I reached voting age right in the middle of the former Yugoslavia’s self-implosion, so that entire, painful conflict still looms large for me, just as a Cold War atmosphere defined my childhood. And in spite of following the bloody mess in depth at the time, these days, it’s hard for me to keep straight who did what to whom when and why. I remember seeing, and loving, Cabaret Balkan— just as much for the film itself as for the fact that I was watching it in a small theater in Paris– and having a distinct feeling that I was part of “a time,” as in “my time,” when X particular historical events occurred, and Y particular qualities were often prevalent in people of a certain age.
Since then, my head’s been filled with so many political, historical, personal, etc., etc., situations that I sort of lost the thread of that particular narrative. But then last night, I watched Emir Kusturica’s Underground, and got so eager to sort things back out in my head that I reached for two books that’ve been on my shelf for way too long without being read: Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina and Leslie Benson’s Yugoslavia: A Concise History. Admittedly, the former will only give me an historical background, via fiction, to what led up to the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th century; the latter, published as it was in 2001, won’t get me anywhere near where we stand today. But patience is not my forte, so of course, I just rushed in with what was at hand, polishing off a chapter of the novel before making a leap to pore over the maps in the history book. And since all of this was taking place way past my bedtime, predictably, I didn’t get far– so judgments about it all will have to be made later.
At any rate, that word debauchery was a welcome change from another volume that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, John Macquarrie’s Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. As part of TA’ing the same class for a couple of years, I was granted a free copy– but irresponsibly, I never read it, since it was part of the “for further reading” section of the syllabus, and I had my own interests to pursue and a dissertation looming over my head. But after the Buber episode of last week, I decided to check it out. I’ll finish it, but I was annoyed from the second I set eyes on the preface– not for anything the author had done wrong at that point, but because there was one more dude thanking his patient wife for “preparing the material for the publishers.” (1) I just didn’t want to hear about one more lady apparently waiting around to type up her husband’s manuscripts and do all the drudge work so that he could rest his delicate brain for the thinking of further big thoughts. I have never once read any female scholar thanking her husband for the same services, not because she was being miserly with her gratitude, but because that situation never ensued.
But I’ll get off my gender-centered soapbox and talk about the aspects of the work itself that are bothering me: a theologian still being worried about so many “dangers” of potential flubs in doctrine, or of dismissing (probably not consciously) others’ practices as unworthy means “of escape from the harsh realities of life into new and exhilarating areas of consciousness.” (2) And then, there’s the maddening refusal to get my man Nietzsche right when he alleges that the Übermensch “seeks and believes he can attain to domination over the world.” (3)
Now, from what I hear, Macquarrie was a good egg, and was all in favor of everyone being able to practice his/her own religion without being condemned for it or being seen as a potential target of conversion. I think my grumbling is, more than anything, evidence of the fact that I should just stop reading theology, since I’ve imbibed enough for at least a few lifetimes, and can pretty much predict by now who’ll make which tired argument, and who’ll sprint right out into left field to try and save a tradition at all costs. Maybe I’m saying that I should just stick to good literature and complex civil wars and real-life, unimaginably horrible conflicts. At least with the former, the chances that any action that emerges out of personal frustration might actually make a bit of difference.
(1) John Macquarrie, Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), viii.
(2) 12. In this case, Macquarrie was partially referring to “the taking of the drug psilocin derived from a mushroom and inducing an expanded consciousness” in “some forms of religion” in Mexico, which he seems to see as illegitimate and insincere, and doesn’t take the time to differentiate from a bunch of college kids going goofy on ‘shrooms. Say what you will about Carlos Castañeda, but his field studies, and the people with whom he interacted, were hardly out to “escape from the harsh realities of life.”