Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search For the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta RRP£16.99/Grand Central Publishing, RRP$26, 256 pages
God might not be dead after all. Surprisingly large numbers of us have mystical experiences and, while a deity is far from the only explanation, they do leave questions begging. Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book recounts her own visionary episode, against the backdrop of an existential quest that dominated her early life.
Ehrenreich is best known for investigative journalism, notably Nickel and Dimed (2001), her exposé of low-wage America. Yet she is also a maverick intellectual with an eclectic oeuvre. It ranges from a book on the primordial origins of warfare (Blood Rites, 1997) all the way through to a debunking of the self-help vogue for positive thinking (Smile or Die, 2009).
So it is clear that she is unafraid of big topics, but even for her Living with a Wild God is audacious. Her search for “the truth about everything” started in adolescence, when she decided to try to find out what lay behind “the situation” – that is, a brief existence without any obvious point, followed by inevitable death. The project was made more challenging still by her diehard atheism.
By her own account the young Ehrenreich was not much fun, her solipsism and alienation nurtured by recourse to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. At university she opted for science to pursue the big questions, gaining a doctorate in biology. Soon after, her quest was shelved, as campaigning against the Vietnam war led her on to radical journalism and life as a writer.
However, in her teens Ehrenreich had experiences that she could not incorporate into these narratives of intellectual and social engagement. They culminated in a mystical episode in the Californian town of Lone Pine, where she experienced “just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it … It was a furious encounter.”
Fears for her sanity, as well as for her atheism, meant burying such memories and it was only in middle age that she tried to make sense of them. The results are uneven. Ehrenreich’s strength is acerbic commentary that homes in on absurdities, yet her winning approach to autobiography comes at the expense of a more rigorous analysis of the numinous. The Lone Pine episode is delayed until more than 100 pages in, while William James’s classic research into mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is aired only briefly towards the end of the book.
Ehrenreich is now coming to terms with her visionary episodes, albeit to the detriment of her atheism. Her youthful glimpses of the transcendent have melded with a recent immersion in the natural environment of the Florida Keys to nudge her towards animism: the wild god (or gods) of her title. Even so, any accommodation of mainstream faith appears unlikely.