Atheism as taboo in fiction?
April 20, 2008 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Book-filter: Nabokov commented on Lolita that there were only three taboos in American publishing: incest, interracial marriage and "the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106." Did Nabokov(or anyone else for that matter), ever write a notable book about this latter taboo?
posted by archae to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Heinlein wrote quite a number of (scandalous, for their day) books about just such a type of people, viz. Lazarus Long.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:48 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but Google has a cached version of Wikipedia's (now-deleted) "List of Fictional Atheists" category. That should be a decent starting point.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:54 PM on April 20, 2008

I suspect you're not going to get a positive answer to this question because the actual taboo is probably something more like "anyone who lives a happy and useful life, etc. etc." It's just not interesting fiction. Something dramatic has to happen. The only single character I can think of that this applies to is the old man in Ikiru. He may or may not be an atheist.
posted by one_bean at 8:58 PM on April 20, 2008

archae, I can think of a number of books, but they may not qualify. By 'total atheist' do you mean the protagonist would have to address the question of divine existence and reject it? Or simply one who lives with no thought of any god/s? Interesting quote, to cite incest as comparable to atheism and interracial marriage.
posted by dawson at 9:01 PM on April 20, 2008

Henry Miller's semi-autobiographical work might fit your bill, but I don't think he quite made it to 106.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:05 PM on April 20, 2008

A book about anyone, atheist or not, who lives a happy and useful life to the age of 106 sounds dull. Literature is usually about conflict. So to make such a book work it would have to be about someone who seeks this idyllic life, but must solve some conflict to do so. I know of no such book, but there must be more than one.
posted by caddis at 9:54 PM on April 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Joseph Heller's last book was called 'Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man'. It's a very thinly veiled novel about himself, as an old artist, trying to write a final masterpiece, talking about his sexual relationships, etc. If I remember correctly, there are no real conflicts or events. I'm not sure if Heller was an atheist or not, but he doesn't seem very religious, either. Most of the interest I had in the book was in reading about the process of writing, or reading the scraps of 'aborted fiction' that Heller (or the author-inside-the-novel) included in the book, etc. In short, the book is about an old (perhaps) atheist writer who lives a generally happy and useful life trying to write.
posted by suedehead at 10:08 PM on April 20, 2008

And like caddis and one_bean suggests, the book wasn't very exciting, just warm and readable.
posted by suedehead at 10:09 PM on April 20, 2008

This makes me think of Belloc's poem about John Henderson, an unbeliever, and his sister Mary Lunn, who had a whacking lot of fun:

Though unbelieving as a beast
She didn't worry in the least,
But drank as hard as she was able
And sang and danced upon the table ..

The Christians, a declining band,
Would point with monitory hand
To Henderson his desperation,
To Mary Lunn her dissipation,
And often mutter, 'Mark my words!
Something will happen to those birds!'

Which came to pass: for Mary Lunn
Died suddenly, at ninety-one.

posted by verstegan at 10:15 PM on April 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

There's two parts to this, the atheist & the happy healthy old man. I think Nabakov was wrong about the atheist being a taboo in American literature, or at least, that changed in the 20th century; the happy healthy old man is just boring, but I don't think atheistic characters are punished for their unbelief in novels.

I am reminded of Bokononism, somehow, though of course Bokonon was neither necessarily happy nor dead in his sleep nor 106, nor atheistic by the most standard definition. But regarding the spirit of the quote, clearly a novel can be openly heretical.

Or is the point that "man's search for meaning" must be addressed, i.e. a protagonist who is happy to 'just' be an atheist in the simplest sense wouldn't be allowed because at very least they'd have to have existential questions or something? Then I would agree though I wouldn't call that a taboo, but the source of literature... that reminds me of the part from Douglas Adams when Arthur Dent finds the perfect planet with 25 hr days, a lovely climate & a peaceful populace, where everyone reads a lot, and he thinks it'll be great until he discovers the books are all boring, all end at exactly 1000 pages no matter where the story is, and no one cares because nothing happens in them anyway; they're just to pass the time.
posted by mdn at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2008

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