January 29, 2015
Guest: Jack Miles
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you were editing a collection of texts representing the major living world religions, which religions would you choose? That's just one of the many questions that Jack Miles faced as the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions." The religions he and his co-editors decided to include are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. The anthology includes ancient, primary text as well as ancient and contemporary interpretations. It even includes essays by people who lost their faith or who make the case for secular life.
In Miles's preface to the anthology, he writes that he thinks the book will be rewarding, even for those who, quote, "practice no religion, those who are spiritual but not religious and those who count themselves critics or antagonists of religion," unquote. Jack Miles spent 10 years as a Jesuit seminarian and is now a professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "God: A Biography" and "Christ: A Crisis In The Life Of God."
Jack Miles, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you decided you and your co-editors decided to include Judaism, Christianity Islam, Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism. I think it goes without saying you'd include Judaism, Christianity, Islam and probably Buddhism. Daoism and Hinduism, you know...
JACK MILES: Actually, there are - actually, Judaism is a question as well. And I'll tell you why.
GROSS: Oh, why?
MILES: The criterion that I developed for inclusion is in this anthology was major, living and international. Now major is principally defined demographically by the number of practitioners. So Judaism conceivably could be eliminated as having too few practitioners. But for other grounds, not just its enormous intrinsic interest, but also because you cannot begin to understand either Christianity or Islam, the two largest religions in the world demographically, without understanding Judaism, it had to be included. Hinduism also is the major religion of the second-most populous nation and the world, and India is about to overtake China in population. That will happen within our lifetimes.
GROSS: I think a lot of Westerners think of the world's great religions as being the monotheistic religions, basically Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Hinduism, which you include in the "Norton Anthology," is a polytheistic religion. And I think it's difficult for a lot of Westerners to comprehend a religion that has several gods.
MILES: Well, I'm sure it is, although the world is very complicated, isn't it? And those who worship only one God are required to attribute absolutely everything that happens to that one god. This is the origin of all those questions that begin, how could a good god allow Auschwitz, for example?
Well, if you have a bad god competing with your good god, it becomes simple for you, doesn't it? The bad god gives you Auschwitz. The good god gives you those heroes who rescued Jews from Auschwitz, escorted them to the West or what have you. And it goes on from there. You can have a patron god of writing, a patron god of childbirth. You can represent the variety of human experience with a god for every heading. The color and pleasure, you might say, the delight of Greek mythology is that that's exactly what the Greeks did. In Greek mythology, it certainly has had a long standing appeal in the West. So Hindu polytheism can as well.
GROSS: Could you argue that there's polytheism hiding in Christianity because Satan exists? You don't worship Satan. But he's not a mortal. He's not a person. He - you know, Satan's presence is...
MILES: I would see that as...
GROSS: ...Kind of in the realm of God. Maybe I'm misrepresenting that?
MILES: No, no. I don't think so. You're - I would go beyond that, yes, to the extent that Satan is a figure who's believed - whose reality is believed in, whose power is believed in. You have all the excitement then of conflict, God fighting Satan. It makes the stories much more exciting if you can allow there to be a worthy opponent facing the god on whom you are placing your bet.
But there's another form - a very familiar form - of quasi-polytheism in Western Christianity, and that is the whole population of the saints. And you were - once, there were gods of various activities. Now there are patron saints, of even journalism, I think. There is a patron saint of journalism whom you and I can love.
GROSS: I didn't know that. (Laughter).
MILES: But I can't remember offhand who it is.
GROSS: No, but it's true. I mean, some people will kind of pray to the saint who is responsible for things that are lost or...
MILES: Yes. My mother was very sure that her mother was in heaven. She was so saintly. And though she wouldn't bother, for example, the Blessed Virgin Mary with a lost object, she would say three Hail Mary's. The Hail Mary is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin. She would say those in honor of her mother and ask her mother to help her find the lost object. And this became a common practice among my brothers and sisters and myself, and we've passed it on to our friends and (laughter) there seems to be some evidence that it works. But I'm not going to stake my scholarly reputation on that.
GROSS: (Laughter). All right. You've edited the "Norton Anthology Of World Religions" at a time when there are religious conflicts raging. And certainly, there are extremist, militant Islamists who are fighting other Muslims and who are trying to fight the West, who are attacking cartoonists, beheading journalists. You know, killing cartoonists. And some people quote passages of the Quran out of context and say, see? This passage shows that Islam is an inherently violent religion. What would you say to them?
MILES: I would say that there are some Muslims who do quote such passages and who use them to justify violence. But it is as important that there are more Muslims who know the passages are there, but do not quote them and do not use them to justify violence.
In the book of Joshua, which is a part of the Hebrew Bible and therefore also a part of the Christian Bible, the Lord commands the army - the invading army of Israel - to exterminate the Canaanites who then live in the area that has been designated as the Promised Land for God's chosen people. And this extermination includes men, women, children, sometimes even beasts. It's a scorched-earth ethnic cleansing. But we don't think of either Judaism or Christianity as inherently murderous because those passages are included in their scriptures.
So Islam needn't be inherently violent because something violent is in its scripture. Everything depends on what an individual Muslim does with the received text. And I would say that to be sure, there is a broad but shallow stratum of Muslims over the world who are prepared to attempt to impose their understanding of Islam, first on all of their fellow Muslims and then on the rest of the world. This is, I stress, a shallow stratum. But the fact that a problem is a minority problem does not mean that it is not a serious problem. It is a serious problem, and there are Muslims who are attempting to address it.
GROSS: So your point is you can take passages of the Bible out of context and make it seem like, whoa, that's an inherently violent religion.
MILES: That's true. You can. And there have been...
GROSS: And there certainly have been wars fought over Christianity.
MILES: There have indeed. And we have a whole section in the Christianity anthology of the "Norton Anthology" devoted to the Christian wars of religion, pitting Protestants against Catholics. In the 17th century, that was a time when one side's murderers were martyrs to it and the other side's martyrs were murderers. We have a little section entitled "Dueling Martyrdoms." People were put to death for being Protestant if the ruler was Catholic and vice versa.
Christianity came to the end of that period with a kind of exhaustion, I think. And that exhaustion was a contributing factor in the birth of the Enlightenment. From that point on, people died for the nation. They didn't die for the faith anymore. But it was a kind of progress that they didn't kill for the faith. That was really something new because up until that point, this was far from unthinkable. It was widely practiced.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jack Miles and he's the editor - the general editor - of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jack Miles. He's the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions" which includes ancient text as well as many commentaries and interpretations of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.
What's your understanding of the Islamic prohibition against depicting - visually depicting the Prophet Muhammad?
MILES: My understanding of the prohibition - which is not Quranic, by the way - my understanding is that depictions of animals and human beings were so associated in the Muslim mind with idolatry that if Muhammad had been depicted, the risk existed that people would begin to idolize him, to worship him. And so this was to prevent that from happening and make sure that Muslims remembered that Muhammad was only God's messenger, he was not God's incarnate. That said, it should be noted that Muhammad has been depicted by Muslim artists at various points in Muslim history.
GROSS: You know, I was brought up Jewish and told that you don't write GOD, you don't write the word God - you do G-D. And I was told when I was young that that's because you know, God is so great, God is so pure. You wouldn't want a piece of paper with the word GOD written on it to be thrown in the trash. So rather than, like, fully depict the word, you use the hyphen instead of the O. And then I thought as I got older, well, maybe that G-D thing is because you know, God is so unknowable that you can't pretend to really have a name or a word describing it, so G-D is a better approximation then GOD.
What's your understanding of the G-D thing? And I don't - and I'm wondering if you see any connection. And I'm not implying at all that there's a connection between not writing G-D and you know, extremist militant Muslims killing cartoonists who depicted the Prophet Muhammad, but just in a more kind of intellectual, general way.
MILES: There is a connection between that practice and the practice of not depicting Muhammad. Those two things are really rather closely related. The practice of not depicting Muhammad is, you might say, the second stage in the practice of not attempting to depict God in any way. It didn't occur to the Muslims that writing Allah might seem to be creating something that could be turned into a fetish or an idol or representation of God. But that idea did occur to the Jews and that the word God might somehow be given magical powers. So that by saying this word - God, God, God - you might be able to make something magical happen. Rather than allow that possibility, the word was turned into an unpronounceable word, and then from unpronounceable to un-writable. And the G-D thing that you grew up with was of course a translation. And the proper name of God, Yahweh (ph), as scholars have reconstructed it when written in four letters in Hebrew, was punctuated with vowels - as Hebrew proceeds to do - in a way that invited you to say another word, Adonai (ph), instead of the word Yahweh. So you came up with a - as it were, a secular or less holy substitute word to say instead of that. I've often wondered when reading G-D in text written by my Jewish colleagues how I would handle that word if I were reading it alone. Would I say and so, G-D said? Or would I say, and so - I mean, one practice is to say Hashem (ph), the name. And so rather than say the name, you say simply the phrase the name.
