On perspective.

On perspective.

In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs.  That makes sense to me.  If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.

But my perspective is upside down.  Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth.  They listen underground.  They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.

Picture from “The Wood Wide Web” on New Zealand Geographic.

Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep.  I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.

Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.  And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground.  My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.

I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding. 

We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground.  A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.

Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other.  Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flyingAll club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music.  Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.

In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together.  The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group.  But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.

Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills.  Eventually, they began to hunt.  Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill.  Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.

The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.

And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities.  After all, we live in our heads.  It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.

Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.

Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction.  But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.

Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy.  This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.

Image from ESA/Hubble.

Or so say most physicists.  From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable.  If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.

But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.

Is the flow of time progress or decline?

Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?

In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption.  Time passes and the world grows worse.  Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed.  We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.

After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade.  Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.

In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too.  At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.

In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that

To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it.  The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further.  In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.  Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).

Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.

To make America great again, perhaps.

I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad.  We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children.  Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.

And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.

But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past.  The world was a terrible place for so many people.  Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.

For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming.  Their lives were worse than their ancestors’.  But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.

We’re not doing it, but we could.

At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs.  I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.

But it used to be worse.

And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed.  Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire.  Maybe that’s fine.  Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.

But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars.  I dream about the future.  And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.

Image by D Mitriy.

From my perspective, time will let us make the world better. 

Although it surely won’t happen on its own.  We will have to work to make it better.  The work might not be that hard.  Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.

On explaining religion to my child, part one.

On explaining religion to my child, part one.

One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”

I know, I know.  The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal.  Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep.  But I felt that this worry was fixable.

image (1)The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost.  I thought she was old enough!  And I made silly noises!  She laughed and seemed unperturbed!

But then she worried.  That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside?  Where else might ghosts be lurking?

“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story.  Ghosts are only ever in stories.  They’re not real.”

She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.

Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to hear it, Father?”

“Of course I want to hear it!”

“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune.  I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing.  I heard that song many times over the next few months.

#

Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.

“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us.  There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid.  So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid.  Like your birthday, kind of.”

“Ohhh,” she said, nodding.  She likes birthdays.

In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance.  She was only three years old, after all.  That’s a little young for the canonical version –  Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.

And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God.  In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:

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

#

Now my daughter is four.  And she’s still interested in religion.  One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”

“Sure … which one do you want?”

“All of them!”

“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them.  There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”

“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”

buddhaI’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda.  She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha!  I’m Buddha!”

“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes.  Does that sound fair?”

“Okay.”

“So, this first one is from Sumeria.  It’s hot there, a desert now.  And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “

12013863663_8989445d41_z
Image by Ash Cole on Flickr.

Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king.  But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure.  Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.

“… had a best friend named Enkidu.  But then Enkidu died.  They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad.  He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever.  But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”

“A snake did??”

“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever.  But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once.  Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”

She glanced down at her arm.  It didn’t look like it was shedding.

Thangka_depicting_Buddha_under_the_Bodhi_Tree._Weherahena_Temple,_Matara,_Southern_Province,_Sri_Lanka“And the next story you know, about Buddha.  Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace.  But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad.  So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad.  He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking.  He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”

She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom.  Otherwise you wind up needing new pants.  Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.

“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking.  And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets.  These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly.  They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”

She shook her head.  Silly sky ghosts!  If only they’d sung Malvina Reynolds’s “Magic Penny” in school!

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

buddha-1299175_640“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking.  He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside.  But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help.  The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”

I didn’t mention my dissatisfaction with the ideas Buddha eventually came up with.

“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”

I stopped for a moment.  No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.

“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else.  And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever.  Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share.  So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”

We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so.  And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.

6-Serpentlilith-1“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick.  So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”

She frowned.  Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.

“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime.  In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”

“But why was Loki mean?”

“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do.  Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”

“Oh.”

“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids.  But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake.  And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool.  So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”

“And then what did the snake do?”

800px-Thor's_FishingUm … I didn’t want to answer that one.  The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much.  Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.

“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her.  “But now it’s bath time!”

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

It’s easy to get caught up in goal-oriented thinking.  Television commercials for the University of Phoenix tout how much better your life would be with a degree.  Romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall end with the beginning of a relationship.  We strive for a big house, a beautiful family, a flush bank account.

download

Adam Alter discusses some of the flaws in goal-oriented thinking in his recent Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.  Most humans are happiest while striving for a goal, but reaching goals can leave us feeling empty.

Consider the protagonist of Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes, who hunts down the villains who killed his family.  After defeating the last, he falls into melancholy.  He describes himself as feeling “Deflated, perhaps.  I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over.  I am done.

We will either fail to reach our goals … or succeed, only to find that our goals have failed us.

The advertising companies that Adam Alter discusses in Irresistible know that goal-oriented thinking will leave us feeling empty, but that is precisely why they nurture these thoughts.  Striving for ever more Facebook or Instagram “likes” keeps people logging in, which lets the company keep making money.  The corporation’s profit model relies on people feeling unfulfilled.

Most of the corporations shilling things through your telephone want you to feel unhappy.  Contented people spend less.

#

41BPcuTxX-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We read Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” in jail.  This poem is a gorgeous paean to process-oriented thinking, opening with the line:

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

Gilbert then describes a “failed” marriage, one that ended in divorce.  But even though the eventual outcome was separation, he and his wife shared many happy years.  They had engaging conversations over lunch.  He would wake in the morning and marvel over her sleeping form in bed.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that.

Gilbert knows that he was blessed to have lived through so much beauty.  He thinks it’s absurd that other people will say his marriage failed.  It ended, yes.  He fell short of a goal.  But he (appropriately) enjoyed the process.  He has many years of happy memories, and he would be a fool to let the divorce poison his recollection of them all.

The men in jail have also lost many loved ones, either because they’ve drifted apart over time or, tragically often, because their partners have died.  They’ve loved Jack Gilbert’s poems: several dudes teared up at the image of Gilbert finding his second wife Michiko’s hair in a potted plant after she died.

And the men in jail are in jail.  From a goal-oriented perspective, their lives, so far, have been failures.  No one wants to end up there.  When we read Pattiann Rogers’s “The Greatest Grandeur,”  I suggested we write our perspective on the best of the world.  They looked at me confused.  I said, “Well, she’s writing about why nature makes her believe in God.  I’m an atheist, but I think the world can be beautiful.  So could you write about, I dunno, what makes you want to go on living?”

Three dudes tossed down their pencils.  “That’ll … I’ll need to think about that one for a week or two,” one said.  His brother died last year.  His son cussed him out and moved away.  Three weeks in jail, he’s still going through withdrawal.  He can’t sleep more than an hour at a time.  The highlight of his day is running in place in the cement-walled fourth-floor “rec yard” until he feels sufficiently sick & drained to still his brain, “but they haven’t taken us to daytime rec more than, what, two times a month?  There’s a good dude here at night, though.  We had night rec three times this week.”

Oops.  So maybe that wasn’t the best writing prompt.  But one man wrote a beautiful poem about linked cycles of growth – a tall tree starting from a small seed, his own son begun from an even smaller seed, and the poem itself originating as the seed of an idea inside his mind.  In his poem,

tree-220664_1280                                      the tree that withstood

The storm now given opportunity to transform mere

Feet into stories

Our growth – the process of transformation – is what matters.  We all die in the end.  Maybe this alone should be enough to persuade us against goal-oriented thinking.  We need to enjoy life as we live it.  Otherwise, we’re striving toward nothingness.

Gilbert ends “Failing and Falling” with the beauty of our struggle:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.

602px-Goltzius_Ikarus

On keeping someone alive.

On keeping someone alive.

A friend’s father recently suffered a stroke and spent a mostly unconscious week in the hospital.  On the third day, he had a brief spell of lucidity.  My friend was visiting.  The father – who’d reverted to his native language – said, “Keep me alive, son.”

