In 1841, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach published a book entitled “The Essence of Christianity.” This work, more often cited than read, critiqued the idea of Christianity from many sides. Perhaps his most persistent criticism is this: our doctrines of God are projections of our own human beliefs, virtues, impulses and characteristics onto a screen, which we call the divine.
Ninety-nine years later, Carson McCullers published a beautiful, epic debut novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” The main protagonist, the deaf and mute John Singer, functions in the book as McCullers’ screen. A young girl, a restaurateur, a black doctor and others all interact with Singer but see him as who they want him to be; not as he really is. Crushingly, to me, Singer seems unaware and incapable of realizing this projection.
This main theme of the book seemed to me its strength but also got me to thinking very deeply about human relationships. Do we mis-read people as badly as everyone misunderstands Singer? I think we would all agree that we project virtues, vices and characteristics onto others that do not really represent who they are. But McCullers’ tale is unrelenting. There is no redemption of the main characters–in the sense that they learn from this folly. Are we really that blind?
This book is pretty heavy, as the title gives its theme away. No one in the novel gets what they want from life–they all struggle against loneliness and loss. Even heroic moments and virtuous heroes don’t remain unscathed. Mick Kelly, the character one most empathizes with, can be beautifully sensitive or ruthlessly petty.
In all this is an impressive novel, full of quiet, heart-breaking beauty. It won’t make you smile or laugh. But it is a book which will set the wheels to turning in your brain.
What to listen to while reading this book: Definitely some blues. Maybe Robert Johnson.
P.S.–The version that I got out of the library was one of those Perma-bound books we all remember from high school so well. On the copyright page there was a recommendation for reading level of 14 and older. Now, technically, that may be correct–I bet a 14 year old could read this book straight through without a lot of trouble. However, what 14 year old wants to read in school a heavy novel of ideas about sexual frustration, career failure, and the like? I’m sure there are some 14 year olds who would like it–but I’m glad I waited until I was almost 40.