"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Deep South, Paul Theroux, And Not Seeing Things For What They Are

“It is hard to see without thinking”, an Indian priest I had met in Hardwar told me. “Enlightenment is the freedom from thought.”

Many young Americans had come to Hardwar to try this out, but with little success. Very few Westerners – or modern Indians for that matter – can look and not process.  As I sat on the ghats by the emerald green headwaters of the Ganges, one of India’s holiest places, and tried to take in the scene before me – the burning funeral pyres, the ritual incantations for the dead, the scavengers looking for gold teeth among the pebbles at water’s edge, the crows, white saris of mourning, and the smell of curry – without analyzing, disaggregating, and categorizing it, was impossible.  At the very moment I felt my mind disengaging and I seemed to hear the water of the river without considering it,  physics, culture, and art intervened.  How fast was the water flowing? How many pilgrims were there on the ghats? How long does it take fire to consume a body? What did the Rig-Veda say about pilgrimage?

I shook my head and tried to focus on one small immovable object – the spire on the temple to Siva on Har Ki Pauri ghat. I stared until my eyes watered, and instead of thinking about the temple – or not thinking about it – I began to think about my eyes and how I wanted to blink; and once I did, the entire kaleidoscopic scene of the river, the ghats, the pilgrims, the birds, and the scavengers returned.



Tolstoy in A Confession wrote about his lifelong spiritual journey from atheism and nihilism to belief. Until he was fifty, he read history, philosophy, science, and mathematics hoping to find a logical reason to believe in God; but had no success.  Disciplined, rational analysis was not the way to enlightenment.  Traditional religion – intuitive belief couched in ritual and ceremony – was no help either, for it was too illogical, and offered nothing in the way of insights to a searching mind.

Tolstoy A Confession

At the age of fifty he had an epiphany.  If billions of people have believed in God over the millennia, why shouldn’t he? How could so many be wrong?  His character, Konstantin Levin, in Anna Karenina comes to a similar conclusion.  After years of struggling with the conundrums of meaning, meaningless, life, and death, he finally realizes that there are no answers; and the only recourse for anyone is to do good.  He like Tolstoy backs into faith.  Reading his later works, one has to question whether or not faith really ‘took’; and whether or not Tolstoy was able to stop rational inquiry and simply believe.  Years after his ‘epiphany’, he wrote his own version of the New Testament, re-interpreting scripture to corroborate his unusual, cultish beliefs.  He had to the end used his mind and logical faculties to analyze, decipher, criticism, and reinvent.

Paul Theroux, a writer whom I have read and respected over many years, had his own epiphany early in his life in Africa.  He wrote that not only did he realize he was happy, but that he knew that this moment of his life would be the happiest of all.  Most of us realize how happy we were only after the fact; but Theroux had a moment of pure and unusual insight. 

Image result for images paul theroux


His most mature travel writing, autobiographies, and novels reflect a certain insightful inspiration about culture but more importantly about himself.  At his best, Theroux travelled through a very special place and time – not quite factual and real and not totally subjective and intuitive.  Events, places, and people meant something of a personal connection to him, his character, personality, or psyche.

In his latest book, Deep South, he has lost most of that particular vision; and deals only with belabored stereotypes and issues.  Most of the book dwells on black poverty, disenfranchisement, marginalization, and continued oppression at the hands of the white majority.  Whites are little more than the racist, gun-toting, illiterate worshipers of wild, evangelical Christianity.  He seems to have lost his unique ability to look without seeing; or better, to see without judging.  Most importantly he has lost the art of simply seeing, feeling, and relating all to his own particular spiritual journey.  He has lost his intuitive sense of real tolerance; and the ability to say not just “ “I disagree with your point of view; but I defend your right to promote it”; but “You may be right”.

Most Northerners are proud of their tolerance.  Their education and intellect have given them, they say, the opportunity to see both sides of any question; to thoroughly investigate any issue, to array the pros and cons of any argument, and to finally come to rational if not enlightened conclusions.  Yet most progressives are as entrenched in their opinions and barricaded in their political redoubts as conservatives; and their tolerance of the South stops at the door.

They may defend the right of a Southern Baptist to proclaim that the Bible is the word of God and an inerrant source of truth; but they think that view is nonsense.  They may defend the right of Creationists to deny evolution and see only God’s divine hand in creating Adam, Eve, and the world; but they see it as fol-de-rol and cockamamie pseudo-science.

It could very well be that abortion is as heinous a sin as conservative Christians say.  Life may begin at conception, and the destruction of it for expedient, venal, or practical reasons may in fact not only be a kind of murder but a step on the way to a total disregard for the sanctity of life.

The first verses of the Gospel of John are the most complex in the Bible and mirror the sophisticated Hindu cosmology of the Vedas. John intimates at pre-existence – logos, the Word has always existed and pre-dates the creation of the world.  Within that universe-view – one that posits that the creation of the world was but one minute event in the ‘history’ of being – isn’t it possible that non-evolutionary theories are better to explain the unique intelligence of Man?


