During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide. I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make. All I remember is that I promptly said:
“Almonds. The official scent of unrequited love.”
“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked. “That’s good. Some people can’t. You’ll be much less likely to die.”
I actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it. Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis. I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.
Kids needs to learn about heartbreak. They will feel sorrow. Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.
I know I was miserable during high school. And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.
Reading more would have helped. Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity. When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.
And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.
This is heartbreak. Learn it well, young person. You too will hurt.
Marcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.
… and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:
“You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”
At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling. He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants. Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.” It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.
He felt joy that afternoon.
But then, months later, that same joy stabs him. Their relationship has ended. Marcel fancies himself indifferent. Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain. The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:
The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart. Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me. I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.
He loved that she loved him. He hates that she might now love another the same way.
And that, kids, is what life is like.
But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time? I certainly didn’t. Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.
I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.
And so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts. When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes. Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.
Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.
– You found it right away.
They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find. The clitoris is not hard to find. I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer. Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right. And porn helps. Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit. It’s educational.
Or, on the same page:
I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face. Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec. We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.
– Pornography lied to us.
– I’m writing my congressman.
– OK but let’s watch another one first.
The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests. But he too has a heart. And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.
– Officially together?
She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer. I already thought it might not work, to ask her.
– Do we need a permit? Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?
– I was just asking.
– Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?
And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.
They’re in high school. Their relationship won’t last forever. Which she knows.
So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.
And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else. Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to. He sits alone in his room and ruminates:
I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing. For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t. Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.
And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.
– When you are older –
That’s the only part of the advice I hear. But, Dad, I’m not.
I’m sorry, dude. It does hurt.
And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt. There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.
In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide. Again and again. Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.
Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse. Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell. Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.
We incarcerate drug dealers. But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand. People’s lives are still broken. Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy. When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.
Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison. When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!” When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished. Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.
Child molesters were often abused as children. In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.
The demon leaps from one shell to the next.
During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work. When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger. We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.
Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others. And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again. After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else. But the initial mistakes were made by a child. Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.
We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not. We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not. We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.
After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.
If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it. I too believe in free will. But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain. If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?
In ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons. A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.
This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted. It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others. This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen. Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right. After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.
Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult. Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.
In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised. In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.
Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment. A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.
Some demons might never leave the body. The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history. Even after years clean, addiction lingers.
In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted. Apparently demons love to guard treasure. It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.
Addicts are shuttered in jail. The walls are concrete. Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day. People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark. The block is noisy, and feels dangerous. The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance. Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.
Thoughts of drugs.
But poems can be treasures. If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there. Something for the demon to guard.
We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.
Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.
A friend’s father recently suffered a stroke and spent a mostly unconscious week in the hospital. On the third day, he had a brief spell of lucidity. My friend was visiting. The father – who’d reverted to his native language – said, “Keep me alive, son.”
Then rapidly deteriorated. He was intubated. The functions of his inoperative organs were replaced by pumping, thumping, wheezing machines.
But it was much more difficult for my friend to finally tell the doctors, “You’re right, it’s time,” than if he hadn’t had that final conversation. He knew his father wasn’t coming back. But keep me alive, son sure changes the way it feels.
Twice in the past year or so, my spouse has had to decide when it was time to ease off on her parents’ care. Her mother could speak (incoherently) when first taken to the hospital, but then the swelling set in. Her father, after a stroke, was speechless in the hospital, but during his moments of lucidity was able to wink at our daughter. He played peek-a-boo by rotating his head.
That night, the bleeding started again. With aggressive treatment, he could’ve been kept sufficiently alive for a vegetative, ventilated existence in the hospital. It was up to K to decide. “Make it easy for him.”
Most doctors forgo aggressive treatment. Those who’ve seen the fallout know it isn’t worthwhile.
Instead, my father-in-law’s life ended on a high note. The week before, he’d had a romantic fling with a 22-year-old. In the hospital, he played games with his granddaughter one last time. I told him we’d take good care of his rabbit and his dog. And the stroke itself occurred during a dinner party with his neighbors – thankfully they emptied out his weed grinder before he was loaded into the ambulance. (Although, why did they return the empty – but still redolent – grinder to his pocket? Do such accouterments hold sentimental value to potheads? As far as I could tell, this was a cheap wooden one, no more than a decade old.)
