I’m happy to report that Galápagos Regained, my eccentric historical novel about the coming of the Darwinian worldview, is finally in production. The road was long and tortuous, paved by forces not under my control—my beloved agent, Wendy Weil, passed away in October of 2012—but this past autumn my new representative, the estimable Emma Patterson, found a home for my efforts at St. Martin’s Press.
Galápagos Regained centers on the fictional Chloe Bathurst, an unemployed Victorian actress who finds work on Charles Darwin’s estate, nurturing the strange birds, exotic lizards, and giant tortoises he brought back from his trip around the world. (The fine print on my poetic license allows me to imagine such a menagerie.) When Chloe gets wind of the Great God Contest, sponsored by the Percy Bysshe Shelley Society—£10,000 to the first petitioner who can prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being—she decides that Mr. Darwin’s materialist theory of speciation might just turn the trick. (If Nature gave God nothing to do, maybe He was never around in the first place.) Before she knows it, my heroine’s ambitions send her off on a wild adventure—a voyage by brigantine to Brazil, a steamboat trip up the Amazon, a hot-air balloon flight across the Andes—bound for the Galápagos archipelago, where she intends to collect the live specimens through which she hopes to demonstrate evolutionary theory to the contest judges.
The book contains lots of other stuff, too. I don’t have time to recapitulate it all here. I guess you’ll just have to read the thing.
DOMESTICATING MOBY DICK
At one level Galápagos Regained is an homage to what is probably my favorite novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like the Ahab-enthralled crew of the Pequod, my characters have undertaken a demented quest: a journey that pits the cozy universe of received teleological wisdom against a wild and wordless—but awesomely palpable—natural phenomenon. In Galápagos Regained, the discomfiting correlative is not, of course, an immense aquatic mammal. It is the Darwinian “tree of life,” a magisterial yet wholly materialist construct that requires my heroine and her companions to consider the world’s flora and fauna from an unaccustomed and emphatically nonteleological perspective.
So protective do I feel towards Moby Dick that occasionally I am moved to tilt with those who would domesticate the beast, turning this endlessly complex novel into a neat political allegory. (Animal Farm is a puissant satire, but it isn’t Moby Dick.) Such a reductionist project was recently undertaken by the remarkable Chris Hedges, winner the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. According to the website Truthdig, Hedges delivered the address in question, “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies,” last year on October the 13th in Santa Monica.
Let me state at the outset that Chris Hedges’s diagnosis of the malaise of our post-industrial civilization corresponds to my own. I am no less horrified than he by the corporate octopus that is strangling our planet, that multi-tentacled beast bent on devouring Earth’s finite resources, even as it draws additional sustenance from the gargantuan lie that this exploitation should continue unchecked, for such is the system’s manifest destiny. (Although not exactly a red-diaper baby, I came of age in a family that ranked Norman Thomas next to God, and I’m always pleased to recall that my maternal grandfather, Charles Develin, once ran for governor of Maryland on the Socialist ticket.) So I’m delighted that Hedges made this astute and impassioned speech, and I have no doubt the world would be a better place if every English-speaking adult read it by sundown. I just wish he’d left the White Whale alone.
When it comes to the species of fiction called allegory, I stand with SF author Ursula K. Le Guin. In a 1976 essay called “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction,” she chides literary critics who confuse that invaluable aesthetic device known as the symbol, “an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically,” with the one-to-one mapping that characterizes allegory, a technique Le Guin calls “dead equivalence.” As Hedges’s speech proceeds, he offers us what amounts to the following table of alleged equivalences in Moby Dick.
Pequod = America
Pequod’s thirty-man company = thirty states of the republic in 1851
Pequod’s ontological status = namesake of exterminated tribe
Captain Ahab = prototype of ruthless 20th and 21st century capitalists
Officers = privileged white European males
Harpooners = exploited dark-skinned minions
Crew = subjugated masses
Blazing try-pots = Melville’s anticipation of oil refineries
Ahab transfixing the harpooners = profane eucharist
And so forth, and so on. Everyone is entitled to his or her own Moby Dick, of course, and I should note that several passages in Hedges’s speech capture the flavor of Melville’s grand achievement. But I found myself mystified by Hedges’s seeming indifference to the novel’s white-hot philosophical and humanistic core—Ahab’s Job-like obsession with an apparently malevolent universe animated by an unknowable but evidently malign creator. (Even the conservative Catholic novelist-physician-philosopher Walker Percy concedes that this is the zone in which Melville is operating.) Upon completing his masterpiece, Melville famously remarked to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” And it is the bedrock wickedness of Moby Dick, its audacious playfulness in the face of humorless conventional piety, that draws me back to its incandescent pages again and again. Yet one searches Hedges’ speech in vain for any sense that, beneath the manifest destructiveness of Ahab’s lust for vengeance, there may very well lie a vital strain of Jobian rebellion, a salutary human wrath against the cosmic status quo.
