A Pilgrim’s Progress
- A Sense of Direction
- Gideon Lewis-Kraus
- Riverhead Books
- 352 p.
This is a song about an old Welsh witch. No. It’s a record of a failed attempt to review a book about pilgrimages. I’ve been wrestling with it for a few months now, which is somehow appropriate given that it’s about pilgrimages, which involve walking for miles and miles, days and weeks and even months on end, towards some undefined and maybe indefinable goal.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus does a much better job of documenting his actual pilgrimages than I do my metaphorical one, but that’s probably because he actually did something where I only thought about doing something. Which is maybe at the root of the problem.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus (remind me to ask Thomas Early, who is not real, how to do macros in MS Word, there’s no way I’m typing Lewis-Kraus never mind Gideon Lewis-Kraus every damn time, although it does help with word count. Word count versus carpal tunnel syndrome: every writer’s dilemma.) seems like a nice enough guy, and he’s a skillful composer of sentences. There is no reason at all to dislike A Sense of Direction, and I don’t––but it does make me a little uneasy. Why?
Part of my problem is that I disagree with one of Lewis-Kraus’s central premises: he argues that a pilgrimage been just an excuse to “go have an experience of elsewhere,” and that any other interpretation of the purpose of (especially) religious pilgrimage is ahistorical. That’s the reductive version, but since these are just journal entries that no one will ever see why not use the reductive version. The reason Lewis-Kraus argues that the “more interesting way” to interpret at least the modern appeal of the pilgrimage is “to propose its ritual continuity,” by which he means that “something in the form of the ritual itself” leaves the pilgrim feeling somehow renovated.
Clearly the secular model is Lewis-Kraus’s experience of the pilgrimage, and fair enough, but you can’t call something “ahistorical” without providing any evidence. And you further can’t extrapolate from personal experience/belief and anecdotal reports a general presumption that the modern pilgrim is any more/less religiously motivated than in the past. It may in fact be true that a majority of the people who take the El Camino (which is not a car, turns out), for instance, are doing it “to lose weight,” but even if they’re doing it for some slightly deeper reason: say, to find a sense of direction, or for exactly the reason Lewis-Kraus supplies, saying it doesn’t make it so and in fact tends to irritate those of us who prefer facts to incompletely supported assertions. Like the one I just made.
To which the author (G L-K) might reply that he is, after all, only speaking for himself, and advocating his approach to a certain subset of non-believers (I should probably mention at this point that I’m an atheist, though more in the sense of “I doubt” rather than “I don’t believe.” And not an agnostic, because that implies “can’t know” rather than “don’t know” and I don’t know that you can’t know), most of which are in the target demo of this book. Shiftless, semi-rich Americans in their twenties and thirties. Is that a demo? (Demo is short for demographic but that’s clear.)
And he’s right. A Sense of Direction was not written for the purpose of converting anyone to anything other than one specific way of getting your head straight, which (kinda) worked for G L-K, might not work for anyone else. G L-K doesn’t expect that many people will have the time or the resources to pursue his path. That’s one of the reasons he wrote the book, presumably, to communicate to anyone interested the experience he had while trying to get his head straight. I should probably talk about the content of the book sometime soon.
Okay. So. A young writer, somewhat at loose ends, living in San Francisco, passive-aggressively dumps his perfectly nice (which is part of the problem) girlfriend, and decides more or less on a whim to move to Berlin, because it seems like a happening city. He stays in Berlin for what seems like a year (to the reader, at least), has all kinds of dissolute and twentysomething-ish adventures, gets involved in the art scene, and the lit scene, but he still feels empty inside. Like his life hasn’t started. Like he’s in a state of permanent or imminent or [word choice] crisis. He does some writing for magazines to pay the bills but something’s missing, something as yet undefined, and then one day he decides yes, friend Tom, I will go with you on the El Camino pilgrimage, where you walk from one end of Spain to another. It takes a few weeks. [Note somewhere the incredible fact that G L-K seems actually to like other people, to enjoy their company, to be open to new experiences; in other words that he is insane].
Even though he complains a lot to his pilgrimage buddy, who is also a writer, and spends a lot of his down time writing interminable emails to his friends and family, many of whom, he takes pains to mention, do not read them, or at least finish them, the trek itself has a transformative effect on G L-K; the only problem being that although he is changed, he’s not sure yet in what way. The one thing he does conclusively decide (originally typed “decode,” thought about leaving it, changed my mind) is that he enjoys making pilgrimages. He wants to do more. He wants to do them all. He wants, at very least, to do the hardest one he can find, which turns out to be a tour of all 147 billion temples on the smallest island belonging to Japan, which is named Itchykoo Island, I believe [ed: Shikoku Pilgrimage], and has (therefore) a tenuous connection to the Small Faces Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake album, which is one of the top twenty rock albums ever made, if that’s not too much of a digression. Back then, before Ronnie Lane had contracted MS and before Steve Marriott had contracted whatever disease it is that makes you boring (this was in May 1968, the 24th to be precise), Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake was one of the first concept albums, about a guy named Happiness Stan who, now that I think of it, makes a not entirely unsuitable stand-in for G L-K in many respects. Dig the plot: Stan looks up in the sky and sees only half the moon, right, he sets out on a quest to search for the missing half, as you do. Along the way he saves a fly from starvation, and in gratitude the insect tells him of someone who can answer his question and also tell him the philosophy of life. There’s stuff about a mad hermit named John who points out what everyone who’s listened to Stereolab’s “Lo Boob Oscillator” already knows, which is that the moon always returns. By the time Happiness Stan has finished his quest and visits the mad hermit John, the moon is full again. The mad hermit then sings him a happy song about the meaning of life that I’ve never quite understood.
