Ben Sen's Blog

Politics, Culture and Religion Without Projections

Ben Sen

Ben Sen
New York, N.Y.,
December 31
I'd rather be judged on the basis of my posts than anything written in my bio. It's put down and gathered as a record of my experience and a response to what I see as the important issues in the world today. I don't pretend it's anything other than subjective. The purpose is to analyze, interpret, express opinions, challenge the status quo, open a few doors, and entertain. I heartily welcome ratings, comments and dialogue. That's what makes this media unique and valuable. It also keeps me honest and encouraged since I'm not getting paid. Take a risk and say something; it feels better. A "conversation" is essential for the growth of the individual and the collective. I have faith it extends beyond the confines of what is said here. "For it is necessary for awake people to be awake, or a breaking line may discourge us back to sleep, the signals we give--yes, no or maybe--should be clear: the darkness around us is deep." From A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER by William Stafford


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Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 1, 2011 11:30AM

Book Review: "Devotion" by Dani Shapiro

Rate: 15 Flag

     Devotion is a paean to those who no  longer embrace the doctrines of their ancestors, but find themselves incapable of discarding them and replacing them with something "new".  Sound familiar?  The knowledge of what the old beliefs sustained and made possible is powerful, and the role they played will not die.  In Ms. Shapiro's case, those images were Jewish, but they could belong to any of the great traditions and some not so great.

      Born and raised in the all encompassing envelope of Orthodox Judaism, watching her father begin his day with the prayers and rituals of that community, Ms. Shapiro portrays herself as a person on a life long search for answers to questions she fears may never be fully answered.  She basically reconciles herself to that past during the course of the book in front of the readers' eyes.  It is a harrowing and exemplary journey.

    She never mentions the debacle in human history that almost led to the demise of what she deems precious.  It is perhaps a kind omission, leaving behind the cruelties that place all of organized religion on the block of a more enlightened and retrospective consciousness.  The question: how did it happen? is not asked.    That may be the greatest form of forgiveness--the acceptance that we do not know everything and are better off working on ourselves and finding our own peace without proselytizing.

       Instead, she begs the question: Is the fate of the writer to have their own faith?  She declares herself an outsider, a sojourner, initiated in the traditions of the 12 Steps, Yoga, Buddhism, the consciousness raising of the "new age," and an education that clearly took her a long way from the settlements in Eastern Europe from which her people came.  Hers is not the structured, ritualized life of her extended family and yet she endures, adding on rather than taking away--forming her own answers in her own way in spite of all the suffering that has been thrown at her. 

     I especially enjoyed how she avoids many of the cliches of contemporary narrative and its insistent reductionism into psychologizing.  Instead of portraying her mother as an unabashed narcissist, for which there is substantial evidence, she is simply descriptive, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.  What else can be said of a therapist who "was only able to talk about themselves." And whose high profile "therapist" in turn was more concerned about her looks?

      It is startling and revelatory when someone has the courage to reveal so much about themselves in a memoir--though we know--as Twain taught that autobiography is necessarily a lie--it is a matter of how much we can see before the lies begin that makes a difference.  The French philosopher Jacques Lacan said "We are always limited by imperfect knowledge of ourselves."  It is humbling and common sense to know we are "as sick as our secrets," and the person supposedly without secrets is the one we have to worry about.

     A book can't end human suffering nor can a practice despite how faithfully it is carried out.  As the Buddha said, suffering is endemic to the species.  (No, those are not his exact words, I made them up like everybody else for the last 2,500 years.)  But a story can provide comfort when told with precision and thoroughness.  It is fun to see the truths and platitudes of the West and the East so well embedded in a personal narrative and no easy feat to stay out of the way for so long.

     Dani Shapiro's book made me think that gratitude is hard even if we know it's a curative for suffering.  She often repeats the expression that it is important to surround ourselves with the right people.  Yes, we have to do it alone, but there is help if we reach out for it.  The message is clear.

      If it is true, and we are all the Buddha, the only difference is that some realize it and some do not.  We wake in the morning to the same possibility and make our decisions to create not only our own life  but what all lives can be.  This is the conversation Devotion contributes too--the greatest conversation of all. 


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I was starting to wonder if I had the cooties today. Thanks for commenting Jramelle. I think this is Dani Shapiro's eighth book.
Sounds like a fascinating book. Religion is something always on my radar screen and ancestors a recent addition.
Sounds like a good read that I will have to check out on my own. Thanks for the suggestion.
I find most personal explorations of religion to be extremely cynical, so I probably wouldn't be interested in this, even though it sounds different. Buddhism in particular I think is very poorly understood in the West--and not much better understood anywhere else these days. Oddly enough, I would rather read about politics.

Lacan, by the way, goes far beyond sentimental statements about the self. For him, strictly speaking, it doesn't exist. It's a series of processes that get exhausted at the point of the Real, that kernel of materiality that can't be gotten rid of no matter how many subjectivizations are applied to it. You could say that the constant, desperate, global attempt to exhaust all those processes IS the only way in which the self exists for Lacan--a pretty dark view of reality, and not exactly the same as Foucault's, which I subscribe to, and which is that the self is nothing other than our relationship to it.

Impressively written review. I promise to read it, Ben. Sounds like something that would expand my limited world. I suggest you send this to Dani Shapiro, she would be thrilled.
Echoing Dr Spud, great review, makes me want to read it and I believe I've read her before. Send it over to her home page if you haven't already. R

bem sen you live in NYC? who knew? not me.
I really like your review of the impact of the book instead of what the book says.

"A book can't end human suffering nor can a practice despite how faithfully it is carried out." This statement is true, but a book, a practice, or a religion can bring "meaning" to the suffering. Congrats on the EP!
It is important to read what a person I respect thinks of a book, and this book in particular. Thank you. I will be looking for a way to get this book. It will take me some time to read, but I have no doubt it will be worth every moment. Your review speaks to me.
So beautifully written, Ben. So many perfect, gem-clear lines. You outdid yourself. You gave me a lot to think about, too. As a first generation American, with no grand traditions to look back on, I don't have any comforting structures to retreat into, no inherited answers. I can relate a little bit, though I think what this author leaves unsaid is thunderingly present in a way a non-Jewish person cannot fully appreciate. Still, horrible history or no history, many of us have to invent ourselves. I envy people whose culture is a given and for whom group identity is more important than individual identity, but I can't ever be like them.
Fascinating perspective, and good review, until you wrote “[Ms Shapiro] begs the question: Is the fate of the writer to have their own faith?” What question did she “beg”? Such misunderstanding and misuse of the language tells me the writer is being a tad pompous, and in a way that certainly undermines the message of an essay intended to be explicative. “To beg the question” does not mean to “pose” a question, or that a statement “begs” for a further question to be asked, but means to support a premise by re-stating the original premise in a different form, such as, “Twenty million Americans are poor. . .because the have no money” An editor, were one to be here, would have caught that. But, I’m going to buy and read the book.
Sleep in, repair, imperfect knowledge is but the stepping stone to be better. Interesting review.
A book can't end human suffering nor can a practice despite how faithfully it is carried out. As the Buddha said, suffering is endemic to the species. (No, those are not his exact words, I made them up like everybody else for the last 2,500 years.) Oh this is just so excellent. Your good and today your the greatest.
Artful. I'll tell me friends about it.