On weird spelling.

On weird spelling.

mugA friend recently served me tea in a mug with spelling advice, the sort that reads “i before e except after c, or when …” then rattles off words like “foreign,” “neighbor,” and “weird.”  The resident eight-year-old dramatically read the mug. She also read my tea leaves when I’d finished drinking.  The leaves seemed to form a w, which prompted me to write her a letter about why “weird” is spelled so weirdly.

I’ve long struggled with spelling.  Elementary school spelling bees made me feel faint – luckily I’d be asked to sit after one or two words – and I still feel slightly dizzy when spelling aloud, even though I only do it for my three-year-old or the men in jail.  Nobody’s out to disparage my intellect, but spelling makes me anxious.

IMG_6482My friends teased me for weeks in eighth grade because I’d written a report about squirrels for science class, and apparently I spelled the word “squirrel” twelve different wrong ways in just four pages.  I can’t even think of twelve reasonable mistakes, but my friends claimed to have counted.  Then again, eighth graders are prone to exaggeration, especially in the service of malicious humor – I certainly was.

Conventional English spelling really is abominable, though.

stonehengeI don’t think much is known about English before 1,000 A.D.  Plenty of people spoke the language earlier, but they weren’t writing it down.  Which is a shame, really.  At Pages to Prisoners, we get a lot of requests for information about ancient religions, but there’s not always much to send.  Nobody knows what the ceremonies at Stonehenge were like because that religion was displaced by Christianity around 700 A.D., before the English were writing.  Visiting Romans had written about early Anglo-Saxon beliefs, but their writings were propaganda, all condemning the “dangerous, wild druids.”

But there are books in English from the past thousand years, and these show the way spelling changed over time.  Since parenting doesn’t leave me much time to trawl through libraries for their oldest, rarest manuscripts, my linguistic spelunking is confined to the OED.  I have the two-volume edition (and sufficiently sharp eyes that I can still read it without the magnifying glass).

The sentences using “weird” include spellings ranging from “wyrde” to “wierd” – I’ve tried my best to guess what each might have meant, but I’m decidedly unpracticed at early English.  Rather than research or expertise, all I can offer are my attempts to sound out each word and guess what a writer might’ve wanted to convey.  But these writers’ beliefs were very different from my own.

1000: What wyrde has hyder my iuel vayned. (author unknown)

I assume this means, “What power has heard my vain cry,” or “Why does fate not take mercy on me?”

426px-King_William_I_('The_Conqueror')_from_NPGSoon after this was written, William the Conqueror earned his title – England came under the rule of Normandy.  French became the courtly language of England, and English was considered the uncouth province of serfs and servants.  Even now, French-derived words are generally considered more polite than the Anglo-Saxon, and we use French words to describe animals that have been killed and cooked for wealthy people to eat.

1385: The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyteous sad. (Chaucer)

“The forces that we call destiny have shaped her that she might need be piteously sad.”

In the early 1400s, English became courtly language of England again.  But official use didn’t make spelling any less eccentric.  Books were being produced one at a time, hand-copied by monks who sometimes altered words to suit their fancy.

EscribanoWhen the monks were deciding how to spell words, they often included etymologically-relevant silent letters.  Written language, they felt, should reveal its history.  For instance, the French word ile – land surrounded by water – became the English ile.  Then an “s” was added to make clear that the word derives from the Latin “insula.”  Fine.  But then the monks assumed that the similar word yland must have the same history, so they changed its spelling to “island.”  They were wrong, though.  The word yland comes from proto-Indo-European “akwa land,” a “water land.”  It should have no “s.”

There were no English dictionaries.  When laypeople wanted to know how to spell a word, they’d check a Bible.  But each Bible had been copied by hand by a different monk.  Words were often spelled differently from one Bible to the next.

512px-GutenbergIn the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg introduced a “movable type printing press” to Europe.  (I was taught that he invented it, since elementary school history teachers in Indiana didn’t much care for celebrating Chinese discoveries.  We’d talk about China only on the Lunar New Year – instead of their cultural and scientific achievements, we learned about paper dragons and superstitions.)

With the printing press, there was more incentive to lengthen words.  Book producers had always been paid by the line, whether they were copying by hand or setting type, but typesetting is faster.  There was more risk of running out of work.  So the printers boosted profits by changing “frend” to “friend,” and the like.  Why would they worry about befuddling elementary students born centuries in the future?

And yet, the OED’s post-Guttenberg citation for “weird” has a particularly lithe spelling.

