Thursday, 17 July 2014

LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything BARBARA EHRENREICH

LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Granta, 2014, 237 pages, $xx.yy (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

What are we to make of the latest book by Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer of wit, clarity and insight, proud to count herself a socialist, feminist, atheist and scientist, who concludes that her teenage ‘mystical’ experiences with some sort of ‘living Presence’, ‘higher Consciousness’ or ‘mysterious Other’ were real encounters with another dimension, beyond the scope of rational analysis?  Not that much, alas.

Ehrenreich is no “New Age fluffhead” - spirituality is “a crime against reason” especially to one “born to atheism” by parents “who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms” - but her ‘transcendent’ adventures in the 1950s have prompted a late-life rethink of her intellectual roots.

She dismisses the explanatory materialist candidates for her “aberrant mental phenomena” - sleep deprivation, hypoglycaemia, faulty perceptual processing of sensory data, optical illusion, dissociative disorders, impaired  neuronal wiring.

She rejects the hypothesis that the “fabric of space-time was doing just fine” and the problem might be with her internal psychology.  As a good scientist, she does not write off anomalous data like her too-strange-to-be-forgotten experiences, but she opts for the scientifically incredible (mysticism) over the scientifically simple (neuroscience) with her operating assumption that there is something out there,  an animistic force emanating from “conscious beings that normally elude our senses”, a power which is, moreover, “seeking us out”.

This stance has only come about in the last decade, after Ehrenreich’s long immersion in sixties-inspired politicisation and scholarly investigation when she saw her “perceptual wanderings” as a petit-bourgeois “distraction from political activism”.  Now, with the decline of the left  into long, navel-gazing meetings “in windowless conference rooms”, she has re-embraced her illicit ‘mystical’ past.

Ehrenreich has declared that she will never write her life story.  This is a great pity because her current memoir would then have been a more digestible, condensed chapter on, say, ‘Neuroscience and the Teenage Mystic’ whilst the tantalising glimpses of the rest of her wonderful life would elaborate on how her political radicalisation tore apart the “façade of everyday normality” to reveal, not some metaphysical power, but the very real, “ongoing, inexcusable cruelty” of the powerful in human society.

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