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Less Than Paradise

Jonathan Bellot

A Skeptic in the Caribbean.

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by Jonathan Bellot

"I never say I am anything—I choose my words carefully—but I never say I'm not, either.

There are times I think the postcolonial condition in my island has made it neo-medieval. This is not a condemnation. Rather, it seems to describe a world where the majority has little to no opportunities for extended education (due, in large part, to poverty) and where that majority sees the supernatural as more or less seamlessly coexisting with the non-supernatural, so that even if the term "supernatural" gets bandied about, its connotation is "natural." The state of being an island helps here; by isolating one from quick contact with neighboring islands or countries, and by being small enough that many people wade into conversations by finding out what family members someone knows, the island becomes a special community of sorts, a world that, in its compactness, must resemble those tiny ancient views of the world. A humanlike god figure, with cherubs blowing the four winds, is much more plausible in a village than a metropolis, after all; and if one can imagine the actual size of the universe, then one's imagination is far far far far far (and so forth) too small.

At the same time, it is a society far different from anything medieval. The electricity is not always stable; the TV channels often contain channels they legally should not; during Carnival (and outside Carnival, as well), loudspeakers larger than some people's homes blast bouyon; bus drivers fly around narrow potholed roads with one hand on their steering wheel, as they are perhaps the greatest and worst drivers in existence; and technology, in general, is much less widespread and affordable than, say, in the States. But many people still own appliances and use them in ways medievals could never have dreamed of. Ironically, I remember seeing non-ironic references to knights and chivalry in the last election in Dominica, whereby politicians were compared to "dark knights," were "unchivalrous," and so forth. This medievalist language isn't common in the island, mind you, but I found it surprising that it came up when I had started thinking of this neo-medieval idea.

Speculation could be dangerous in the Dark Ages. Such seemingly unthreatening heresies as whether or not God was literally a trinity were punishable by death. Today, in the Caribbean, this is generally not anything close to the case. But it's still a reawakening to see a gay man murdered by the police in Jamaica, while crowds yell bun out de chichi and fiyah bon, "chichi" being homosexuals, and "bun" (or "bon," pronunciation dependent), of course, a reference to their infernal destiny.

Although Dominica contains some fanatics, there is not the same mob mentality towards punishing people who think differently, and, in fact, there is an appreciation in this island for thinkers, for literate readers, that is almost nonexistent in the States by comparison, and I think it is because most Dominicans have not become as bitter, ironic, and absurdist as so many young Americans I've seen seem to have. My two histories are different, and so the people resulting from those histories are different. Although the response varies from state to state, it is generally true that questioning authority in the States is less of a potential issue than in Dominica. I wish this were otherwise. It is not that I want Dominicans to become deists or agnostics or atheists or Transcendentalist Spinozans; all I want is for questioning to be allowed, embraced, not punished. I won't deny that I'd be disappointed if that questioning led back to the same beliefs my half-compatriots had before, but I would still be pleased that they'd questioned them; and, of course, their beliefs would only be the same on the surface, as something below very likely will have changed. I am no missionary; missionaries are not in the position to be dreamers, and missionaries don't really want renaissances. *

Contrary to what Donne wrote, we are all islands, or islets, perhaps, drifting on a really-and-truly-seemingly-endless sea. And when we come together, neither of us may survive, or we may form the most beautiful, astonishing geography, or we may find those unknown, dragon-guarded islands. But if we never drift at all—well, the metaphor's gone on too long. But you get the picture.

All this sounds well and good, maybe. I imagine some Dominicans even embracing it. But the biggest fear I have is still speaking out, as the island is too small and some names are too well-known to prevent others from finding out what I've said and taking it against me in some way. Even now, as I write this, I don't want anyone from one side of my life to see it, ever—not to protect me, of course, but those near enough to me. So I pretend, as I've done for years, to be whatever I should be. I never say I am anything—I choose my words carefully—but I never say I'm not, either. Sometimes, I don't think I even know who I am.

And yet, things are better than in Jamaica, I believe, much better, indeed.

 

 

When I look up on a clear night, I see endless stars (though I am incapable of putting them into constellations). I see a cloudlike thing that I imagine is a band of the Milky Way, and on special nights, when I'm still out there in the wee hours of the morning, I see the green or yellow or blue or white streaks of meteors. Even on a night so cloudy and lightning-bright that I don't feel the safest looking out, I picture the stars and construct a scenario in which each one is a planet filled with humans or otherwise sentient beings, much, if not exactly, like, Earth; and though the feeling is hard to communicate to others who don't dwell on such things as I seem to, I feel insignificant, the littleness of those other worlds only accentuating the littleness of my own planet. The Earth already feels impenetrably vast, even if I don't include the endless portions of deep sea and earth we have never seen; to imagine other Earths is almost unimaginable.

