Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jonathan H. Ebel

Jonathan H. Ebel is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a former naval intelligence officer. He is the author of Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the First World War and the co-editor, with John D. Carlson, of From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America.

His new book is G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion.

Recently I asked Ebel about what he was reading. His reply:
Shortly before 9pm last December 11, my dad called to tell me he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on April 7 after four months of treatment, suffering, and decline. They told us it would be a rollercoaster. It wasn’t.

Almost from the beginning, friends and family told me that I should read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I agree with them. I really should. It is sitting on my nightstand between the clock radio and the reading lamp. I’ll get to it. For the moment, though, I’m aiming lower, or maybe just differently. I am finishing The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I am halfway through A Farewell to Arms, two books that wrestle with being mortal in ways that feel easier to me.

There are few better times to purge closets, drawers, and the recesses of one’s basement than the aftermath of a painful loss. My father is gone. What the hell do I care about CD cases, VHS tapes, an old toaster oven, and sweaters that I haven’t worn in a decade? I’m very sad. The question that Marie Kondo requires me to ask of every possession, “Does this spark joy?” all but answers itself. Old jackets? Hell no. Notes from college? Are you kidding? If we’re talking about the emotion to which Beethoven wrote an ode, then almost everything in my life that doesn’t have a pulse is heading to the curb. My life has not yet been touched by a changing magic, but there is less shit in it. And my sock drawer is gorgeous. If there is a good reason to spend three hours reading up on the theory and practice of tidying, it is to learn how to make your sock drawer look like a tray of Smartwool and Wigwam sushi.

I am now on page 152 of A Farewell to Arms and the tone has just shifted. A few pages ago the love affair between Catherine and Frederic was in full blossom. He, almost fully recovered from war wounds, had received orders back to the front and permission for a convalescent leave. They were making plans to spend that leave together. A baby was on the way. Then came Frederic’s jaundice, a vindictive nurse’s discovery of his liquor stash, an accusation of self-sabotage, the cancellation of leave, and Frederic’s departure for the front. Life changes. Plans evaporate. Things once possessed become irretrievable.

Reading Hemingway is good for my soul (and perhaps for my writing) in ways that reading David Foster Wallace is not. Why has A Farewell to Arms made its way to my nightstand while Infinite Jest languishes in my Kindle, twenty-two percent read? Hemingway’s world isn’t less complicated than Wallace’s, nor was he less tortured by it. Hemingway’s characters aren’t easier to embrace. I think it comes down to this: Hemingway is edifying because he gives me space. Wallace is not because he crowds me out, clutters the page, clutters my head. And in a year defined by diagnosis, prognosis, and detailed explanations of growing tumors, therapy regimens, and failed blood thinners, I want less. In fact, I love less.

When Hemingway has Catherine tell Frederic that she’s pregnant, she expresses concern that he might feel trapped. He responds, “You always feel trapped biologically.” The truth is that we don’t always feel trapped biologically. It seems more accurate to say that we feel untouched by biology until, in a moment, we don’t. It occurs to me now, though, that the trap that sprung on my dad and my family last December has led me to read with an awareness of mortality and with a related impatience. Just as we don’t need surplus possessions to decorate our lives, I don’t want surplus words to embellish a narrative. I’m “reading mortal.” Kondo and Hemingway have been oddly good for that.

I’m sure that Gawande will be too.
Learn more about G.I. Messiahs at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue