Responding to the Anxiety of Self: Confession of Finitude and Rejection of God in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives

Professor Petra Taylor

BAL 371 War and Peace through Literature – Paper

Being a self causes anxiety (Taylor 2015). Furthermore, how does literature portray human response to that anxiety? This paper will investigate the response of the main character in Aleksandar Hemon’s autobiographical novel, The Book of My Lives. This paper then asks if his response fits into the theological paradigm presented by James Taylor in a discussion on September 29th, 2015. The theological framework I present is a theory yet unpublished. The conceptual structure contains the regime of peace and the regime of violence as the two exhaustive responses to the anxiety of being a self. This paper will ultimately argue that the main character (Hemon), has a habit of confessing of his own finitude, which is a response of the regime of peace. However, Hemon’s rejection of a higher power that could have established him is a response of the regime of violence.

To begin, what does it means to be a self? Kierkegaard gives some insight into this question in his philosophical treatise, The Sickness Unto Death. “[T]he human self, a relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another” (Kierkegaard 10). There are further effects of this being a self that James Taylor explained. As the self relates itself to itself, self-consciousness arises. Then we realize that we participate in our own becoming. We make choices that determine who we become, and our participation in our own self-development causes anxiety. We develop habits, good and bad as we continually choose what to do. We are made up of habits. Participation in our own becoming creates anxiety. Our core question is as follows: how does the central person of The Book of My Lives answer this anxiety? Through our investigation, we hope that we will illuminate the text, and find depth in it previously undiscovered.

There are a few sections where we see some anxiety that Hemon had. In the chapter, “The Book of My Life”, we hear Hemon’s relationship with his university literature professor. Their relationship is distinguished by much Shakespeare and much passion. As Koljević becomes aligned with Karadžić and begins to cover up the fact that he’s involved in genocide, Hemon realizes his old hero is no longer so heroic, but now seems more villainous. Hemon says that he felt “racked with guilt” as he tried to remember when he “could have noticed [Koljević’s] genocidal proclivities” (140). The language Hemon uses here shows that he is aware of his participation in his own self becoming. Hemon’s language that he “could have noticed” evidences that he believes he was making choices along the way, and he could have acted differently along the way in order to become different than the way he did become. Hemon does not buy into a deterministic or fatalistic understanding of human life.

Hemon realized that he was taking a part in the formation of his self, and he realized that he had been tainted by a person who was “plotting a vast crime” (141) – Koljević.

“Now it seems clear to me that [Koljević’s] evil had far more influence on me than his literary vision. I excised and exterminated that precious, youthful part of me that had believed you could retreat from history and hide from evil in the comforts of art. Because of Professor Koljević, perhaps, my writing is infused with testy impatience for bourgeois babbling, regrettably tainted with helpless rage I cannot be rid of” (141).

Here, Hemon admits that he has allowed callous ways of thinking to become ingrained in him. And that realization gives him anxiety. Now Hemon we see the growth in Hemon of a sense that he needs to do more work in order to retrain himself back to be less evil. Hemon laments, acknowledging that some parts of himself he cannot change, that his writing is infused with “helpless range I cannot be rid of” (141).

            Here, Hemon, in his consciousness of his own choice-making, makes no mention of a higher power. We learn from Taylor that a higher power could be an infinite source a self could align itself with in order to become changed – if change is the will of the god one is aligning themselves with. In addition, Hemon does not acknowledge a god anywhere else in a way that he could depend on that god for some sort of real strengthening.  So we can put forward that Hemon rejects the existence of any god having any sort of real power to bring about empowerment and transformation in a self.

            Let’s look at another part of The Book of My Lives where Hemon confesses his limitations, but does not turn to any supernatural being for strength. In the chapter, “Aquarium”, Hemon recounts his daughter Isabel’s struggle with brain cancer, and at one point he talks about the words that physicians used to describe to him what was happening in his daughter. Let’s see. “But it looks like a teratoid,’ [the physician] said. I couldn’t comprehend the word teratoid either—it was outside my language and experience, belonging to the domain of the unimaginable and incomprehensible, the domain into which Dr. Tomita was now guiding us” (228). Here the text emphasizes the language difference that occurred to Hemon while listening to the physicians’ accounts of what was happening to his child. That medical language Hemon could not comprehend. In that moment Hemon recognizes another limitation of his – that he cannot fully understand what is happening to his daughter. Hemon doesn’t know precisely what the problem is. He can say it is brain cancer, but the details of what type and how it works are unknown to him, and he admits that. Again, Hemon notes his limitations, which is the first step in realizing one’s own resources are not enough to bring about change at times (Taylor).