OH, THOSE UPPITY ATHEISTS
After a protracted trip to the Internet, I decided I’d partially solved the mystery. Melvillean wickedness is simply not Hedges’s cup of tea. Evidently he passes up no opportunity to denounce what he regards as the baleful phenomenon of outspoken atheism. In 2008 Hedges gave us I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Fundamentalism. A couple of years later we got When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists. (I gather these are largely the same book.) Rather like the Terry Eagleton of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Hedges is apparently the sort of quasi-believing Marxist intellectual who prides himself on his talent for empathizing with the sensibility of churchgoers. While such thinkers would never dream of complaining about—to use some ugly designators—“shrill feminists” or “strident blacks,” they are nevertheless perfectly happy to excoriate uppity atheists who refuse to know their place.
Diatribes such as Hedges's and Eagleton’s always leave me wondering how deeply into the swelling ranks of contemporary unbelievers the authors are willing to swing their swords. Naturally Hedges and Eagleton have only contempt for the mischievous quartet of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, but are they equally eager to cut down Jonathan Miller? André Comte-Sponville? Julia Sweeney? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein? William Lobdell? Penn Gillette? Steven Pinker? The author of Galápagos Regained? What about the late Gore Vidal? The sorely missed Kurt Vonnegut Jr.? I wish I knew exactly where the hunt for allegedly rigid and dogmatic atheists ends and some sort of inclusiveness begins. Perhaps Hedges and Eagleton will tell us in their next books.
I must hasten to add that I have severe problems with the late Mr. Hitchens’s bellicose stance toward the Muslim world, and I am equally unhappy with Mr. Harris’s facile torture calculus. And yet I would argue that God-sponsored homophobes and misogynists have never known two more tireless and eloquent opponents than Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett aren’t far behind. Is the unexpected ascent of lippy secularists who speak for the causalities of religion really such an ominous turn of events? Are such men and women truly “dangerous”? Are they in fact “fundamentalists”? Fundamentalism should be made of sterner stuff.
As I read recent American history, our republic’s crusade against its Islamic enemies, real and imagined, was hardly the work of upstart unbelievers. The whole disaster was engineered by the extravagantly Christianized administration of George W. Bush. I’m guessing Hedges believes that, by balancing his distress over the menace of impertinent atheism with a critique of faith-based certainty—I speak now of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, which sounds like a very fine book indeed—he has placed himself unequivocally in the camp of the open-minded. But the problems with religion, I feel, cannot be so neatly circumscribed. Are pedophile priests and those who drive their getaway cars “American fascists”? I think not. Is the obliquely homophobic, arguably misogynist, and (until the great revelation of June 8, 1978) manifestly racist Mormon Church populated by “American fascists”? Well, no. The wages of faith, I feel, are far more subtle and complex than Hedges’s clever term might lead us to believe.
Being only superficially familiar with Hedges’s book, I am now obligated to shut up about it. Shall I ever peruse those pages in full? I don’t know. Tempted as I am to negotiate the whole of When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists, I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. The title alone betrays a disinclination to think seriously about the question. Philosophically, at least, “atheist fundamentalism” is an incoherent concept. (To put the argument as succinctly as I can: a reasoned decision not to buy into somebody else’s supernatural revelation is not itself a supernatural revelation.) According to Booklist, Hedges deplores “the notion, which many atheists and liberal churchgoers share, that as a species humanity can progress morally.” After reading that sentence, I thought I finally understood the morbid and deterministic—indeed, Calvinistic—mood that suffuses “The Myth of Human Progress.” The same Booklist review promises that Hedges will explicate “the dark sides” of the Enlightenment and Darwinism for us. Although I believe I’ve pondered the shadowy facets of those two worldviews as much as anyone I know, my Spidey sense tells me that Hedges will not contribute substantively to my intramural conversation. I’m out of there.
