On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.

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The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.

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The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.

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Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.

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The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.

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More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology.  In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot.  She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.

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In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors.  She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.

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In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:

Sullen Telemachus said, “Mother, no,

you must not criticize the loyal bard

for singing as it pleases him to sing. 

 

         Go in and do your work.

Stick to the loom and distaff.  Tell your slaves

to do their chores as well.  It is for men

to talk, especially me.”

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In Women and Power, Mary Beard says of this scene:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope.  But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.  More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

image (2)In What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters, Garry Wills writes that:

Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story.  For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi.  For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest.  For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).

Wills then cites the passage of the Qur’an describing the proper way to validate contracts.  From Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Call in two men as witnesses.  If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her.  Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned. 

Clearly, this is derogatory toward women.  But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.

I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract.  But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people.  The parent’s gender is irrelevant here.  My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.

People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.

Hopefully it wasn’t important.

Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy.  I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance.  In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses

image (3)the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny.  [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.]  This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.

Lancy then quotes a passage from Beverly Strassmann’s “Polygyny as a risk factor for child mortality among the Dogon”:

It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children.  I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior.  Co-wife aggression is documented in court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning  … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females.  Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land.  Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.

Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people.  A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.

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Seriously, they are exhausting.

Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory.  But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children.  And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.

There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young.  But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work.  According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk.  Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.

This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men.  Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.

It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids.  Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.

In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein writes that:

image (4)if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:

Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture.  She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to.  She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). 

She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.

It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use.  What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?

 

Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there.  It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.

And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.

Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing.  As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.

It’s strange.  After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school.  And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.

 

When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families.  By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family.  If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.

The costs are high.  But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.

The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.

On PTSD and David Means’s ‘Hystopia.’

On PTSD and David Means’s ‘Hystopia.’

When my family plays sports, every game is vaguely reminiscent of Calvinball.  The rules are amorphous.  Peculiarities of the landscape are considered features of play.  And, if you’re losing, tackling often seems as though it ought to be allowed.

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The first Calvinball.

Recently we were playing a soccer-esque game with a good friend who, unfortunately, lived through atrocious violence.  She was winning, I thought, although it is often difficult to know.  Less contentious was the fact that I was losing.  Time for a tackle!

If you saw a tickertape of her thoughts during the game it might’ve read fun fun fun TERROR!

I apologized profusely.  As someone who has not been exposed to horrible trauma, I am at times blithely unaware of the delicate tightrope walked by others.  There is at times a fine line separating play from something that will trigger the fear.

hystopiaIn Hystopia, David Means tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who returned from combat, wrote a fantasy novel about a pharmacological cure for trauma, then killed himself.  The novel — which transpires in a Man in the High Castle-esque alternate reality — is bleak.  The novel within the novel is even bleaker.

The doomed writer is young, a sensitive kid named Eugene Allen.  And one striking feature of the novel within the novel is the way Allen couches fantastical wizardry in scientific-sounding language.  This gives readers a sense of how ardently he wants his imagined cure to be plausible.  Writing that a spell could cause selective amnesia would make clear that his mind, the writer’s, would be forever filled with horror.  But by writing that a pill could do it, it was possible for Allen to imagine his own salvation.

It’s true that Allen’s use of scientific terminology is often flawed.  His education was interrupted by the war — at an age when I was in college, he was experiencing the peculiar blend of boredom and terror that characterizes modern war, watching his friends die, trying to murder strangers who were trying to murder him in turn.  Allen knows that the world ought to be scientific, but he was never given an opportunity to learn the details of what that means.  And so the text is peppered with words that he thinks will give his world the appropriate atmosphere, like in this passage where a government agent is daydreaming about the beach during a meeting with his supervisor:

It was the only memory he had, everything after that moment — leaving school — came up blank and here was Klein, he was still talking, pressing, asking him what he was thinking about, so Singleton said, “The Credo, sir, I was thinking about the Credo,” while in his mind he was running out of the Corps building and Wendy was waiting, arms wide, and then he was on the beach with her, applying lotion as an excuse to touch her back, two fingers pressed together tracing the lovely line of her spine to where the taut band of her bikini bottom stretched over a slight gap that absorbed sunlight like antimatter.

It’s a vivid piece of imagery, and, given what readers know about Allen’s education, it hardly matters that the combination of scientific-sounding words punctuating the passage make no sense together.  His essential point is made.  Unlike Tolkien, who returned from combat after World War I and composed a trilogy with dragons and elves and spells, veterans returning from the Vietnam War to the U.S., a country obsessed with science, technology, and progress, could not so easily slip into magical fantasy.