            Furthermore, in this same chapter, the text again reveals a moment where Hemon felt helpless in the face of the tragedy unfurling before him. Here it is. “To the accompaniment of Bach cello concertos or Mingus piano pieces, my heart registered every dip of Isabel’s heart rate, every change in her blood pressure. I couldn’t take my eyes off the cruelly fluctuating numbers on the monitors, as though sheer staring could influence the outcome. All we could ever do was wait” (233-234). Here the text brings us into a scene where Hemon sees the condition of his daughter in her dire situation, and he senses a feeling of powerlessness. “All we could ever do was wait” (234), a statement of Hemon’s which encompasses his realization that there’s almost nothing he could do to control this situation. All he could do was wait and hope for her recovery. This part of the text brings into light a valuable insight about feeling helpless. When we feel helpless, and when we in our finitude really are helpless, like Hemon was in this moment, we realize in a brutal way that we cannot control everything to the outcome we want, even if we put all our energy into that one effort. Hemon and his wife Teri were constantly at the hospital by Isabel’s side, but what more could they do than wait? All they could do was say to the physicians, “keep doing what you can to keep [Isabel] alive.” The Hemons could not force their daughter to stay alive. Events happened beyond their control, and in the sorrowful experience of their daughter’s death, they full realized their own bounds.

            Hemon sees the limits of his comprehension again near the end of “Aquarium” Not only could he not fully comprehend his daughter’s problem, or force her into recovery, but he also could not “comprehend what was happening” (246). “I could not write a story that would help me comprehend what was happening. Isabel’s illness overrode any kind of imaginative involvement on my part.” He noticed the way that his daughter Ella was coping with the situation with her stories of Mingus and other imaginary family members. But Hemon himself could not mentally grasp what was going on. Something was happening outside of his influence, and it was horrible and painful.

            What are two theological categories of response an interpretation of Genesis can put forth? As James Taylor explained, there is the regime of violence and the regime of peace. Let’s look to stories in the Tawrat for further insight. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived in the kingdom of peace, where they depended on God’s provision for their needs – their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. They received gifts of fruit and accepted the identity and value that God gave to them. God walked closely with Adam and Eve. God also told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed, taking control of their own life, which went against the way that God had set for them. They trusted their own judgments above Gods. Above obeying God, their action shows that they sought to eat, enjoy, and gain wisdom. They heard God coming, and so they hid from him. God found them, then told them of the changes that were now happening as a result of their taking control for themselves. These changes would have a stark impact on the world around them. A new hierarchy would be set in place, where peoples’ value would come from a totem-pole like system of achievement, rather than the gift-based scheme God had started Adam and Eve in.

Looking one step further, we find a story of life in this new world. We see the children of Adam and Eve relating to one another. Cain, the firstborn, brings some food from his fields to offer to God. Abel, the second-born, brings the first-fruits of his flock to offer to God. God looks upon Abel with favor, but not on Cain. Cain becomes enraged, seeing that God is favoring the second-born. How preposterous! The firstborn is highest on the hierarchy! The firstborn should have the greatest value! One way Cain devises to raise back to the top of the food chain is by killing Abel. He does, and God curses him for it. This new distorted system has the goal of gaining value by a self’s own strength, by doing the greatest things, or by being highest in rank in the system set up in the world. In order to get to the top of this system we need to use violence, coercion, and force. In the life of Jesus, Isa, we see the goal God has set for us, the way we are to live. Jesus sets the example of what human life is to like – and it is life in the regime of peace, distinguished by equal value and dependence on God, as life was in the garden.

            Recalling Hemon’s response to realizing the bad habits Koljević had ingrained in him, we can see his response as step in the regime of peace. A key feature of the kingdom of violence is independence that rejects any sort of dependence on an outer power that is beyond one’s self. A statement about one’s own weaknesses, and about one’s condition that one cannot do anything to change is a necessary an affirmation of one’s own limits is required. Here Hemon realizes that he cannot rid himself of this condition, and feels a sense of hopelessness towards the possibility of changing the “testy impatience” and “helpless rage” his writing is “infused” with (141).

            However, Hemon had part of his existence in the regime of violence as well, as we see through his dismissal of the actuality of God. Thinking of the way the text portrayed Hemon’s relationship with God during the section where he is dealing with his daughter’s sickness, we can see the character of Hemon expressing the aversion people have to examine their own death, going on to explain our efforts to “ease ourselves into death even as we mature”. “[A]s we mature into mortality, we gingerly dip our horror-tingling toes in the void, hoping that the mind will somehow ease itself into dying, that God or some other soothing opiate will remain available as we venture deeper into the darkness of nonbeing” (234). Here Hemon equates God with an opiate, which partially gets across the following message: Don’t try and escape the pain of mortality by saying that God will make everything better. We also see in this statement an outlook on God that in focusing on him we will end up not dealing with some hard parts of reality. This attitude mirrors Marx’s suggestion in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, of Works of Karl Marx 1843. Marx states that religion is “the opium of the people”. This statement indirectly expresses that Hemon understands turning to God in response to facing his mortality to be a weak response, not a strong response, as the regime of peace proposes, but instead he’s encouraging that turning to God is a way to to reject the fullness of the experience of a loved one passing.

