I spent most of my time during high school doodling in notebooks – during an entire year of biology, the only thing I learned was that the word for several fish of a single type is “fish,” but the word for several fish of different species is “fishes.”
For dissections – earthworms, giant crickets, pig hearts, and frogs – we were partnered with whomever sat at the table with us. My partner always brought the newspaper and ostentatiously checked stock prices during class. The kid in front of me spent a few weeks reading A Confederacy of Dunces.
My eyesight wasn’t good enough to read over her shoulder.
At least the distinction between fish and fishes turned out to be correct. My statistics teacher was a baseball coach – he didn’t know calculus, so the only explanation he gave for the workings of a Gaussian distribution was that the numbers were printed on a chart.
The baseball team had a winning record, though.
Even in English class, my brain was filled with junk. We were taught not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions. These are sensible rules in Latin. An infinitive – like “to read” – is a single word in Latin, so it would be quite strange to put another word in the middle. Latin also has strict rules about word order — a sentence would be garbled if the preposition was in the wrong place.
But we weren’t learning Latin! We were learning English, and – lo and behold! – the grammar rules of English are different. In English, word order is flexible. A lot of nuance comes from the arrangement of our sentences. English doesn’t have as many tenses as other languages – there’s no subjunctive – so we English speakers need to scrape out nuance where we can.
In my high school English class, we were also taught not to use “their” as a singular possessive. Even now, I rarely do – I don’t write “Each student brought their book,” I instead sacrifice the meaning of my sentences and write things like “Students brought their books.”
I was hoodwinked! Instead of using the word “their” as a singular pronoun – which it is, in English – I trusted my teachers when they claimed that this word was exclusively plural.
Hogwash! The equivalent claim would be to say that it’s incorrect to write:
You are reading this essay.
After all, “you” is a plural pronoun. And “are” is the plural conjugation of the verb “to be,” which I used only to match the expected conjugation of the pronoun “you.” The correct thing to write is:
Thou is reading this essay.
See? There’s only one person reading, so I need a singular pronoun, “thou,” and a singular conjugation, “is.”
From What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, I learned that the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular since the 1300s.
In a sense, singular you is even more of a newcomer on the pronoun scene. The plural you was applied as a singular pronoun to address royalty as early as the thirteenth century and was used in other situations demanding deference and formality – call the monarch thy majesty instead of your majesty and it could mean off with your head.
But you doesn’t appear as a singular in all contexts until the 1600s, when it slowly, slowly starts pushing out thou, thee, thy, and thine, second-person singulars that English speakers had been using since the days of Beowulf. The th- singulars persist even now in some English dialects, and nineteenth-century grammar books regularly demanded singular thou and thee, along with thy and thine, even though these pronouns were no longer considered standard English.
It consoled me somewhat to read that students have long been taught outdated, inaccurate information. It’s not just my brain that was filled with rubbish.
When a cabal of misogynistic grammarians worked to replace singular they with he in English textbooks, people tried to protest.
In 1885, in an article titled “The New Pronoun,” the Atlanta Constitution printed:
There is nothing awkward or ungrammatical in [singular they] so far as the construction of English is concerned. It is ungrammatical when measured by the Latin method – but what has Latin grammar to do with the English tongue?
If you wanted, you could even make a scientific argument for the validity of singular they – in quantum mechanics, the state of each single particle is described by a superposition of states. Immediately after a measurement, wavefunctions can “collapse” to be composed primarily of a unique form – after a photon passes through a polarizer, it’s fluctuation will be parallel to the polarizer’s axis. But even this “up and down” state can be expressed as an equal superposition of two perpendicular polarizations tilted forty-five degrees. Indeed, the latter expression is the only useful way to describe this photon if it’s about to pass through a second polarizer tilted forty-five degrees from the first.
We are not monolithic. Each and all of us can be described as an amalgam of many different traits.
But we don’t need any scientific justification for the use of singular they in English. This grammatical usage is deeply enshrined in our language, and the singular pronoun “they” can best convey the plenitude of many individual humans’ identity & experience.
It’s still difficult for me to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun in formal sentences – my crummy education was pernicious. The proscriptions are deeply ingrained in my brain. But I’d like to think that I’m not totally calcified in my ways. And I’m quite grateful that Denis Baron prepared such an erudite history of English pronoun usage. What’s Your Pronoun? is a lovely little book.
