FICTION: Enlightened Partisans
Roland Merullo, American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics (Algonquin, 2008)
Tom Savage, Brainlifts (Straw Gate, 2008)
It’s interesting to pick up two books, both on the same topic, both fighting on the same side, that come from different powers in the publishing world—one a mainstream work, Roland Merullo’s novel American Savior, published by the mighty Algonquin; the other an avant-garde production, Tom Savage’s Brainlifts, released by the tiny, yet noble Straw Gate Books.
I say “fighting on the same side” because over the last few decades, Fundamentalist Christians have pushed religion and its pet issues into politics, replacing economics and foreign affairs as the dominant voter concerns. So now, anyone who writes about religion does so as a partisan.
This discussion is of particular significance in Merullo’s novel, which presents the following scenario: Jesus returns to earth, appears in Connecticut, and runs for president. As things turn out, the narrator-hero and his immediate circle are recruited to run Jesus’ election campaign, whose overarching message is simple. When asked for his platform, Christ replies, “I’m running on the beatitudes.”
Whereas the Fundamentalists’ Christ is a moral Scrooge, obsessed with the debits and credits on each sinner’s good-and-bad deeds balance sheet, Merullo’s Jesus focuses on the building of institutional structures that would lessen the variety of temptations available. For instance, he says that, if elected, “There would be an increase in aid to poorer countries, but this aid would end the very day those countries were found to have sponsored violence, including in their own prisons. We would no longer fund dictatorships, period.”
As we know, Christianity has been syncretic from the get-go, combining Greek Neo-Platonism (“in the beginning was the Logos”) with Middle Eastern cultish beliefs. The new battling Christs in the U.S. also bond with other systems of faith. Fundamentalists link their religion to 19th-century, America-first imperialism. Merullo meshes his Jesus with an intellectually-acute version of Buddhism, as revealed in this passage, where he discusses what I call “chi”:
There is an energy that runs through all the vastness of creation. On earth, for human beings, this energy takes the form of a stream of consciousness. … For some people the force of that stream is overwhelming. These are immature souls, new to the human realm.
“New to the human realm” references the Buddhist doctrine of soul transmigration. Don’t think, though, that Merullo espouses a bland Baha’ist or Unitarian amalgam of religious philosophies. Like the vibrancy of Pentecostalism, which combines Christianity with African spiritual traditions, his Christian/Buddhist mix is savvy, progressive, and thoughtful.
Also, don’t think that American Savior is a tract. It’s a rattling good yarn, which, if short on details about how a third party campaign would run, is long on incisive character portraits, witty barbs, and plot.
The one drawback is the author’s reliance on reigning pop psychology, according to which people fail or fall short because they lack self confidence. But think about it. If (excepting the rich) almost the entire U.S. population suffers from low self esteem, couldn’t we more plausibly attribute this condition to a disjuncture between a constantly bleated philosophy of individualism and a society where the machines get bigger and the cogs smaller, rather than to individuals’ small faith in themselves? That is, don’t circumstances, tied to personal character, play a bigger part here than allowed for in pop philosophy?
Still, aside from this unfortunate dalliance with rightist psychology, American Savior is a buoyant, well-told tale of a divinely modest, leftist Jesus, who places dialogue, consensus decision-making, and mold breaking at the center of his vision of democracy.
By contrast, Savage’s Brainlifts, like all good avant-garde works, goes straight for the jugular. In contrast to Merullo, who parenthesizes his discussions of weighty spiritual matters within engaging satirical narratives, Savage makes them the central issues of his poems, often summarizing his thoughts in pithy sayings: “My youthful dreams of love deceived me but not those of art. // Those I am today.”
Savage uses a technique whereby each line starts up a different play of nuances and associations, not connected linearly but remaining in balance through a set of delicate, textured affinities. I venture that the background for this approach—that everything is linked, but in a non-demonstratable manner—can be found in Savage’s mixed religious heritage (he was raised Christian, but after college spent four years in India and converted to Buddhism). The concept of hidden interconnections is a Buddhist one, as is the method, found in so much Chinese poetry, of creating a harmony among disparate components. With Savage, each isolated individual line or couplet opens a vista from which to construct a world: “To construct a bird, we need an army of eight faces”; “the ghost princess gives a split-second audience.”
Though stylistically partisan, Savage and Merullo do unite. This is sealed by Savage’s theme of spiritual growth, of a maturing that helps one shed conformities: “Soldiers who obey orders after dying are fools.” In place of blind obedience and greedy self-mindedness, Savage puts acknowledgment of the unity of being.
Since nobody owns the mind,
Its fragments echo
He suggests enlightenment comes not so much from spiritual practice or as a facet of the everyday, but through a reverent—not worshipful—attachment to art. Savage’s passion for art appears, perhaps surprisingly, in that many poems were composed while attending screenings and performances. This adds complexity as one speculates on, say, the connection between the poet’s viewing experience, marginally noted as “Written while watching a play by Marguerite Duras,” and his line, “The irreplaceable sky dies.”
Merullo is writing for a broader audience, one that can only be coaxed to swallow hard spiritual truths if they have some sugarcoating, such as an exciting plot, humor, and entertaining characters. Savage, communicating with a smaller audience, provides fare for those willing to nibble at non-linear, quirky, experimental meditations. Yet the authors come together in the fight to install in America’s soul a new Eastern-tinged, ethical, and sacred sensibility to supersede the spiritual wasteland now found in so many places of worship in this country.