There are many passages that would fit either type of novel — magical or faux-scientific — like the following in which a character explains to his amnesiotic girlfriend that cold water will trigger her memory’s return:

What we want to do is get more of you back, to take you into the water and get you in the cold — not much, just a bit — and start to get some of your memories back.

c47d16ddbb9d3a069a113951dfbaba8bIt’s easy for me to imagine a mystical world in which wizardry could be counteracted by immersion in cold water.  It was nothing but water, after all, that Dorothy used to defeat the Wicked Witch.  And the type of memory loss Allen imagines is quite similar to that of ancient mythology.  Shortly after using an old military hand signal, a soldier who’d been cured of his PTSD finds himself thinking that his faculties will come back to him when he needs them:

Back behind the wheel she drove quietly and carefully and continued thinking, he guessed, about her father’s chances.  At least the old man could remember his combat training.  Some said — and this might just be one more of the countless rumors, of course — that the mechanics, the fighting techniques, the useful stuff could never be lost, because it was somehow entwined into your sense of destiny (something like that).  It was all tiresome.  Rumors appeared around a context of need; they were nothing but a formation of an idea around a precise desire.

This resembles the legendary monkey Hanuman’s memory loss in the Ramayana.  Back when the monkey knew how powerful he was, he took advantage of his abilities.  He was a menace!  He had to be stopped!  But, like a returned-soldier-turned-government-agent, his powers might be needed in the future.  He needed to forget that he’d been trained, without forgetting the training itself:

          Having obtained boons Hanuman became highly and powerful and accelerated in himself.  He became full like ocean, O’ Rama.

          Having become powerful, the best of Mongoloids, started committing offences against Maharsis in their hermitages.

          He broke the sacrificial ladles and vessels and also the heaps of banks belonging to the ascetics.

          That powerful Hanuman did all this type of jobs.  He was made invulnerable to all kinds of weapons by Siva.

          Having known this all the Rsis tolerated him, the son of Kesari and Anjana.

          Even though prohibited by his father, Hanuman crossed the limits which enraged the Rsis of the lines of Bhrgu and Angira and bestowed curse upon him.  O best of the Raghus.

          That you will be unconscious of the prowess endowed with which you torment us.  You will be conscious of your power only after being reminded of it.

          Thereupon, having devoid of prowess and glory, he used to wander in the hermitages silently and decently.

There is a long tradition of magical speculation about treating warriors with selective amnesia.  But Allen couches his speculations in faux-scientific language in order to give himself hope.  By writing that way — especially within the alternate reality Means created for him — he could more easily imagine an escape from his own pain.

Other features of his writing reveal Allen’s youth.  His language is playful, but much of the play revolves around reversing clichés, in lines like “I was thinking how alive I am because I’m lucky” and “I believe that man’s drinking under the influence of driving, Rake was saying, pulling the car over to the shoulder.

DavidMeans4These untrained features of Allen’s writing further Means’s message: kids were yanked from their lives & sent overseas to murder and be murdered instead of developing into adulthood.  Many never returned.  Of those who did survive, many were sufficiently traumatized by the experience that their lives were never as successful as they would’ve been.

Even now, several wars later, our soldiers return to a world where few efforts are made to care for them.  We make token expressions of gratitude on Memorial Day without structuring our world to actually accommodate those who have sacrificed on our behalf.  The suicide rate among veterans is heartbreaking.  The number of homeless veterans is heartbreaking.  The number of veterans whose only institutional care comes from the criminal justice system… that’s heartbreaking, too.

The phrase “Thank you for your service” doesn’t mean much unless we’re willing to change our world such that returning veterans actually feel thanked.  Hollow words aren’t helping much.

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

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From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On silenced voices.

On silenced voices.

During high school, I read dozens of Agatha Christie novels.  But, recently, I rarely read mysteries.  Like everybody else, I plowed through The Da Vinci Code and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, but I’ve picked up few others in the past decade.

unnamed.jpgSo it was a rare treat to set aside a few hours over the weekend for Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932).  It’s a lovely book, wonderful even though Fisher was writing with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back.  His was the first mystery novel published by an African-American writer, so the writing style is reserved, even staid.  If the whole narrative were written with the linguistic inventiveness that Fisher was capable of, he might not have found a publisher.

Within dialogue, though, Fisher lets his writing crackle.  The following passage shows off this dichotomy:

          On he strolled past churches, drugstores, ice-cream parlors, cigar stores, restaurants, and speakeasies.  Acquaintances standing in entrances or passing him by offered the genial insults which were characteristic Harlem greetings:

          “What you say, blacker’n me?”

          “How you doin’, short-order?”

          “Ole Eight-Ball!  Where you rollin’, boy?”

          In each instance, Bubber returned some equivalent reply, grinned, waved, and passed on.  He breathed deeply of the keen sweet air, appraised casually the trim, dark-eyed girls, admired the swift humming motors that flashed down the Avenue.

