Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

This Business of Saving Souls

April 20, 2012

Richard Wright

This business of saving souls has no ethics“, writes Richard Wright as he recalls how the entire weight of his community was brought down upon him for rejecting Christianity. Wright is certainly not the first person to point out hypocrisies committed in God’s name, and the cogency of Wright’s irony exposes his utter contempt for organized religion. As the author sees it, Christianity is merely one of several methods which society employs to enforce submission upon the masses in general and upon Richard Wright in particular.

Black Boy is overflowing with social forces designed to break Richard Wright down—domestic violence, white terrorism, the media, the school system and the black church all conspire to bridle his spirit. This only makes him angrier and more productive.

For a man who wears the scars of nonconformity as a badge, Wright’s unwillingness to submit to God is perfectly consistent. Like any memoir, Black Boy is an amalgamation of fact, fantasy, and recollection. But this particular autobiography has a remarkably consistent theme: Always the rebel, Richard Wright heroically reveals all forms of human hypocrisy and confronts every injustice perpetrated against him. The institutional repression of the church is just another cross for him to bear.

Wright’s descriptions of the black church seethe with hostility as he chooses to see only the most negative aspects of religion. He is “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encounters in church. Of course, with the possible exception of “cheap clothing,” these phenomena are apparent in all human institutions. It’s just the way people are. And this vituperation for the church is a function of Wright’s deep–seated misanthropy.

It is disheartening that Wright’s quest to slay all dragons prevents him from experiencing the virtuous aspects of organized Christianity. He is absolutely blind to the worldly fellowship, charity, comfort, hope and spiritual fulfillment religion has to offer. And the immense beauty of religious art and music are completely lost on him. As Wright sees it, “(t)he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn”.

But this cannot be dismissed as a simple outgrowth of Wright’s Marxist/humanist philosophy. Many confirmed atheists are willing to concede that organized religion can be beneficial to society in various ways despite the plethora of grievous wrongs committed in its name. (Full disclosure: I am a devout deist, but I reject the smugness with which many of the so-called New Atheists attack religion.) The roots of Wright’s profound enmity towards the black church stem from the part of him which could never find solace in groups, not even in a political party which reflected his beliefs.

Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on American on Purpose

July 9, 2010


Some Thoughts on American on Purpose

There are only about five million Scots, which is amazing when we stop to consider Scotland’s capacious record of supplying the world with brilliant and industrious citizens. This minuscule divisor makes Scotland, on a per capita basis, the second greatest contributor to what is often referred to as Western Civilization.* (I figured this all out with a slide rule. It was actually a statistical dead heat between Scotland and Greece, but Scotland won the tiebreaker–fashion. Kilts beat togas.)

But despite the fact that they have provided us with so many outstanding writers, thinkers, engineers, industrialists and explorers, the Scottish people are often portrayed as a bunch of brassy, belligerent, bibulous, bargain-hunters.

In his memoir American on Purpose, the immensely gifted actor, comedian, writer and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson asserts that, Scrooge McDuck notwithstanding, the inhabitants of his native land “are very generous” (46). Otherwise, he does little to dispel the dominant stereotypes about Scottish people.

For Ferguson, the most dreary and oppressive institution in Scotland was the public school system where teachers were extremely liberal with the lash. Ferguson realized that he wanted out of the “redbrick gulag” on his first day (31). And strap-happy teachers weren’t the only threat. Ferguson soon discovered that “what was especially perilous to do at school was to stand out in any way” (22). School was a scalding hot cauldron of anger and resentment where “if you were noticed, you got hit” (67). (Ferguson recalls his brief teenage sojourn to America with this stunning observation: “And nobody wanted a fight. Not once.”) (40)

But this is not a bitter memoir, and Ferguson isn’t one to blame others for his problems. He is extremely honest and reflective about how his innate sense of seclusion contributed not only to his profound feelings of alienation at school but also provided a fertile ground for his burgeoning addictions:

it seems to me that this profound sense of isolation, resentment, misanthropy, and fear in a prepubescent child is an extraordinarily ominous portent. I should have put my name down for rehab then (23).

Ferguson first tried marijuana at a concert when he was just thirteen-years-old, and it was love at first puff:

From this moment on I would dedicate my life to rock and roll and take as many drugs as possible.
What could possibly go wrong?

Despite blacking out the first time he drank as a teenager, Ferguson was soon off and running on a binge that lasted for over a decade. His motto is, “Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure” (196). And Ferguson was a true daredevil in pursuit of a buzz, eventually adding cocaine (the “wonder drug”) and even heroin to his repertoire (114). But this adventure story eventually transmogrified in a horror show: “More shame brought on by behavior instigated by alcohol, which only fueled the need for more alcohol, and on and fucking on” (160). The vicious downward cycle eventually led Ferguson to contemplate suicide. In a fit of total desperation Ferguson contacted his friend Jimmy Mulville, a television producer and recovering alcoholic, and confessed, “I can’t drink and I can’t not drink. I’m too sick to live and too chickenshit to die” (174)

I’m a sucker for a story with a happy ending, and American on Purpose is full of them, particularly the birth of Ferguson’s son Milo, his successful endeavor to become American citizen and his third marriage to Megan Wallace Cunningham:

She makes me feel like I’m lucky, and I know because I have her that I am. I’m happy to be her husband, and I can absolutely positively categorically swear that this marriage is definitely-and-without-doubt-I’m-not-kidding-you-I-really-mean-it the last one for me (262)

Despite being hard on his homeland at times, Ferguson acknowledges that “Scotland made me what I am and America let me be it” (268).

American on Purpose is an enlightening and entertaining memoir.

* You’re not necessarily an anti-Semite if you have to ask which group has made the greatest per capita contribution to Western Civilization, but the answer is pretty freaking obvious.

by Richard W. Bray