1470: As werd will wyrke, thi fortoun mon thou take. (Henry)

“As the powers that be will work, your fortune may you take,” perhaps faintly presaging “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

In the middle of the 1500s, England began to import English-language Bibles.  These were typically typeset abroad by people who used the spelling conventions of their own languages – we owe our “h” in “ghost” to the Dutch word “gheest.”  We almost wound up with silent “h”s in “ghospel” and “ghossip,” too, but thankfully those “h”s disappeared before they had a chance to confound me in spelling bees.

With more printed Bibles to consult, spelling conventions began to ossify.

1585: Vhom suld I warie bot my wicked weard, Vha span my thrifties thauard fatall threed? (Montgomerie)

I assume this means “Whom should I fear but my wicked fate, who has spun my thread toward calamity.”  This seems like a particularly sad sentiment, to me.  Something goes wrong, a friend offers sympathy, and you say, “Nah, don’t worry about it, it’s just that God has cursed me.  Nothing to be done.”

Cheer up already, Eeyore!

In the 1600s, King James authorized a new translation of the Bible.  This is when English first looks like the language I speak.

320px-First_FolioAnd there was Shakespeare.  I think I’ll blame him for weird’s weird spelling.  In Macbeth, he wanted for weird to be pronounced with two syllables – in several of his plays he toyed with characters matching the pronunciation of words to their strange spellings.

(I still get confused when kids are playing Clue and somebody asks about the wanton rampages of kernal Mustard.  It’s not pronounced colonel?)

Instead of saying “wyrd” like we do, or “wurd” like English speakers had for centuries, he wanted the actor on stage to say “wee – yurd,” the way you might drawl it out if you saw a really gross slug or something.  Presumably that gave the people writing down his play an added incentive to spell it “weird,” to make clear that it needed two vowel sounds.

After all, words spelled with “ie” were well-known to have a single sound, just the typesetters’ way of making a quick buck.

1835: Puir auld wives … Were seized in Superstition’s clutches, An’ brunt to death for wierds an’ witches. (Alexander Smart)

“Virtuous women took up superstition and were burnt to death for being strange, or witches.”  Aren’t we humans grand?

1895: Weird wends as she willeth. (William Morris)

A beautiful sentence, to my mind.  It’s recent enough to need no translating, but you could render it as “Fate does whatever fate wants,” or even “God works in mysterious ways.”

Where will weird wend my life’s weft next?

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.

51EoHkd8RcL._SX434_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy.  When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.

This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God.  He began to harass Dr. Curtis.  He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing.  The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.

This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital.  Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic.  But she caved.

Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor.  Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left.  The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.

One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away.  She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran.  He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.

Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage.  Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate.  The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.

The police declined this offer.

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Movie poster from a film made about the incident.

Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered.  He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes.  He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.

In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues.  He was better than them, he said.  His plan was righteous.

The other inmates beat the shit out of him.  Repeatedly.  It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.

The angry man tried repeatedly to escape.  He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts.  During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.

His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said.  That much I agree with, I suppose.  I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind.  But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.

Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces.  (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks.  Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years.  Jail is a miserable place to be.)

It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine.  Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty.  His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.”  Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.

This country has a long history of Christian terrorism.  Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children.  In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:

61NK-8V3GdLMany Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview.  In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.

These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes.  Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human.  Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.

(Human life does not begin at conception.  A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities.  Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight.  Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s?  Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)

mcds
Obesity & ill health terminate pregnancies, but I’ve never seen pro-lifers protesting at McDonald’s.

Davis also writes that:

In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon.  Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ”  In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.

Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God.  In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):

KierkegaardIt is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.

Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy.  I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation.  This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.

[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world.  He is no fool.  First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation.  He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.

That’s great, Kierkegaard!  But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”?  Abraham does not need your defense.  Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.

According to the King James translation of the Bible,

Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder.  And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.

Oops.

At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder.  Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists.  In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions.  Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people.  But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.

Again from the King James translation:

holy-670718_1280And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;

And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly.  So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.

Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:

And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.

In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder.  In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:

31m-sWuKYQL._BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes.  Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.

After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god.  Yahweh himself murders a lot of people.  He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice.  And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children.  These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.

And this book is supposed to be the wellspring of American values?

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft.  You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?

After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage.  You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist.  The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to.  With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.

In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose.  It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game.  Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_Project

Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.”  This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.

First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up.  And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing.  I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatest game, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

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Bible_primer,_Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools_(1919)_(14595468018)We live in a culture that reveres vengeance.  The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.

Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk.  After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.

But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence.  Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city.  The people began to starve.  The uprising was crushed.

102.Zedekiah's_Sons_Are_Slaughtered_before_His_EyesThe Hebrew leader was captured.  He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms.  One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children.  The leader surely screamed, begging to die.  The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly.  And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah.  Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind.  His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.

Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city.  They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk.  This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.

And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk.  On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world.  The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth.  Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh which celebrates fraternal love.

The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Adam-and-Eve_Stephen-Greenblatt_coverIn The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.

The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories.  And so the Hebrews fought back … with words.  They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked.  The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance.  In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt.  Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.

And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves.  They asked of their god revenge.  They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.

bible-1623181_640And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers.  Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars.  Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.

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Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance.  And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge.  Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.

Which is sad – there are many ways of being smart, even if our culture celebrates only one of them.

Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros.  In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air.  But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.

In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States.  Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next.  His curiosity was nearly the death of him.  Irked, she lit the world on fire.

In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head.  The mutant children he sired will destroy the world.  His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.

But his exploits were still celebrated.

lightning.jpgOr there’s Annabeth in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, a daughter of Athena who helps the protagonist recover after a battle with a minotaur:

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.  Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s.  Of course the teachers want you medicated.  Most of them are monsters.  They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

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In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon

The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.

On storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.

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Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

Mitochondria,_mammalian_lung_-_TEM_(2)
Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

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Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

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Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”

On killer line breaks.

Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection Life on Mars is excellent, combining bursts of science-fiction weirdness with totally non-speculative emotional clarity.  If you chance upon a copy, you might try flipping to her poems “The Museum of Obselencence,” or “Sci-Fi,” or “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” particularly the fifth strophe of that last one; those are my favorites, although you could also do pretty well by opening her book at random and reading whatever you find.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any pull quotes that do justice to my favorites from her collection.  So instead I’m stuck writing an essay about a section of the titular poem “Life on Mars.”  And I use the word “stuck” because my lack of experience with poetry will be quite clear here: I picked some lines where Smith reworks quotations from Rush Limbaugh and Senator Norm Coleman about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and, with some killer line breaks, really shifts the meaning.

                                                     The guards
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.

9781555975845What she’s doing here is totally unsubtle — if you’re a poetry person, let me reassure you that she employs a much lighter touch in her other pieces.  But, right: I am not a poetry person, so I enjoyed her lack of subtlety here.  To me, this feels almost like going to a martial arts demonstration and seeing someone make a slow, exaggerated motion.  If you’re in the audience you finally get to nod and muse, “Ahhh, so that is how they do it.”  Sure, it’s not real evidence of someone’s prowess, but I think it’s a kindness to sometimes tone down a performance to the point where the untrained eye can appreciate what’s being done.

Here, she plays with a readers eyes.  The line break after “not” pushes you to isolate the phrase “what you’d expect from Americans” from Coleman’s words.  The accusation becomes perfectly clear: this is what Smith would expect from Americans.

There is a lot of debate about whether the United States is a Christian nation, or was meant to be a Christian nation, or the like.  If you’ve ever scrolled through search hits for the topic, I’m sure you’ve already seen numerous screeds written from one side or the other.

To me, it seems compelling that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a plurality of Americans believe their country to be a Christian nation — and the same was probably true earlier, except that fewer people were bothering to ask.  Which I obviously don’t think implies that this country should start drafting laws based on the Bible (although: start?).  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the prevalence of Christianity in American society when trying to ascertain what Americans would or would not do.

Unfortunately, one reason why I think it’s not so surprising that Americans would torture their prisoners is that the Bible takes a pro-torture stance.  Of course, not every Christian sect includes the Book of Revelation in its scripture, but many do.

Capture14:9 And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, if any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand,

The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

The types of torture described here are very different from what went on at Abu Ghraib, although not so dissimilar from treatment at Guantánamo Bay — including exposure to scorpions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat, extreme cold, pepper spray, all resulting in persons who’d rather die than endure their torments, etc.  (I’ve written a little bit about Guantánamo elsewhere.)  But to me the key point here is that enemies of the regime are tortured at all.  If a soldier used to be a kid wearing a WWJD bracelet, and Revelation makes clear that Jesus would torture his enemies, well…

But then we reach the next fancy line break that Smith uses, the one right after the word “people.”  Here is Smith’s acknowledgement that it isn’t just Americans who are inclined toward evil (not that it’s fair to hold the abuses of a few against the inhabitants of an entire country — although we did bomb the inhabitants of two whole countries after the horrific actions of a few).  Her poem is “only talking about people,” as a reader is forced to consider before finishing the sentence.  As in, it’s all people who are wired to seek retribution after they or their loved ones or their country are harmed.

Which I thought was a clever trick for Smith to pull off, especially since she’s doing this by repurposing the words of others.  She’s even better in several of her other poems, like all the ones she wrote from scratch.  If you’ve got time, you should check out her book.