Saturday, March 02, 2013

Capturing Non-Belief in Fiction

by Gary Berg-Cross

Interesting ideas can often be explored through the lens of fiction. If Huck Finn was an insightful character from the 19th century Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old protagonist of author J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is one from the 20th read in school.  Young Caulfield is widely recognized as a figure resistance to growing older in an irrational world manifest in an attempt to protect childhood innocence. As a 50s publication, catcher’s Holden quickly became an icon for estranged teenage rebellion and James Dean-style angst.  And, by the way along with Huck he seems very much a skeptical if not atheist figure. "Catcher" is very much about the detection of hypocrisy in American life and religion as Twain’s Huck found earlier in his trip down the river of American Culture. Religious piety about what is right and how to lead a good life is very much part of a hypocritical web. Twain, as discussed in Tom Flynn’s excellent The New Encyclopedia of UNBELIEF, held a Calvinist view of life and God as a trickster that spins a web that traps most of us in a personal hell on false belief.

Wikipedia has sort of a list of noted atheists and agnostics characters .”  in the broad category of “Fiction” who have, “either through self-admission within canon works or through admission of the character creator(s), been associated with a disbelief in a supreme deity or follow an agnostic approach toward religious matters.

It's mostly a list from TV and such.  For example, Kurt Hummel is listed from the musical comedy-drama Glee.  People like Dr. Allison Cameron  on House is obviously an example of a skeptical, free-thinking character. We might see more in pop culture as the Nones-way-of-life proceeds.

A bit more interesting is Rebecca Goldstein's (Steve Pinker’s wife) contemporary novel (36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)  This uses the New Atheism as a driver of contemporary issues such as celebrity and influence raised by the NA movement.

Goldstein's protagonist is Cass Seltzer, a psychology of religion prof who gets pulled into the spotlight by the surprise success of his book called, after William James, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Both Seltzer's fictional book and Goldstein's actual novel contain an appendix, -  36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The appendix is not actually an argument in support of god, and Matthew Goldstein (aka Explicit Atheist), often a blogger here, would have a field day in shooting down the arguments.  Maybe he has already.  These arguments are really more conversational points and the lightness of position (reflecting the lightness of what earns popularity in today’s culture) is partly what gives the Seltzer character his path to fame and media access- an atheist with a soul. It’s a bit like former Mayor Koch and the people I discussed in by blog “Do They Contradict Themselves?

Nobel Prize literature has some atheist and freethinker characters.  One is in Ferit Orhan Pamuk’s (aka Orhan Pamuk) early 80s work called Silent House. Pamik  is a multi-talented Turkish novelist/ screenwriter,  and received the Nobel Prize in Literature (2006). After winning his proze more of his work has been translated and getting reviews in English language outlets.  One of this is Silent House whose main character is a bitter, bereaving 90-year-old widow Fatma.  The silence of the book is about important issues that are not talked about directly.  The story takes place somewhere in Turkey's violent summer of 1980. The Turkish Armed Forces were about to restored order via a coup after violence had broken out between right-leaning nationalists and communists. This coup was to transform Turkey from its fading economic to a more explicit secular if very military state.  

Pamuk uses a house locale and a ritual summer visit from grandchildren to hold up a bit of mirror about the noisy, dissipation and dissonance of Turkey in that era of political and cultural change. As one reviewer noted Fatma's life is, “just like her house, isn't silent. Instead, it's pensive and nearly bursting with lament, shame, sadness, and squashed hopes.“ The widow Fatma herself is silent about the deeper things but bemoans the outer disorder:

When all that horrible hullabaloo lets up, when all that noise coming from the beach, the motorboats, the wailing kids, the drunken cursing, the songs, radios, and televisions, quiet down, and the last car goes screaming past, I slowly get up from my bed and stand just behind my shutters listening to the outdoors: nobody's there, they're all exhausted and have gone to sleep.

Fatma's shushing, keep-the-world and its problems out of here is a great part of the silence, it is her deceased husband, Selahattin the local doctor that is the atheist, intellectual voice that speaks through her. It is some of his political, rational and intellectual hopes that have been squashed and silenced.  We learn of this family patriarch as Fatma recalls him to us wile alone in her bedroom. Her monologues ruminate on their joint past and we learn that Selahattin has been exiled from Istanbul for his leftist politics. Madden the doctor doubles down on a self-and-family-destruct course by proclaiming (Nietzsche style) that God dead. For good measure he throws in darts about Eastern vs. Western/scientific values. 

Isolated in an illiberal backwater and fortified by drink, Selahattin dedicates himself to an encyclopedic task – comprehensively rewriting the world to bring secularism and the scientific method to the Turks. It’s doomed to failure and passes on the burden to  grandson Faruk, who following his grandfather (and father) in working on a manuscript whose goal is to disprove the existence of God, offer a rational if reductionist explanation of Turkey and the universe too.

The shape of the atheist doctor’s struggles is somewhat familiar from other fiction.  It is like a Russian novel (Turgenev was apparently an influence).  But his shadow casts a feeling some of us may recognize even in the West that he idolizes a relative bit.  And perhaps we see some of the doctor's questions echoed when groups of free thinkers meet in the 21st century . We wonder why science has yet to triumph over various hardened forms of superstition. We may wonder why there passive acceptance of much that is wrong and be improved on.  We may identify with lonely pioneers who struggle to organize thought around them and reason things out in times when intellect is sequestered by ignorance a conventions of hypocrisy.

For a review of “Silent house”  see Marie Arana, in WaPO October 08, 2012


No comments: