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September 10, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Swiftly tilting

I’m taking a break from homework to ponder the state of the world and especially the loss of Madeleine L’Engle, the second death this year (following Kurt Vonnegut’s) of an extraordinary author of vaguely-science-fiction books.

I didn’t really know anything about L’Engle, which made the obituaries and appreciations feel strange. But of course, I read her books during that curious age that is the target of the “young adult” section of bookstores; I suppose her books may have been scattered between the downstairs kids’ section and the upstairs adult section of the small local library where I used to spend my summers. At that age, 12 or 13 perhaps, I wasn’t yet interested in details of authors’ lives, I was simply enchanted by the worlds they invented. And I can’t think of any writer, before or since, who has crafted a world as moving as L’Engle’s.

I read at least a half dozen of her books, but the only ones that stuck with me through the years were her most famous ones, A Wrinkle in Time , A Wind at the Door , A Swiftly Tilting Planet , and Many Waters . I owned all these books, acquired from school book sales I think (thanks, Scholastic!), and that in itself was unusual, since I didn’t have many books of my own as a kid aside from hand-me-downs that didn’t really belong to anybody in my large family of avid readers.

It turns out, I was thinking a lot about Madeleine L’Engle over the past two weeks, because of a book I’m reading for a class — I would call this “coincidental” but I think the better term is “serendipitous” or maybe even “felicitous.” I signed up to take a course called “ Fragmentation and Reintegration ” on a lark, as a means to sustain my flagging interest in school. I have mostly burned out on international affairs topics, and I’ve taken enough classes in that vein to maintain my “concentration” for my degree, so I was pleased to sign up for something more English-major in spirit and kind of easy-looking from the syllabus (especially since I’ve already read half of the books). Anyway, I have been reading Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers’s The Power of Myth for this course, and I like it a lot. It’s provocative and fun, and it keeps making me think of Madeleine L’Engle.

Joseph Campbell, from what I’ve read so far, seemed to be suggesting that our modern world (especially the U.S. and the West) is deprived of myths, has been demythologized, and that we’re therefore grasping for meaning in all the wrong places. The myths that once served as guides to living, as metaphors for human life, no longer fit today’s world and can even be harmful in some cases (for example, when competing religious worldviews lead to war and suffering). Campbell felt that it takes a very long period of time for new mythologies to emerge, but that we need a new mythos nonetheless, one that is inclusive enough to work out well for all humans, and the planet too. That is exactly the kind of mythology that Madeleine L’Engle created in her books.

L’Engle was essentially re-mythologizing the world, integrating a global viewpoint with modern scientific principles, throwing in Greek mythology, biblical characters, and frightening sci-fi villains like IT and the echthroi. She emphasized the beauty and joy of life, the power of love, and the astonishing connections that unite us humans with each other and with the world around us. She showed us the harmony and music of stars in the skies and their resonance in the mitochondria within our cells. L’Engle’s universe, while explicitly including room for Christianity, reminds me more of an animist view — we humans, and the stars and planets, and the trees and the rocks, we are all the same, and we are all essential.

My favorite of her books was A Swiftly Tilting Planet , and I have a copy sitting on my desk as I type. Skimming through it (I must have read it fifteen times, but not in a while), it almost makes me cry. The context of A Swiftly Tilting Planet is one where a madman dictator from a fictional South American country is threatening nuclear war — the end of everything. The heroes of the book go on a kind of spiritual myth-quest to save the day, hopping into the consciousness of people from the past [1] in order to push the world further into the direction of love and selflessness, away from terror and jealousy. It’s not really science fiction, but more of a poetic outline of history and a reminder that every action we take has long-lasting consequences.

The thing that brings me to tears is my own doubts about the power of love and selflessness to change an insane world. I guess L’Engle would have us at least keep trying, as the book quotes from St. Patrick’s rune , to

place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness
All these… place,
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between [ourselves] and the powers of darkness.

But it’s hard to keep hoping. I find the news so depressing I am close to giving it up — I’m tempted to head out into the desert and contemplate transcendence or whatnot. But I am too attached to the real world, and the real world is bumming me out. I read the headlines and I want to scream at the insanity of a “war over the war” as the travails of the Democrats in Congress and the fierce storm of opinion about General Petraeus and his testimony overshadow, you know, THE REAL WAR THAT IS STILL TAKING PLACE WHERE 75,000 IRAQIS AND 3700 AMERICANS HAVE BEEN KILLED IN A POINTLESS MISTAKE OF A WAR OF MISPLACED VENGEANCE. If I can’t even figure out a way to help slow a war that my own tax dollars are supporting, run by people a few miles from my home, what positive thing can I ever accomplish? Sigh…

Like Madeleine L’Engle, I believe that we’re all one, but our harmonies are severely disrupted right now and our farandolae are in dire condition. I am not sure how to fight against “the powers of darkness” because the darkness is a little in you, and a little in me. Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time to harmonize things from the past forward, but I guess we just have to do the insanely hard work of starting now to lay a groundwork for a better future. Any suggestions? There is plenty of work for us all.

Notes:

1. This is basically the same plot device as Quantum Leap ‘s, but came years earlier. ASTP was published in 1978; Quantum Leap started in 1989. But the idea is very much the same.)