Then rapidly deteriorated.  He was intubated.  The functions of his inoperative organs were replaced by pumping, thumping, wheezing machines.

But it was much more difficult for my friend to finally tell the doctors, “You’re right, it’s time,” than if he hadn’t had that final conversation.  He knew his father wasn’t coming back.  But keep me alive, son sure changes the way it feels.

checking_pulmonary_sounds_after_intubation

Twice in the past year or so, my spouse has had to decide when it was time to ease off on her parents’ care.  Her mother could speak (incoherently) when first taken to the hospital, but then the swelling set in.  Her father, after a stroke, was speechless in the hospital, but during his moments of lucidity was able to wink at our daughter.  He played peek-a-boo by rotating his head.

That night, the bleeding started again.  With aggressive treatment, he could’ve been kept sufficiently alive for a vegetative, ventilated existence in the hospital.  It was up to K to decide.  “Make it easy for him.”

Most doctors forgo aggressive treatment.  Those who’ve seen the fallout know it isn’t worthwhile.

Instead, my father-in-law’s life ended on a high note.  The week before, he’d had a romantic fling with a 22-year-old.  In the hospital, he played games with his granddaughter one last time.  I told him we’d take good care of his rabbit and his dog.  And the stroke itself occurred during a dinner party with his neighbors – thankfully they emptied out his weed grinder before he was loaded into the ambulance.  (Although, why did they return the empty – but still redolent – grinder to his pocket?  Do such accouterments hold sentimental value to potheads?  As far as I could tell, this was a cheap wooden one, no more than a decade old.)

He didn’t ask that we keep him alive.  And yet, in many ways, I am.

26699_683902317113_6195728_n

10322431_10101064778337473_5093448295702155029_nMike Milks was a firm believer in community, and he spent his time caring for people less fortunate than himself… this despite the fact that he was often broke, homeless, and hungry.  Each month when his SNAP benefits came through, he’d ride the bus to the discount grocery store, buy a bunch of whole wheat flour, and bake loaves of sourdough bread for his neighbors.  $200 a month isn’t much, and yet his benefits helped a lot of people eat.

Before K and I moved him to Bloomington and started paying for him to have an apartment, he was squatting in his deceased former roommate’s house.  No electricity, no water, no heat, in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood where thieves had stripped most homes of their copper pipes.  Folks broke into his house twice; he was pistol-whipped in the face.

Before he fed himself, he fed the dog.  And, when he could, left out scraps for the stray cats.

In Bloomington, he cared for addicts – his friends here struggled with opiates and amphetamines.  He’d talk to them, and, when they blew their own meager salaries on drugs – or lost their jobs for arriving blinkered at work again – he’d feed them.

167346_736041549673_5510527_nHe cycled through many bedraggled roommates in his time here.  One stiffed us for a thousand dollars, having never paid rent for seven months (yes, rent in Bloomington is very cheap.  But that left K & me to scrape together the money on the salaries of a public school teacher and a full-time writer).  Another has since been murdered in a bungled drug deal.  The alcoholic librarian fancied himself the best of the lot, slurring to me one day, “Yer father sure knows a lotta low-level criminals.”

And yet even he, the alcoholic librarian, vanished… at which point cops came by to ask some questions because the dude’s car had been found abandoned in a field in the run-down nowhere between a town known for meth and a town known for pills.  It was two weeks before the librarian turned up again, and every time Mike asked where he’d been the dude pretended not to hear the question.

Mike Milks gave what he had to those people.  Nobody else cared for them.

And then, after he died, I began teaching in the local jail.

Against all odds – because I should admit that Mike infuriated me sometimes – I am carrying on his work.  When Mike gave a banquet – with those scraps he cobbled together from SNAP benefits – he would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and addicts, lepers of the modern world.  He did so unthinkingly.  All he had was love, and he gave where it was needed.

I am less kind than he was.  But I am learning.

So, thank you, Mike.  I am grateful to be keeping a small part of your work alive.

On Stefan Hertmans’s ‘War & Turpentine.’

On Stefan Hertmans’s ‘War & Turpentine.’

For most of human history, each generation’s lot in life was basically the same as the generation before it.  Most people worked to produce food; unlike today, with less than 2% of the U.S. population working on farms, 90% or more had to.  People made their own clothes.  Intercity commerce was relatively unimportant (in economic terms, that is – obviously the spice and slave trades had hugely violent impacts upon the victimized people’s lives).

Then came the industrial era.  Production was mechanized.  Far more food, and shirts, and chemicals, and whatever else could be produced than ever before.  Technology became so advanced that which tools were being used to do work was often more important than which people were wielding them.  Humans, in some ways, no longer seemed so special.  They could be seen as mechanized components of production, just like gears and cogs and furnaces.  Their very selves could be seen as meat machines, assemblages of grime and guts that exist to do a job.

And those meat machines could fall to bits, as was demonstrated viscerally in the first World War.  Huge numbers of young men marched out to wallow in trenches before dying amidst the swarms of flies.  Bullets or bombs might wrench limbs from their bodies, poison gas might leave their dead skin crackled and black.

warturpThe main action of Stefan Hertmans’s elegiac War & Turpentine occurs just before and during these war years.  The book combines a lovely meditation on time and memory with a reconstruction of Hertmans’s grandfather’s life up until the end of the war.

Hertmans was given a set of notebooks with his grandfather Urbain’s memoirs but waited decades before opening them.  Hertman is finally spurred to action by the approaching centennial of the “Great War.”  When he finally reads the notebooks, he finds himself puzzling through his own memories, revisiting details from his childhood in light of Urbain’s experiences.  This is difficult, naturally.  When Hertmans thinks of any of his older relatives,

Their dark forms are larger than life, because memories like that grow along with your body, so that adults from our childhood always resemble an extinct race of old gods, still towering over us.

urbainHow can those gods be reconciled with the small, scared people whom his grandfather wrote of in his memoirs?  But Hertmans has to try – and we are lucky that he did, because War & Turpentine builds toward a beautiful story of duty and lost love.  Urbain’s memoirs end shortly after the war, and Hertmans realizes that, ever since his true love died in the ensuing flu epidemic, his grandfather was stuck.  Time, for him, had partially stopped.  Hertmans describes his own first cigarette, purloined from a drawer of his grandfather’s dressing table.  The cigarette, yellowed and strange, left him intensely nauseous.  As an adult, Hertmans finally learns that the stolen cigarette must have been fifty years old:

In his memoirs, I read about the silver box of cigarettes given to him by the mysterious Mrs. Lamb in Windermere, and I realized that he had held onto them all those years, like a fetish, without touching them – to the best of my knowledge, he never smoked.  My little sister liked to wrap herself in a long scarf in those days – doubtless the scarf he had received as a gift from the same woman when he had to return to the front, a scarf that had stretched to mythical proportions in his stories, growing a little longer with each telling.  Meanwhile, he let the actual scarf fall apart in an old drawer.  That too says something about how he dealt with a past that would not let him go.

The crux of War & Turpentine comes early, though, in a memory from when Urbain was a young boy.  Before the horror, the years of deprivation, or the final loss of love.  The tone of the book changes irrevocably with a visit to the local gelatin factory: a truth about the industrial world is revealed that, once seen, cannot be unseen.

It wasn’t until they [Urbain and a companion] turned around that they saw the large pile in the courtyard, and froze.  Animal heads of all shapes and sizes lay in the center of the filthy yard, heaped into a pyramid.  The heads of horses, cows, sheep, and pigs shown there in a viscous, spreading mass, freshly dumped from the cart.  A swarm of fat flies, so dense and infernal they looked like a gleaming blue mist, droned around the heads with their huge extinguished eyes like staring boils, their bleeding eyes, their sunken eyes with dead gazes and blind pupils where maggots squirmed.

Only then did the boys realize that something around their feet was moving, shifting, sliding to and fro.  Legions of white maggots that had fallen out of the heads were crawling over the floor in a thick layer. … A black bull head rolled into one leg of the table, and the white maggots immediately went for it, like an invincible army sent from another world to cover everything and gorge themselves till nothing was left.  This was a total eclipse in broad daylight, a dark substance out of which something unnameable was pressed, refuse transformed into refuse, death into sludge.

