Wednesday, February 04, 2009

J.C. Hallman, "The Devil is a Gentleman" (2006).

Last year I reached my reading target in May, and by June I had consumed 50 books. I felt pretty certain that I would set a personal record with my annual total. However, I got complacent and limped along to the end of the year, largely neglecting anyone's written words but my own. Being largely a creature of habit, I have allowed that lack of forward momentum to infect this first month of 2009 as well. I intend to turn this around, and acknowledge that it is going to be hard work doing so. Falling out of the practice of daily reading has made me slow. It doesn't necessarily help that I've made a couple selections of rather dense material so far. One such title is J.C. Hallman's The Devil is a Gentleman.

The intellectual center of The Devil is a Gentleman is made up from observations the author made about the life and work of philosopher, psychologist and writer William James. This eminent scholar has been the focus of much study over the last century, and Hallman wisely forgoes an in depth analysis of his work. Instead he concentrates on presenting a skeleton account of James' life, along with a smattering of his more important ideas and thoughts. Ultimately Hallman is compelled most by the accounts of observations that James compiled in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). The fact that it's so hard to identify this great man's ultimate conclusions allows the reader to personally identify with various facets of his journey.

This ambiguity inspired Hallman's own personal quest of "seeking". Today's world presents just as many opportunities to study man's relationship with god as existed in the era of William James. If you scratch the surface, you will find no end to the strange assortment of approaches to spirituality lying just beneath society's orthodox veneer. Hallman travels to Southern California on a pilgrimage to the site of the Heaven's Gate suicides and tries to interview the neighbors. Finding a predictable resistance, he broadens his exploration of the area by visiting an extant UFO cargo cult. He thus establishes a baseline of weirdness for what follows throughout his book. The insights he constructs are often as fascinating as the individual tales he unearths.

In my opinion, one of Hallman's keys to success is found in his open minded attitude toward what many Americans would consider disturbing and confounding takes on faith. It's manifestly apparent that Hallman wanted to engage the objects of his study on their own terms. This strategy allows him a level of access that many writers would preclude due to their own preconceptions. Instead we get to be present alongside Hallman when he attends the bible study of a group of "Born Again" Christian professional wrestlers who seek to transform souls through their performances. He also participates in a Wiccan ritual and a Satanic "Black Mass". He even takes a Scientology Training course.

Alongside these perambulations (and those of William James), Hallman includes lots of contextual information and historical data about the religious groups he interacts with. The stories of the founders of many of these odd belief systems provide some of the most interesting higlights of The Devil is a Gentleman. Who knew that there was an Atheist community dedicated to the support of non-believers? For that matter, who imagined a group of neo-Pagans holding their convention in a casino? Ultimately though, the concise descriptions about Jamesian "Pragmatism" are likely to stick with me the longest. For years I've always considered the outcomes of belief more important than their rationalizations or origins. I just didn't realize that there was a name for that perpsective.

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3 Comments:

Blogger rainywalker said...

Always, thats how he gets the souls!

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Merge,

I know we share an affinity for horror movies. I was wondering if your interest in the macabre extends to literature as well. If so, you might like a book title "The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. It's about these two writers' obsession with solving Italy's most famous serial killer case. In the process, they become suspects. However, the real nitty gritty lays in the details of the killings and the creepiness of how the Monster got away with them.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Hey Steve, thanks for the recommendation. Sorry it took so long for me to reply to your comment, but I've been a bit scattered lately. I'm looking the book up on Amazon...

10:10 AM  

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