Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord” from The New Yorker, 6/13-20/11

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

New Yorker Illustration by Jean-Claude Floch

“Man,” Mike said, “I’m starting to feel sorry for myself. You’ve got the Bhagwan, Herbie. Mitchell’s got Mother Teresa. Who do I have? Nobody.”

Whether or not Mitchell’s “got” Mother Teresa is more or less the story here. I find the overarching need to “have” somebody – something, some belief, something to belong to, an identity for yourself – a fascinating insight into the human mind. Whether it plays into the story or not depends on subsequent chapters; yes, this is another novel excerpt.

Mitchell, recent college grad, is in India for a short while trying to firm up his belief in William James via Mother Teresa. He’s not having an easy time of it. He’s volunteering at one the Home for the Dying Destitutes, and can do some things – give out medications, massage aching heads – but is terrified of the day he will have to bathe a patient – or worse. Like most people, Mitchell has a good heart, and truly wants to help the needy, but doesn’t want to get too close to them in certain specific ways. By the end, he discovers he is a sinner. It’s analagous to Socrates discovering he is not wise.

Along the way, there’s some fascinating scenery. The Home doesn’t seem to do much for the dying destitute other than provide a bed and an occasional bath. The medications are usually the wrong ones – drug companies donate whatever is about to expire for the tax write-off, so they have lots of antihypertensives and few antibiotics. I’m a little puzzled by this: tetracycline is pretty cheap, why isn’t it available? The patients are bathed whether they want to be or not. There’s a truly grim picture of a nearly comatose man being dragged around to the bath room, and you wonder if he’d be better off lying in a gutter somewhere. Some hints of organizational corruption are plain: Mother Teresa is friends with Pinochet for fund-raising purposes, yet we see no evidence of funds.

Mitchell goes to a mass to meet Mother Teresa, and as she kneels before the altar, he sees the soles of her bare feet: “They were cracked and yellow – an old woman’s feet – but they seemed invested with the utmost significance.” I wonder if he meant to imply “feet of clay” or if I’m just cynical. Anyone who’s been involved with a religious organization beyond showing up for holiday services once a year knows every church, temple, whatever, has some degree of vanity, corruption, greed, and arrogance lurking beneath the surface. Many times it’s simply a deacon who cheats on his taxes (rather than a governor supporting a secret second family or a congressman sexting), but occasionally it’s more, a la Jim Jones. This is nothing new. You put two people together, eventually they’re going to butt heads over something, and you put three people together and two are going to keep a secret from the third. That it happens in the Catholic church is something Mitchell doesn’t yet understand.

The supporting cast is interesting: a beekeeper from New Mexico who works in the Home, a variety of roommates and fellow travellers from the Salvation Army house where Mitchell is staying. Mitchell finds Herb, of the Bhangwan, particularly irritating as he defends the orgies they are rumored to have: “It’s not the acts in themselves that are good or evil. It’s the intention of the acts. For a lot of people, it’s best to keep things simple. Sex is bad. Sex is a no-no. But for other people, who have, let’s say, attained a higher level of enlightenment, the categories of good and evil pass away.” Uh huh. No wonder Mitchell is irritated. “If Mitchell was ever to become a good Christian, he would have to stop disliking people so intensely. But it was maybe asking too much to begin with Herb.”

That’s exactly what Mitchell is doing at the Home, though – he’s starting on a path of Christian compassion at the hardest point, rather than easing into it. And if I may digress (and who’s going to stop me, that’s why I started blogging, so I could say what I wanted), a lot of people do this, or the variation of forgiving a lifetime of sins by a weekend in a leper colony. Why not start with being compassionate to the lady who’s cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store? Or the guy at work who wears too much after-shave? Or the DMV clerk who’s moving veee-rrrr-y sloooow-llly while processing your license renewal? That’s the hardest compassion of all. If you can do that, giving a bath to a guy with a tumor on his scrotum will be a snap.

The title “Asleep in the Lord” is a euphemism for death, though I think it can also be taken as a kind of stupor, and possibly, drawing on Herb’s psychobabble about orgies, the kind of pink-cloud devotion someone new to a belief system can feel when everything seems incredibly wise, before the little inconsistencies, hypocrisies and double-talk comes in. A hypnotic state, perhaps.The volunteers at the Home often seem to be in this kind of hypnosis, doing tasks like bathing or shaving without taking in what’s actually going on, what the patient actually needs at the moment – medicine, rest, a bedpan. Their busyness is their task, not actually easing suffering, and some go about it like little robots.

I consider this a very successful story because I felt Mitchell’s naiveté and earnestness throughout. I felt sorry for him when he encountered the man about to defecate in his bed, and couldn’t measure up to his own standards. And when I read in the author interview that this is yet another excerpt from another novel, I felt cheated, not because the story felt incomplete (it does, but not painfully so) but because it is, in fact, incomplete: I haven’t heard Mitchell’s story yet, I don’t know what he does with this experience. And that’s, perhaps, where the real story lies.

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