I hope that my kids’ brains will be less muddled than my own. When we read stories aloud, we typically correct unnecessarily gendered language. Girls and boys become kids. An actress is an actor, too. Our Curious George lives in a world of fire fighters and police officers.
I was reading Rob Harrell’s gorgeous Monster on the Hill to our kids when our three-year-old interrupted me. At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I asked her to repeat herself.
“You should say spouse.”
She was right, of course. I’d unthinkingly read the text as written. So I felt embarrassed … for a moment. Then I remembered to feel proud.
In Sue Burke’s Semiosis, humans reach an alien world with intelligent plants.
The settlers find themselves afflicted by inexplicable infertility. Most women are able to bear children, but many men are sterile. The settlement develops a culture in which women continue to marry based on the vagaries of affection, but from time to time, a woman will kiss her spouse goodnight before venturing off for an evening’s energetic tussle with a fertile man.
The human settlement has established itself at the base of a single plant. This plant has ocular patches and can recognize individual humans. The plant provides fruit that seems exquisitely tailored to each person’s nutritional needs. In return, the humans carefully tend the plant – irrigating its groves, clearing away competitors, and fertilizing new growth.
The plant manipulates its human caretakers. By tweaking the composition of their food, it controls the humans’ health. Selectively instilling infertility or fecundity allows the plant to direct human evolution. Among the fourth generation of human settlers, more than half of all children were sired by a placid man who was so contemplative and empathetic that he learned to communicate with the host plant.
The plant domesticated its human caretakers.
Here on Earth, flowering plants also co-evolved with animals.
Plants could very well consider themselves the dominant species in these relationships – after all, plants use animals to do their bidding. Plants offer tiny drips of nectar to conscript insects to fertilize their flowers. Plants offer small fruits to conscript mammals to spread their seeds. And plants far outlive their servants – thousands of generations of animals might flit by during the lifetime of a single tree.
Some plants directed the evolution of their helpers so well that the species are inextricably linked – some insects feed on only a single species of plant, and the plant might rely on this single species of insect to fertilize its flowers. If either the plant or insect disappeared, the other would go extinct.
In Semiosis, the alien plant changes its attitude toward humans over the generations. At first it was concerned only with control and utility. The motile beasts were a tool that it could manipulate with pleasing colors and psychoactive fruits.
Eventually, though, the plant develops an affection for its human wards. Of course, these humans are markedly different from the people who first arrived on this planet.
The plant’s affections changed in the same way that our own attitude toward wolves softened as we manipulated the species. Many humans are still reflexively afraid of wolves. We tell children stories about Little Red Riding Hood; when I’m walking in the woods, sometimes I find myself humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf.” The ecosystem of Yellowstone Park was devastated when we murdered all the wolves during the 1920s; willow and beaver populations have rebounded since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s (most likely because wolves mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled elk populations); now that Yellowstone’s wolf population isn’t critically endangered, states surrounding the park are letting human hunters shoot wolves again.
And yet, we giggle at the antics of domesticated dogs.
Among wild animals, the most aggressive individuals are often the most fecund. Wolves who can fight for and hold the alpha rank get to breed; the others don’t.
During domestication, breeding patterns are altered. To create dogs, we selected for the most docile individuals. If you could expand your temporal horizons wide enough, all populations might seem as mutable as clay. A species flows through time, ever changing, evolving such that the traits that best lead to viable children become more common. In the wild, a speedy rabbit might have the most children, because it might survive for more breeding seasons than others. On a farm, the most docile rabbit might have the most children, because its human handlers might give a docile male more time among the females.
Domestication seems to change animals in stereotyped ways. Zoologist Dmitry Belyayev designed an experiment with wild foxes. Only the foxes that were least fearful of humans were allowed to breed; over the course of some dozen generations, this single criterion resulted in a large number of behavioral and morphological changes. The domesticated foxes produce less adrenaline; they have narrower faces; they have floppier ears. This suite of traits seems to be present in almost all domesticated species.
Cats still have pointy ears. As it happens, cats are barely domesticated.
Humans seem to be self-domesticated. A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in very small groups, maybe one or two dozen individuals. After humans diverged from the last common ancestor that we shared with bonobos and chimpanzees, most human species still lived in groups of about this size. Neanderthals may have lived in groups as small as six.
