31 July 2011

Junkies and dealers are our witches

Of late, my Shakespeare class has been spending some time on the collaborative The Witch of Edmonton, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (pdf), and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. These plays all include magical characters - Mother Sawyer from Edmonton, Prospero and Ariel from The Tempest, the two Friars and the German magician from Greene's work, and the lamentable Faustus. And amid discussion of allegories and stagecraft, it occurred to me that the medieval idea of magic existed in a state almost identical to that of the drug trade in the modern world.

Illegal drugs are our magic, and junkies and dealers are our witches.

My thoughts on the matter began with some comments about The Witch of Edmonton by a guest lecturer, doctoral student Hannah August. A great deal of the focus was on how magic worked in the play and how witchcraft was viewed at the time, and we spent a couple of hours reviewing the Malleus Maleficarum (a medieval "guide" to witchcraft), a history of witchcraft in England, and some secondary criticism by Anthony Dawson. Dawson brought to light the class conflict in the play.

For those not familiar with this lesser-known work: at the start of The Witch of Edmonton, we see a Mother Sawyer who is on the fringe of society. She's an old widow, poor and bent, and persecuted by her neighbors. The local lord has even refused her the traditional village charity of allowing her to gather sticks on his land (to make and sell brooms), cursing and beating her. She is innocent, but still called a witch - so she reasons that she might as well have a witch's power. She curses God and makes a pact with a devil.

Naturally, it doesn't turn out well for Mother Sawyer. Her devil doesn't actually do her bidding, and she is imprisoned and executed for crimes she may not even have committed. In the play, her fate is contrasted with the spoiled child of a local landowner, who secretly marries a chambermaid when he thinks she's pregnant, but to please his father and keep his inheritance later marries a second woman - and then murders her once his succession is assured. While Mother Sawyer dies in spite and hated by all, this scion of wealth is forgiven and dies beloved. It was probably not an intentional contrast, but to the modern reader it's startlingly obvious just how unfair are the results of this system.

Dawson's pertinent article, "Witchcraft/Bigamy: Cultural Conflict in the Witch of Edmonton," points out that Mother Sawyer is just like all "witches" of the time - she's a woman and she's at the bottom of the class system. Because witchcraft is a crime that has a moral taint about it, and cannot be disproved to anyone's satisfaction, this means that those people at the very limits of society, poor women, were essentially in an extralegal position.

Witches were a social safety valve. On the one hand, they provided for a traditional need for hedge magic, allowing people to get their love potions and their abortofacients. A villager in need of a tea to relieve cramps or a hex to attack a neighbor had to have somewhere to go, after all, even if the letter of the law and official teachings make any sort of magic illegal.

But on the other hand, the system allowed them to be safely and easily eliminated in time of need. If the village needed a scapegoat or if someone important just decided they didn't like a poor old woman, then she could be accused of witchcraft and gotten rid of. You can't disprove witchcraft when you're of the "type" seen as a witch. Being poor and old and alone meant you were already guilty.

In The Witch of Edmonton, Mother Sawyer goes to her execution unlamented. Why should anyone care, after all? She was already guilty of being what she was, and contemporary audiences would have found only a little poignancy in her early declaration that "Tis all one / To be a witch as to be counted one": a frank admission that since she is already being treated as a witch, as a woman beyond the protection of the law or assumption of innocence, she might as well call up the devils.

By now, with my earlier thesis in mind, you probably have already made the same connection I did.

While the sexism has dimmed slightly, those people involved with the drug trade have assumed the same role that those involved with magic once held. They're liminal figures, safely accused and in many ways beyond the protection of the law. They meet the needs of society as a pressure valve, providing goods and services that the majority want to be available, but their position is carefully maintained to keep them in the position to be discarded at need.

I don't want to be alarmist here. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that witchcraft does not in fact exist and that the "witches" of history were condemned for something they did not do, whereas drug-runners and the like often did do what they are accused of. Nor am I saying this is the only analogous situation, since other things like prostitution or illegal immigration might also suit - they're also liminal elements that are made available but extralegal. It just seems to me that the drug trade is the best match, and the most compelling. And there's a lot of evidence.

The various magical figures in the list I gave at the beginning (Prospero, Mother Sawyer, the Friars, Faustus, etc.) all break up into a few categories, and these correspond with segments of the drug trade today.