He didn’t ask that we keep him alive. And yet, in many ways, I am.
Mike Milks was a firm believer in community, and he spent his time caring for people less fortunate than himself… this despite the fact that he was often broke, homeless, and hungry. Each month when his SNAP benefits came through, he’d ride the bus to the discount grocery store, buy a bunch of whole wheat flour, and bake loaves of sourdough bread for his neighbors. $200 a month isn’t much, and yet his benefits helped a lot of people eat.
Before K and I moved him to Bloomington and started paying for him to have an apartment, he was squatting in his deceased former roommate’s house. No electricity, no water, no heat, in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood where thieves had stripped most homes of their copper pipes. Folks broke into his house twice; he was pistol-whipped in the face.
Before he fed himself, he fed the dog. And, when he could, left out scraps for the stray cats.
In Bloomington, he cared for addicts – his friends here struggled with opiates and amphetamines. He’d talk to them, and, when they blew their own meager salaries on drugs – or lost their jobs for arriving blinkered at work again – he’d feed them.
He cycled through many bedraggled roommates in his time here. One stiffed us for a thousand dollars, having never paid rent for seven months (yes, rent in Bloomington is very cheap. But that left K & me to scrape together the money on the salaries of a public school teacher and a full-time writer). Another has since been murdered in a bungled drug deal. The alcoholic librarian fancied himself the best of the lot, slurring to me one day, “Yer father sure knows a lotta low-level criminals.”
And yet even he, the alcoholic librarian, vanished… at which point cops came by to ask some questions because the dude’s car had been found abandoned in a field in the run-down nowhere between a town known for meth and a town known for pills. It was two weeks before the librarian turned up again, and every time Mike asked where he’d been the dude pretended not to hear the question.
Mike Milks gave what he had to those people. Nobody else cared for them.
And then, after he died, I began teaching in the local jail.
Against all odds – because I should admit that Mike infuriated me sometimes – I am carrying on his work. When Mike gave a banquet – with those scraps he cobbled together from SNAP benefits – he would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and addicts, lepers of the modern world. He did so unthinkingly. All he had was love, and he gave where it was needed.
I am less kind than he was. But I am learning.
So, thank you, Mike. I am grateful to be keeping a small part of your work alive.
I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.
If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.
But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.
Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”
I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.
And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.
I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.
I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.
Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.
So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.
Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.
Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.
But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.
The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.
Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.
Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)
Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.
But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.
At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.
But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.
And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.
This is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.
Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.
After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.
The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.
If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.
Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.
Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:
The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.
I found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.
So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.
Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.
And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.
My parents never sat me down to discuss the birds & the bees, but I think I’ve got the basics down. You need a male parent and a female parent, their gametes fuse, an embryo develops, and, voila! You’ve got a kid! Or a grub, or a chick, what have you.
Although this process seems cooperative — if the kid grows big and strong, it’ll carry on both its parents’ genes — it’s cooperative the way shared-grade group projects in college are cooperative. Everyone wants to get an A, but the more work you can con your partner into doing, the better. The outcome is shared, but when it comes to divvying up the effort, your partner is your adversary.
In game theory, arrangements like this are notoriously slippery. As soon as one partner does a tiny bit more work than the other, that person has more to lose if the rest of the project doesn’t get done right. They’ve already invested more, and their investment will be wasted if nobody does the rest of the work.
A friend of mine was majoring in nonprofit management: most of her assignments were group projects. And she’s very bright. Rarely procrastinates. Which her assigned partners would typically notice — on the first day they’d plan out which tasks each person would do, then on the second day my friend would announce that she’d finished hers.
At that point, her partners would slough off more of their own work onto her — if they do nothing, they’ll all get a low score, sure… but she would get a low score despite having done as much work as somebody expecting to receive a high one. That’s worse! So she’d do far more than her fair share.
In terms of the biological mechanics of reproduction, K has put in far more effort than I have. The imbalance started early. Female gametes carry everything an embryo will need. Male gametes are worthless little things, just delivery mechanisms for DNA. And, like with my beleaguered friend, initial imbalance leads to more and more unfairness. Human females carry the developing fetus for nine months. They might breastfeed for years. Meanwhile the father is out cavorting with his new girlfriend, maybe dropping off some food from time to time.