The song “Itchycoo Park” is not on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (this was a take-off on a well known brand of Liverpudlian tobacco Ogden’s Nut Brown Flake, and I’m pretty sure you don’t have to be a hippy to see the psychedelic connotations riven into that one little word change, “gone” for “brown”), but the connection remains nonetheless, reinforced now that I’ve made a strained analogy between the main character of the concept album and G L-K, who may or may not be the main character of his own life, but is certainly the main character of his book.
On a wild impulse, turned the book over and read the blurbs on the back cover. Gary Shteyngart gushes that A Sense of Direction reads as if “David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love,” and while that is one seriously awesome marketing hook, it’s as unfair to Wallace and Elizabeth Gilbert as it is to Lewis-Kraus. There are no footnotes in A Sense of Direction, and (judging from his author photo) he looks nothing like Julia Roberts.
We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I (Prima Pars)
Memo from Turner: never turn the book over and read the back cover.
The thing I keep coming back to is [something about William James' Varieties of Religious Experience for reasons having nothing to do with this review, and more to do with something else I've been trying to write, but there's a similarity in the specific sense that both books are about phenomenology, and psychology, and both deal with pathologies. That's a lot of 'g's. And probably at some point in his life Lewis-Kraus was nick-named 'G' because his first name is Gideon. I would call him 'G.' Not to his face or anything but I would call him that for instance in a review. I think this is an important link I've discovered.] the relentlessly secular nature of G L-K’s experience, at least in the way he frames the idea of pilgrimage, and in the way he presents it, and the way he seems genuinely to experience it. I don’t think that would be my experience of pilgrimage. I spent six weeks in a monastery once, the name is not important, nor the religion, it was a Carthusian monastery outside of Grenoble, in France, but the point of my experience was not even supposed to be the point of my experience (in other words it was wholly imaginary, I never set foot inside the place) but, the way I would put it is the secret point of my experience was to remove myself insofar as possible from the world and see what happens inside my head. What happens inside my head outside of the world is definitely not secular, I don’t think. And I don’t think I’m unusual in that respect. [Make a point to re-read Murakami's book about running before finishing review. Not that it's relevant.]
Note: buy razor blades. G L-K talks so much about his beard I swear I think mine’s starting to grow faster. Also shaving cream.
THIS BOOK HAD A VERY GOOD EDITOR.
…of the twentysomething navel-gazing memoir that could easily engage the reader’s gag reflex. Lewis-Kraus seems well aware, and takes steps first to engage and then to disarm.
He does this mainly by [manuscript illegible]
The book consists of a series of fairly brutal pilgrimages that Lewis-Kraus undertakes at first almost capriciously, after which he. And. So.
It’s the Fourth of July, and I am a damp squib. A Sense of Direction as high-brow bro-down? Much as I hate any and all applications of the word “bro”… but then again that’s the point, I don’t think Lewis-Kraus uses the word once (will have to double check, which is annoying, but my immediate recollection is that there’s either little or no bro-usage). Nonetheless this is a very male book, and more particularly entitled young male who is acutely aware that he’s an entitled young male and takes pains to forestall our consequent objections by making fun of himself as much as possible.
His ploy (if it’s a ploy) works. The last thing I will ever care about in this or any other book is sincerity or honesty (inasmuch as these are usually signifiers for plain, uninspired writing), but Lewis-Kraus’ relentless self-examination is aware of itself on seven different levels (estimation) and ahead of you on at least four of those levels. I guess what I mean is that I don’t give a damn whether the “Gideon” in the book is anything like the “real” Gideon, nor do I care whether he’s telling the truth or being honest. I care whether he’s smart and whether he can write. He is and he can.
Who cares what you care?
Definitely need a shower. Can’t be healthy sitting up in bed for hours like this, reading and writing. Also should maybe eat something? Where’s that sticky note… “Eat something.” Good. Done. When you write down a note to do something it’s as if you’ve done it. You get the same sense of accomplishment, even if you never actually do the thing you’ve reminded yourself to do. Because your intention is to do the thing, and intentions are actions-in-potential. There’s as much potential energy in a glass of water as there is actual energy so it makes sense that there’s as much potential energy in the intention to do something as in actually doing it.