High Magicians

These figures, like Friar Bacon, Faustus, and Prospero, are all educated and wealthy men. They work their magic by summoning imps and demons, creatures wholly belonging to the magical realm. And in the end, they either abandon their ill-deeds ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have's mine own")- or else they are cursed into Hell.

These magicians tend to have distance from the magic. They engage in complicated rituals of summoning, but their creatures do the vast majority of actual action. Ariel flits around and puts people to sleep and whatnot, Briar Bacon's spirits transport people back and forth, and Faustus has the obliging Mephastophilis to do all kinds of nonsense. This keeps the magicians' hands relatively clean; while they are still "doing magic" in some legal sense, the distance between themselves and the action makes them white-collar magicians. At times, this is particularly evident, like when Mephastophilis gives Faustus a magical book that can perform all manner of enchantments - a book that he never uses, preferring to let his demon familiar do all the summoning of chariots and raising of Helens.

These characters are notable for the fact that they can escape from the dangers of magic, even after benefiting from it. Prospero breaks his rod and drowns his books well after the point where he's used his magic to solve all of his problems. Bacon decries his dark arts and returns to Christ after coming to the attention of kings and raising his status considerably. Faustus is the exception that proves the rule: he came very close to getting twenty years' of awesome pleasures and still welching on his deal, but in the end lacks the moral fortitude to repent. He could have gotten free, but he refused.

It is not a hard task to see these men as the upscale drug users and pushers: the actors who snort a few lines after a show and the Howard Markses of the world who move briefcases of hashish. They're distant from the crime and it doesn't consume their lives, and so they are generally privileged enough to be able to escape from most consequences if they're caught. It's not unless some of them get too pulled in that they seriously crash to earth.

I'm no expert on drugs or drug dealers, of course, but even if this doesn't exactly reflect the reality of the matter (maybe way more big-time dealers go to prison than I think?) then the perception remains, and in this case the perception is the important thing. In Blow and Scarface and so many other films, downfall only comes from getting too involved with the sin of drugs. If you stay respectable and stay dignified and stay upper-class... well, then you're fine. You do five years and write a bestseller.

Low Magicians

Faustus' servant steals his magic book. A clown who's near Mother Sawyer makes a deal with her devil-dog. Friar Bungay hopelessly bumbles through his cantrips. They're dabblers.

It's important to note that they're not the upper class. They're lower-class and uneducated and usually some sort of low entertainment for the groundlings - the Elizabethan equivalent of the Three Stooges. They appear in interludes that are usually beside the main action, and often in secondary plotlines. They're of low virtue and we have low expectations of them, and so they provide good fodder for comedy. Often their scenes were varied by the actors, who would ad-lib lines or perform tricks to spice up a dull performance. They were not serious, above all.

Because they were not serious, it didn't much matter what trouble they got into. It was mischief, not sin. Oh, sure, they met with unfortunate consequences or had hilarious mishaps, like ending up with donkey's ears or getting their bottoms burnt with fire or being humiliated before the king. But even when one of them goes to Hell, as in Edmonton, it's to go operate a tavern for devils, roaring with laughter all the while. They might be sinning, but it was winked at because they were seen as harmless.

It isn't too far of a leap to see most drug users in this same instance. If you just smoke a little pot or roll at a rave, then for the most part it's not going to be a big deal. That's why we get movies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle or Half-Baked, where the clowns have the stage the entire time - they suffer a few problems from their drug use, but it's winked at. No one wants to see a guy endure permanent consequences from a joint, after all.

No, the real people we scorn are...

Witches

To some extent, it seems like we've made some progress. Even though the drug culture still tends to be harder on women, male junkies are often even more reviled. So to some extent, the gender bias has retreated when it comes to the liminal elements of our society. More and more, it's an equal-opportunity problem.

Both witches and junkies are on the fringe, and their status as "witch" or "junkie" is a fluid one - in many cases, it's enough to just be accused to have that social stain. Society tolerated magic among the high class, but expected it of a certain sector of the populace. If you were a poor lonely woman, then you were beyond the bounds of innocence, in that extralegal place where the assumption of "witch" status was a convenient way to eliminate a threat in time of need.

