Writer revisits youthful quest for meaning
Living With a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything By Barbara Ehrenreich Granta, 237pp, $29.99 IN a career spanning nearly a half century, American 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 gave the lie to ‘‘trickle-down’’ economics, while in Bait and Switch (2005) she turned her attention to the US’s shrinking middle class, noting how increasing job insecurity had spawned a motivational market populated by frauds and hucksters.
A mordant critic of the American Dream,
ASeptember 6-7, 2014 MERICAN journalist Evan Osnos lived in China from 2005 until last year, during which time he wrote the collection of 24 essays that make up Age of Ambition. This collection is a thorough and sensitive portrait of post-Deng Xiaoping Chinese society, and the consequences of China’s wild and unruly campaign for global economic dominance in the past 30 years.
Osnos tells the story through a group of characters, some high-profile Chinese and some ordinary people. There’s Lin Yifu, a soldier who defected from Taiwan in 1979 and ended up vice-president of the World Bank; Gong Haiyan, a factory worker who founded the biggest internet dating service in China; magazine editor Hu Shuli, a student of Western philosophy who becomes a fervent Chinese nationalist; artist Ai Weiwei, a popular blogger and novelist; and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
The character who brought me to tears in the final chapter is a young English teacher from the countryside, Michael Zhang, whose wild and earnest ambitions towards a respectable middle-class life seem to keep him just outside of success and fulfilment, as though by magnetic force. For millions of Chinese, myths of fervent self-creation, fuelled by self-help books, business plans, English courses and obsessive materialism, have, in many areas of the vast map of Chinese society, become an aspirational lifestyle — though the insane levels of wealth that China has reached remain concentrated among the ruling class. At every point of every story, there is a towering sense of scale.
Where Liao Yiwu in The Corpse Walker (2008) told stories from the recesses of China, Osnos manages to capture the general. Most poignant and sad are the stories that demonstrate the feeling many Chinese on the lower echelons of society have of being locked out of prosperity and dignity, or of the dehumanising outcomes of societies in which people don’t trust each other, or the state.
To us in Australia, China feels close but distant, a whirring, strident and unruly force we at once wish to be close to and far away from. The awkwardness of the ‘‘pivot to Asia’’ the US and Australia are trying to perform is exposed by the stories Osnos tells. The question of how to interact economically and diplomatically with a totalitarian state that imprisons and silences its citizens remains loudly and uncomfortably unanswered.
This discomfit is well summed up in the story of Chen Guangcheng, a blind ‘‘barefoot lawyer’’ and human-rights activist who fled the house arrest under which the Chinese government held him, taking refuge in the US embassy. His timing was bad, however: Hillary Clinton was coming to visit China that week, and both sides hoped for amicable deal-making. Yet the embassy could not, on principle, throw him out.
Richard Nisbett, of the University of Michigan, breaks down the East-West divide Ehrenreich 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 undercover 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 and later received her PhD in cell immunology — is no doubt partly responsible for this outlook. Her immunity to new-age nonsense and magical thinking could not be more robust.
It is thus with a certain defensiveness that she opens her latest book, an absorbing and beautifully written memoir in which she proposes to describe and analyse a series of ‘‘mystical’’ experiences she had in her youth.
But this awkwardness 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 on a journal Ehrenreich kept from her early teens. Earnest to the point of self-parody, this journal covers 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 they lie in their bathtub trying to turn the tap off with their 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 13, the world as she knows it seems suddenly to dissolve. The occasion for this revelation is a horse show in the town of Hamilton, Montana. As her teenage co-author is stubbornly unforthcoming on the nature of these ‘‘fissures in reality’’,
For many Chinese, myths of self-creation have fuelled an aspirational lifestyle