Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this story is available only for subscribers).  Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Asleep in the Lord” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 13 & 20, 2011, issue.

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I was thrilled to see that this fiction issue featured a new piece by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose third novel, The Marriage Plot, comes out in October.  For whatever reason, it took me a while to read.  It’s a slowly-paced story, and I found myself putting it down to think quite often.  I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it has made an impression on me and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since I finished it.

The story takes place in 1983.  A post-graduate named Mitchell has left his home in Michigan and, after travelling Europe for a while, has ended up in Calcutta, just beginning to serve at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes.  Nothing in his life has prepared him for his task.

Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before.  He’d never nursed a sick person, or seen anyone die, and now here he was, surrounded by a mass of dying people, and it was his job to help them die at peace, knowing they were loved.

He takes it easy at first, offering head massages to those with headaches and passing out medication he knows nothing about, feeling he should work his way up to the larger tasks he finds repulsive, like bathing the sick.  We note his hesitation early on, and we wonder if he’ll get over whatever barrier is keeping him from fully engaging in the service he’s signed up for.

For me, the best part of the story was the background on Mitchell’s own spiritual quest.  He doesn’t seem to believe, only to want to; or, rather, he wants to be the kind of person he sees when he sees someone who believes (perhaps it’s even a bit of vanity).  He was heavily influenced by William James, finding himself perfectly described in the passages about the infirm, and he finds particular promise in this line: “If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.”  So he’s questing for such a signal.

Mitchell had embarked on his post-graduate travels in a state of exquisite receptivity.  In Europe, he had found churches everywhere, spectacular cathedrals as well as quiet little chapels, all of them still functioning (though usually empty), each one open to a wandering pilgrim.  He’d gone into these dark, superstitious spaces to starte at faded frescoes or crude, bloddy paintings of Christ.  He’d peered into dusty reliquary jars containing the bones of St. Whoever.  In stiff-backed pews, smelling candle wax, he’d closed his eyes and sat as still as possible, opening himself up to whatever was there that might be interested in him.  Maybe there was nothing.  But how would you ever know if you didn’t send out a signal?  That was what Mitchell was doing: he was sending out a signal to the home office.

On the other hand, despite feeling giddy, “like a fan with a backstage pass,” when he finally catches a glimpse of Mother Teresa after he’s arisen pre-dawn to attend Mass, he still “didn’t feel as if he fit in with them, not matter how much he tried.”

I found the ending perplexing in the best of ways, though, as I said above, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.  Looking forward to comments to help me out.

7 thoughts on “Jeffrey Eugenides: “Asleep in the Lord””

  1. Betsy says:

    Jeffrey Eugenides’ story “Asleep in the Lord” addresses “the varieties of religious experience”, to borrow a phrase from William James. It’s rich, provocative, interesting, and not simple. The story appears in a New Yorker issue explicitly devoted to ‘starting out’. The three fiction pieces deal with the difficulties we have in our twenties: one story is of a vet who was court martialed for his activities during war-time, and another is of a young female college teaching assistant who loses her way when she loses her grant money. While Mitchell, Eugenides’ main character, is clearly starting out, whether he is lost or not is not as clear to the reader. The answer to that is also bound to be influenced by the reader’s own religious life, so opinions about the story and its ending are likely to be widely, even wildly, divergent.

    I notice a theme regarding money and religion. Mitchell has started out on his world tour with a “newly minted degree in religious studies”. ‘Newly minted’ would be a cliched phrase, except that it introduces this money thread in the story. There is a recession, and Mitchell decides to postpone looking for a job. Jobless, he decides to try to travel around the world. We must deduce that Mitchell is financially very comfortable.

    Once in Calcutta, Mitchell has enough money to give small sums to the poor, buy a beautiful cross to wear, and buy a train ticket to Benares without thinking twice when he is ready to move on.

    Against the omipresent poverty of Calcutta, two competing religious figures appear in the story: Mother Teresa and Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, both charismatic, both attracting devotees from around the world, and both attracting donors and their money. One of Baghwan’s followers sharply questions whether Mother Teresa cultivated Pinochet for financial gain, echoing questions others have raised, among them Christopher Hitchens, as to whether Mother Teresa raised vast sums of money from people like the Duvaliers of Haiti. The secondary question (which Eugenides does not explicitly raise) is whether the ultimate purpose of the money was less for easing the pain of dying patients than for opening center after center in her own name, thus building up a saintly world-wide reputation.

    Eugenides makes very clear that the “hospital” does not have enough drugs, does not have enough doctors, nor does it have enough trained staff to train the volunteers. One wonders what has happened to the money.

    In contrast, there is Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, who actually ended up on a commune in the United States, living a life amid a huge collection of cars, and who administered his religious guidance in part in “drive-bys”. In fact, after building a huge following in both India and the United States, Baghwan and his followers were accused ij the united States of criminal conduct. Baghwan is a peripheral figure in this story, but his appearance here casts the shadow of the possibility of the misuse of power and money by religious charismatics. Eugenides leaves it to the reader to think all of this through, and there may well be many readers who do not reach these same conclusions.