As the manor system of feudalism began to break down in the seventeenth century, the traditional values of charity that had maintained communities came under strain. The feudal lords were no longer seeing serious returns on their land as reforms took hold, and so they increasingly began to slack in their duties - which in turn encouraged more reforms. So Mother Sawyer is beaten by her lord at the beginning of The Witch of Edmonton, because he is both a brute and sees no reason to provide charity when his own coffers are dry, and she finds herself without recourse. Mother Sawyer is locked out of all possibilities, pigeonholed as a witch because of who she is, beaten and bent. It's only natural that she turns to real witchcraft and calls up a devil.

The poorest of our people are in much the same position. Social programs wax and wane, but they tend to vanish during hard times and only partially return during economic booms - the net results are crumbling projects, schismatic school districts, and pennies' worth of food stamps. Drugs are perceived as one of the few ways to escape, either by dealing or by recreational use. And too often the poor endure suspicion of such wrongdoing, no matter what they've actually done. Is it any more surprising that they indulge?

What Does This Mean?

I'm not saying that junkies are always the victims of unjust accusations, like witches were. There is no such thing as witchcraft, but there definitely is such a thing as heroin addiction. But I am saying that just as witchcraft served a function to eliminate the liminal at convenience, so too can the imposition of witchcraft status. Just like magic, it's a social safety valve. And it's one we should be careful with.

If we're not careful, then a behavior we condemn taints an entire class of people with a label that can be applied or dismissed at will. It puts them outside the law, beyond the succor or true condemnation of justice. They're just poor and ragged and available. It's a slippery slope, and one to watch.

16 July 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Consider the Lobster and Other Essays", "Lady Oracle", "The Life of Samuel Johnson", "Freedom", and "Heaven Is for Real"

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace

Reading anything by David Foster Wallace demands the occasional pause and low, interior whistle of awe: how did he does this? How does he manage this wondrous complexity that still works so smoothly, with its myriad spinning parts all sliding past each other like watchsprings to push the greater narrative?

The writing is dense, of course, as dense as Christmas fruitcake in July. Wallace takes us from the A of any line of thought right down to the final Z, but insists on providing every letter in between. And all of these intermediate steps are written with the same wondrous grasp of language. Wallace's learning was immense, and he shows it with words like "sedulous," "perspicacity," and "dysphemism."

Many people might know what a "dysphemism" is ("NOUN; The use of a derogatory, offensive or vulgar word or phrase to replace a more neutral original"). Many more can work out the meaning after sorting through the roots. But only a few people would ever use the term in their writing. Why would they? There are perfectly acceptable substitutes that would work just as well, and "dysphemism" is uncommon enough to trouble some readers. To use it would seem to be deliberately difficult. But Wallace was dedicated to using the exact right word. The good-enough substitute of "negative label" didn't mean what he wanted to say, and so he refused to use it.

This is not to say (and this is important) that he always uses the ten-cent word when the nickle will do. When he sneers at John Updike's book Toward the End of Time, he doesn't conclude with calling the author an egotistical cad or a masturbatory scoundrel; he calls Updike an asshole.

Wallace's writing isn't difficult for the sake of being difficult: it's difficult because Wallace says things that are extremely complicated, and he doesn't dilute.

I don't think I always understood this. I read Infinite Jest last year, and it was a punishing grind that took weeks to finish. But even when I grumbled and chafed, complaining that Wallace just wanted to show off his erudition and his encyclopedic command of trivia, I still had to admit that it was wonderful writing. Even under the lash, you have to appreciate the skill of the whipping.

Here's an example, from the first in this wonderful collection of essays:

But Las Vegas as most of us see it, Vegas qua Vegas, comprises the dozen or so hotels that flank the Strip’s middle. Vegas Populi: the opulent, intricate, garish, ecstatically decadent hotels, cathedra to gambling, partying, and live entertainment of the most microphone- swinging sort. The Sands. The Sahara. The Stardust. MGM Grand, Maxim. All within a small radius. Yearly utility expenditures on neon well into seven figures. Harrah’s, Casino Royale (with its big 24-hour Denny’s attached), Flamingo Hilton, Imperial Palace. The Mirage, with its huge laddered waterfall always lit up. Circus Circus. Treasure Island, with its intricate facade of decks and rigging and mizzens and vang. The Luxor, shaped like a ziggurat from Babylon of yore. Barbary Coast, whose sign out front says CASH YOUR PAYCHECK—WIN UP TO $25,000. These hotels are the Vegas we know. The land of Lola and Wayne. Of Siegfried and Roy, Copperfield. Showgirls in towering headdress. Sinatra’s sandbox. Most of them built in the ’50s and ’60s, the era of mob chic and entertainment-cum-industry. Half-hour lines for taxis. Smoking not just allowed but encouraged. Toupees and convention nametags and women in furs of all hue. A museum that features the World’s Biggest Coke Bottle. The Harley-Davidson Cafe, with its tympanum of huge protruding hawg; Bally’s H&C, with its row of phallic pillars all electrified and blinking in grand mal sync. A city that pretends to be nothing but what it is, an enormous machine of exchange—of spectacle for money, of sensation for money, of money for more money, of pleasure for whatever be tomorrow’s abstract cost.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays has no theme, really. Its topics are entirely unrelated:
  • The Adult Video News annual awards ceremony.
  • John Updike's Towards the End of Time.
  • Kafka.
  • Dictionaries and the management of modern grammar.
  • September 11th.
  • The autobiography of tennis star Tracey Austin.
  • The John McCain campaign of 2000.
  • The Maine Lobster Festival.
  • Joseph Frank's biographies of Dostoevsky.

