Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack
“By its own reality, ecstasy makes people see that suffering is real. And without purpose. Ecstasy is a light that illuminates pain.”
In Unquenchable Fire (1988), Rachel Pollack imagines an America transformed by a spiritual and religious Revolution, led by a group of shaman called the Founders, who spread spiritual enlightenment and first discovered the Pictures – sacred stories – and their Meanings. Magic works and can be accessed by series of sacred rights and rituals; however a system of obstructive and petty bureaucracy has risen up around managing and organising magic and spirituality for everyday use. Eighty-seven years after the Revolution, Jennifer Mazdan, who works for the Energy Board in Poughkeepsie in rural New York performing religious rites on the obelisks in each neighbourhood to ensure the energy keeps flowing, falls asleep during the Teller’s recital on the Day of Truth and has a strange dream. She awakes to find herself pregnant with the new Messiah, a child that will grow up to finish the work the Founders started.
The mystical pregnancy trope is an overused and problematic one, which frequently results in the loss of a female character’s agency, with their bodies and reproductive capabilities exploited for the sake of a plot point. Unquenchable Fire is all about subverting this trend, as the book follows the course of Jennie Mazdan’s pregnancy, exploring the emotional trauma that results from having an unwanted pregnancy forced upon her. The book is unafraid to recognise Jennie’s experiences as sexual assault, and it examines how she psychologically copes with this, even whilst it chronicles the physical changes she goes through, and the ambivalent emotional response to the baby she is carrying.
Unquenchable Fire also draws parallels between Jennie’s situation and the Virgin Mary’s in the Bible. Neither woman is asked or given the choice to be the mother of the new Messiah, they are told this will happen and have to deal with it. Jennie resents being used in this way, and does her best to rebel against it. However, when you are up against an omnipotent and omnipresent Supreme Being, as a mortal there is not much you can do to thwart its will. When she goes to the abortion clinic – endorsed by the Founders, especially Li Ku Unquenchable Fire, who performed a mass abortion as one of her miracles – she is prevented from entering by trees and shrubberies sprouting up from the ground to block her path. Her attempts to perform the abortion at home are similarly averted by divine intervention.
The narrative here is not anti-abortion, rather it is asking the question about to what extent human free will can exist in the face of an all-powerful Supreme Being with plans and destinies for individuals. When she visits New York to try to get her estranged ex-husband to come back to her, a Benign One shows her all the suffering being experienced by people in the city – homeless people, people suffering from diseases, parents at the funeral of their child – and Jennie has to ask it if all these people’s pain and misery has been orchestrated to teach her to put her own suffering in perspective.
The book has much to say about the nature of suffering as a natural and unavoidable part of human life. The theology in Unquenchable Fire is interesting because of how it interacts with this; it is neither conciliatory nor comforting. Both Li Ku, in a vision to a woman living before the Revolution, and the Benign One talking to Jennie all those years later, explain that the role of the Founders and that Jennie’s daughter will not be to bring an end to suffering. They offer salvation, in that they will show a new way of living in which humanity is more spiritually connected to Nature and its surroundings, but they cannot change the nature of human life without removing what it means to be human.
This is also explored in the way the book deals with the miraculous. It would be easy for a story about spirituality and the miraculous to forget that the miraculous is often frightening and disorienting, because it is the power of the divine disrupting everyday life in order to make itself felt. While in the world of Unquenchable Fire, magic and shamanism are part of everyday life to the extent that it powers people’s electricity, that doesn’t make these manifestations of power any less unnerving. The flashbacks show that Jennie has a tendency to encounter these, and that they are part of what drove her husband Mike away, despite Mike being a good, devout follower of the Founders. Pollack does an excellent job of describing the miracles; from the faces appearing in the shaman’s mask to everyone floating up into the air, what could be whimsical and fun is imbued with almost Philip K. Dick levels of terror as the characters realise their understanding of reality and their place in it has been forever changed.
The characters’ differing attitudes to these occurrences allow Pollack to explore the themes of religious hypocrisy versus spiritualism. All these years after the lives of the Founders, most people have started to take their teachings for granted, and there is a sense that the rituals they perform have simply become routines, parts of their everyday life that are either habit or they have to be seen to be doing to keep up appearances. At the end of the day, most people in the town of Poughkeepsie don’t want their lives interrupted by the miraculous; they want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Despite this, the social pressure to conform is such that, as Jennie becomes more and more disillusioned with the fripperies and empty gestures of organised religion she becomes more and more outcast by her neighbours and acquaintances for abandoning the sacred rituals. The irony is that, throughout her pregnancy she is coming closer to the nature of the divine as she understands more and more about it, but her proper neighbours are so concerned with keeping up appearances that they utterly miss her entering a state of Grace.
The book gets a lot of mileage and humour out of satirising the cosy suburban attitudes of Jennie’s neighbours. From the smug and sanctimonious Gloria and Al to Karen, who appears concerned about Jennie but is ultimately cowed into conformity by the others, they are all petty and obsessed with their social standing, constantly gossiping and spreading rumours whilst desperately trying to keep up appearances. Pollack also skewers big city pretensions with Jennie’s mother, an experimental saxophonist living in New York whose biggest disappointment in life is that her daughter moved away to a small town to work in a non-creative job.
Running through Unquenchable Fire is the importance of myths and storytelling. The Pictures discovered by the Founders are stories, legends that cast the history of the Earth in mythic metaphors, and the religious leaders are Tellers, who use these stories as a means of bringing their audience together, and are treated like celebrities. The absolute central position of storytelling in Pollack’s imaginary religion highlights its importance in the way we understand the world around us. Li Ku, really the book’s patron Founder, is feared amongst the Founders because the story she discovered, The Place Inside, is so upsetting, frequently having visceral effects on the audience during tellings.
The Place Inside is recounted in flashbacks over the course of the book, and from it, we can see that Jennie’s prophetic dream when she becomes pregnant and the birth of her child are an answer to Li Ku’s story. The Place Inside, with its images of war, death, destruction, pollution and poisoning, is a metaphor for the violence and environmental damage that have cut humanity off from their connection to the Earth and to each other, connections that Valerie Mazdan, Jennie’s child, must help humanity to re-establish. Again, Pollack points out that it is not necessarily the job of stories to comfort us. Both Li Ku’s and Valerie Mazdan’s stories make the listeners uncomfortable, but they emerge having confronted truths that need to be acknowledged and made to share empathy with other people. That is the true power of stories, that as well as entertaining us, they can allow different people to share experiences, histories and ideas.