Monday, June 12, 2006

If I Founded a Religion

If I founded a new religion, it would be like one of those novels in which the protagonist struggles, yet in the end sees a new and better life ahead, one wrought by a transformation full of insight.

What do I mean? Let's see ...

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, mile-high military absurdity ends in the quiet triumph of a secondary character who succeeds, in an uncanny, unbelievably impossible way, at finding a path out of war. The story ends with the reader's laughter at the thought that all is possible. Pity Heller had only one good novel in him -- but, hey, that's more than most of us.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams have a similar breakout feel to them. Whether it's escaping Nurse Ratched or humdrum life on this planet, both transport the reader to new possibilities. Of course, On The Road by Jack Kerouac does the Route 66 version.

Considerably less action packed, the tale of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, lends itself to a cinematic happy ending as Franco Zeffirelli discovered in making his 1996 adaptation.

Then there's the ironic touch of Fifth Business, the first of the Deptford trilogy by Canadian writer Robertson Davies. I was reading this novel the day my younger son was born. The entire trilogy is a deeply Jungian exploration suitable, of course, for religious mythmaking. Although there isn't a happy ending, the final insight turns the story inside out, leaving that "to be continued ..." feel of a good myth that never really ends.

I closed the book, called the hospital and learned that mother and son were well.

But perhaps the style of mythmaking I like best is that of John Irving. I particularly liked The Hotel New Hampshire, which was poorly received by critics, and The World According To Garp, the novel that made him rich. All of Irving's novels have a gentle ironic humor as his plots pile on a cast of oddballs in situations that are often grotesque -- as life really is.

But the pain is always meaningful, even though rarely in the way those who inflict it think it is, and, again counterintuitively to the conventional thinker, the pain often leads to conversion and redemption, as in the beloved work A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Why haven't I launched a religion, then ...? That's easy.

I find that I am more often than not mired at the beginning of my plot (and humanity's, really), or too far from that final insight. Or else I am at the end of reality, with nowhere to go, as in trummer-literatur (rubble literature) of my favorite author, Heinrich Böll.

A Nobel laureate, Böll was a German Catholic whose pacifist family was resolutely opposed to the Nazis. Unlike the present pope, Böll managed to avoid enrollment in the Hitler Youth; but even Böll could not avoid being drafted into the Wehrmacht (army).

He was sent to fight in Russia, where he was wounded (inspiration for the novella "The Train Was On Time," which revolves around the thoughts of a soldier returning to his unit on the Eastern Front). He was rotated to the fortifications of France and was captured during the Normandy invasion. Eventually he was repatriated to his native city of Köln, then bombed out, much as the settings of so many of his stories and novels.

Indeed, his "last" novel was his first, "The Silent Angel," published nine years after his death. The work is set in an unnamed smoldering German city right after defeat in May 1945; an army deserter, Hans Schnitzler, searches the widow of his fallen comrade Willy to give her the man's greatcoat, which contains an important note in its pocket.

An excerpt:

The priest was startled to see a figure suddenly rise before him, his thin yet swollen face grimaced nervously, and he clutched his hands around the thick hymnal.

"I beg your pardon," said Hans. "Could you give me something to eat?"

His gaze wandered across the priest's sloping shoulders, past his large ears, to the square in front of the church: old trees in bloom, their trunks half buried in rubble.

"Of course," he heard the priest say. The voice was hoarse and weak, and now he looked at him. He had a peasant's face, thin and strong, a thick nose, and remarkably beautiful eyes.

"Of course," he said again. "Will you wait here?"

"Yes." Hans sat down again. He was amazed. He'd made the request because it occurred to him that the priest would have to try to help him, but he was amazed to find that someone actually existed who would agree without hesitation to give him something to eat.

I find we are all similarly stunned.


Titmouse said...

I have been similarly stunned once or twice only. Yes is a powerful word.

Anonymous said...

To sum up the "new" religion you propose:
- transformation to a new and better life
- all is possible, even in adversity
-new possibilities
-happy end
-to be continued
-pain always meaningful , leads to conversion and redemption
- to give others something to eat

looks like a religion that already exists, Christianism. So, nothing new.