Yet another review of a review.
There has been discussion on various sites in recent weeks, including Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, of a recent book by staunch unbeliever Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. The book is about an experience she had during adolescence that she now perceives as some sort of mystical experience, outside rational thinking.
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.
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.
All that said, Grayling concludes,
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.