email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAll That You Leave BehindAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am Dynamite!I Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMaybe You Should Talk to SomeoneMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNever EnoughNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Apparent DistressNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsRXScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabServing the ServantSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaTen Years a NomadThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family GeneThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThings We Didn't Talk About When I Was a GirlThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou All Grow Up and Leave MeYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
Since Nietzsche wrote of the death of God, the question of valuing 'value' itself has been a central concern of western thinking. In many ways, the current ethical debate -- certainly in the 'continental' arena of philosophy -- is fixated on this problem of the foundation of value, or, rather, how one values without foundation, as witnessed in the discussions and debates between the likes of Jean-Luc Nancy, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Ranciere. At the same time, the political rhetoric following 9/11 continues to demonstrate that God and State are far from detached. But their precise relation is heavily ambiguous. Here in the United Kingdom, for example, where the ritual acts such as 'queuing' and 'being rained on' are far more culturally ingrained than weekly Sunday worship, the relation of religion to society is murkier than the political speeches of Tony Blair would suggest, discoverable in tones and traces rather than doctrine and policy.
It is refreshing, then, to read an approach to thinking through a world without God outside of the academic and often technical discourses which can dominate such discussions. Nica Lalli's book is a first person perspective charting her encounters with a world entangled in religion, whilst having no essential attachment to the divine. Of course, by prefiguring my review with such an introduction, I am guilty of throwing the book too far into an area for which it was never intended. Lalli makes no pretence to be offering a sustained systematic account of the 'nothing' which she identifies with, and I would praise its efforts to work through the problem in a uniquely 'lived' way. The book is written for a lay audience, in a lively and entertaining style. Written as a memoir, it is also more than a memoir: it is charting an attempt to think through a particular problem, a problem also being thought through in the different contexts mentioned above. And, if we are to believe the back cover, it is an 'edgy quest for meaning', and one that 'theists in America should all read'.
Lalli documents her views of the religious from the outsider's perspective through various scenarios: for example, as a child she is introduced to God as an almighty punisher of truancy (20); in her teen years she encounters some ferocious born-again Christians (97); she tries attending a church service at college but feels alienated (131); she argues with her Christian in-laws over toleration and its limits (199); and she recoils at the religious fanaticism following 9/11 (259). In each different event, Lalli struggles to come to terms with the experiences of attempting to be 'good' without invoking 'God'. Certainly more charming and often more graceful than Nietzsche or Sartre, Lalli attempts to offer a unique account of the mind's encounter with the conflicting and ambiguous social formations of religion in the modern world.
But if this is its strength, it is also something of a weakness. As a memoir per se it is entertaining, at points cute; as an attempt to think through the problem of 'nothing' or non-belief, it encounters two obstacles in particular. In detailing these, I once again fully emphasise that neither of these are obstacles for a memoir alone: the book is not written as a work of philosophy, and as such these points may well not be deemed relevant. Nevertheless, they are points which are worth noting, as they feature throughout.
First, one finds oneself persistent frustration with the fact that the numerous scenarios Lalli presents -- while often amusing and quite warming -- do not lead to any sustained reflection on the problem. When she declares conclusively that 'I could never value gods above humans' (269), this declaration could be fitted in at any previous point of the book, and as such does not quite ring with the profundity it wants. Lalli raises a number of searching and intriguing questions: but without such detailed reflection, the answers she finds can come across as slightly facile.
Second, in her continual emphasis on the fact that she is, as a 'nothing', an outsider in American culture, there is a strong sense in which Lalli's story commits what Nietzsche termed ressentiment. In other words, by identifying herself as being on the 'outside', she seems also commit to an idea of the 'inside' -- a stable notion of 'religion' or 'Christianity' -- as a solid, immovable structure. Because she is not on this inside, she is nothing. But what makes this presupposition of a stable entity surprising is that her anecdotes frequently reveal the practices of the religious to be no less obscure and confused than her own. However, the issue of what this might reveal of 'religion', or whether this religion might even be considered as a coherent entity, is too often passed over. In doing so, Lalli's 'nothing' is only ever really consolidated as 'not religion', and religion, in its turn, becomes something far more systematic than the evidence Lalli provides would suggest. The Christian characters appearing in the book, confused and ambiguous as their message is, effectively must be part of a coherent (and undeniably loathsome) whole, or else Lalli's emotional response as an 'outsider' will not make sense. This is, again, frustrating, because it is on this issue, I would argue -- investigating these very instabilities which exist between the dualities of belief and non-belief, good and evil, value and non-value -- that an approach such as Lalli's could make a genuine contribution. Unfortunately, it does not.
The implication of these two points can be seen clearly in the culmination of the book, where Lalli documents her struggle with being both an American and a 'nothing', in terms of the turmoil of feelings following 9/11 as she watches the members of the senate sing 'God Bless America' (256-260). This picture, in itself, speaks volumes of the significant turn in political rhetoric of the era: it carries the implications of an enforced affirmation of core values, the dissolution of irony, the ending of the 'postmodern' celebration of ambiguity and the over-emphasis of the nation as a unity. But it is also well known that such a turn has produced far more ambiguity and irony in the political sphere, and raised far more questions over the appropriation of 'unity' as a value in a globalised society, than existed before. It is at this point which Lalli's book might carve a space to provide reflective insight on her first person experience of such ambiguity. Yet, frustratingly, we remain held up in front of the picture, even in the penultimate chapter remaining squarely inside the book's premise that being 'nothing' is -- unsurprisingly -- quite alienating. We are not given the space to think through what being 'nothing', or being 'outside', might enable or where it might take us other than an antithesis to what is, in itself, a dubious thesis (for example, surely being 'sick of George Bush and his smug certainty that we were God's chosen people and that prayer would get us through this terrible time' (258) is not limited to the non-believer). Rather, we are merely re-affirmed that Lalli does not believe, feels excluded, but can get through such events because 'people are all I really have' (268).
In the end, one is never really sure what one is supposed to be taking from this book: whether one is reading the memoirs of someone who has shared a significant number of curious, thought provoking moments with the religious, or whether one is meant to be engaging in something like an 'edgy quest for meaning'. In any case, the experience may well leave one with their own sense of 'nothing'. For the reader who identifies themselves with Lalli's experiences, there seems to be no springboard here for moving beyond the initial problem. For the reader who does not identify -- and, given the structure of identification Lalli's narrative depends upon, this reader may be atheist, agnostic or theist -- but is interested in the themes of the book, there is not much to elucidate the existing discussions about just such issues.
© 2008 Tom Grimwood
Tom Grimwood, Department of Philosophy, Lancaster University