Or, wait. I guess that’s not what I did. Despite investing little in my gametes, I became our family’s primary daytime parent, talking with N, cooking lunch, reading her books …
Genetics aren’t destiny. We don’t have to conform to the brutishness of the natural world. Still, I’m consciously ignoring what my genes would have me do.
So I’m not surprised that some bees have decided that men — shiftless freeloaders! — often aren’t worth the bother. There’s a type of bee that ditches males from time to time. Females fertilize their own eggs and carry on as a single-gendered colony. It’s not just bees that do this, either. Numerous species reproduce at least occasionally (for some of them, exclusively) by parthenogenesis: virgin birth. Instead of putting forth almost all the effort and getting half the credit for raising a kid, they go it alone.
I don’t blame them. If you’re not doing much more work, and your outcome is comparable (sexual reproduction gives more genetic variation than parthenogenesis, which can give a population more opportunities to survive in a changing environment — but, under stable circumstances, children mirroring their mothers is good enough), why carry the mooch?
Single parent offspring are also common throughout mythology. The phrase “virgin birth” makes most Westerners think of Mary, pregnant with Jesus despite no genetic input from a male, but, in mythology, the single parent is more often male. I think Wendy Doniger’s description of this contrast in Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts is charming:
In the medical texts, it is clear that women can procreate unilaterally but men cannot; in the myths, the situation is reversed, and men, but not women, are capable of unilateral procreation (albeit men do it into a “female” receptacle of some sort — any container at all).
Jesus was born to a single mother, but Eve was produced from the flesh of a man alone. During the birth of Athena, in Jane Ellen Harrison’s translation, “Her life as the lightning was flashed from the light of her Father’s head.” No help from Hera. In some versions of the Ramayana, Sita is birthed nasally by Ravana during a sneeze (ouch!). Prometheus, who created mankind and all the animals, was male. The rabbis who enlivened clay golems: all male. Even Victor Frankenstein, himself the creation of a female, sired a motherless child.
For Mary Shelley’s tale, she might’ve chosen a male creator because the idea of a female doctor seemed more fantastic than electricity quickening dead flesh. In traditional mythology, though, male writers likely gave male heroes supernatural powers because they wanted to feel special. According to Doniger,
In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation. The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it. Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb. The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.
In real life, female bodies are productive in a way that males are not, so my supposition is that the religious tales were inspired by envy.
Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?
Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.
I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.
But I did resolve to read the book.
At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.
Let me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.
Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.
The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.
The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.
The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:
The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.
. . .
So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.
This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.
The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.
In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.
Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.
Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.
The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:
Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …
These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories. Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …
The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.
A few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.
For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.
Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.
When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.
The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.
In the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!
It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?
Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.
Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.
Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.”
Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:
Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —
“One lemming, kid?”
“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”
“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”
And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.
In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:
It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.
What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.
Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.
The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!
Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources. When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.
Humans are very similar to most other predators this way. A bit foolish, we are. We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.
So it goes.
The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?
In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.
N has almost all her teeth now. But these last four have been brutal.
Through almost all of teething she maintained a sunny disposition. Not so for this final stretch. I’m startled awake at midnight, and one a.m., and two a.m., and three a.m., etc., when she flails, kicks me in the neck, and launches into night-terror screaming. She walks around all day with her hand crammed into her mouth, steadily gnawing, covering herself with slime.
And naps became more difficult. Instead of lying down placidly to sleep after a single book (current favorites: Old Hat New Hat and The Skunk), she’ll yell, demand a snack, another book, more time spent playing, anything to make the hurting stop.
I force her to sleep anyway. I figure, if she doesn’t sleep, she’ll just end up with a headache on top of the constant jaw ache from having blunt calcified lumps steadily pushing through her flesh. But we’ve had to change our routine — I used to read one book to her, lay her down beside me, then read a book of my own after she closed her eyes.
Tooth pain means that’s not enough.
She sleeps on top of me now. I wrap my arms around her, she sets her head on my chest, I breath loudly and try to slow my heart rate. I can’t even read because the sound of turning pages would make her suddenly rear up and demand to look at the book with me (I don’t think she would enjoy Primo Levi’s The Truce). Instead I close my eyes and pretend to sleep (luckily my own exhaustion makes “pretending” easy).
One day recently, she lifted her head to tell me that my heart was talking. “What does it say?” I asked her.