He begins an essay in the New York Times about the Gnostic scriptures in his typically direct voice: "Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird." He also, in other accounts, has narrated his failure as he sees it to take care of his younger sister when he was a boy, and how she then drowned. As with me, death haunts him always.
As one who has roamed into Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban, who has investigated the plight of the poor in Asia and in Latin America, who has roamed the rails of America, and retraced the steps of the natives into the Arctic, the Maritimes, the Virginia estuaries, and the Western plains, Vollmann counters the cant or easy pieties of many of his writing contemporaries with observation.
Similarly, although many of his many books find him not taking on belief directly, he acknowledges here its hold on him. "Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where." His writings strive for compassion, cultivating one's patience for poverty and pain.
I understand his search. "Somewhere beyond us is the true God, or Goddess, who calls us to come home. She is calling me now. As I walk my own many-curving way toward death, I can’t help wondering how awake I am. Hence certain Gnostic lines haunt me. Someone beyond this world has named herself or himself the vision of blind sleepers such as I. This voice calls itself the real voice and insists that it is crying out in all of us. I wish I could hear its cry." He, like me, continues to wonder and wander and study scriptures and listen to accounts, even as he feels distant from many.
He is mature enough to acknowledge the weakness of those before us who have insisted that they channel the divine through themselves. "As a corpus, the scriptures are nearly incoherent, like a crowd of sages, mystics and madmen all speaking at once. But always they call upon us to know ourselves." And, Vollmann is perceptive enough to recognize their appeal, no matter our rationality.
(Image: Fra Angelico, Predella of San Marco Altarpiece, The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, Museo di San Marco, Florence. I first saw this illustration in this fine book.)