We all approach literature with a slight narcissistic perspective. We can’t help but read our own lives and experiences into the story. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. When we discussed Albert Camus’s The Fall in philosophy class, the part that grabbed my adolescent self by the lapels and shook me was the section on pp. 31-32 about friendship, and the line that burned itself into my brain right then and there was, “Who, cher monsieur, will sleep on the floor for us?” At the time, I was watching many of my friends go off to college or careers, wondering if I was ever going to see some of them again, wondering if there were any relationships in my life that would withstand a long separation of time and distance. I was already concerned with a theme that still preoccupies me today; namely, that of trying to create a life that allows time for something besides working and consuming, while fearing that doing so might mean cutting myself off from some of the people I wanted to share it with.
Safe to say that wasn’t exactly the main theme of the book. But nonetheless, I wanted to read more by a man who could reach into my brain like that, pluck out an inchoate thought, and articulate it in such a poetic way. And while Dostoevsky is certainly a more complex writer than I gleaned at the time, it was his clear, uncompromising portrayal of Ivan Karamazov’s refusal to accept a God and heaven built on the needless suffering of innocents that galvanized that same idealistic, adolescent self and made me want to better understand a mind that could envision such an outlook. I entered through a narrow individual perspective, but doing so led me to much wider considerations.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to my point. I recently read a paragraph from an Alan Watts lecture that touched on a recurring theme of his, one that has since been taken up
by numerous people determined to believe that all religious traditions are basically stating the same eternal truths in their own idiosyncratic ways:
One day A gets furious at its natural enemy B and says, “Let us obliterate B.” They gather their forces and knock out their enemy. After a while, they begin to get weak and overpopulated. There is nobody around to eat up their surplus members, and they do not have to keep their muscles strong to defend against an enemy. They begin to fall apart because they have destroyed their enemy, and they remember that what they should do is cultivate the enemy. That is the real meaning of “Love your enemy.” There is such a thing as a beloved enemy. If the flies and spiders did not have each other, there would be either too many spiders or too many flies. These balances maintain the course of nature. It is exactly the same with the libertines and the prudes. They need each other.
Watts spent a lot of time trying to reconcile a liberal form of Christianity to the Eastern philosophy he preferred before reluctantly concluding that the exclusivity of Christian dogma made it ultimately futile, but he still kept this philosopher-Jesus on hand for frequent reference, as so many people do who want to believe that the inspiration himself would want nothing to do with what’s been done in his name. As it happens, I was just talking about this with Noel, one of the denizens I keep chained in the comment section to provide me with repartee — religious myths are, by their nature, not supposed to provide us with objective truths. They poetically express common themes that apply to the experience of specific groups, or sometimes humanity as a whole, and different people can derive different lessons from them depending on their circumstances. But Christianity is built on the assertion that an individual human, at a very specific point in time, did in fact perform certain historical acts for the benefit of those who willingly believe the story. Biblical scholarship indicates that Jesus, to whatever extent any historical information can be known about him, very much believed in a Manichean state of affairs in which good would eventually obliterate evil, not coexist with it. Now, I agree that Watts’s interpretation of the saying is a good and useful one. But it’s simply not accurate to project that interpretation backward, and as I keep saying, it’s a waste of time to try and reinvent Christianity as an allegorical fable when the majority of believers have accepted its historical claims and expect definite results at some point in the future.
It would have been silly and dishonest for me to pretend that those novels were written specifically for me as a nineteen year-old while ignoring the authors’ perspectives and motivations, and it’s no less so for people to treat religious texts in the same way. Take whatever you want away from them, but don’t forget that not all perspectives are equally valid.