Harold Bush, Jr., a professor of Virginia Tech, published an article 8 years after the death of his son, where he does respond to the sense of his own bounds he likely learned in his son’s passing with a profession of God’s existence, as opposed to Hemon’s rejection of God, and we see that Bush’s acceptance of God’s existence provided him with a sense of stability throughout the sorrowful period of his life that followed his son’s passing. The article reflected on the continued sorrow he felt from the death of his son. Bush went through a similar child-loss experience to Hemon, and they responded slightly differently. Hemon stressed more in “Aquarium” his helplessness in the face of medical trauma in his child. Bush did not focus so much on the experience of helplessness he felt during the child’s near death days, but he focused more on the post-death of a loved one experience, and what it was like for him to admit that God exists while he went through that period of time. We see at the end of “Aquarium” that the feeling of sorrow stayed with Hemon. “Isabel’s indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow” (251). Bush echoes this same experience, and goes one step further to say that he did find some grounding, and he managed to maintain a sense of meaning in life acknowledging that God is real, and provides grounding for his life. So here, Bush, in the wake of his child’s death, realized that the way he responded to the sorrow he experienced as a result of the death, would influence who he became and what his life looked like. He felt the anxiety of being a self, and turned to simply admit that God exists, even in the face of this trauma. “Over these eight years, I have been thankful so many times to realize that there was a little bit of rock underneath my life.” He didn’t go on to try and explain why God let this happen, but he admitted that God exists. This a step towards life fully ingrained in the regime of peace – admission of God, which is a step in the direction of receiving the gifts of God, and living a life characterized by dependence on God.

            In conclusion, we see that Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives portrays the author, the central character of the book, as one who acknowledges that he is participating in his own self-becoming. He feels anxious as a result of realizing this process. We examined two situations where he became aware of uncertain outcomes and felt nervous as a result. How did he respond? In the situation with his professor Koljević, he realized that bad habits of writing had been fixed into his self, and he realized that these could have negative effects. As one participating in his own becoming, he realized he had a duty to respond to these negative effects. Admission of his problem is a key attribute of his response to this self-anxiety. That is a step that could direct someone to move into the regime of peace. As he tried to remove these negative habits of thinking and writing from himself he failed, and realized he could not remove every bad tendency that had been developed into him. He accepted this limitation with sadness. Another quality of life in the regime of peace is accepting one’s limitations, as opposed to trying even harder to force oneself to not be limited in a particular area.

In examining Hemon’s response to Isabel becoming sick, we see that he realized his own lack of ability to control her healing, coming to a painful head where he accepted this point which he could not extend his influence past to cause greater change. He realizes his finitude, which is an act in the kingdom of peace, but he rejects God, which is of the regime of violence. He gave up trying to push past this limit. He critiqued people’s platitudes that included God. Some of them can be terrible, and too many can take away from our full consciousness of the horror of losing a child. But an even greater reality includes God. It is good that he accepted his own limits, but what could have brought him even more into the regime of peace would be an acceptance of God, and a concession of God’s existence, like Bush took. As a result of examining the responses Hemon has to his anxiety of being a self, we see that he has a foot in both worlds, in the regime of peace, thanks to his confessions of his mortality, and a foot in the regime of violence because of his rejection of God, and come to understand his character better through the lenses of the regimes of peace and violence, and the anxiety of self.

Works Cited

Bush, Harold K. Jr. “After a Child Dies”. The Christian Century, December 11, 2007, pp. 36-39. Print. Accessed 22 October 2015.

Hemon, Aleksandar. The Book of My Lives. New York, New York: Picador, 2014. eBook.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941. Portable Document Format.

Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Works of Karl Marx 1843. Marxists Internet Archive. Revised 2005 by Andy Blunden, and by Matthew Carmody in 2009. Web. Accessed 22 October 2015.

Taylor, James. Personal Interview. 29 September 2015.

The English Standard Version. Ed. Lane T. Dennis. Wheaton, Illinois: Good News Publishers, 2011. Print.

I wrote this paper for a class I took in the Balkans called Balkan Literature: Literature and Human Rights. Below is a description of the course.