(originally published 15 November 2004)
Unfortunately, I did; I don’t feel the book lived up to that glowing assessment, especially since I know mature women who truly are wise.
Beauty is truth, not terror
There were a couple of things L’Engle wrote of which I simply couldn’t fathom. For example, her stated initial atheism fades over time into a sort of uncritical, dewy-eyed worshipfulness of “god,” and I couldn’t figure out why. Was this part of her life journey? If so, I must respectfully put forth that mature wisdom does not automatically equate to uncritical acceptance of comforting myth.
As she notes in the book, she apparently defines the possibility of life as “cosmic accident” as being untenable, since that’d mean it was nothing more than “everything’s a bad joke.” I’m not sure why our being a cosmic accident is necessarily a bad joke, though. Doesn’t that make it all the more wonderful, all the more precious, that due to — perhaps in spite of — the “wild unpredictability of the universe” we are indeed here? Shouldn’t it nudge us more closely to a true reverence of the beauty and mystery of life?
Another expression of L’Engle’s puzzling conversion to uncritical acceptance of the existence of “god” is her mentioning Sartre as being depressed by the “‘is’ness of an oak” — that he somehow feels it diminishes him to realize the oak will exist and continue to be, even should he not be.
I admit, I find his attitude as puzzling as hers, which is stated as: “the perfect ‘is’ness would be frightening without the hope of God.” Why? ‘Is’ness just is. It is beautiful in and of itself. Why must she lessen or cheapen this extraordinary miracle of chance and being, by ascribing it to a human deity? She goes on to say:
Man is; it matters to him; this is terrifying unless it matters to God, too, because this is the only possible reason we can matter to ourselves: not because we are sufficient unto ourselves — I am not: my husband, my family, my friends give me my meaning and, in a sense, my being, so that I know that I, like the burning bush, or the oak tree, am ontological: essential: real.
Again, why? She almost seems on the right track (at least as I see it) with the necessity of human interaction and caring — and then suddenly, there’s that need for a watchful father again. Why can’t the caring, the mattering of those dear to us suffice? What’s wrong with a simple joy in existence, within the ontological beauty of here and now?
The oak doesn’t need some deity’s “mattering” any more than it needs ours. Might we learn something from this? Isn’t it rather shortsighted to assume the oak needs our benevolent over-lordship? -as shortsighted as assuming we ourselves need a big daddy beaming paternally over us too? Is this nothing more than a childlike need to be important and cared for by something bigger than ourselves — to self-justify our own delusional importance in the universe?
Furthermore, why be terrified of the wonder of the universe? Why not marvel incredulously at it? Why this peculiar need to assume someone who manages it is also managing us? As a simple example, I find it hard to believe a deity which created wonders as vast as the wide-flung galaxies, and as mind-bogglingly complex and tiny as the unfathomable energy powerhouses we find in mitochondria — is carefully glaring at us, to be sure we don’t have sex until the appropriately dressed priest-guy waves the starter flag of marriage over us! Why can’t we and the universe just “be,” the same way the old oak just “is”?
Fiction or fib?
I also found some of her writing quite disconcerting. At one point she writes for several pages of an incident in the tiny, insular New England town she lives in. It’s heart-wrenching — the sneering between the newer “touristy” arrivals and the “old guard” may be bad, but when the house of one of the newcomers burns, one of the old guard harms himself in a heroic rescue of the children.
And then, just as you’re feeling warm and touched by how human kindness triumphs… she tells you the whole story is a fake. She goes on to describe how less dramatic incidents from her actual life informed the story, but assures her readers the heroic rescue, while indeed fictional, would surely have occurred given a chance to do so.
I admit, there was a strong feeling almost of betrayal at finding the whole thing was made up. I would not have minded half so much had she not said from the very beginning she was going to conduct a writing exercise — but unfortunately she did not do so. If she was trying to show up her readers as being as uncritically accepting of her writing as she appeared to be of god, then she certainly succeeded with this reader… but I didn’t believe her again past that point.
The whole thing had an extremely unfortunate dampening effect on my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I found myself mentally reviewing what I’d read so far, wondering where else she’d been deceptive as well; and repeatedly reminding myself she was probably not being entirely truthful in her (theoretically) autobiographical writing.
This had the additional effect of making me no longer believe her assertions. For example, she refers repeatedly to writing in her journals (both incidents in her life and fictional snippets), and of going back to them to support assertions she made to her family or friends about this or that. Also, and perhaps unsurprisingly, no one else was ever, ever allowed to touch the journals. Consequently, I found myself feeling sorry for those people fooled by her, due to her insisting what she’d written was truthful.
I wonder if she even realized what she was doing. Did it make her feel more special somehow? She does mention that as desperately necessary for individuals. Still, I feel memory is fallible enough as it is, without her baseless assertion that writers easily have total recall, followed by her writing down fiction and passing it off as fact.
Does she not realize this cheapens truly valuable statements such as, “We must make it evident that maturity is the fulfillment of childhood and adolescence, not a diminishing; that it is an affirmation of life, not a denial; that it is entering fully into our essential selves“? I find that a laudable goal, but when it’s mixed in with existential nonsense and deliberate story-telling (I’m not sure it can really be labeled lying) then it’s hard to find the jewels for the dross.