At the moment I am picking through Gary L. Comstock’s Religious Autobiographies, an anthology of abridged examples of the eponymous genre. It has made me want to write my own religious memoir, since my own story is one I wish I could have read ten years ago. I therefore wrote a rough draft for NaNoWriMo; I don’t know whether I’ll have an opportunity to publish it anywhere. More than this, however, it has made me want to read other people’s religious autobiographies. I dislike novel-length autobiographies, which I find tend to bog down in details which I cannot link together or tend not to warrant their length, but these briefer and more focused autobiographies are much more revealing. At least, I am better able to make sense of them when they are more specifically curated.
So here is the daydream: I would love to read more collections of shorter autobiographies on a common theme. Religious autobiographies especially appeal to me, but I am sure there are other types which would satisfy me even if I cannot imagine the genre now. A variation or specification on the religious autobiography occurred to me a few days ago as I read Richard Beck’s post on his recent spiritual shift: it might be interesting if autobiographers oriented their pieces towards what they imagine or hope their future might entail, what things they need or want to work on. Let me know if you have any recommendations; let me know, too, if you want to be part of an autobiography project of some kind.
Biographical writing in general is on my mind lately. On Facebook, I look at the nine Friends to appear on the side of my Profile page to assess whether those nine people would make good interview subjects for a hypothetical biographer writing about my life; if I could choose nine people myself, which nine would I choose? My friend Jon Wong used to talk about chain-biography projects: Jon would write my biography, I would write Alice’s biography, Alice would write Bob’s biography, and so on, until Eve writes Jon’s biography, and then all of these biographies are published in the same volume. Is there a way to write a biography in a more experimental fashion than is typical: out of order, maybe, switching between the subject’s life and the subject’s precursors, as in Wade Davis’s One River?
I keep coming back to the biography subplot in the third season of House of Cards, where author Tom Yates is fixated on his commission to write President Frank Underwood’s biography. House of Cards’s third season was not a very strong one, but that plot thread fascinated me: I suppose I had somehow believed authorized biographers were mercenary writers, and that might often be the case, but I suppose it is as good a genre as any for authors to push their craft.
Today my aunt asked where I would live if I somehow came into sixteen million dollars: enough to buy and maintain a house anywhere I wanted, without any worries about work. I am sure she just wanted to know whether I’d prefer to live in Vancouver or Toronto, but sixteen million dollars is a lot of money and I’d have bigger dreams than just one house…
If I did not get some excited and exciting architect to design a house for me (something I have coveted since I started researching the West Coast Modernists), I would probably want to buy a few houses next to one another. One or two or three for myself and some friends; one for a writing centre; one for an alternative library.
The writing centre, as I imagine it, would have three or so bedrooms upstairs; each would be available for a three-month period as part of a writer- or artist-in-residence program. Downstairs would be a writing centre open to the residents and to members (there would be a low annual membership fee). Amenities for members would include tables with outlets, a small lending library or free little library, possibly a garden, and a calendar of events and workshops. In part I want something like this to make up for a dearth of reliable public working places—cafés cannot always guarantee outlet access, libraries often close early, and so on—and in part I want to create community for people to work without having high financial barriers.
The alternative library would not be beholden to the sorts of decisions which influence public or academic libaries’ collections management policies: I do not need to satisfy municipal politicians, taxpaying voters, university boards, or faculty. I could stock strange theological texts, awful pulp fantasy, and anything else I tend to wish I could get from more libraries.
Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked runs an Ideological Turing Test most years. Because of her blog’s audience and central conceit, the categories are generally drawn along Christian v. atheist lines, and contestants must give two sets of answers to the year’s questions: one set written honestly, and one set written as though they were of the opposite category. Readers then vote on whether they think the answer is honest or fake, and the ones whose fake answer receives the highest number of “honest” votes win. (Those times I competed I did quite badly.)
Most years Leah also solicits her readers for questions to ask. Since the last round, a different kind of activity for the Test occurred to me: contestants must re-write a common story from their real and their fake points of view. This came to mind when I was re-reading Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, in which Prothero takes issue with Huston Smith’s depiction of religion in The World’s Religions. Smith uses the familiar story about the blind men and the elephant—each man takes hold of a different part of the elephant and so each misidentifies the elephant in an idiosyncratic way—to suggest that all of the world’s religions are directed toward the same thing, the same target, but have different perspectives on it. Prothero, however, notes that in Hinduism this story is used to suggest that all perspectives are equally valid, if equally limited, attempts to access the truth, but in Buddhism the same story is used to suggest that all metaphysics is futile: the salient point to the Buddhist is not that all of the men have laid hold of the same elephant, but that all of the men are hopelessly wrong. To Prothero, who has argued that each of the world’s major religions has a significantly different focus and attempts a significantly different project, the story of the blind men and the elephant is really the story of the blind men and the “elephant”: one man holds a spear, another touches a wall, another has laid hold of a rope, and an outside observer hears their reports and concludes that they are all misinterpreting an elephant. In Interpreting the Sacred, meanwhile, William E. Paden notes that there is always something relational involved in the study of religion:
An elephant will not be the same object as seen by a poacher, a zoologists, a circus manager, or another elephant. “Religion,” likewise, will take shape and meaning through the lens of varying systems of interest.