Conjure-Man DiesThough the novel is nearly a hundred years old, its concerns are strikingly modern.  For instance, the narrative digresses into an investigation of free will, the relationship between quantum-mechanical uncertainty and human thought, the limitations of medical diagnosis —  all topics that still confound contemporary philosophers.  Fisher was remarkably up-to-date: the Heissenberg uncertainty principle was first proposed a mere five years before The Conjure-Man Dies was published, and yet the novel incorporates the central idea more accurately than many contemporary writers.  Some of this can be seen in a short dialogue between the characters Dr. Archer — Fisher’s simulacrum within the novel — and Frimbo, a brilliant, highly-educated man who makes his living as a fortune teller.

          Easily and quickly they began to talk with that quick intellectual recognition which characterizes similarly reflective minds.  Dr. Archer’s apprehensions faded away and shortly he and his host were eagerly embarked on discussions that at once made them old friends: the hopelessness of applying physico-chemical methods to psychological problems; the nature of matter and mind and the possible relations between them; the current researches of physics, in which matter apparently vanished into energy, and Frimbo’s own hypothesis that probably the mind did likewise.  Time sped.  At the end of an hour Frimbo was saying:

          “But as long as this mental energy remains mental, it cannot be demonstrated.  It is like potential energy — to be appreciated it must be transformed into heat, light, motion — some form that can be grasped and measured.  Still, by assuming its existence, just as we do that of potential energy, we harmonize psychology with mechanistic science.”

          “You astonish me,” said the doctor.  “I thought you were a mystic, not a mechanist.”

          “This,” returned Frimbo, “is mysticism — an undemonstrable belief.  Pure faith in anything is mysticism.  Our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism.”

If you like mysteries, you’d be well-served reading this novel.

And so, when I reached the end of the book, I expected to find a few pages with a catalog of other mystery novels.  Instead, there was a list that began, “BLACK HISTORY: Other Books of Interest.  Individual titles in Series I, II, and III of the Amo Press collection THE AMERICAN NEGRO: HIS HISTORY AND LITERATURE are listed in the following pages.”  The selections were almost all academic history books, things like Modern Negro Art and Religion in Higher Education Among Negros (to choose only those two titles that bracket the page on which The Conjure-Man Dies is listed.)

Methinks this listing is not the way for The Conjure-Man Dies to find its audience.  Which I could elaborate upon, but, as it happens, I don’t need to.  Percival Everett, in his novel Erasure, explained this better than I could:

Erasure          While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it.  I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the WalMart of books.  I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged.  I went to Literature and did not see me.  I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph.  I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing.  Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section.  Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section.  The result in either case, no sale.  That fucking store was taking food from my table.

          Saying something to the poor clone of a manager was not going to fix anything, so I resigned to keep quiet.

I learned about Erasure from Parul Sehgal’s lovely essay in the New York Times MagazineErasure is a satirical novel about an ambitious black writer who struggles to have his work taken seriously — he’s losing his struggle, though, because, although his work is good, his writing does not match what people expect from someone with his skin tone.  From the opening pages:

percival everett.png          While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough.  Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough.  Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.  I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.  From a reviewer:

          The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.

          One night at a party in New York, one of the tedious affairs where people who write mingle with people who want to write and with people who could help either group begin or continue to write, a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me I could sell many books if I’d forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty stories of black life.  I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one.  He left me to chat with an on-the-rise perfomance artist / novelist who had recently posed for seventeen straight hours in front of the governor’s mansion as a lawn jockey.  He familiarly flipped one of her braided extensions and tossed a thumb back in my direction.

          The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race.  Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it.  I don’t believe in race.  I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors.  But that’s just the way it is.

Sehgal has written several excellent essays about the phenomenon of erasure, or silenced voices, recently.  Two paragraphs from her essay on the student protests at elite universities cut deep.

In Tablet, James Kirchick wrote, “When I hear, in 2015, students complain about feeling ‘marginalized’ at Yale due to their racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other identity … I can’t help but think of James Meredith.”  In 1962, flanked by federal marshals, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. 

James_Meredith_OleMiss.jpg

“When I see photographs of Meredith and other black students of the civil rights era,” Kirchick wrote, “I don’t see people pleading for dean’s excuses so they can huddle in a ‘safe space’ to recover from ‘traumatic racial events.’  I see unbelievably courageous young men and women.”

Of course, it’s one thing to look at a photograph of James Meredith and concoct a fantasy of his bravery and resilience — a photograph is silent; it cannot clarify or correct.  To listen to James Meredith is a different thing entirely.  “Ole Miss kicked my butt, and they’re still celebrating,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012.  “Because every black that’s gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can’t even tell their story.  Everybody has to tell James Meredith’s story — which is a lie.  The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly.”  He continued, “They’re gonna keep on doin’ it because it makes it impossible for blacks there now to say anything about what’s happened to them.”