Eventually, Homo sapiens drove all other human species to extinction. A major competitive advantage was that Homo sapiens lived and worked in groups as large as a hundred. With so many people cooperating, they could hunt much more efficiently. A violent conflict between six Neanderthals and a clan of a hundred Homo sapiens would not go well for the Neanderthals.
In the modern world, the population densities of urban areas force humans to be even more docile than our recent ancestors. But even with our whole evolutionary history promoting cooperation, many people struggle to be calm and kind within the crowded confines of a city. Some can do it; others feel too aggressive.
When a person’s disposition is ill-suited to the strange environment we’ve made, we punish. We shunt people to high school detention, or jail.
In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.
As in Richard Powers’s Overstory, the perspective of a long-lived, immobile plant would be markedly different from ours. Human generations flit by as a plant continues to grow.
Domestication takes generations – in Belyayev’s fox experiment, twenty generations passed before a third of the population was tame – but an intelligent plant could wait. By selecting which individuals get to pass on their genes, huge changes can be made. From wolves, we created Great Danes and Chihuahuas. From a scruffy grass we evoked buxom ears of corn, as though by glacial magic.
In particularly dark eras of our past, humans have tried to direct our own evolution. Social Darwinists in the United States forcibly sterilized people whom they disliked. Politicians in Nazi Germany copied the legal language of the United States when they sought philosophical justification for the murder of entire religious and ethnic groups.
By putting the motivation inside the mind of a plant, Burke is able to explore the ramifications of directed human evolution without alluding to these evil regimes.
In jail, somebody said to me, “I heard that humans were evolving to have really long fingers, so we could type real fast, and big-headed hairless bodies.”
“Yeah, yeah,” somebody added, “I saw this thing on the Discovery channel, it was like, you know the way they show all those aliens on the X-Files? That humans were gonna be like that, like the aliens were just us coming back to visit from the future.”
I murmured in disagreement.
“Humans are definitely still evolving. But evolution doesn’t have a goal. It just selects for whichever properties of a creature are best for making copies of itself.”
“With modern medical care, we don’t die so easily. So the main driver of evolution is the number of kids you have. If you have more kids than I do, then you’re more fit than I am. Future humans will look more like you than me.”
We have many ways to express ideas. In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words. Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.
The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel.
teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about
thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link,
what is the Chinese word for ______?” I
am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.
who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up
perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even
grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not
Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is
conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have
to say, “one volume of bookness.”
Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,”
or “calligraphy.” On the other hand, you
can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.
There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around. In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem. The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.
Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language. I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.
isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.
The version posted above is a translation. The original image, created by light striking
a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers. Your computer reads these numbers and
translates them back into an image. If
you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.
image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my
words would be.
Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas. The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice. But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.
Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation. There are many ways to convey any idea. Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video.
A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic. When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.
My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest. In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object. Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions. The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.
words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas.
If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book. Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’. Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across. Ball broaches no such sloppiness.
Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information. Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:
physicists … exhort us to not get
hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist. Language is the only vehicle we have for
constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe. Relationships between numbers are no
substitute. Science deserves more than
of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory,
points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these
flaws undermine the theory.
To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good. This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe. A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.
benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as
deterministic, not random. Events only seem
random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit
only one of the many future worlds.
The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.
world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still
summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t
invalidate a theory. There’s no reason
why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to
comprehend. Without granularity, though,
the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that
granularity is a reasonable assumption.
more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen. To believe that our God, although He doesn’t
exist, rolls marbles.
a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words. Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice
with the universe. All the evidence
points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every
possible equation.” But dice are
granular. With a D20, you can’t roll
pi. So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently
pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)
physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to
describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice. Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the
language of the universe. So the more
equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.”
equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world
works. But something’s wrong with our numbers. Even mathematics falls short when we try to
converse with the cosmos.
numbers are granular. The universe
doesn’t seem to be.
Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics. Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits. Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!
our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen. We can solve “two body problems,” but we
typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on
approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or
more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons
surrounding a nucleus.
Oxygen is. These molecules exist. They move through our world and interact with their surroundings. They behave precisely. But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers. The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.
numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact
replica. So what hope do our words have?
that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English –
or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good
enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a
strange series of events. And that’s
wonderful! You can feel pleasure. You can walk out into the sunshine. Isn’t it marvelous? Evolution could have produced
self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those
objects ever feeling anything.
Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient. (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)
can feel joy, and love, and happiness.
Capitalize on that!
And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe. But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.
The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.
kind of sad. I like being alive, and I
like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone.
Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends. But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence. Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn.
These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time. Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.
Unless we go extinct sooner. Which we might. We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.
Venus used to be habitable. We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony. But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change. Now Venus has no liquid water. Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog. Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.
rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.
There are things you can do to help. In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.
should still turn off the lights when you leave a room. If you can walk to the park instead of
driving, do it! Every effort you make to
waste less energy is worthwhile!
But it helps to take stock of the numbers. If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas. If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.
to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.
Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.
it’s hard to make this switch.
Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel
compelling. It’s like the difference
between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is
doomed. Those spikey mandibles close and
that’s the end! When a bug lands on a
pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it
finally topples into the digestive water.
The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary
between life and death is unnoticeable.
climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we
see the precipice it’ll be too late.
In Foer’s words,
The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story.
planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought
over there. We are aware of the
existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our
survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it. That distance between awareness and feeling
can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people –
people who want to act – to act.
not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become
history. With regard to the fate of our
planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound
problem. As the marine biologist and
filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring
subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”
that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story. He writes about his personal struggles to be
good. If it were necessary to blow hot
air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a
cheeseburger, few people would buy them.
But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know
vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will
exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children
will one day have to bear.
brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in
time and space. Push a button, hear a
sound! Even babies understand how to
work a toy piano. Even my ill behaved
dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in
My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause. Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence? That’s not compelling for my dogs. The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.
Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure. That’s not compelling. Our brains can’t easily process that story.
understand it, but we can’t feel it.
that’s the message of Foer’s book. How
can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right
thing? How can we make cheeseburgers feel
An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling. Climate change is too dull a story.
worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our
extinction. In We Are the Weather
– an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms
that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because
that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even
mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60
years in the future.
change is dull. Antibiotic resistance is
even more dull.
pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.
Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison. Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses.
It was a
clever strategy. We’re helping bacteria
do the same thing.
world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working. My own children are three and five years
old. They’ve gotten infections that we
needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times. Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my
kids got better.
world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through
animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids.
You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance. By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.
Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time. Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics. We are actively making these drugs worse.
resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.
To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday
grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the
biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug
metabolism. You’d need to be able to see
in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.
honestly? People who can vividly picture
a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the
ones buying cheeseburgers.
But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.
assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual
cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
the rain forest is beautiful. Future
generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of
jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it
I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m
not sure what this entailed. We raised
money and sent it off in an envelope. I
don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the
arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that
money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier
to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for
everyone. At the very least, if there
are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are
currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage
other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this
policy on your own. If I decided to
split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would
get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can
accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he
watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
knows that he could choose to help. Each
day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that
parades as acceptance. Those of us who
know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the
anger. We should be terrified of
ourselves. We are the ones we have to
defy. … I am the person
endangering my children.”
if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat
it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest
to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
this knowledge isn’t enough. He still
surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any
point since I became a vegetarian.”
wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is
heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car
while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even
cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance
behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas
emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would
survive. Our planet would remain
habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well
aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will
go extinct eventually. I don’t believe
you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness
or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.
I support responsible hedonism.
Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that
protect our planet. Most people think
that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your
sexuality only with other consenting adults.
Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in
our culture, a social norm restrains us.
wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from
plants. But he doesn’t struggle to
restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it
easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy
thong underwear. Then a trained
professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females –
rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our
muscles. There wasn’t the sort of
rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy
endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was
the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d
convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his
childhood. His parents were Indian, and
massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico
when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of
the tents near their beach.
through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly
pumped back and forth. My friend was
alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get
through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than
masseuse cleaned off his belly. He
sheepishly exited the tent. His mother
asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”
Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the
time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
is a slippery concept, though. In the
process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I
failed. You could reasonably argue that all
massage therapists are sex workers.
Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin
contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but
the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can
certainly reach orgasm.
practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex
work. Because the term “prostitution” is
so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
we punish people who are already marginalized.
Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented
immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our
prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them
up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the
apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates;
instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have
such difficulty even discussing this topic.
We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for
carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking;
for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights
as they travel and work.
solutions we propose are equally divergent.
Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law,
giving more power to the police. For sex
workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the
militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and
shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away
from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex
work. But there is a danger – if we are
too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be
bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
workers don’t like their jobs. They sell
sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that
any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are
not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex
itself, is intrinsically good or bad.
Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical
of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and
looming environmental catastrophe.
sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and
exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex
industry abolitionists’. As the English
Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end
to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce,
the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell
their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their
standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
feminists] position work in general as something that the worker
should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated
as evidence that something cannot be work.
work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a
reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as
antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex
with our clients if we weren’t being paid.
Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally
fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy
through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The
result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most
able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy
agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time
work in New York and London. In this
context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole
has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the
conversation, like high-profile journalists.
However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or
workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell
sex. Barring that, they would like to
see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy
suggestions that would help. Their
proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly
wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex
workers. If any person involved in a
transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are
unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused
worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac
seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation,
instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing
sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and
makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
doing the wrong things.
are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or
medicine are all inelastic. When
you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it
doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s
why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve
raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living
conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for
freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without
threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions,
cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed,
nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
After William Burroughs experienced how
pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a
lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control.
His own brain had been upended. Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate. If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick. Agony would keep him focused.
If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways? In Queer, the protagonist speculates:
“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I
have experienced it myself. I have no
interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody. What interests me is, how can I use it?
“In South America at the headwaters of
the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic
sensitivity. Medicine men use it in
their work. A Colombian scientist, whose
name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine. I read all this in a magazine article.
“Later I see another article: the
Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor. It seems they want to induce states of
automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’ The basic con. No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move
in on someone’s psyche and give orders.
“I have a theory that the Mayan priests
developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the
work. The deal is certain to backfire
eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup
of sender and receiver at all.”
As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control. But there are other ways. A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.
Because repeated behaviors give rise to
our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic
stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.
Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a
You could be made other.
The more common form of mind control
practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced. Rather than using a magnetic pulse to
stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative
Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served. If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation. This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning. You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.
Humans can be similarly conditioned. Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone. The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement. Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.
In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits. If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.
But those are little stories. A few stray details added to the narrative of
your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update! More threatening is the prospect of mind
control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative. Take a person’s memories and supplant them.
In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:
“While in general I avoid the use of
torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of
torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of
helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a
penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept
punishment as deserved.”
In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality.
A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).
And it works. Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things. With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.
Your stories can be wrested from you.
Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control. Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.
Predictably, the prosecutor often wins. Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials. So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories. They plead guilty. After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.
Of course, you might not walk out today. Even if you were told that you would. In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest. The other is not.
And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.
Before stumbling into a life of drug addiction and bank robbery, the protagonist of Nico Walker’s Cherry served in the Army. He’s miserable overseas, but, to be fair, he was miserable in the United States, too. He eventually blames all his problems – the drugs, the crime – on a lady friend’s promiscuous behavior while he was in the service. He takes great pains to describe all the readily-available sexual encounters he forwent to stay true to her, even claiming that he would not think of anyone else while masturbating.
does a great job of describing the misery of military service: the trauma is
understated, focusing instead on doldrums and drudgery.
Oo! Ta-ah! Here come the Warrior Medics!
The refrain was to go on indefinitely, till we were signaled to
stop. That’s how it went. And from that day on, whenever the company
was called to attention (something that happened no less than a million times
on a given day), the company cheer was to be recited in its entirety. No exceptions. To make matters worse, after a while it got
to be expected that the guidon bearer would do the robot throughout the
ever join the fucking Army.
is in Iraq. His patrol relies upon
interpreters to communicate with anyone they meet.
The patrol leader asked the mustache haji questions about what he
was doing out so late and where he was coming from and where he was going. An interpreter translated.
The car was clean.
The radio said to let the hajis go on their way.
The patrol leader said to the interpreter, “Tell that that from now
on they must respect the curfew. It’s
for their own safety. They could’ve been
hurt out here tonight and we don’t want that to happen.”
interpreter said something. As far as
what he said, we’d have to trust him. So
that was that.
soldiers don’t trust the interpreters, feeling sure their sympathies are
secretly with the other side. As it
happens, the Iraqis don’t trust interpreters, either. By translating, the interpreters keep
everyone safe because they allow the two sides to communicate – sometimes words
can resolve disputes, instead of bullets.