GROSS: So Hashem translates to the words the name?
MILES: The name. That's what Hashem means. It means the name. And Catholics do not believe that they worship their statues, the statues that once were so frequent in Catholic churches - they're not so frequent anymore, but - they never worshiped them. They were used to inspire you. They were used to remind you of historical incidents and so forth. But one could be suspicious of that practice. And one has certainly seen certain statues being carried as if the power rested in the statue, rather than in God, whom the statue is intended to remind you of.
GROSS: I wonder what it was like for you to watch the story of the French cartoonists who were murdered by militant Islamist extremists who thought that the cartoonists were...
MILES: Making war on Islam.
GROSS: ...Making war on Islam by depicting the Prophet Muhammad. And you know, you're studying the world's religions. You're editing this - you've edited this "Norton Anthology Of World Religions," and to see that kind of perversion of the intention of not depicting the Prophet - what's it been like for you to watch?
MILES: Well, I've been watching, you might say, the whole thing. There was the atrocity itself - the mass murder - and there was the enormous French reaction and the sign, Je Suis Charlie. And France, you know, has a large Muslim minority, which unlike the Muslim minority in the United States, is concentrated in a single ethnic group. Most of the Muslims of France come from the same North African area that was colonized by France. And unlike the Muslims of the United States, the Muslims of France are often unemployed, ghettoized, suffering various kinds of social pathology or disability. So this is a very serious domestic problem in France. And I appreciate the problem - the challenge that they face.
But Je Suis Charlie has a double meaning. For the millions of demonstrators saying I am Charlie meant, you think you've killed Charlie Hebdo but let me tell you - I'm still here. You haven't killed me and you'll have to kill all of us if you want to kill off the French spirit of wit and satire and total freedom of speech. Who can disagree with that, you think. But the cartoons that had to do with Islam, you know, portraying a naked Muhammad writhing on his belly and asking the observer, do you like my butt? Cartoons like that seem to say to Muslims, Charlie Hebdo despises you - we despise your prophet and we despise you. And so when all of France rises up and says, I am Charlie Hebdo, all of France seems to be rising up and saying to the Muslims, we too despise you, we too scorn you just as the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo did.
And you have to recognize that this is a metaphor and metaphors are always subject to more than one interpretation, and here are two perfectly clear, perfectly reasonable, but fatally contradictory interpretations.
GROSS: Jack Miles will be back in the second half of the show. He's the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions" and is a professor of English and religious studies at the University of California Irvine. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jack Miles, the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions." It covers Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, and includes primary texts, as well as commentary. Miles is a former Jesuit who spent 10 years as a seminarian, becoming a scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, "God: A Biography." When we left off, we were talking about the Islamic prohibition against depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and we were discussing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the Islamist extremists who murdered the French cartoonists.
You're an editor. Just curious, like, if you were faced with a decision of whether or not to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, would you publish them? And if you - would you publish certain ones, but not others?
MILES: You know, I'm an American, and we have a powerful tradition of pluralism in our country. And the American tradition of pluralism - the American necessity of having people of various ethnicities and religions living in large numbers, cheek by jowl - has given us a different kind of courtesy - a different sense of propriety than operates in France. David Brooks did a column in The New York Times, of which I approved, in the days immediately following. He said, to an American looking at the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, that the initial reaction would be, how juvenile, how puerile. These are, like, naughty cartoons - yes, insulting. Yes, intended to wound, but we would kind of look down on them as a journalism of a bad taste that we, ourselves, would not be guilty of. Taste, you know, propriety, courtesy - these are not laws. They're unwritten laws, but they do matter for the living of a society.