    A second theme in this story has to do with pain. Eugenides takes great care to provoke us with not only the possibility that some of the patients are in horrible and untreated pain, but that the untrained volunteers, although meaning well, cause some patients even more pain. Surely Mitchell’s head massages were well intended and gave some relief. But when he and the senior volunteer move a patient without using a stretcher in order to give him a bath, the patient is almost catatonic with pain. Mitchell wonders if dousing the patient with water from the bucket is causing him even more pain.

    “There was little in the way of painkillers – no morphine, no opiate derivatives.” Doctors came and went. When Mitchell dispensed pills, he had no idea what they were for.

    “In their haste,” Mitchell and his senior volunteer, “began to treat the old man less like a person they were carrying and more like an object.”

    Mother Teresa’s aims are extraordinarily touching: she quotes Matthew 25:40, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

    Eugenides goes on to point out that Mitchell knew that “What you were supposed to do here was take this scripture literally.” If you followed and believed, “by some alchemy of the soul, it happened: you looked into a dying person’s eyes and saw Christ looking back.”

    This would be very moving, except that the word “alchemy” strikes a wrong note here. Alchemy has in it the history of falsity and fraud. If the patients serve a purpose in the acolyte’s religious life, it may not be an entirely pure purpose, just as alchemy is not an entirely pure endeavor.

    If Mitchell and his co-worker could treat a patient like “an object”, it is then frightening to think that they would then look into the (objectified) patient’s dying eyes in the hopes of finding Jesus..

    This is all very troubling to the reader, as we accept Mitchell to be a decent, if naive, guy, much as most of us want to see Mother Teresa as a decent, if naive, nun. We want Mitchell to succeed in his longing to live a religious life. Instead, Mitchell ends up fleeing the Home after he is a witness to a patient’s humiliation. A well-meaning barber who doesn’t speak the patient’s language begins to shave the patient. Problem? the patient actually needs a bedpan,stat, which he asks for, and which is never provided. Instead, the shave is provided. The patient “in desperation” says, finally, “I’m shitting.” It is as if in this Home, the patients are not just objectified, but also casually humiliated by the care that the volunteers are so naively administering.

    Eugenides makes one last comment on the lack of drugs at the Home. In his flight from Calcutta, Mitchell stops just a block from the Home to buy some bhang lassi, a liquid marijuana concoction, from a street vendor. Mitchell’s companion, Mike, says, “This stuff will get you fucked up.” One can only conclude that the patients themselves might have benefited from a little bhang lassi as well.

    Another comment on the role of pain and the role of the non-existent drugs may be the book that a German traveler finds in the Guest house: “The Answers of Jesus to Job”. Written by a charismatic English preacher over a hundred years ago, this book may possibly address the idea that suffering and pain bring us closer to God.

    A third theme in this rich story is the issue of the variety of religious experience. Counting the English preacher, there are three charismatic religious leaders. There are thousands of acolytes. There is William James. Mitchell, having tried the (empty) cathedrals and chapels of Europe, has come to Calcutta, hoping to experience “real religious feeling.” Instead, he ends up fleeing Calcutta altogether, and in the haze of his bhang lassi, riding in a rickshaw, and chanting the Eastern Orthodox prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The story ends there.

    I posit that this almost blasphemous situation is Mitchell’s first real religious step. He starts with himself. He starts with an ancient prayer. He starts by declaring himself to be a sinner. Not a savior. Given what he has just been through, and given that he is committing the sin (to him) of riding in a rickshaw, the prayer is an honest assessment of the moment, possibly suggesting that the prayer might apply to many other of life’s moments as well. That he is stoned and riding in a rickshaw – well, it’s funny and sad, like a lot of life. Michell says that this prayer is from his childhood. It is as if he has traveled the world to end up at the beginning.

    One last thing. The title “Asleep in the Lord” refers to the idea that if you die in a consecrated state, others may declare you “asleep in the Lord.” But I think that Eugenides also means it ironically, as if Mitchell has been asleep in the lord all his life – studying, looking, until he finally awoke, in, of all places, stoned a rickshaw, saying the prayer of his ancestors.

    The fact that Eugenides has previously told a novel from the point of view of a hermaphrodite suggests that he enjoys the variety that human life provides, and that labels or casually received wisdom are not enough for him. Just as he questioned what it is to be male or female or a little of both, this story seems to question what it is that makes up a religious life.

  2. Jerry says:

    Never been a big fan of Eugenides but I thought this was a helluva story. I like the way it ends though I’m not just real certain of what the ending means. Guess we are supposed to figure that out on our own.

  3. Trevor says:

    Excellent insights, Betsy. Thanks! It gives a lot to think over.

    One of my favorite aspects of the story were the widely divergent views on the religious life even among those purportedly following the same faith. Yes, Calcutta is home at this time to a wide variety of religions, but the Christians themselves couldn’t be more different as they struggle to find out what their faith — or whatever they want to attain — means to them, and how they are supposed to live. Mitchell’s interests seem academic, even as he’s massaging temples.