I am not a believer in personal gods. Of course, one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a deity, indeed of anything at all, but that does not make a simian-obsessed self-obsessed Gandalf on the clouds (or wherever and whatever else he, she, it, or they may be) any more probable to me. I can back up my position philosophically and scientifically, to a degree; but I need neither, really, as a long look at the night is enough for me. **

Living on a mountain in Dominica, an island branded to tourists and other West Indians as "the Nature Isle of the Caribbean," such views of the night are easy to come by—at least for those who look. I'm always surprised, returning to a more developed land, how much the lights of a city or suburb blot out those in the sky. And yet, it is the people in those developed worlds who tend to understand my feeling, watching the sky; the other half of my compatriots (for I am half-American, half-Dominican), when they look at the sky at all, see a confirmation that their island is grand, a masterpiece of nature that has been preserved by no less than God for the edifying viewing of Caucasian tourists. Or they may see nothing at all, their eyes passing over the wonders they have become accustomed to, almost like that looker, who looks in the snow and sees nothing; the marvelous, after all, is less marvelous to one who lives among marvels. In an island where God is as seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday existence—from shitting to suffering, getting good grades to getting colds and news of government corruption—as in the medieval age, it is perhaps no wonder that the stars are no great wonder, for such a world can never, truly, have wondered (or wandered) enough about the night to be disturbed. Aristarchus proposed that the earth went around the sun centuries before Copernicus, and, if we believe Lucretius, Epicurus saw, Aleph-like, the makeup of the entire universe; but such figures were brushed aside as heretics by the medievals and even by many of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and they have never existed in the history of my island, in textbooks or otherwise, unless (as is quite possible) we have lost the great work of an ancient Amerindian. The history of my region begins with the Amerindians but today, most Dominicans treat Columbus' 1493 sighting as its beginning; and it is, of course, only appropriate that it is the beginnings of the region's slavery (Columbus enslaving the Amerindians he did not kill off, and the Atlantic trade not far off) that they associate with their island's conception.

It's hard to be a skeptic in Dominica, in the Caribbean. At least outside the Bible Belt, I feel relatively safe in the States; and when I pass the enormous sign proclaiming "HELL IS REAL" in Ohio or see, once in a while, a poster-waving Christians on a sidewalk in Tallahassee, I feel able to pass by unnoticed and unscathed. But in my other home, which I cannot go long without seeing and feeling, I never feel safe. This is the island where, just a few years ago, a Siberian Husky was killed by superstitious people because they had never seen a dog with blue eyes before, and it brought to their minds evil; this is where a massive crowd filled the town because two women had stopped to stare at each other without moving for hours, and the crowd thought their freezing, their seeming unwillingness to let the other pass, was due to the women being soucouyants, vampire women who wear human skin during the day, shed it at night to fly as fireballs or fireflies, and leave purplish marks or scars where they suck their victims, monsters who will not allow others of their kind to walk past them on the wrong side; this is where God is invoked and praised without a hint of irony, for the idea of being ironic about God here is blasphemy. Certainly, people make jokes about God—the joking so common to Dominicans is one of the nicer things about being there, to me—but these jokes are always made with the assumption that their object is not simply real but messing around, being naughty.

I feel alone when I look at the sky, and I feel lonely when I look at my compatriots on the island. The Vatican, perhaps, would tell me to stop looking, my aloneness the inevitable glaciating result of a world without its god, as they said in a scathing review of The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of the first novel in Philip Pullman's wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. Something similar might be true for the wintry world of Bergman's Winter Light, which forms the backdrop for Father Tomas' Christlike doubting of God.

And yet, I don't feel any coldness, though it is true the universe is warm and fuzzy only to those who have never given it much thought. If anything, I feel more exhorted to love and appreciate fleeting, flitting things. I have seen the Sistine Chapel, the Pieta, and other religious works and felt admiration, awe, smallness; but it is not because of what they depict, but because of how beautifully, or terribly, or astonishingly, they have depicted the visions of their creators. A statue of a soaring spaghetti monster may, for all we know, inspire the same in future lookers, who do not look in the snow (where ever needed snow to have snowmen?), if such seers, such readers, will exist in the future. I really don't know. What I do know is that I am alone in these thoughts, when these thoughts are in Dominica.