Wallace writes with humor, erudition, precision, and a terrible melancholy that sits behind the words with wide, concerned eyes. Read it.


Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood

Straight from the beginning, we are given the major themes of this book: controlling women and distant men; double lives; and the mismatch of fantasy and real life. These themes run like chords through the book, a rising and falling refrain that is on pitch from first to last. It's consistent and clear - in fact, it's almost heavy-handed. The saving grace is that this stark enunciation of themes does not end up distracting, but rather just helps keep the overall tune clear.

In all other matters, things aren't so clear. We're thrown into the middle of things, in media res. The heroine starts off in Italy, on the run from something or someone. What happened to her? She has a mysterious book. What is its import? People are mentioned without explanation. Who are they?

Atwood keeps this confusion from unmooring her readers through strong characterization. The voice of the protagonist is fully-developed, and carries us through the story without letting us stumble for a moment.

While not spectacular, it's still a great book and worthy of its author. Check it out.


The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

This is probably the most famous biography ever written, and justly so. It was written by a talented and intelligent young man who never wrote anything else of note, because he poured himself into the effort of chronicling his acquaintance with the singular Samuel Johnson. He knew Johnson for decades, and was scrupulous in recording their daily interactions and the anecdotes from others, collecting them with religious care and inquiring about anything Johnsonian that he didn't already know. It is very seldom that a person is blessed with a biographer so singularly dedicated and so perfectly matched.

Boswell's study is exceeded only by its subject. Johnson wrote the first decent English language dictionary, essentially single-handed (though he had some lesser writers doing grunt work). For a century and a half, it was the best dictionary of the language. And as if this wasn't enough, he published commentaries on Shakespeare and the Latin poets as well as clever original compositions (often in the style of Juvenal), and encouraged the work of others.

What made Johnson singularly well-suited to biography, though, was his wit. Often abrasive and sometimes cruel, it was nonetheless undeniably pithy. It makes for wonderful reading.

Next day, Sunday, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.
JOHNSON. 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.'

As time has passed and the legend of Boswell's biography has grown, its actual worth as a plain biography has decreased. At some point I will have to pick up an annotated version to fill in the gaps, because for all its brilliance, Boswell simply lacked many of the modern tools and possibilities that exist for a chronicler today. His early life of Johnson is sketchy, and on consideration it would seem that there are factual errors in other places. But that's just not the sort of biography this is. Boswell might have missed out on the color of Johnson's lampshades, but what he did capture was the man himself - live and in person, and ready to speak to you. Johnson lashes and roars and laughs, and at times you can almost smell the tavern air and feel the sting of a Johnsonian sneer.

On Friday, August 5, we set out early in the morning in the Harwich stage coach. A fat elderly gentlewoman, and a young Dutchman, seemed the most inclined among us to conversation. At the inn where we dined, the gentlewoman said that she had done her best to educate her children; and particularly, that she had never suffered them to be a moment idle.
JOHNSON. 'I wish, madam, you would educate me too; for I have been an idle fellow all my life.'
'I am sure, Sir, (said she) you have not been idle.'
JOHNSON. 'Nay, Madam, it is very true; and that gentleman there (pointing to me,) has been idle. He was idle at Edinburgh. His father sent him to Glasgow, where he continued to be idle. He then came to London, where he has been very idle; and now he is going to Utrecht, where he will be as idle as ever.'
I asked him privately how he could expose me so.
JOHNSON. 'Poh, poh! (said he) they knew nothing about you, and will think of it no more.'