Oh, yeah, his dad is gay. Didn’t come out until he was in his mid-forties, and as a result G L-K has a lot of anger towards his dad. Who was also a rabbi, so, you know, doubly surprising, I guess, except that deep down (oh God that’s banal) he always kinda sorta knew. He sees his dad as having abandoned all his familial responsibilities after discovering or perhaps more appropriately uncovering his true sexuality. This part is difficult to understand, because I mean, at least he has a dad, a lot of people don’t even have dads. It takes him a really long time to forgive his dad, even though you know that’s what’s going to happen, otherwise it would be a waste of time talking so much about how he can’t forgive his dad. So he forgives his dad and they do a pilgrimage together in probably the Ukraine (G L-K goes a lot of places in this book: Estonia, Berlin, Uman, Shanghai, San Francisco, Kiev, Japan, and other places), during which there’s a lot of father-son bonding and male-bonding and even some foot binding (because of the blisters from walking so much). I made have made some or all of that sentence up out “whole cloth,” rather than the stupid half-cloth most people use because who knows.
Give G L-K this much: it took him until page 237 of a 339 page book to bring up David Foster Wallace. [This is not actually true, he brings him up on pp. 86-87, but since I have no real point I don’t see the point in correcting the record]. He quotes DFW on the subject of self-consciousness, specifically in relation to the “blamelessness” of cow manure. Which ties in to G L-K ‘s theory that self-consciousness, if defined as the search for unmediated experience, is a pointless pursuit, because everything we do is the result of a conscious choice, and further that:
“Anything we have chosen to do invites the specters of all that we haven’t chosen—this is the real misery of choice—and it’s futile to think that we might know exactly how to make the forty-six-year-old versions of ourselves happy with the costs we’ve incurred. (Who knows what we will want then?)”
Forty-six because that’s the age his dad was when he affirmed his theretofore semi-closeted sexuality, or as G L-K puts it, let G L-K know that he knew that he knew that he knew.
I’m being way too hard on this book. It’s immaculately written, really, unlike this feral tom of a review, which isn’t a review so much as a record of my own responses to G L-K’s responses.
In French there’s no word or expression for “self-consciousness.” Usually one makes do, in conversation at least, with “timide,” which means, as you might imagine, timid, shy, unsure of oneself, which of course isn’t the same as self-consciousness at all, though there’s some overlap. In the formal sense, I’ve seen translators use “conscience de soi,” which side-steps the issue by presenting a purely literal translation, and “auto-conscient,” which is a neologism born of necessity and doesn’t really mean anything. I suspect at some point the French will do what they often like to do and just import the phrase wholesale from English, as they’ve done (to the immense chagrin of the Academie Française over the years) with words/phrases like “self-made man,” “weekend,” “cool,” “parking,” and on and on. I suspect I’m wrong about this. I usually am.
Strange that a culture that delights in theory should lack a term for one of the bedrocks of (particularly) American psychology. For all the talk about the pernicious effects of globalization, we are still the biggest exporters of the mediated experience, and when G L-K quotes Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage writing…
“Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand…. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
…he disagrees, saying “Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life.” Both Elie and G L-K strike me as off-base here. Or rather, both are right, but only in narrow and therefore not super-helpful ways. Most people on this earth, the great majority of the seven billion plus currently breathing, do not have a choice what they will do when they wake up in the morning. Their experience is entirely unmediated and just as entirely involuntary. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a good thing or even a better thing than the multiplicity of choice facing a select few privileged people living at the beginning of the 21st century—the multiplicity of choice has been a fruitful theme for many writers over the last fifty years at least. One that springs readily to mind is John Barth, whose characters, especially in his earlier novels, were paralyzed, in one case (Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor) literally rendered immobile by the infinity of choice, so this isn’t exactly news to anyone reading G L-K or Paul Elie in the here and now, or anyone reading this overlong and frankly undisciplined and disorganized scroll of thought. But. It’s not the common lot of humanity to be presented with an infinity of choice. Especially as regards “what to do with my life” types of choice.
I can’t help but recommend this book. It’s no longer a choice. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. It’s worn me down and out. Resistance is… exercise, apparently.
If you’re able to believe that there is a God and that God acts in the world, if it has never occurred to you that this makes theodicy a problem, if you have that true gift that is faith, you ought to count yourself inordinately blessed. [Emphasis mine.]
“For the rest of us,” he continues, but for me there is no continuing. G L-K has left me behind at the bottom of a very steep grade, and is walking with rapid strides at what seems to me an inhuman pace, unmindful of, or at least not minding, the stones in his pass-way.
I don’t have his fixity of unbelief. I wish I did. I wish I knew that God did not exist, that I was smart enough to see that the mere notion of theodicy was enough to invalidate belief, that my gay dad’s incomprehensible behavior was a fuzzy match to the incomprehensible behavior of a paternalistic God.
p. 332 There is no such thing as a prophylactic against regret.
p. 337 Regrets are just memories that come unsummoned, and do us more harm than good.
I’m done. You should buy this book. It’s really good. I teared up in places towards the end. It’s moving. It’s touching. It’s sagacious. Where the fuck is my thesaurus.