveal a remarkably different reality beyond. She uses passages from her youthful journal to retell the story.

Ehrenreich rediscovered the journal while preparing her papers for archiving in a university library, and found in it the story of how her quest began. Two events — recovering from a major cancer treatment and preparing the records of her life for embalming in an archive — prompted her to link quotations from the journal with an account of her parents and her vividly solipsistic inner life as a child. Her solipsism persisted up until, as a graduate student, she was at last fully woken by the Vietnam War to the realities of other people and of the outside world. She campaigned against the war, in the process becoming radicalized into her well-known stances as a feminist and socialist.

The memoir depicts a hyperintelligent, lonely eldest child in a dysfunctional family, struggling to understand the apparently senseless circumstances in which she found herself. She describes the quest outlined in her journal as a desire to answer the question “Why do we die and what is the purpose of life?” but a good deal of her sense of the mystery in things arose from the fact that she was an atheist both by parental influence and by her own considered convictions. It was, then, not just the incoherence and irrationality of the adult world around her that she found hard to understand, but even more so the occasional irruptions of a seeming-transcendent or noumenal Otherness into her experience. 

As a fiercely clever little girl, Ehrenreich, independently and in succession, arrived at a number of philosophical positions associated with such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, long before she had read any of them. The quotations from her journal show her stating often quite sophisticated versions of these philosophers’ views. She began by concluding that the only things she knew were: “I exist. And I know nothing.” She here obviously combines Descartes and Socrates. Soon, however, she felt compelled to acknowledge that what she perceived was as much entitled to exist as she herself, so her new conclusion was: “Anything which perceives or is perceived exists and qualifies as Something.” She restates here Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi aut percipere (to be is to be perceived, or to perceive). 

Next she realizes that her burning need to understand suggests a new fact about what exists. “It seems to me that the principal psychological factor in living things is desire,” she says, thus identifying what Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and before them the Buddha variously regarded as the underlying nature of reality. All this in the mind of a 12-year-old girl is impressive. It is no surprise that she alarmed her mother and made her father ambitious for her future success as a scientist and thinker.

The relationship between her mother and father made the young Ehrenreich think that the normal tie between married couples was anger. Her mother, who eventually committed suicide, often disparaged her and as often used her as the listening-board for her woes and resentments. Her father, whom she loved much more, but who eventually disappointed her, faded away into Alzheimer ’s disease after years of adultery and drunkenness. If these bare remarks make it seem that Ehrenreich’s book is yet another victim memoir, that would be misleading. There are plenty of unhappy marriages, and plenty of children of such marriages who, like Ehrenreich, escape into an inner world of contemplation to survive them. Indeed, what is special about Ehrenreich’s memoir is the depiction it gives of the intensely intelligent inner life that she used as her place of resort. 

Ehrenreich’s chief experience of a transcendent Otherness, an experience which has had a large impact on her life, occurred when she was eighteen. Returning from a skiing trip, hungry and tired after a sleepless night in the car, following a long day of exercise on the slopes, she was wandering in the dawn’s rising sunlight along the main street of a town called Lone Pine when suddenly everything around her seemed to catch fire, to burst out into an effulgence of radiance: “the world flamed into life … Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all the things at once.” Every mundane object in the street and the shop windows around her gave off a blinding glow. She had no sense of being different from the effulgence — she was it and it was she. The “only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria.”

The experience was an especially intense version of the dissociative states she had often experienced before. These states were largely to cease after she would leave the brilliant light — a trigger for these episodes — of California’s sunny days (and not insignificantly, the family home) for college life in the muted light of the Northwest and then the East Coast. 

Throughout most of her accounts of these experiences, Ehrenreich takes a consciously rationalistic view. She was educated as a scientist up to a PhD level. She was an atheist, had read psychological and psychiatric analyses, and knew what people said about the effects of LSD and mescaline. Besides, she fully recognized the force of the view that epilepsy, forms of psychosis, temporary alterations of consciousness effected by many foodstuffs or environmental factors, make compelling sense in explaining experiences of ecstasy.

It is well known and richly recorded that such episodes can be induced by dancing or repetitive whirling, as with the Sufi Dervishes; by starvation, fever, alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms, sexual activity, and much besides. Religious people, of course, attribute them to encounters with the divine, and it may well be that experiences caused in these ways lie at the root of humankind’s impulse to create religion. But the fact that empirical science today so well explains the causes and nature of these disturbances of normal neurological function is reason to guard against the supernaturalistic attempts at explanation, which were once the only resource our forebears had.

But alas, as her book approaches its end, Ehrenreich departs from rational ways of understanding her own experiences, and begins to sketch a view to the effect that there is indeed Something — she calls it the Other. She says that this is what she had encountered in her dissociative experiences. Ehrenreich disavows thinking of it as a personal deity or as anything monotheistic. Instead, she describes it in pantheistic or animistic terms, like a Life Force or something such. She is retrospectively even inclined to attribute anomalous results in the experiments she performed for her undergraduate science thesis to the presence of “something else” in her lab.

Ehrenreich is well known for her atheism as well as her other publicly-avowed stances. As a highly talented writer and a powerful advocate for social justice causes, she has a standing in American life that will make this spiritual — or quasi-religious — turn a subject for debate. The explanation she gives of what she means by her “animism” is only sketchily offered, for the reason mentioned: the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible. All those who report having the kind of experiences she has had have had to resort to poetry, allusion, hand-waving, or metaphor to convey what these experiences are like. 

No doubt having such experiences powerfully inclines one to project their cause to something outside the mind. We do not tolerate anomaly very well and need to give it a name and an explanation in order to cope. But the merest respect for economy of explanation should be a bulwark against externalizing the source of anomalous experiences before all the more likely explanations are exhausted. We should always remember that the mind is a great player of tricks: one can induce Ehrenreich-type experiences in the lab, or by popping certain kinds of pills, no Other and no Mystery required. It is accordingly a surprise and — let it be confessed — a disappointment to find so doughty a heroine of her causes sliding away from Athens to — well, if not to Jerusalem than to some other Eastern locus of the ineffable, the unnamable, and the smoky.

I repeat: it is a disappointment when a rational person’s thinking about the unusual, the unexpected, the extraordinary, the amazing experiences of transcendence and unity that many of us have at heightened moments of life, suffers a declension into quasi-religious or supernaturalistic vagueness. The human brain is complicated enough to produce all these experiences from its own resources; we need no fairies in the garden to explain how roses bloom.

Indeed, the fact that it is the brain, and nothing mysterious outside it, that produces these experiences, is to me far more interesting and spectacular than the invocation of some vaguely hinted meaningful mist sneaking around reality’s backyard.

That disappointment registered, my admiration for Barbara Ehrenreich the author and campaigner remains, as it does for the book itself: it is so beautifully written, so full of pungent insights on matters other than a putative Other, and so fascinating as a portrait of an intense and hypersensitive mind, especially in its youth, that it must surely count as one of the best reads of the year.

 ¤

A. C. Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

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