You could do far worse than to treat yourself to a read of one of the best biographies ever written.


Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is one of the big names of the modern American literature scene - he's been on Oprah and The Simpsons. His first big success, The Corrections was remarkable for its clever writing and insight. I liked it very much. Freedom his follow-up, and I like it exactly as much as I liked its predecessor.

The two books have a lot of similarities. They're both written very well, of course: Franzen has amazing technical competence, although his style has a looseness that might have benefited from a harsher editing. The two novels swap around among a variety of perspectives, and both focus are of the popular Troubled American Family genre: a normal-seeming family is exposed, with all of its warts and hidden beauty held up for a close inspection.

They both also have their flaws. The Corrections was gut-wrenchingly pessimistic, and I came away from it with a sense of disquiet equal to my enjoyment. Freedom, on the other hand, began to drag in the middle as some of the characters became too exaggerated. For example, Walter Berglund, the pathologically pleasant and conscience-stricken left-liberal, verges dangerously close to caricature.

Despite this minor snag, Freedom is absolutely one you should check out. It's not earth-shaking, and it will be forgotten in twenty years, but its smattering of insight and its reminder that no one is ugly on the inside is worth your time.


Heaven Is for Real, Todd Burpo

After about ten pages of this ridiculous book, I started coming up with possible alternate titles.

  • Confirmation Bias Is for Real
  • My Four-Year-Old Son Agrees with Me So I Must Be Right
  • Heaven Is Exactly Like Sunday-School Illustrations

And of course:

  • How to Profit from Your Child

Pastor Todd Burpo once was having a pretty rough time. He had gone through a string of illnesses, and was coming up short for the medical bills. And just as things were starting to get better, his son Colton came down with a burst appendix. While he didn't die on the table, he was in severe danger as the surgeons removed the ruined flesh from his belly and cleaned out the ichor, and only got better by a seeming miracle.

It wasn't until months later that Colton began dropping casual references to Jesus and Heaven. But once he did, it wasn't too long before his pastor father started pulling details out of him, and discovering that Colton had a message for the world.

But hey, let's back up.

The story of Pastor Burpo's problems is boring. He breaks his leg playing softball, he has kidney stones, he gets breast cancer, and he can't work at his garage-door side business. It was enough to have his fellow pastors calling him "Pastor Job." It's exactly like hearing anyone else tell their tale of illness-related woe: it's kind of sad, but since it's written tediously (though competently) it's also hard to care. If someone corralled you at a party and told you this story, it's the kind of thing to which you'd listen patiently and reply with a heartfelt, "Oh, that's too bad. Um."

It isn't until about a third of the way into the text that we get an almost-dead young Colton, and the book becomes interesting. We get to watch the apparently earnest father and his young son work in tandem to create a story. They give us all the clues to how they accidentally fabricate an experience in their sincere and detailed story, and never realize it... it's like a reverse detective story, where everyone but the author can figure out the mystery. It is fascinating.

We learn early on that Todd Burpo is susceptible to all of the stranger ideas of an interventionist God. No blame for the bad things, just credit for the good things.

One morning in the beginning of December, Dr. O’Holleran called me at home with strange news: not only was the tissue [from the mastectomy] benign; it was entirely normal. Normal breast tissue. “I can’t explain why,” he said. “The biopsy definitely showed hyperplasia, so we would expect to see the same thing in the breast tissue removed during the mastectomy. But the tissue was completely normal. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how that happened.” I knew: God had loved me with a little miracle.

God could probably have saved time and suffering if he hadn't given Burpo a false positive on a biopsy in the first place. But God knows his stuff: he has the whole system rigged so that everything good is his doing and nothing bad is his fault. As Mr. Deity puts it:

"So you never answer prayers?"
"Well, there's just no incentive."

Burpo is committed to his faith. Absolutely and admirably committed. Even the weirdest elements of the Bible, like the gruesomely cruel parts of the Old Testament, don't faze Pastor Burpo. Most preachers like to skim over them - hit some Genesis, some Exodus, and some of the wisdom books, and then straight on to the New Testament and that good easy Jesus stuff. Not Burpo. When Colton is sick, they speed to the hospital. Amidst Burpo's anxiety, one of the most terrible stories of the Good Book occurs to him.

