annotation by Telaina Eriksen
This quick read from renowned psychiatrist Allen Wheelis tackles the inherent violence of our culture and how many people refuse to acknowledge the violent and the sexual in the human condition. Wheelis weaves his theories and philosophies through a series of lectures held by the character Eliot Hawkins who argues that the sacred and the forbidden are one and that our Garden of Eden lies in our pre-human past, before enlightenment. Eliot tells his lecture attendees that when we awakened to the beauty of nature, to the pleasure of sensual enjoyment, the joy of floating in water, at that same moment, our fear was also awakened. Unlike animals who fear in brief interludes, humans are in a constant state of fear of their impending mortality, physical pain, etc. This constant state of fear gives birth to exploitation and the rise of gods.
The premise of the book and the philosophy and arguments are fascinating but it is a poorly constructed novel. It is obvious the character Eliot exists so that Wheelis can just talk and at one point in time on page 35 Eliot actually puts an outline up so that Wheelis can outline things he wants to say. Our narrator exists to flesh out (ha ha) the sexual theories and arguments of Wheelis. Our narrator is a 70 –year-old man (or around there) who is attracted to and finally starts a relationship with, the much younger (not yet 30-year-old) Mariane. Wheelis’ point here is that our narrator, by possessing youth and beauty, pushes back his own fear of death. To our narrator and to Eliot, beauty and youth are the same, and there is a deep human desire to sully beauty (Eliot uses the example of a man ejaculating all over the face of a beautiful woman). You cannot sully the old because the passage of time has already de-sanctified the beauty with wrinkles and gray hair.
Readers don’t keep reading for what happens to the characters, they keep reading for Wheelis’ intricate take on human nature and human relationships and the power construct of society.
Two of Wheelis’ nonfiction books The Listener and The Way We Are are both stronger works because they do not attempt to set up the rise and fall of conflict as this one does. Removing the content of the lectures from this story would cause the entire novel to collapse. Readers will struggle to remember the characters’ names and what happened in the book, but they will remember the content of Eliot Hawkins’ lectures.