But the interpreters themselves were endangered. In Sympathy for the Traitor, literary translator Mark Polizzotti writes:
recently as 2011, the Armed Forces Journal reported that interpreters in
Iraq were “10 times more likely to die in combat than deployed American or
international forces,” because neither the troops they were interpreting for
nor the enemy they were speaking to had complete confidence in the fidelity of
what they were relating.
sides assumed that the translators had some hidden agenda or secret loyalty to
the other. There is always the danger,
when we speak for someone else, that our own interests will distort whatever
message we’d been expected to deliver.
happens even with my kids. Our
two-year-old says something to me, then I tell my spouse, “She’s worried because
you said that … “
mumble garble digger mumble “
great, kid. I misrepresented your
intent, but only because I have no idea what you’re trying to say!
translating literature, there’s an additional difficulty. Most languages have ways to communicate
common human experiences – what can I eat?, how much will it cost me?, how do I
get there? But literature draws upon the
whole set of meanings and associations that link words to concepts. In general, there won’t be a direct
equivalent between languages.
teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about
thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link,
what is the Chinese word for _______?”
always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately
well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages
as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are
conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.
Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is
conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have
to say, “one volume of bookness.”
Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,”
or “calligraphy.” On the other hand you
can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.
as a book, the pages with their letters and spaces need a reader. We may think of books as unchanging material
objects, but they only, as it were, happen when read; they have no
absolute identity. And the nature of
that reading – an experience extended over many hours, then mulled over for
many more, for the book does not cease to happen the moment we turn the last
page – will depend, to a large degree, on who the reader is.
up in the United States, speaking only English during the years when my brain
would have absorbed new languages most easily, so I read a lot of literature in
translation. This is suboptimal, I know. I would enjoy a richer experience of humanity
if I could read more of our world’s literature in the original. But my life would be dreadfully impoverished
if not for the charitable exertions of many translators, because then I
wouldn’t have a chance to read many stories at all.
I am personally unqualified to translate any piece of literature, or to judge how well a particular translation conveys the sense of the original, as a native speaker who lived contemporaneously to the author might have understood it. But I am an experienced reader, and I am the reader’s premier expert on the way literature makes me feel. Occasionally I find myself musing, despite not knowing how to speak the source language, whether I might rephrase certain passages. Especially when primed with excellent notes, such as in Hayden Pelliccia’s review of two translations of the Iliad.
opens with a word generally translated as “wrath,” yet this is the direct
object of the first sentence. In Greek,
this makes sense, but in English we identify subjects and objects based upon
their location in a sentence. Pelliccia
first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide
immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught
betraying his poet or his own language.
couldn’t help but draft my own variant:
hubric wrath of Achilles
by the goddess
pain & devastation for the Achaians
hurled to Hades, souls hewn from heroes
bodies leavings for dogs, a feast for vultures and crows –
His plan fulfilled
stirring in that moment
my second line fails to convey what Homer wanted – “sung” has a waft of fate to
it, as though this story was preordained by the goddess, whereas Homer exhorts
his muse to relate the tragedy after it occurred. My failure is unsurprising, considering both
my lack of Greek and Pelliccia’s assertion that every professional translation available
to date has failed as well. But the
experience of translation was a success – another reader might well be
dissatisfied with my lines, but creating them changed me for the better.
Ezra Pound could not read or speak Mandarin, his translation of classical
poetry for Cathay had a huge influence on both his own writing and the
subsequent work of other English-language poets. Although Christopher Logue could not read or
speak Greek, his adaptation of the Iliad is a fantastic work of poetry.
Homer lavished attention on the myriad ways that humans might die upon a battlefield. And in War Music, Logue interlaces Homeric myth with modern nightmare:
Drop into it.
Noise so clamorous it sucks.
You rush your pressed-flower
To the perimeter.
And here it comes:
That unpremeditated joy as you
Uzi shuddering warm against your hip
Happy in danger in a dangerous
Yourself another self you
found at Troy –
Squeeze nickel through that
rush of Greekoid skum!
Oh wonderful, most wonderful,
and then again more wonderful
A bond no word or lack of
words can break,
Love above love!
And here they come again the noble Greeks,
Ido, a spear in one a banner
in his other hand
Your life at every instant up
And, candidly, who gives a toss?
Dead: pointlessly, unmemorably
dead. By depicting the utter
dehumanization of war – “who gives a toss?,” and female captives referred to
with just the pronoun she, as in the opening scene when Achilles is
enraged because Agamemnon announces that “I shall take his prize she” –
he demonstrates just how precious life should be.
Logue knew no Greek, but his Iliad
changed my life for the better.
We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories. Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are. And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.
struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected
to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.
is a nebulous concept, however. There’s
no external metric that indicates what we should do. For instance: if we are subject to an
injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?
are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base
your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …
Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.
A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order. Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence. (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)
Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.
But punishment invites further punishment. Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.
Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies. On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal. The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.
But forgiveness is hard. Sometimes people do terrible things. After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.
And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people. (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)
time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail.
wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –
at four a.m., scattering birdseed,
a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic
into the unlistening air.
a passing man tossed off a punch,
her to the ground.
stomped upon her skull
there was no more her
that battered brain.
intubated the corpse &
it oxygenated by machine,
each blip of needless heart
my wife convinced
to let the mindless body rest.
taught another class in jail
men who hurt someone else’s mother,
daughter, or son.
man who murdered,
New York inmate #14A4438
black hair & brown eyes,
been to prison twice,
2002 & 2014,
paltry grams of crack cocaine.
man received a massive dose
years of penitence.
Nearly a decade of correction.
Victor Frankenstein share the blame
the murders of his creation,
man he quicked but did not love?
can we walk into a maternity ward
one, nursing now, will be a beast.
Are monsters born or made?
mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,
after “spontaneous utterances,”
in blood, photographed with
bandage between his eyes.
we, in our mercy,
always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation. Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was
thrust upon him. The creature was
ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated
him. Victor Frankenstein abandoned him
in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased
Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we
share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring
of the creature’s rage.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance. The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts. But what if many stray pieces were collected? An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s. The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from. And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look! Here is a body, victim of the attacks. Here is a dead man we can honor properly.
truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out. Once he completes the corpse, he realizes
that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all
the empty coffins.
the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its
component parts. In the creature’s words
(as translated by Jonathan Wright):
of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my
assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that
under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would
was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission,
and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my
supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.
killing had only begun. At least that’s
how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead
bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”
the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead
victims that he is composed of. He can
chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but
the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead
allies. The chain of causality is so
tangled that no one is clearly responsible.
States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since
invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a
small group of Afghani terrorists.
To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame. But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death? The man who assaulted her? That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach. But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.
Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?
blame myself? As a citizen of this
country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am
complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others. Even when I loathe the way this nation acts,
by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.
is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity. The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad
mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as
fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging
these lives an endless task. Or maybe he
would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because
the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated
than ever before.
are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely
criminal.” This sentence drilled its way
into his head like a bullet out of the blue.
He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting
for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original
components. This was the realization
that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was
also a victim. The victim proportion in
some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might
inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”
A friend of mine, whom I
first met when he was a student in my poetry class, was writing a
post-apocalyptic novel. There’s nuclear fallout;
civilization crumbled. A few people who
haven’t yet caught the sickness are traveling together, fantasizing that they
could restart the world.
When the bombs fell, governments collapsed. Not immediately, but within the year. The idea of government is predicated on people getting things done: fire fighters who might rescue you, police officers who might protect you, agencies who maintain the roads and ensure the water is safe to drink. All of which requires money, which the government can print, but those slips of paper don’t mean much if no one will accept them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep.
“Hangrith,” that’s a
beautiful word. It’s archaic, means a
realm in which you can expect security and peace. Literally, “within the grasp of the king’s
hand.” While you are here, the
government will protect you.
My friend was skeptical of the concept. The king’s hand wasn’t cradling him, nor wielding a protective sword to keep orcs at bay; instead, my friend felt the gauntlet at his throat. We’d met in jail, where he’d landed for addiction. We volleyed emails after he left, while he was working on his novel. And then he was in my class again. Failed check-in. Once you’re on probation, you’re given numerous extra laws to follow – people on probation don’t have the rights of other citizens, and minor transgressions, like missing a meeting or late payment for a fine, can land you back in jail.
And so it wasn’t difficult for my friend to imagine a world in which there was no government to rely upon. To reach their destination, his heroes have to barter. Which meant that, suddenly, my friend’s skills might be treated with respect.
