Fissures in reality: a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

In a career spanning nearly half a century, the US journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has sought to expose economic inequality and to critique the utopian and delusional character of the arguments used to justify it. In Nickel and Dimed (2001) she revealed how the lives of unskilled workers give the lie to ‘trickledown’ economics, while in Bait and Switch (2005) she turned her attention to the US’s shrinking middle class, noting how increasing job insecurity has spawned a motivational market populated by frauds and hucksters. A mordant critic of the American Dream, she is the chronicler of what her fellow journalist and progressive George Packer has recently termed, in his book of the same name, ‘the unwinding’: the recognition that the social contract as envisaged in plutocratic America is not worth the paper it was never written on.

It is not unusual, in reviews of her work, to find Ehrenreich likened to George Orwell, and for once the comparison is not out of place. Like Orwell, she combines analysis with observation, often going under cover in order to expose the nastier aspects of life in post-industrial America. Also like Orwell, she is an old-fashioned rationalist to whom facts, and only facts, are sacred. Her 2010 book Smile or Die, an analysis of the culture of positive thinking, is at once an indictment of an ideology that places the responsibility for failure firmly on the individual and an attack on the semi-mystical notion that we can have total control of our destinies. That Ehrenreich is also a scientist – she studied chemistry at Reed College in Oregon – is no doubt partly responsible for this outlook; a PHD in cell immunology, her own immunity to new age nonsense and magical thinking could not be more robust.

It is thus with a certain defensiveness that she opens this absorbing and beautifully written memoir, in which she proposes to describe and analyse a series of ‘mystical’ experiences she had as an adolescent and young adult. But this awkwardness, far from being unhelpful to the enterprise, is precisely what gives the book its sinew. Despite its somewhat breathless title, Living with a Wild God is a hard-boiled exploration of what happens when a dyed-in-the-wool materialist is confronted with anomalous data.

To a large degree the book is based around a journal Ehrenreich kept from her early teens. Earnest to the point of self-parody, this journal covers a period of 10 years and is an attempt to frame and understand what its author calls ‘the situation’, more commonly known as the meaning of life. Starting with the basics – Can I know that I exist? Can I know that other people exist? – she lends credence to Tom Stoppard’s view that the serious questions of philosophy are just the organised version of the thoughts that occur to the ordinary person as she lies in her bathtub trying to turn the tap off with her toes. But her desire to understand the world is also, at some level, a protest against it. Even as an adolescent, Ehrenreich was determined not to swallow such explanations as were proffered by authority.

One thing she knows, or thinks she knows, is that there isn’t a God or transcendental realm to which we can turn in our search for answers. And so it comes as a rude shock, when, at the age of 13, the world as she knows it seems suddenly to dissolve. The occasion for this ‘revelation’ (the scare quotes are mine but Ehrenreich would endorse them) is a horse show in the town of Hamilton, Montana. Since her teenage co-author is stubbornly unforthcoming on the nature of these ‘fissures in reality’, Ehrenreich senior takes up the description:

I was looking at a tree … but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance – the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute.

For Ehrenreich such episodes represent both a crisis of faith and a kind of class apostasy. Descended from a long line of atheists who viewed the church as an apologist for the boss, she regards all talk of the spiritual askance. In essence, however (and paradoxically), her determination to explore these reveries is a manifestation of her scepticism. ‘I was adamantly disinclined to anything that smacked of mysticism’, she writes; ‘But I was also an empiricist, and empiricism is one of the great pillars of science … [I]t would be a great mistake to ignore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your preconceived theories, that may even confound everything you thought you were sure of.’

It is, then, as a ‘sternly objective reporter’ that she sets out in search of an explanation, and many incisive and insightful things are said in this endeavour. But for me the real interest of this book lies less in the analysis of these ‘fugue states’ than in the depiction of an emerging (political) personality. In this connection our objective reporter turns out to be an unreliable narrator: declaring the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ to be suspect in her opening pages, Ehrenreich then sets about demonstrating that her life has indeed had a definite trajectory. This trajectory is clearly related to her parents, who, despite being politically liberal, were cold and unaffectionate, as well as frequently and often dangerously drunk. Young Barbara is thus a lonely child, a misfit who has to discover for herself that ‘solidarity’ exists in practice as well as in theory. She calls this process ‘joining the species’. And once she is in, she cannot leave: anyone’s suffering becomes a ‘potential emergency’.

More than once in Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich implies that her ‘mystical’ reveries derive from the same ‘escape’ from solipsism involved in this political awakening. Personally I think she’s overreaching, but the spectacle of her doing so is strangely moving nonetheless. Indeed, I came away from this book with a sense that it was all the more affecting for being slightly less than convincing. Those fissures in reality are clearly important to Ehrenreich. But I’m not sure she’s got to the heart of why.

*

Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything
Granta; $29.99; 237pp

First published in The Weekend Australian.