What a masterful reversal of logic.

Passages like this hurt so much for me to read because I, too, tacitly assented to our systematic silencing of minority voices for many years.  During my twenty-some years of formal education, I hardly ever read the work of black authors, learned almost nothing about African-American history except than the usual narrative about how Martin Luther King, Jr. strove mightily and was sacrificed but everything is all better now.  Which is, it seems, not exactly correct.

Indeed, even when I began to learn more history and investigate silenced voices for my own work, I came at the problem through mythology.  Canonical texts typically related only one side of stories, and even then include only the voices of a privileged few; the lives of others are submerged by time.  Even in epic poetry like The Iliad, the cares and concerns of women disappear: Helen, for instance, is used as a mouthpiece for male sentiment.  After leaving her rampantly-unfaithful husband for a more charming lover, she says (in the Stephen Mitchell translation):

          “But come in, dear brother-in-law,

sit down on this chair and rest yourself for a while,

since the burden falls upon you more than the others,

through my fault, bitch that I am, and through Paris’s folly.

Zeus has brought us an evil fate, so that poets

can make songs about us for all future generations.”

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Photo by Ricky Brigante on Flickr.

Really, Homer?  “Bitch that I am?”  I’m well aware that many women who leave violent, abusive husbands suffer self-recriminations for years, but this strikes me as a decidedly male sentiment, as though the “face that launch’d a thousand ships” were really the inanimate wood of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Until Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, women seem similarly silenced in American history.  Until Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, women & the low-caste seem to have been silenced from Hinduism.  To the best of my knowledge, there has been no similar corrective to Christianity, at least not one that has seeped into the popular consciousness.

This phenomenon is part of what drew me to the Ramayana.  This myth burbles with unheard stories at the periphery of the main narrative.  Through the years, numerous writers have attempted to bring these admurmerations to the fore, but their work has been similarly neglected.  From an essay by Nabaneeta Dev Sen,

Similarly, Candravati Ramayana [composed circa 1600] has been neglected and rejected for years by our male custodians of Bengali literature as an incomplete work.  This is what we call a silenced text.  The editors decided it was a poor literary work because it was a Ramayana that did not sing of Rama.  Its eccentricity confused not only the editors but also historians of Bengali literature to such an extent that they could not even see the complete epic narrative pattern clearly visible in it.  It got stamped as an incomplete text.  Today, a rereading of the narrative exposes an obvious failure of the male critics and historians: to recognize Candravati Ramayana as a personal interpretation of the Rama-tale, seen specifically from the wronged woman’s point of view.

And, linking the Ramayana with the issues described at the beginning of this post, the villainized dark-skinned king’s side of the story is never told.  I’ve been enamored with the peripheral stories in the Ramayana ever since learning of the Dravida Kazhagam interpretation, which recasts the dark-skinned villain as a hero and the entire narrative as a tragedy.

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Image by Adam Jones on Wikipedia.

To put this into perspective for someone from the United States, this is akin to a retelling of the Bible in which God is a tyrannical oppressor and Satan the tragic hero (and, to differentiate this hypothetical work from Paradise Lost, Satan would have to think of himself & his efforts to enlighten humanity as fundamentally good).  To wit: a radical, and oft-denounced, retelling.

What with recasting the erudite, beleaguered dark-skinned man as a hero, you could reasonably draw parallels between the DK Ramayana and, say, the upcoming Nat Turner film.  The struggles of a man rebelling against the invention of “race” in the United States.

Why, after all, should the presence of more melanin in someone’s skin curtail opportunities?  Which is yet another idea presented beautifully in The Conjure-Man Dies.  Here, I’ll end this post with one last quotation, again drawn from the conversation between the sleuthing doctor and the fortune teller (who was presumed to have died, but somehow returned to life to investigate his own murder):

          “I had really intended to discuss the mystery of this assault,” the doctor declared.  “Perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”

          Frimbo smiled.

          “Mystery?  That is no mystery.  It is a problem in logic, and perfectly calculable.  I have one or two short-cuts which I shall apply tomorrow night, of course, merely to save time.  But genuine mystery is incalculable.  It is all around us — we look upon it every day and do not wonder at it at all.  We are fools, my friend.  We grow excited over a ripple, but exhibit no curiosity over the depth of the stream.  The profoundest mysteries are those things which we blandly accept without question.  See.  You are almost white.  I am almost black.  Find out why, and you will have solved a mystery.”

          “You don’t think the causes of a mere death a worthy problem?”

          “The causes of a death?  No.  The causes of death, yes.  The causes of life and death and variation, yes.  But what on earth does it matter who killed Frimbo — except to Frimbo?”

          They stood a moment in silence.  Presently Frimbo added in an almost bitter murmur:

          “The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black.”