          Just as the boys were about to go back outside, they were stopped by the cousin [of Urbain’s companion], who clapped Urbain on the shoulder and shouted, “It’s a sight to see, ain’t it!” 

          Gagging at the rancid smell of the hand that had touched his shirt, Urbain nodded, a meek sheep that has stopped bleating and is willing to do anything if somebody will only make this stop.  But it did not stop.  The cousin dragged them along to the back of the building, where the thudding of heads in tubs and the dry, rhythmic banging of the cleavers was drowned out by the sound of grinding wheels and the whipping of huge leather driving belts.  Here the boiled sludge was poured into tanks where it sloshed and eddied like bubbling magma as it drained away into a hole.  What ran out of the rusty, filth-encrusted spout at the other end was – the cousin shouted in their ears – the basis for geletin.

          The [cousin], who was apparently the factory foreman, made a sweeping gesture toward the courtyard, where sparse grass grew between the rocks, and animal hides awaited tanning in another building.  A large horse cart hurtled past, filled with barrels.  They’re taking that wonderful stuff to a processing plant, he said, where they filter it and take care of the smell.  From there, it goes to every corner of the country, where they use it in all sorts of products.  It’s in all the fancy lotions for French-speaking ladies.  It’s what they rub on their noses and their dainty little cheeks.  He snickered.  It’s in your bottle of gum arabic, and it’s in the candies you suck on like manna from heaven.  It’s in the jam your mother makes for you; she spreads it on your sandwich, you’re none the wiser.  You’re full of the stuff that comes pissing and dribbling out of those heads, dear boys, you’re full of that rot, but you don’t know it, because they can deoderize and filter and disinfect it until you no longer realize it’s death you’re sucking into your hungry little mouths, it’s this sludge that those ladies of fashion are rubbing into their tender bosoms – fine bubbles of saliva sprayed from his mouth – it’s all one and the same thing, but nobody knows.  Good thing, too, otherwise the world would stop turning.

Beneath all the beauty in the world, there is pain and death and filth.  After all, flowers sparkling in the morning light, or the form of a well-proportioned nude woman, can only seem beautiful when perceived by the bloody fat inside our skulls.  Our brains, capable of creating such wonder, are made of the same mean muck ground up in the gelatin factory.  Unless we all abstain, the horrors in the factory will never stop.  And there is no way to change the fact that we ourselves are made of the same fragile, fallible stuff.

This knowledge resonates brutally with the descriptions of combat.  Hertmans narrates these scenes elegantly, but I’d like to end this essay with a quotation from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 instead.  In this scene, Yossarian has just finished bandaging a gaping wound through his tailgunner’s thigh.  It’s severe – a piece of flack passed all the way through, destroying muscle and bone – but Yossarian thinks his companion, Snowden, will survive.

Joseph HellerBut Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest motion of his chin, down toward his armpit.  Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit.  Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe.  Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit.  Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.  A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.  Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes.  His teeth were chattering in horror.  He forced himself to look again.  Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.  Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.  The tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was vomiting, saw him, and fainted again.  Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished.  He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler.  He wondered how in the world to begin to save him.

          “I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered.  “I’m cold.”

          “There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard.  “There, there.”

          Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably.  He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor.  It was easy to read the message in his entrails.  Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.  Drop him out a window and he’ll fall.  Set fire to him and he’ll burn.  Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage.  The spirit gone, man is garbage.  That was Snowden’s secret.  Ripeness was all.

          “I’m cold,” Snowden said.  “I’m cold.”

          “There, there,” said Yossarian.  “There, there.”  He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.

          “I’m cold.”

          “There, there.”

On computing and word magic.

On computing and word magic.

Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.

While reading Louisa Hall’s Speak, I was reminded of an essay on the connection between golems & computers that I’d intended to write.  Hall acknowledges George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral as providing inspiration for her project, and I’d also hoped to draw material from Dyson’s book for my essay.