After all, what would
people be most willing to trade their food for in a world where waking life was
a ravaged nightmare?
“I took a patch with me underground when
shit hit the fan. Grew it
hydroponically. Cared for that shit like
a baby. Gave me something to do while I
was in that shelter. Weed is my money.”
Rampant economic inequality, fractured communities, and the spread of attention-grabbing toys that prevent us from making eye contact with one another – these have all contributed to the increase in drug use and addiction in contemporary America. But the world could be worse. After the blast, everyone would share the stress and trauma that people in poverty currently weather.
Methamphetamine lets people keep going despite crushing hopelessness and despair. Meth use is widespread in many hollowed-out towns of the Midwest. It’s a problematic drug. At first, people feel good enough to get out of bed again. But methamphetamine is metabolized so slowly that users don’t sleep. Amphetamines themselves are not so toxic, but lack of sleep will kill you. After five, ten, or twenty days awake, vicious hallucinations set in. The drug is no longer keeping you alert and chipper enough to work – static crackles through your mind, crustacea skitter beneath your skin, shadows flit through the air.
They walked on, their path
lit by the moon, among the wreckage of cars and piles of trash and useless
electronics that were heaped up until they came to a concrete slab with a
manhole in it.
“This is my crib, where I sat out that day.”
After the fall, experience
in the drug trade lets people carve out a living. And experience on the streets lets them
survive. All the ornate mansions,
people’s fine wood and brick homes, have fallen into disarray. Their inhabitants caught the sickness, or
else died in the initial blast.
The survivors were people
who slept outdoors, protected by thick concrete. Not in bunkers; the blast came too suddenly
for that. Beneath bridges, tucked into
safe alcoves, or down on dry ledges of the sewers.
My friend understood what
it meant to make shelter where you could find it.
“After Pops gave me the boot, I had to find
a way to support myself; that’s when I learned my hustle. And Penny here was one of my biggest
“You used to be her dealer?”
“Damn, dude, you make it sound dirty. Weed ain’t no drug, it’s medicine.”
The heroes plan to go west, aiming for San Francisco. When I was growing up, I had that dream too – I’d read a little about the Merry Pranksters and failed to realize how much the world might have changed. People living around the Bay Area are still interested in polyamory and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice. It was heartbreaking to see how racist and ruthless the people there were, especially since I’d expected to find a hippie paradise.
And so my spouse and I
moved back to the Midwest.
But I understand the dream – we’re surrounded by a lot of retrograde cudgleheads, here. The only problem is that people are pretty similar everywhere else.
“An agrarian based society. Where everyone works to grow what they
eat. The soil might be okay. We won’t know all the affects of the radiation
“Well, I know for sure it’s mutated animals
near the hit zone. I’ve seen all kindsa
freaky shit. People too. It’s like the wild west again, where we’re
The actual “wild west,” in U.S. history, was horrible. Racism, genocide, misogyny. But the ideal – a lawless land beyond the hangrith where a person’s ingenuity reaps fortune instead of jail time – might be enough to keep someone going.
And it worked, for a
while. My friend carved out months of
sobriety. He was volunteering at the community
food kitchen. In the late afternoons,
he’d type using a computer at the public library. He was always a very hopeful person; while he
was in jail, he asked me to bring physics textbooks so he could use the time
productively. You can get a sense of his
enthusiasm from his poetry:
“BIRD TOWN, TN”
by Brett Wagner
Picture this young boy
whose favorite color was
the blank white
of a fresh page. We went running once
on the spring green grass.
As I’ve heard it said,
“There’s nowhere to go but
so we ran anywhere in this
jungle gym world.
Somewhere the clouds
didn’t smother us
and the hills didn’t
where robins, blue jays,
and cardinals sing
like boddhisattvas that
have taken wing.
But then he slipped. A first drink led to more. He’d been in sober housing; he was kicked out, back onto the streets. A friend, another New Leaf volunteer, gave him enough money for a few days in a hotel.
We had several cold snaps
this winter. Two nights after his hotel
money ran out, temperatures dropped.
We’d made plans for my friend to join us for a panel with Dave Eggers, where we’d discuss storytelling and incarceration.
Instead, at 29 years old, Brett Wagner froze to death. His novel is unfinished; his heroes will not build a new agrarian society.
They had grim odds. Nuclear fallout is a killer. But my friend was felled by the apocalypse that’s already upon us.