Tennessee Williams On The Invention of Religion
James Grissom: Has religion been important in your life?
Tennessee Williams: Well, define religion. My religion may, at various times, reside in the Episcopalian prayers, or, as it does now, with a revised Catholicism that keeps me somewhat tethered to what it is I should be doing and can be doing. But my religion has varied, just as it has for everyone on the planet with the slightest intelligence or imagination or curiosity. Religion can be cocaine or Valium or young flesh or money or fame of the most gossamer construction. How do you define religion? Well, you can't and you don't. However, the choice one makes regarding religion defines that person boldly, definitively.
Grissom: What do you learn of a person by their choice of religion?
Williams: The predominant characteristic of all religion is fear, and fear almost always breaks down, within the soul and the community, as anger. Man invented religion to give meaning and majesty to his life. The reality of life, of course, is brutal. We are a brutal people programmed to survive by any means, and I applaud the men who huddled over a fire and some corpses slaughtered in anger and decided that something better had to be constructed. The words of man mean nothing to most people, so they invented a cosmic father, an omniscient concierge of souls, who had relayed information to the oldest or wisest man in the community, and he had let it be known that killing someone over wheat or a comely woman was verboten, and the punishment for this offence was death in a fiery place over yonder. Well, it worked. The concept of karma was invented and it gave some order to the world. I can't steal things or I'll go to this awful place. Never mind that he--and we--are already in an awful place, all the time. Trust me, the wise men told them, this is paradise compared to the punishment that awaits you. Whatever could not be controlled by manpower or surveillance or coercion was now controlled by laws pieced together by creative men to keep natural man--hungry, envious, fearful, violent--in check.
Grissom: But that couldn't be enough to keep people in line.
Williams: No, because we always want more, and after you take away the joy of having one's hand in a perpetual cookie jar of things that do not belong to you or are not good for you, you have to throw in a reward system. And at that point, religion became the well-constructed, middlebrow play that it has remained. I don't fiddle with the neighbor's wife so I do not go to Hell, but I also get rewards--brownie points--from the concierge of souls, so my crops will be bountiful and cancer and the croup will not fall upon my house. We became amatory and spiritual accountants, and so we have remained.
Grissom: And because we are so varied--and so needy--many religions arose?
Williams: Yes. Harry Crosby was not a great writer--he was a great character and a great inspirer of people--but he wrote one potent line: We hurt ourselves by our sins and others by our confessions. Or something to that effect. It is very true. Whatever sin weighs most heavily upon your soul; whatever guilt or dirty deed sits, barely hidden by darkness in some corner of your heart, will always motivate you. No one has the interest or the emotional capacity to fathom all that the world delivers upon us, so they specialize in divorce or abortion or homosexuality or backward-falling faith or infidelity or self-fulfillment. Sins crop up with greater regularity and volume and complexity than regulations in the tax code. This is to keep us in line; this is to keep us in fear; this is to keep us in the pews. It also allows us the freedom to hate whomever and whatever most terrifies us, threatens us, defines us. If I were to deny my homosexuality--to announce to the world that it was a fiction and a slur--I know the churches to which I would run and hide, and I would join them in the denunciations of those poor, inverted souls who gather at the river and count chest hairs. Oh, the joy I would know living vicariously through and around my fellow deviants, while huddling with the fearful on Sunday to speak of my "mission" to save and reform them.
You must remember the time in which I was raised: I was aware of lynchings and cross-burnings and enforced curfews that kept us off the streets, where dangerous Negroes lurked, stealing our women and our jobs and our purity. I never witnessed the discarded bodies in the trees, but members of my family did. These crimes were committed in the name of Christ, I hasten to add: Those good, Christian men were simply keeping the neighborhood, the women, the white race pure and protected, and they could evoke any number of Scriptures to defend their crimes.
Now my grandfather and many members of my family took their Christianity very seriously, and they took the narrative of the Christ to heart: They wanted to heal the world and do well by and for others, and these actions, regular and endorsed by most of the community, sickened them, and so the art of religious and spiritual revision began in my family and was passed on to me.
I can profit from the narrative of all the religions, all of which possess the same basic foundation and scaffolding: There was a wise and pure man, misunderstood and slandered, who gathered a group of followers who taught people of their true meaning and mission. This was a man who sought to make people matter, and this was a man who sought to make the world a less violent, perilous place. This was, in short, a man who sought to make us less human, and I'm all for that. Let us try at all times to be a bit more supernal, a little less grounded in the dirt from which we arose. Man is merely a recipe of mud and spittle and fear. Let's recast the recipe and come up with something better.
If you can find it in a church or a meeting house or a twelve-step program, do it, believe it. If you find that you are not a kinder person capable of helping others to believe in doing all that you can to improve the world, to feed the hungry, to comfort the ailing and the curious and the defeated, then there is something wrong.
Tend to your own sins. Reject them and purify yourself. Be an example. Lead by example. These are the lessons I learned in church as a child, and which I have sadly neglected. Begin each day with a fresh page at the top of which is the heading GRATITUDE, and go out and see what it is you can do for others.
Love everyone and create a world where evil and fear and anger simply cannot take root in the soil. Make a land that cannot and will not tolerate the savage nature with which we were born.
Stop spreading your fear. Spread some love. The cross borne by most people is not love but rage--rage against someone who is doing better or against someone who has the audacity to do the things for which you lack the courage or the equipment. Therefore it must be a sin and they must be destroyed. Someone, somewhere is dying on a cross each and every day because of this piece of narrative fiction called religion that we invented to make our sleep a bit easier.
There is within all of us--no matter how feral--a kernel of love. Develop it.
©2013 James Grissom
From the forthcoming Artistic Suicide