    I love going down to Princeton, where Eugenides lives and teaches, and seeing religion everywhere (it’s not that prevelant up the road a bit in the suburbs of New York). Certainly Eugenides has plenty of samples from which to create this divergent cast of characters.

  4. Trevor says:

    You know, Jerry, I’m a big Eugenides fan even though I only truly love The Virgin Suicides. I was much less a fan of Middlesex, though it has stuck with me for years, certainly becoming part of my literary world. I’m excited for his new novel . . .

  5. Ken says:

    I enjoyed this but it seemed, again, incomplete as it seems (from what I can tell) like an excerpt from a novel. Betsy makes many smart comments which caused me to think even more about this thoughtful, well-written (I think) excerpt.

  6. Aaron says:

    Excerpt or not, I was unsurprisingly disappointed by this story, which I found just far too tedious for words. The first six pages seemed at least palatable, as we’re introduced to the well-intentioned Mitchell, and given a sidelong glance at the ways in which he is failing to be a good Christian, namely in the way he holds back and mitigates the extent to which he will give of himself. A volunteer, sure, but on his own terms, and not doing so in order to alleviate the suffering of others, but so as to assuage his own youthful pangs. (The moment at which he breaks this barrier — playing with the boy and the jack-in-the-box — is one of the few moments that works here.)

    That said, the last half-dozen pages start to devolve into a discussion of the story’s structure and theme, with Mitchell analyzing the Jesus Prayer (so as to allow for that awful ending). Random colleagues show up just long enough to make a theological point. As for the lengthy finale itself, in which the protagonist buys his train ticket, the bhang lassi, and the rickshaw ride . . . it’s hard to relate these to anything from the previous segments in the care facility. Mitchell’s revelation here seems like a whole ‘nother animal, and reads to me as if Eugenides realized that he needed to wrap up the short story somehow.

    I’ve got some examples provided over here: http://t.co/Za6ZesO.

  7. Betsy says:

    Aaron, I agree with you that I found the guy who shows up out of nowhere and starts reading the nineteenth century book – “The Answers of Jesus to Job” jarring and an overly convenient mouthpiece for the author. The Baghwan’s follower served a similar purpose, but it seemed to work more naturally. It’s almost as if The Answers of Job guy might have had a whole chapter in a novel, but if so, he got a few paragraphs in the short story. It kind of annoyed me to have to look up “The Answers of Job” and its author. What little I found has to be only a portion of what Eugenides actually knows about this old book and its author. So, yes, that section did feel like a manipulation of a text that ended up not working very well for the reader.

    I also agree that the last section of the story involving Mitchell’s sudden collapse as a volunteer and his ridiculous (stoned) exit from Calcutta in a rickshaw all seemed of a different piece from the rest of the story. For one thing, the rest of the story sets up an argument, while this section is a farcical scene, a terrific break in tone from the solemn goings on at the Mother Teresa home. Whether the jarring break from solemnity to farce works or not depends, I suppose, in whether or not you agree that Mother Teresa’s followers are doing the right thing. To me, Mitchell’s sudden fall from the sky is as real as real can be. Mitchell has come face to face, not with God, necessarily, but the messiness of life, and, necessarily, the messiness of religion.

    I guess I have to say I enjoy the way Eugenides is exploring the religious quest — that this sort of thing is my cup of tea. It’s just a fact, however, that others (like you) could find the story tedious. I concede that completely. For one thing, given the tediousness of the incessant role religion seems to play in the news these days, a story that replays the old records could feel to many to be just beside the point.

    For some of us who have a religious side, however, one of the problems we face is the ridiculous quest for our true vehicle, and of course, another of the problems is accepting the second-hand Ford that is inevitably where we end up. It’s a messy business, religion. Just look at William James. Some of his ideas are now laughable. But his inquiry remains a touchstone.

    I love the James brothers. No, actually, I adore them. They are my cup of tea – wacko, serious, hardworking, at odds, ambitious, jealous, but both of them, ever striving to get at what makes people tick. I find the whole family — their stories, their ideas, their difficulties — endlessly interesting.

    If Eugenides uses William as a touchstone for his story, well, that just grabs me. I can’t imagine it would matter to most people, so I accept your declaration that the story is tedious to you. I cannot urge Eugenides on anyone just because I like the James brothers!

    But for those people for whom the religious quest is still a live issue? Somehow, I think this new book may have legs for them.

    But I was glad to hear you disliked the story, as I think its topic is one quite a few people would find impossible. I contend, though, that that’s where Eugenides may enjoy himself most. I am supposing he has set himself the challenge of finding a fresh way to look at an old (tired) issue.

    Finally, though, Aaron, I think your question about whether Eugenides had to “wrap” this story up in a hurry is a really interesting one. If this is part of a long book, I’d really like to see how this New Yorker version is a part of it. The whole issue of excerpts and their artistic unity might be pointed up by this example.

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