It's not as simple as leaving one place and staying in the other. I have too many attachments to both places. I cannot stay in one too long without longing for the other. I live, really, in neither, but in an in-between place, some interdimensional liminal zone where the trains' whistles are never far. I write from a place between places, a placeless sort of place, and this would all be well and good and even perhaps transcendental but for the physical necessity of being somewhere. And when that place is Dominica, or a number of other Caribbean islands, I feel much like the inhabitants in that strange tale by Cortázar, where a tiger lives in a house, and one must always check a room before entering it.

 

 

When I was younger, mind you, I believed. No. When I was younger, I knew God was real; He was the one who persuaded my parents to buy me a Sega Dreamcast, various games for said Dreamcast, a PlayStation 2, various books, and even opportunities for talking to whatever girl I was in silent love with that week or day or hour. I didn't know enough to talk about my "believing" in anything, since I didn't believe in anything—I had simply been brought up with God in so lackadaisical, so quotidian a way, that I never had to make an effort to believe in anything. If something is simply integrated into everyday life, there is no need to "believe" in it; we only start talking about "belief" when something ceases to be an everyday occurrence. Then, you see, it takes special effort, a confrontation of something split from a seam so perfect that it had never been noticed before.

Naturally, all my pre-college schools were religious. Before I moved to Dominica at nine, I had been going to All Saints in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I seemed to be, along with the Indian girl I fell in love with at six, the only non-white person in my class. In Dominica, I went to St. Mary's Primary (S.M.P.), which was run by Christian Brothers, and then St. Mary's Academy, which was also run by Christian Brothers. The Christian Brothers were famous; my father would tell me stories about one notorious Brother who kept a cane worthy of the Marquis de Sade in his drawer for disciplining students. I was never hit myself by a Brother, but I remember being lashed five times on the hand with a thick wooden ruler a few days into my first semester in Dominica. I had gotten five questions wrong on a test, and each wrong answer was worth a lash on the hand. Many years later, a teacher broke a boy's wrist from hitting him too hard, and the lashing system has died down somewhat, but I'm sure it still goes on.

The Christian Brothers lived in a decent-sized house near our school, just beyond the basketball court where unruly boys would be sent to stand in the sun, and they only taught a few classes—religion and math, primarily, it seemed, a combination that, in retrospect, I find fascinating. As with all our teachers, we assigned them names: "Foxy" (who had once had red hair), "Canada," "Boggahpop." We all had names ourselves—I was called "Bakes," which was the name we gave to that wonderful fried dough called johnnycakes—and it was all we could do to live up or down to our names. I never questioned faith in S.M.P or S.M.A (the latter of which we claimed stood for "Smartest Men Alive," while our perennial rivals, the Convent Prep and Grammar School kids, claimed it stood for something quite different). I never had time to, really, as the teachers worked our asses off—in the best of ways, of course—in a potpourri of classes.

When I was a mid-to-late teenager, though, I abruptly abandoned my Christianity and became a Wiccan. Or, at least, that's what I called myself. I've never fully understood why this happened. I think a lot of it was my being fascinated by the marvelous and the extraordinary, but also by the supernatural (which is not the same). The supernaturality of Christianity, I suppose, just wasn't cutting it. I also remember telling one of my friends that I was trying to find the truth by going back through history as far as I could, my assumption being that Wicca was "older" (which seems, strictly speaking, to be untrue) and therefore "more correct" than Christianity. Unconsciously, I had bought into the same idealizations the ancient Greeks and many thereafter had—that the first homo sapiens had lived in an Edenic Golden Age, where gods and humans lived so close to each other that the gods might as well have been...human. This delightful image, made all the richer by the terms coated over it, was, of course, picked up by the alchemists and John Donne, among others, the latter of whom described God as the Philosopher's Stone that would transform all it touched into god-gold. Even now, I find such ideas as wonderful as I find them ridiculous—but back to how I got to finding them ridiculous.