Behind me, Colton slumped lifelessly in his car seat, and his silence was louder than any sound I had ever heard. There is a story in the Bible about King David of Israel. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s trusted soldiers. Then, in an effort to cover up his sin, David sent Uriah to the front lines, where David knew he would be killed. Later, the prophet Nathan came to David and said, basically, “Look, God knows what you did, and here are the consequences of your sin: the child that you and Bathsheba have conceived will not live.”

Burpo doesn't sugar-coat the story, and his summation is the harsh truth that many pastors might try to skip around: God kills a man's child in retribution for sin. That is straight-up old-school Yahweh in action: a sickening bully who murders children as a punishment to their fathers. Just ask the children of the Egyptians, or the children of Jericho and Ai and Hittites and Canaanites and Perizzites and Hivites and Jebusites and Amalekites. The very fact that he is even contemplating that his son might be dying as a penalty for his sin shows that the man faces the Bible straight-on. He knows this stuff.

One weird thing is that as his son is dying, the Biblical analogy that occurs to Burpo is that of David and Bathsheba. It would seem more appropriate to return to Job. Just like Job, Burpo had suffered a string of illnesses and disasters. And now - again, just like Job - his child is being taken from him.

Perhaps it did occur to him to continue the analogy, but he decided not to do so. Because Burpo, unlike Job, dramatically fails this test. He commits one of the famously foolish mistakes of the Bible: he dares to question the actions of the Lord Almighty, an entity who is infamous for not putting up with that.

“Where are you? Is this how you treat your pastors?! Is it even worth it to serve you?” Back and forth, I paced the room, which seemed to close in on me, shrinking as surely as Colton’s options were shrinking. Over and over a single image assaulted me: Colton being wheeled away, his arms stretched out, screaming for me to save him. That’s when it hit me. We waited too long. I might never see my son alive again. Tears of rage flooded my eyes, spilled onto my cheeks. “After the leg, the kidney stones, the mastectomy, this is how you’re going to let me celebrate the end of my time of testing?” I yelled at God. “You’re going to take my son?”

His son gets better, of course. Don't worry. And Burpo repents of questioning God, even taking the dramatic step of later confessing his sin to a group of other pastors. He credits a prayer chain with saving his son's life, which naturally implies that if he hadn't gotten a bunch of people praying to his deity on behalf of Colton, then God might have killed the child. Curious.

A few months later, Colton starts dropping hints. He saw Jesus, he says. He was in Heaven. Just little things like that. It's not really much to pay attention to, Burpo thinks. That's until his son freaks out at a funeral. And that's when we really get into it. The reverse detective story, where we solve the crime that the author never even sees.

Suddenly, Colton’s face gathered into that same knot of intense concern. He slammed his fists on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, “Did that man have Jesus?!” Sonja’s eyes popped wide, and we both glanced at the sanctuary doorway, terrified the family inside could hear our son. “He had to! He had to!” Colton went on. “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!” Sonja grabbed Colton by the shoulders and tried to shush him. But he was not shushable. Now nearly in tears, Colton twisted in her arms and yelled at me, “He had to know Jesus, Dad!” ... Where was this sudden concern over whether a stranger was saved, whether he “had Jesus in his heart,” as Colton put it, coming from?

So, where could the son of Pastor Burpo have heard that it's important to die with Jesus in your heart?

You might think I'm making too much of this. But these little things are presented as evidence for Colton's divine experience. It is presented to us as impossible that a young boy could have such fervent and inexplicable knowledge of the necessity of accepting Jesus before death - unless he'd heard it from Jesus himself!

We of course, as a legion of skeptical Hercule Poirots, can see the immediate answer, even if Burpo doesn't see it himself. The child of a dedicated pastor, we hear that Colton is read Bible stories and religious messages every night and goes to Sunday School every week. The family's close friends are all in the church or pastors themselves. It would be surprising if young Colton hadn't gotten this core message of evangelical faith somewhere along the line.

But this isn't the real kicker. Burpo isn't fully convinced until he asks Colton about what the boy saw from Heaven. What were his parents doing while he was on the operating table and in the afterlife?

“You were in a little room by yourself praying, and Mommy was in a different room and she was praying and talking on the phone.” Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God.

The boy says, "You were praying." But Burpo hears a reference to an explicit and angry outburst towards his deity. It is a classic case of confirmation bias: Burpo hears a very vague answer, and interprets it into a specific description of an incident.