I’d been convinced by William Poundstone’s review of Turing’s Cathedral that there would be a lot about words in it: “For the first time, numbers could mean numbers or instructions.  Data could be a noun or a verb.”

Unfortunately, Turing’s Cathedral did not match my expectations.  Not that it wasn’t good.  I simply had in mind a very specific thing that I wanted the book to say: something about words summoning forth the universe, maybe paralleling Max Tegmark’s idea (described in Our Mathematical Universe) that the underlying descriptive mathematics create the world.  His idea was, in effect, “we exist because numbers can describe us.”

Of course, Tegmark is a physicist, a math brain, so it makes sense that he’d propose that numbers would create reality.  Hall, the author of Speak, has a Ph.D. in English, and so, in her book, words do it.

Ales_golemIndeed, within the context of novels, words do create reality.  Her characters exist because her descriptive language make them so.  For some twelve thousand years at least, Homo sapiens have been spinning myths with language.  Creating worlds, and in the meantime reshaping our own.

I wanted to write about that generative power.  Several years ago I filled three pages of my notebook (my handwriting is very small, so this took me several days) with notes for an elaborate analogy between Turing machines and golems, linguistically-created life forms both. And I wanted so badly to cram it into my novel, but there was simply no way for it to fit it in without risking the adjective “sprawling,” which I don’t see as a positive characteristic in literature.

In brief, Turing machines are lent life because their data also serves as words.  Although the commands are written in a partial script (a numerical versus verbal language), each command can also be treated as a thing to be manipulated.  Golems are also given life by the power of a word.  Plus, the traditional golem myth prominently features the compelling power of the word death, which nicely mirrors the Ramayana — can you tell how badly I wanted all of this to fit in my book?  Math and words and robots and the Ramayana!

Art by Philippe Semeria.
Art by Philippe Semeria.

I suppose I have a bit of explaining to do.  Here’s a summary of the golem story: Clay man was built. Clay man was inscribed with the word truth (in Hebrew, “emet”) on his forehead. Clay man, computer-like, would follow instructions with no flexibility or human intuition. This led to problems, clay man had to be killed, a letter on his forehead was erased (leaving the Hebrew “met,” death or dead), clay man was a man no more.

And here’s a summary of the original invocation of the Ramayana, also featuring the word death: A brigand was robbing and killing to support his family.  One day he was about to kill some monks and one asked, “Your family shares the money you bring home, do they also share your guilt?”

Obviously, I think they should — prospering from evil should transitively mark you with that evil, which in my opinion is the wellspring of the argument that reparations should be paid even now, many years after the end of the most egregious abuses — but the brigand went home and asked his family their opinion and they said, “No.  You do the killing.  Your soul is tarnished.  We simply eat the food you bring.  We are still good.”

The brigand didn’t like the sound of that so he gave up killing (and abandoned his family) and became a traveling bard.  He was chosen by the gods to sing the most glorious epic myth, The Ramayana, but to summon this story from wherever myths live he needed to chant the hero’s name.  This chant would apparently infuse his mind with all the necessary details and plot twists and whatever.  His job was to say “Rama Rama Rama” until, bam!, he knew the story well enough to rattle it off in metered verse.

But he said he couldn’t.  He’d done all that killing and whatnot, remember?  So he told the gods, “It would be an honor, but, no, I am too impure to speak his name.”  Couldn’t chant Rama.  So the gods instructed him to chant “death death death” instead (in Sanskrit, “mara mara mara”), and the syllables bled into one another and, “mara mara ma ra ma ra ma rama rama rama,” he found himself chanting the name by accident and the story came to him.

To the best of my knowledge, computers cannot be manipulated this way.  As far as I know, trying to trick your computer with a palindromic pointer might cause the wrong area of memory to be modified, which could cause further instructions to be mistargeted, and the entire hard drive could be made fubar… but maybe it’s my ignorance that gives me this suspicion.  Maybe computer scientists know secret power words to summon forth the magic.