So when it comes to laws imposed by government on journalists, I'm a free-speech absolutist. And yes, as a journalist, of course I could feel the same impulse to say je suis Charlie and put the button on my own lapel, but as an American, recognizing that we have accomplished something in our country by a certain - the delicate abstentions that we make. I'm happy to say happy holidays in mixed religious company rather than merry Christmas, which is more religious. I love Christmas. I love saying merry Christmas. And I always say it, you know, to members of my family and all my Christian friends, but I don't feel it's too much to ask of me, in a kind of mood of interreligious courtesy, to say happy holidays instead. That principle, operating, could have brought about a restraint. Had it done so, France would be having greater success in managing its own pluralism than I believe it's likely to have in the months ahead.
GROSS: Does the existence of the six religions that you include in your anthology say to you, that means that human beings are wired for religion? The fact that we have these six ancient religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Daoism and Buddhism, does that make the case we're wired for religion?
MILES: It's certainly a part of such a case if one wanted to make one. There was something called the modernization thesis, which was that as modernity progressed and societies advanced in things like hygiene, education, individual rights and so forth, religion would naturally fade away. But it hasn't happened. And there's more sympathy now, even in the most scientific circles, for the existence of something in the human cerebral makeup that inclines us to something like religion. Much of the time, I believe, it isn't called religion, but I don't put too much stock, you know, in, for example, the fact that more people now check none when asked, in the United States, to state their religion because more people also state Independent when asked for their political party or shrug their shoulders and say, I have no political affiliation. It doesn't mean they don't care about politics. It just means that they don't like being organized into anything. All organizational activity in our country is in a state of kind of decline, I believe.
So the case is strong that there's something there. For me, the deepest ground for religion is the final mystery of the world - that if you were attempting to live your life in a totally rational way, you'd break down. A point is reached where you have to keep going, but you can't keep going with totally rational procedures.
GROSS: A lot of people now kind of pick and choose from different religions or from within their own religion what they want to believe, what they want to practice - what rituals to practice. And you spent 10 years, I believe, as a Jesuit seminarian, and now you're a professor of English and religious studies and the author of books. So are you - and you also - you changed religions (laughter).
MILES: Yes, I did.
GROSS: You went from...
MILES: Like, 40 percent of Americans have changed religion once in their life.
GROSS: Yeah, so you went from, you know - you were raised Roman Catholic. You were a Jesuit seminarian. Now you're Episcopalian. So let's start with why you jumped religions.
MILES: So the turning point for me came in 1968 with the publication of a papal encyclical by Paul VI, entitled "Humanae Vitae." The Catholic Church had expected that there might be a liberalization in the church's policy on artificial birth control. It was known that the pope had convened a special commission to look into this. It had psychologists, doctors, philosophers, theologians - all relevant expertise assembled. And its findings were leaked, and it recommended the liberalization that had been expected, but the pope issued an encyclical, reinstating the blanket ban on all forms of artificial birth control.
Today, Catholics practice artificial birth control in just about, to the percentage point, to the same amount as all other Americans. So the result of this has been an undermining of papal prestige and papal authority for Catholics. But what the effect of it was for me, was to ask what, of Roman Catholic Christianity, was available only in the Roman Catholic Church, and not available in some other form of Christianity. And asking that question, I found my way to the Episcopal Church, whose rituals are very much identical with those of the Roman Catholic Church, but whose morality is more accommodating in this area.
GROSS: Did you find that something fundamental shifted in your identity when you changed religions? I mean, you didn't change that drastically. I mean, it's still Christianity. Episcopalian is close in, you know, the Catholic...
MILES: There was - you know, it's a good question in a way you're probably not anticipating. I'm also Irish by descent. I have relatives in Northern Ireland who were imprisoned by the British.
GROSS: I didn't know that.
MILES: And one might think - and one would be - would have been right - for a long period of my life, that I was very fearful and suspicious when dealing with English people, and had the practice of my religion and the fact of my ethnicity in a kind of fusion.
Once I made this break, I discovered I was, you might say, free to discover how casual about all this my Irish cousins were. They were intermarried with Protestants. They saw the conflict in Northern Ireland in political terms rather than religious terms. And after Ireland joined the EU and achieved a higher per capita income than the United Kingdom, they were simply no longer interested in fighting the old fights - that is, those in the Republic weren't. But even cousins in Northern Ireland really weren't. And I think my own religious shift loosened me up enough that I could see that, so that was a significant change.
GROSS: Did you feel called when you became a seminarian?