As for how Colton might have known that his father was praying, let's not forget that daddy is a pastor and probably prays several times a day with his son. And that's only if Colton hadn't already met the inevitable phrase: "We were praying for you."

I'm not saying that Colton was lying. But the boy was four. You can help a four-year-old convince himself of anything.

Anyway, from here on out, we're off to the races.

Just as I was processing the implications of my son’s statement — that he had met John the Baptist — Colton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at. “Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?” “A horse?” “Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. There’s lots of colors.”

That's a direct quote. I did not make it up. Burpo, at some point, remembered that conversation and what was going on. He thought about it and wrote it out in a rough draft, then later went back and edited. Maybe he edited it several times. Eventually, he sent it to the publisher.

At no point during this process did he notice the obvious: his son saw a toy in front of him and incorporated it into his idea of what had happened to him.

To us, it seems really blatant, especially the way it's phrased. The kid is playing around with his toys and talking to his daddy about going to Heaven, something that daddy has been really interested in. It was a weird thing that happened when the kid's tummy hurt and he was in that weird sleep. What else happened... there was a horsie, maybe, like this one here. Yes, there was definitely a horse. And... and it had a rainbow tail!

But to Burpo, his son was just reminded about the horse by the toy.

There's a chance, at one point, that Burpo will discover the reverse crime that's happening. He finds the equivalent of bloody fingerprints on the staircase. Big, stark fingerprints with every whorl and curve outlined in bright red:

Colton nodded. “Jesus gave me work to do, and that was my favorite part of heaven. There were lots of kids, Dad.” This statement marked the beginning of a period that I wished we had written down. During this conversation and for the next year or so, Colton could name a lot of the kids he said were in heaven with him. He doesn’t remember their names now, though, and neither do Sonja nor I.

So close! Guess those prints were just a red stain.

Nothing else verifiable ever occurs, either. When the kid claims to have seen his dead grandfather in the afterlife - a man he's never met - there's another opportunity.

“Colton, what did Pop look like?” He broke into a big grin. “Oh, Dad, Pop has really big wings!”

Ah, that's a shame.

There are a few other little things like that. For example, they show Colton lots of pictures of Jesus but none of them look quite right: until he sees a picture painted by another kid who "went to Heaven." Let it be known that Jesus is Caucasian with a full beard and big brown eyes, basically just the way all popular painters of the West have always painted him.

Only once does our bumbling hero Burpo look like he might start investigating. The butler's fingering a butcher knife, the balcony railing's been sawed halfway through, and there's a smoking revolver sitting on the hallway table... will Burpo notice?

[F]or the first time since he started talking about heaven, I intentionally tried to trip him up. “I remember you saying you stayed with Pop,” I said. “So when it got dark and you went home with Pop, what did you two do?” Suddenly serious, Colton scowled at me. “It doesn’t get dark in heaven, Dad! Who told you that?” I held my ground. “What do you mean it doesn’t get dark?” “God and Jesus light up heaven. It never gets dark. It’s always bright.” The joke was on me. Not only had Colton not fallen for the “when it gets dark in heaven” trick, but he could tell me why it didn’t get dark: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

As far as tricky questions go, or attempts to verify an account, this is the worst example I have ever seen.

You could ask what the problem with the whole thing might be: what harm does it do this boy or his father to believe that the child had a near-death experience of Heaven? If it makes him happy and lets him go through life with a little bit brighter of an experience, who am I to say that he has to try to destroy the illusion?

Helpfully, there's an excerpt that illustrates the problem.

“That’s a bunny who was trying to cross the street and didn’t make it,” I said. “That’s what can happen if you run out and a car doesn’t see you! You could not only get hurt; you could die!” Colton looked up at me and grinned over his cone. “Oh, good!” he said. “That means I get to go back to heaven!”

If you help a child convince himself that dying is desirable, you're not doing him any favors.

Colton's fantasy of Heaven, after all, sounds like a pretty fun one. It's a lot like the popular TV he watches. When he sees the Holy Spirit helping his father, he describes it as "shooting power down" - sort of like how Zolton would help send power to the Power Rangers. Everyone's flying around with wings and halos, and they're all young. He meets his sister, who was miscarried, and who looks just like his other sister, only smaller (golly).