By now, I was a sophomore at Saint Leo's University, which is near Tampa, Florida. For a while, the furthest I went in my conversion was looking up covens online—there were none, of course, advertising themselves in Dominica—and writing "Wicca" as "something special" in a ridiculous poster my RA put up in our hall, each of us encouraged to discretely write something on the poster. A day after I'd written it, someone wrote "fag" next to it—it didn't help, perhaps, that I'd drawn a crescent moon besides it—and I didn't talk about Wicca to anyone else for a while. Instead, I privately looked up spells online for repelling negative forces and attracting elementals, and I half-believed the people who posted them were delusional or deceptive or drugged-out, but I remember one night looking at some water in a glass, lit blue by the moon, and wondering if an undine, water elemental, would really come out of it. One of my friends, who was the first I talked to about Wicca, was a druggie who believed he had conjured up demons and evil spirits by the spells in ancient forbidden grimoires, and from then on, I chanted a spell each night before I prayed to create, in theory, a sort of intangible mosquito net of positive energy around me. I can't say that it worked, but it's difficult to tell with intangibles. ***

Then, I evicted God from my prayers. It took some shoving, but eventually, I was praying only to The Goddess, a devotion I showed by wearing a piece of cord with a tri-moon pendant around my neck to classes. I called her "goddess moon" and "mother goddess" and, finally, "goddess star," the latter of which made the most intuitive sense to me because I was envisioning our universe as revolving, planetlike, around a vast starlike mass.

This, although it seemed a worthy compromise with my readings of Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, was the beginning of the end. And I knew it, but it was a long time before I admitted it to myself. See, I had to make my goddess figure bigger and bigger to accommodate such a ridiculously vast universe. She soon grew so big, and us humans so small, that I lost any sense of personal attachment, beyond a vague feeling that I was "a part" of something, not unlike Freud's description of religion as the oceanic feeling we have before we are born. My goddess became less "mine" than a vast principle, a starlike force that big-banged us out—a principle that I still prayed to, aware of the vast distance my prayers would have to travel; I remember saying my prayers aloud sometimes out of fear that whispering or even just thinking them would make them too soft, too silent, to survive the great Qfwfqesque journey to that great star. Sometimes, I even kneeled in special ways. I remember the great pain I incurred from trying to cross my legs like Buddha.

I did gain some time by refashioning this "goddess star" as a maternal principle, as—linguistic triumph—the mother who had given birth to the universe. I realized early on that the lack of a male principle here was problematic, but the idea of praying to a male and female godly couple seemed ridiculous to me, and I figured that if something was divine, it wouldn't need the same little steps we did here on Earth. Of course, I was still using human terms to define it, but what else, after all, could I or anyone else use? And I won't lie. I found this idea—still do, really—comforting, wonderful, a fireplace for a blue soul to sit beside.

Finally, though, I had to admit it was unlikely something so vast could care about a little prayer, be it muttered or Munchianly screamed.

It wouldn't have mattered so much, maybe, if these admissions had remained in my head. But I couldn't do that; indeed, as soon as I thought up some new blasphemy, I would post it as my status or username on some program or website where I talked to most of my friends and family. These were often provocative, obvious, and angsty, like This world is too big for gods or quotes from Nietzsche I didn't understand. I was looking for trouble. And, of course, I found it. One of my cousins started talking to me one day about God. He was distressed; he thought I was an atheist. It was distressing because when we were younger, we were good friends, and he's always thought he was the family's black sheep. "I'm an agnostic," I told him, and he didn't know what that was, and he said it was all the same as atheism. Sometimes, I think I'm a deist, and this makes me feel a little more comfortable—"god" having big-banged us into ludicrous vastness and been done with it all. My cousin, I know, wouldn't buy it. He told me that I was a good person, that he had looked up to me, and would pray for me. We haven't said more than monosyllables to each other since, and I think he hates himself more now than ever, even as he grins in his photos like the gangsta (chains around his neck, fitted hat, 3XL shirt, Photoshopped grills on his teeth, the works) so many Dominican males want to be.

Sometimes, the stars don't look like stars, but like pounds of snow, ready to drop.

 

 

When I look out my window at night in Dominica, I see fireflies—sometimes green, sometimes a candlelight yellow. They may be fireflies, or they may be soucouyant. They dot the dark, and when the dark is very dark, they seem like stars, or the blinking lights of planes.

At other times, they look, briefly, like something else—a distant blazing tiger, a set of eyes, a speck of the stardust I believe I am, and believe I will return to, if the wrong person reads this collection of heresies.


* Many an anime would claim otherwise, but that's for another footnote in a very different essay.

** I'm always surprised how many people are 100% sure of something. In the immortal word of Spaceman Spiff: zounds.

*** Years later, I realized all this would have sounded suspiciously like obeah to many a Dominican, and an association with obeah, which may have its roots in an Asante word and connotes a system of African-rooted magic and spiritualism popularly thought of as "black magic," is probably more dangerous in my island than an unbelief or skepticism.

 

Photo credit: Jonathan Bellot

Comments (now closed)

Mikecheck

13 Mar 2012 · 22:46 EST

Thanks for the interesting, insightful and honest picture of whatyour and many other people's "religious" journey is like.