MILES: I thought I did. I recognized, after some years in the order, having now become a world traveler and a Harvard Ph.D., that what had attracted me, as a boy from a lower-working-class background where no one went to college and where the horizons were generally confined to the immediate neighborhood - I didn't see the ocean until I joined the Jesuits - I was attracted by the Jesuits as an international organization. And I was attracted by the very notion of career that they had - intellectual career. This was thrilling to me. And I took Catholicism easily because I'd been raised Catholic. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be a Catholic.
But there was a something inauthentic about it. I had joined, really, for these secular reasons. Once that became clear to me a decade later, I had a choice to make. I could, in a way, rejoin the Jesuits now in full awareness of what the commitment would entail, or I could ask to be released from my vows. And that's what I did. That's how the Jesuits do it, by the way. If you want to quit the order, you ask for them to fire you. But they always do. They don't want anyone in the order who doesn't want to be Jesuit with his whole heart.
GROSS: Did they act like, we're so disappointed in you that you're leaving?
MILES: Undoubtedly, there was a degree of sadness because they had high hopes for me, but there was no recrimination. Honestly, there was not a syllable of that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jack Miles. He's the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jack Miles. He's the general editor of the new "Norton Anthology Of World Religions." He's also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "God: A Biography." Let me quote something that you've written. You said, religion seems to me to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge, and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance. I'm going to ask you to elaborate a little bit on that.
MILES: Yes. Well, for me, religion certainly is a ritualized confession of ignorance. If faith were knowledge, we wouldn't really need faith. We would simply make do with our knowledge. But knowledge is always incomplete. Even the greatest elaborations of science - and I'm as a susceptible to their mesmerizing quality as anybody else is - finally are incomplete. We don't know how far short they fall, and so the questions still remain. If we're going to have something like practical certainty, a way of going forward and answering the practical questions of our life, we can't do it that way. We need something else. Most of those who do it call that something else religion, but a large minority doesn't have a word for it or calls it philosophy or calls it something else. That's what I mean then by that statement that you quoted. It opens a door to the inclusion of religion among the coping mechanisms that humans employ to deal with their own ignorance.
GROSS: In spite of the fact that you think religion is a ritualized confession of ignorance, one of the things that religion either tries to answer or just tries to help people cope with is death, the knowledge that they will die and the knowledge that those they love will die and the reality that those who they love have died. So in reading the great texts of the world's religions as you were editing the "Norton Anthology Of World Religions," did you come across anything in any of the text that you were reading from the six religions included in the anthology that helped you gain a new understanding of death or helped you gain more kind of equanimity in dealing with the knowledge that you will die and that those you love will die?
MILES: I have something new in my life, new, I would say, as of the past decade or so. And I have been working on this really for even more than seven years, going on eight years. But remarkably, it isn't one of the text in this vast anthology that I think of first but rather something that has come to me from reading in science. It seems that we cannot know what life is until we know the entirety of what the universe is including dark matter, dark energy, the possibility of multiple universities where different physical...
GROSS: Universes, yeah.
MILES: ...Universes where different physical laws obtain. And certainly, we understand death as the deprivation of life. But if we don't really understand what life is, then we don't understand what the deprivation of life is. So that means that death itself, which is taken sometimes to be the one certainty, to me is not a certainty. It's a mystery. It doesn't mean that I believe in some naive way that the afterlife is like a penthouse above this life and that I'm going to meet mommy and daddy and, you know, my pet dog, Sparky, and so forth. That's not the way I think about it at all. But I do think as in Rabelais's famous final words, je pars pour les grand peut-etre. I part for the great maybe. I leave this world for the great maybe.
GROSS: It's interesting after (laughter) editing this huge anthology of the world's religions, you're turning to science for your understanding of death, or for your willingness to...
MILES: I will say.
GROSS: ...Accept the mystery of life and death.
MILES: Let me put it just a little differently. But the difference is quite important to me. Yes, this infusion of scientific reflection is crucial for me personally. But what it does is make it possible for me to read all of those many texts that do address death in different religious ways and that propose a way to make peace with it with a new tolerance so that even if I cannot accept the implicit understanding of the physical universe that is there, I can recognize that this, on the part of the person who wrote, was a way of acknowledging that something about death is mysterious and that we don't entirely control what it is.
GROSS: And you will have the rituals of your faith to fall back on when someone you know dies.
GROSS: Someone you deeply care about, and that will...
MILES: I mean I'm...
GROSS: ...That will be of great comfort to you, I assume. That is one of the reasons to have religion in your life.