Prothero’s point is that this story can be used to represent multiple worldviews; if we incorporate Paden’s use of the story, we could say that different renditions of the story could reveal something about different systems of interest. I would therefore be interested to see Leah’s contestants give their own spin to the story.
Or I thought I’d be interested, until I tried writing one of my own. It is appallingly self-indulgent. If everyone wrote a version so self-serving as my own, I do not think I would want to read many of them. On the one hand, I do love re-tellings of familiar stories and would like an opportunity to see many attempts side-by-side; on the other hand, I recognize that there is a talent in re-telling a familiar story which not all contestants would have, and I recognize that there is a temptation to re-tell them badly. (Further, the example of the blind men and the elephant is quite ableist, now that I think about it: blindness is used as a figure for ignorance in the story, which is quite inaccurate. True, blindness is a metaphor for the ways we are all ignorant, but isolating blind people as a figure for universal ignorance still isolates blind people as uniquely, especially, or notably ignorant.) If I had any kind of regular readership on this blog—not that I expect one—I would try to run a competition of some kind here, asking for re-tellings of similar repeated allegories or stories. Perhaps I can do so in the future. Let me know if there are any such stories you’d like to see various people re-tell.
In case you are curious, my appalling self-serving re-telling of the blind men and the elephant appears below. As indulgent as it is, I suspect there are other people, in my life and not, who would feel some relief to see others have inhabited the same position they inhabit.
Three Blind People and What Might Have Been an Elephant
There were three blind people walking down a quiet side alley of a busy city, and they inadvertently struck a creature that stood in their way. Two of them reached out and felt the creature’s trunk; the third had run into the creature’s side.
“Well,” said the first. “I think we have a snake. It is long, and feel how it moves.”
“I think you are right,” said the second.
“We should call it Rupert,” said the first.
“OK,” said the second.
“Are you two daft?” asked the third. “This is no snake: it is self-evidently a wall.”
“No, no,” said the first. “It is a snake. Feel it!”
“Why would you think it is a wall?” asked the second.
“Because I walked into it,” said the third, “and it was broad and flat and unyielding, like a wall.”
“That’s not at all what I feel,” said the second.
“No, it’s a snake named Rupert,” said the first.
“I’m not sure you can even say that there’s a thing here,” said the third, “except just more of the wall that bounds this alley we’re in.”
“You really shouldn’t hurt Rupert’s feelings like that,” said the first. “It’s rude to say a person doesn’t exist.”
The second, meanwhile, had begun feeling about the trunk, which she had until now thought of as Rupert, and found that the supposed snake attached to long smooth pointed protrusions, which in turn attached to broad thin flaps which moved when she touched them. These did overlay the broad, flat, unyielding surface the third spoke of, but as she felt further down she felt pillar-like masses which held the whole thing up.
“You know,” said the second, “I think this is an elephant.”
“Don’t be silly,” said the first.
“Look, it’s just a wall,” said the third. “There’s no ‘it’ which could be either a snake or an elephant.”
“You must be too far to the left to feel it,” said the first. “Come over this way some more.”
“No, there is definitely a creature,” said the second. “I too thought it was a snake, but when you started saying you felt a wall, I thought maybe my first impression was wrong. It turns out that what I identified as a snake was only one part of the whole. This Rupert isn’t a snake, but an elephant. The wall you’re feeling is its flank.”
“No, no, Rupert is a complete and entire snake unto himself,” said the first. “Or else he wouldn’t be Rupert, but something else. Frankly, I’m shocked that you would disparage Rupert so much by suggesting that he was merely part of something else. That’s a pretty dim view of Rupert; don’t you care about his feelings at all?”
“Look, you’re both wrong,” said the third, “but I admit I have to respect the snake-theory more than the elephant-theory. At least the snake-theory has the courage of its convictions, but this elephant theory is just a poor compromise that tries to have the best of both worlds, but winds up with the strengths of neither.”
“It’s brute relativism, is what it is,” said the first.
“Mere superstition—a creature which could be either a snake or a wall, depending on the circumstances,” said the third. “Next you’ll say that some alley cat is also the elephant, or the ground is, or the air itself. If anything at all is an elephant, then an elephant is nothing at all.”
The second person was quite baffled by all of this. The first and the third might still disagree with the elephant theory, to be sure, but why this slander? Why these strange accusations of relativism and disrespect? There was no explanation of the elephant which would be either simpler or more specific than the explanation she already gave.
Meanwhile, an n-dimensional being happened to pass through, and saw three blind people arguing about the nature of another n-dimensional being’s smallest appendage, which was dangling into the three dimensions they could perceive. The creature they were fondling had intruded into those dimensions before, once to guard a doorway and another time at the birth of a great prince who would later abdicate his throne, and in both cases it was similarly misidentified. The whole tableau was a very silly sight, and the passer-by laughed and laughed.