Utter poppycock, say progressives who, unlike Tolstoy, made conclusions about the way of the world early on and never evolved.  Tolerance stops at the defense of civil liberties; and never moves into far more important spiritual realms.

Lynn Barker had real tolerance – the ‘you might be right’ kind. He was an unusual man because of this ability to take people, places, and things as they are, not what they should be. He began his travels to the Deep South over a decade ago; and his motives were much like those of Theroux – to learn about a region of the country which was as foreign as any of the dozens of countries in the Third World as he had visited and which was reported to have many of the characteristics of the developing world.  Unlike Theroux, however, he went with no hypotheses, no prejudgments, and no universal prejudice.

One evening, a woman who was sitting next to him at dinner asked him about his summer plans.  He was going to Mississippi, he said, and described his itinerary.  He was going to travel through the Delta, stay at elegantly restored antebellum plantation mansions, visit small towns, and ‘breath that Southern air’.

“You should not do that”, replied the woman angrily. Going to Mississippi was traveling into the maw of the beast, giving succor and support to a region of racists, bigots, irrationally conservative and destructive rednecks. Staying at white-pillared mansions built by slaves and with the wealth of exploitive, corrupt plantation owners was immoral and irreconcilably wrong.

She had written off the South, Lynn told me.  She had airbrushed it off the map of the United States, would do anything to complete the total humiliation and reformation that the the region deserved, and would do her best to keep Northerners away from this pestilential place.

One advantage of the Deep South for anyone interested in exploring why it is such a unique and separate region is its historical insularity. White families have remained, by and large, intact. The connection to relatives and ancestors is close and real.  The Civil War is not an abstract event of history, but a living memory. 

Image result for image statue of confederate soldier in southern town square


“See those bullet holes?”, asked the owner of an antebellum home in rural Georgia. “Sherman’s army of predation and devastation was responsible for them”, and went on to tell of how his great-grandmother and her sister hunkered down in the pantry while Sherman’s soldiers raided the chicken coop, burned the barn, and slaughtered the cow.

Image result for image wm t sherman


The owner of a cotton plantation house in the Delta had kept records of his great-great grandfather who had been a country doctor and a plantation owner; and who kept meticulous records of both his medical practice and the business of running the plantation.  Reading his ledgers which documented what he had spent on his slaves for food, clothing, medical care, housing, etc. was a first-hand look at the information on which Fogel and Engerman wrote their seminal work on the economics of slavery, Time on the Cross. Perhaps slavery was indeed a going economic enterprise and without the Civil War it would have continued.

The historian James McPherson has written about the Cavalier tradition of the South and has argued that the Civil War was not only about slavery and economic rivalry, but about culture:

The Cavalier-Yankee myth was a key component of this distinction.  The Southern aristocrats felt that the plantation life they created was of a higher order than that of the common Northern working man.  It was a world of higher culture and distilled social graces.  So regardless of the accuracy of the origins of so-called Cavalier culture, its centrality to Southern culture and its embodiment of The South was certainly a factor in the War. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2015/07/the-southern-myth-of-cavalierregional.html


By listening to Southerners, particularly older men and women with strong ties to their ancestral past, Lynn felt that he would be able to better understand not only the roots of the Civil War, but the character of the South today.

As he spent more time in Mississippi and stayed for months at a time in a small town in the Delta, people began to open up to him.  Not only did he hear stories about the Civil War and civil rights, but about current prejudices, fears, and resentments.  His first instinct was to argue, to defend his Northern principles, and to make a good case for liberal democracy and religion; but he was not there to proselytize, defend progressive ideas, or criticize the South.  What purpose would that serve? And besides, it would be the best way to get people to shut up, dismiss him, and tell him to get packing.

Instead he listened, read every fevered screed emailed to him, sat and listened to the good ol’ boys at Hank’s talk about hunting, guns, Washington, and race.  How could anyplace be so profoundly different than his hometown of New Brighton, Connecticut?

That of course was the point – to see if in fact the Deep South were actually that distinct; and if possible to get at the reasons why.

Lynn was told by his supervisor to get rid of the cotton plant that he had picked in a cotton field not far from Indianola.  A racist symbol, she said; and while he was at it, it would be more respectful if he removed the pictures of Equen Plantation, one of the most elegant, well-appointed, historically relevant, and charming houses of the South.

He never defended the South to his Northern friends, nor criticized it.  He only explained it to those few who were willing to listen.

“Southern history is American history”, wrote a chronicler of the South, meaning that without understanding what the South was and is, one cannot possibly appreciate the history of the United States from the moment the first slave landed in Jamestown in 1619 to the present.

Lynn was never an advocate for Southern causes, but for taking the South seriously. He convinced me, and I have travelled to Mississippi every year.


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