Colton's Heaven often seems to be created from whatever happens to be in front of him. At one point, the family gets together and watches The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on DVD. They all love it, of course. And a few pages later, we see the movie show up when Colton and his father make up a little more fantasy in the unwitting child's memory. It's mashed together with the apocalypse the boy must have often heard described by his evangelical parents.

“There’s going to be a war, and it’s going to destroy this world. Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people. I saw it.” I thought of the battle described in the book of Revelation, and my heartbeat stepped up a notch. “How did you see that?” “In heaven, the women and the children got to stand back and watch. So I stood back and watched.” Strangely, his voice was sort of cheerful, as though he were talking about a good movie he’d seen. “But the men, they had to fight. And Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”

This book took me maybe an hour to read, even with the breaks to laugh or highlight a favorite passage. It is worth checking out, if only to see just how remarkably someone can fool themselves.

13 July 2011

An Amazon book review

I wrote a review of A Complete Guide to the Talossan Language: Second English Edition.

I own the first edition of the Guizua, and it is probably the best book there has ever been. No, that might be a little silly: it is definitely the best book there has ever been, or indeed that ever could be. I understand that there are some people who have not read it - not everyone has the means, although only the basest fool would not splurge their life savings on a copy - but what I cannot understand is that I have heard it said that some people may not WANT to read it. I attribute this only to scandalous rumor, told for titillation by baser elements of the populace to destabilize the world economy. More reassuringly, I have heard from reputable sources that several species have been actively studying higher brain function and basic symbol use, in the hopes that they might be able to glean some glimmer of understanding from a few letters of the Guizua. This seems more credible, I don't mind telling you.

Some have suggested there are flaws with the work. I am here to tell you that if there is a downside to the Guizua, it is that there still exist other books that are not the Guizua. My bookshelf is filled with them: Austen, Twain, Dickens... all now worthless, useful only to burn for light by which to read the Guizua. I was already burning my Ayn Rand, but now all the other tomes are stacked up to kindle a glow to allow me to delve into the Guizua all through the wee hours. Nothing casts illumination like a Complete Shakespeare, and it has no better purpose at this point!

Another flaw is that now I despise the trees. What was once a pleasant walk through the woods is now torture: I no longer see aspen and ash, oak and pine. All I see are rigid columns of unused wood pulp, useless in their solidity. How much better it would be, could we take an axe to every one, topple them all down and grind them up to make pages for the Guizua! Until then they are waste... odious and stupid thick trunks of nonsense, begging to be ground and dried and printed with the sweet words. It's actually tempting to get silly with such desires, but I urge you to join me in restraint, and avoid chopping up your furniture and shipping the chunks off to a paper mill - however much you might want to! - because you must have something on which to SIT to read your Guizua!

The book has, moreover, changed my life - almost every aspect of it. As I read my Guizua, I cram my face with food. Pies, burgers, pizza... anything I can get my hands on, I gulp down in hasty bites. The more calories, the better: I have drunk nothing but Mountain Dew for several weeks. It is necessary to grow large, and my expanding girth fills me with shivery anticipation. Even when I am reduced to raw handfuls of sugar from a sack, or the coagulated drippings from the bottom of the oven, I read my Guizua and smack my greasy lips in anticipation. One day soon, I will be large enough to have the book tattooed on my very flesh. Each word emblazoned on my body, for my loving and continual inspection as I gently massage myself to keep the skin supple and text perfect.

I have been inspired to plan for the future by this book, additionally. I know I cannot read the Guizua forever, barring some marvelous new invention to ensure immortality. One day, I will die, slumping forward on my Guizua, my fading vision straining to continue to at least the end of the paragraph. I can hope for some sort of afterlife, where countless billions are each permitted to huddle in blissful contemplation of their own copies, but how can I be sure? Accordingly, I have made arrangements to have the book read to my preserved corpse, in perpetuity. A team of youths will be paid minimum wage, with a rotating duo of managers to perform spot checks by video surveillance, to intone each lovely syllable to my body - which same carcass will be pumped full of a blend of formaldehyde and a fine slurry of Guizua pages that have been read until they were tattered into illegibility (a problem experienced by no few others!).

If you do not already own a copy, then I can only presume that you are trapped somewhere. You may be in an elevator, lurched off its track between floors, perusing this review on your Blackberry. Or perhaps you have been captured by a bear-trap, and are taking a break to read this review from your busy activity of gnawing your leg so you can get to a bookstore.

If you are in any other situation, then you must simply be a madman and the authorities will be informed.