SPELUNKING WITH NIETZSCHE
There is perhaps a second answer to the mystery of Hedges’s disengagement from Moby Dick’s wickedness. “The Myth of Human Progress” is shot through with a febrile, apocalyptic, scorched-earth religiosity quite at odds with Melville’s joyful irreverence and buoyant blasphemy. (Among its many dimensions, Moby Dick is a funny novel.) Hedges is keen on those who, along with Nietzsche, “venture down into the bowels of the molten pit,” getting “as close as they can before the flames and heat drive them back,” ultimately turning themselves into “eternal orphans in empires of illusion.” (Despite Nietzsche’s famous disdain for compassion, I get the impression that Hedges sees himself as one of these romantic Überspelunkers.) He joins theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in celebrating something called “a sublime madness of the soul,” a condition enjoyed by “the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.” In scorning conventional progressive ideals, Hedges again turns to Niebuhr, who taught his disciples that liberalism “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”
Well, maybe. But crucial questions remain. Is there not already a sufficient quantity of fanaticism in the world? Does not political liberalism, with its boring and non-apocalyptic commitment to social and economic justice, actually have a lot more to show for itself than all of Nietzsche’s flaming pits placed end to end? Should we not disenthrall ourselves of the Ralph Nader party line—which for all I know is cultivated by Hedges, a Nader speech writer—that contemporary liberalism and conservatism are essentially the same thing? (It occurs to me that if Nader had behaved honorably and modestly in 2000, throwing his support to the Democratic ticket and thus quite possibly securing Al Gore’s election, the United States might not today be the climate-change-denial capital of the world.) How are we to distinguish a life-affirming “sublime madness” from the insane and murderous agendas of God-besotted Bible heroes such as Abraham and Moses? (Presumably they are not among those lovably crazy Hebrew prophets Hedges so admires.) How do we avoid confusing benignly inspired madmen and madwomen with bloody-minded postmodern Marxist radicals? (See, for example, the ideology on display in Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.) As a child of the dreaded Enlightenment, I must confess that, concerning “sublime madness,” I much prefer the sublime reason of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine (another uppity atheist). I shall leave all this hip Calvinism, this Fall-of-Man bravado, this self-congratulatory Nietzschean strutting, to less timid souls than I.
“Our hope lies in the human imagination,” Hedges tell us. Well, yes, I suppose so. So far, so good. But it soon develops that Hedges’s notion of creativity turns largely on the understandable theistic convulsions of people facing an abyss. “It was the human imagination that permitted African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era to transcend their physical condition,” Hedges argues. He goes on to recount the famous anecdote of the rabbis at Auschwitz who, having arraigned God and found him guilty, promptly returned to their prayers.
For secularists such as myself, it is difficult to see anything creative in acts of pious desperation. Indeed, I would suggest that such impotent gestures are precisely what jailers want their prisoners to be doing. Though completely intelligible, especially in the context of the Holocaust or the concentration camps of the antebellum South, entreating Yahweh or Jesus is high on the list of unimaginative human behaviors (even when you resign yourself to knowing your prayers will be answered only in “God’s eschatological future”). Moby Dick is a work of the imagination, and so are the gods themselves—but appealing to deities is among the most conventional and predictable of those traits that characterize Homo sapiens. And to join Hedges in rhapsodizing about such devotions is, I feel, to view the petitioning victims through a lens of sentimentality and condescension.
Piety per se guarantees nothing. I believe it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who, at the height of the Salman Rushdie affair, reminded us that most of the justifications for American chattel slavery appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries were penned by clerics. To be sure, the campaign for abolition eventually found many allies within the Christian community, and it is impossible to imagine the civil rights movement apart from the initiatives of black churches (and some white ones as well)—two facts we atheists would do well to keep in mind. My point is not that religion is inherently reactionary but that it is unfailingly capricious. Unlike Moby Dick, the beast of faith must be continually domesticated, as it largely was in the West during and after the Enlightenment, or we shall all perish like the crew of the Pequod.
When it comes to fighting the good fight against capitalist rapacity, I am particularly sympathetic to an argument articulated many years ago by Michael Harrington in The Politics at God’s Funeral. Religionists and non-religionists, this great socialist thinker argued, should make common cause against their mutual enemy: the cynical and uncompromising nihilism of the ruling order. Will atheist-averse radicals ever welcome intemperate unbelievers into their fellowship? I suspect they eventually will. And when that day dawns, I shall call it progress.