MILES: You know, I've gone to a great many secular memorial services and they have their own integrity and I participate in them very willingly. But I want my own memorial service to be the straight, down-the-line, Episcopal funeral service with traditional hymns and traditional prayers. That expresses for me a continuity with the past, a respect for the past, a recognition that whatever I think I know now is going to be superseded in the future and it may even be that things that we know now will be lost in the future. I have no confidence that the world that awaits us - given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat - is a world of ever-increasing knowledge and near approximation to the truth. We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows? So it's for that reason that I like the thought of reaching deep into the past at the moment of my own obsequy is my own death ritual.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for sharing some of your reflections with us.
MILES: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Jack Miles is the general editor of the "Norton Anthology Of World Religions" and is a professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Rachel Cusk's new novel about a divorce. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Writer Rachel Cusk, who lives in the U.K., may be best known to readers on both sides of the Atlantic for her memoir "A Life's Work," which took an unsentimental view of motherhood and is regarded as one of the first of the bad mommy confessionals. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Cusk's latest book, a novel about divorce, also pushes back against convention - not so much in its sentiments, but in its form. Here's her review of "Outline."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The narrator of Rachel Cusk's new novel, "Outline," is a novelist and divorced mother of two who's agreed to teach a summer course in creative writing in Athens. The novel itself is composed of some 10 conversations that she has with, among others, her seatmate on the plane flying to Greece, her students in the writing class, dinner companions and fellow teachers.
As a premise for a novel, the series-of-conversations idea initially sounded contrived to me - little more than an arty writing exercise that the narrator herself might assign to her students. Instead though, "Outline," in the most seemingly effortless way imaginable, winds up being completely captivating - the conversations are autobiographies in miniature - with all the holes, lies and self deceptions lurking in that wily form.
Cusk's narrator, unnamed until the final pages of this novel, is the uber-listener. Obliquely, we readers come to understand that she's recovering - or not - from the trauma of a divorce, and listening is the most dynamic activity she seems capable of. Her surgical commentary on other people's chatter reminds me of the way The New Yorker's Janet Malcolm can peel apart an innocent comment, exposing the psychic mess of desires and contradictions roiling within.
We readers get acquainted with our narrator's habit of dissecting even the most mundane remarks in the opening pages of "Outline" when she boards the plane to Athens, buckles herself into her seat and begins reflecting on the weirdness inherent in the standard recorded safety spiel. Here's the narrator's skeptical take on a moment almost everyone has sat through but few of us have questioned.
(Reading) We were strapped into our seats - a field of strangers in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. The flight attendant showed us the life jacket with its little pipe, the oxygen mask dangling from a length of tubing. She led us through the possibility of death and disaster as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell. When the recorded voice came to the part about the oxygen masks, no one protested or spoke up to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself - yet I wasn't sure if it was altogether true.
That snippet should also give you a taste of the narrator's dark, droll humor. She's a person who's been wounded and she tends to expect the worst. Her seatmate, a much divorced older Greek bachelor, launches into a monologue about his failed marriages. I confess, I was entertained by his story - even charmed. I even began naively anticipating, for the length of a page or two, that "Outline" might turn into another kind of novel - the kind where the narrator and this older man begin an affair.
But this is a novel about language, not love, a novel whose appeal is more to the head than the heart. So it is that our narrator begins picking apart her seatmate's story as though she has a mental red pen at the ready, circling probable falsehoods and forcing the bachelor to good-naturedly admit that he might have been somewhat biased in his account of his failed marriages. The narrator's attentiveness to words makes her an excellent writing teacher, but perhaps not a likely candidate for romance and its necessary fictions.
As you'd expect in a novel so obsessed with language, Cusk's own writing is a pleasure to read - unfailingly precise and surprising. An older woman in the narrator's writing class is described as possessing a demolished beauty that she wore quite regally. A fellow novelist whose family back in Ireland refuses to acknowledge his work ruefully tells our narrator that, (reading) your failures keep returning to you. Your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of.
Almost every page of "Outline" contains at least a phrase like that to savor. The ultimate and undeniably cerebral pleasure of "Outline" is that it nudges you into being a more attentive reader and listener - more alert to the cracks in sentences and the messier realities that words can only try to contain.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Outline" by Rachel Cusk. If you'd like to listen to us on your own schedule, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or your podcast phone app.
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