Hecht @home

Jennifer Hecht contributes a weekly post to “The Best American Poetry” blog, ranging over all kinds of topics including happiness and atheism. Take a look.

She noted recently, at the passing of People’s Historian Howard Zinn (who inspired both impassioned admiration and criticism), that he blurbed Doubt.

And check out her musings on “poetic atheism“: How strange to find our little thinking and blinking faces amid a universe that is for the most part not alive at all. Believers say,  “If this weirdness is true, why not believe angels,” but adding nonsense is not helpful.

Hecht is one of the breed of kinder, gentler atheists, like Rebecca Goldstein (of whom a reviewer writes: “Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. [She] doesn’t want to shake your faith or confirm it”).

Neither shaking nor confirming? Sounds agnostic, though it may simply be “doubtful” and pluralistic. In any case, she has a rich and largely-neglected story to tell. The New Atheists stand on the shoulders of giants. Atheism is not new.

About those Greeks…

Hecht really sheds fresh light, in Doubt: a history, on the naturalizing impulse of the pre-Socratic and Hellenic thinkers. For instance, Democritus (the beautiful regularity of the universe was neither created nor maintained by the guiding intelligence of a god), the Cynics (Diogenes‘ advice is that we stop distracting ourselves with accomplishments, accept the meaninglessness of the universe, lie down on a park bench and get some sun while we have the chance) and Stoics (feeling a part of the community of the universe) and Epicureans (there are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us… we might as well make an art of appreciating pleasure… in this beautiful moment one is alive) and Skeptics (I do not lay it down that honey is sweet but I admit that it appears to be so), with fresh slants on Socrates (among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth) and Plato (whose form of the Good has been illicitly conflated with God for two millennia).

What I like most in her section on Greek doubt (or as I prefer, Greek spirit): the forest metaphor, which offers the most timeless but (in an age of restless spiritual “cherry [*berry?]-picking”) also timely wisdom: The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest… we could stop being lost if we were to just stop trying to get out of the forest. Instead, we could pick some *blueberries, sit beneath a  tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze. The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest… Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time.

As Epicurus realized, it is accepting the finality of death that makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden. This is a very different garden than the one we got kicked out of in the Eden story. This time you have to eat from the tree of knowledge to get in.

That’s James and Sagan redux: at home in the universe, at ease with the human condition.

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One Response to “Hecht @home”

  1. D. Hall Says:

    Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Introduction in the book “Doubt” is certainly a “romp,” as Howard Zinn put it, through the question of certainty if you flip the tables. Her poetic and seemingly consoling prose is sharply contrasted by the occasional line harboring a harsh toe-to-toe proverbial face-slap; one that instantly jerks the reader back into reality. “But there is no universally compelling, empirical, or philosophical evidence for the existence of God, a purposeful universe, or life after death” (xi). She even capitalizes the word “god” in an odd paradoxical reverence to believers; not appearing as one to offend. I’m not even through the first chapter yet but I would dare to guess that Zinn’s “romp” is synonym for evidence.

    On the subject of poetry, occasionally I run across a line, a quip, or an idea I wish I had written or thought of myself. When this happens it’s an odd feeling, one of simultaneous adulation and envy. I ran across a review of Jill McDonough’s book of poetry entitled “Habeas Corpus.” Her book is a sequence of 50 sonnets, each one about a person executed in the United States between 1608 and 2005. In the review, Jason Schneiderman, made an observation of her writing describing the honesty of her poetry:

    “In all of these poems, McDonough is respectful of the space of the unknown and the unknowable. She never panders to mystery, never speculates or reaches. She always stays, I think the phrase is, close to the bone. The poems are brilliant little flashes, stunningly achieved.”

    This immediately made me think of religion and spirituality—Pat Robertson vs. Carl Sagan.

    Religion’s metaphysical certitude, examined by Hitchens or Dawkins, is immediately marginalized as unfounded religious arrogance, whereas Hecht, Sagan, or William James might describe spirituality as “respectful of the space of the unknown and the unknowable.” What a wonderful, poetic way to say “I don’t know.” Although my rational side is with empirical evidence—my poetic side is with, well, I wish I had written that line.

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