During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide. I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make. All I remember is that I promptly said:
“Almonds. The official scent of unrequited love.”
“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked. “That’s good. Some people can’t. You’ll be much less likely to die.”
I actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it. Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis. I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.
Kids needs to learn about heartbreak. They will feel sorrow. Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.
I know I was miserable during high school. And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.
Reading more would have helped. Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity. When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.
And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.
This is heartbreak. Learn it well, young person. You too will hurt.
Marcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.
… and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:
“You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”
At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling. He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants. Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.” It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.
He felt joy that afternoon.
But then, months later, that same joy stabs him. Their relationship has ended. Marcel fancies himself indifferent. Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain. The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:
The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart. Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me. I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.
He loved that she loved him. He hates that she might now love another the same way.
And that, kids, is what life is like.
But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time? I certainly didn’t. Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.
I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.
And so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts. When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes. Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.
Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.
– You found it right away.
They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find. The clitoris is not hard to find. I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer. Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right. And porn helps. Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit. It’s educational.
Or, on the same page:
I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face. Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec. We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.
– Pornography lied to us.
– I’m writing my congressman.
– OK but let’s watch another one first.
The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests. But he too has a heart. And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.
– Officially together?
She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer. I already thought it might not work, to ask her.
– Do we need a permit? Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?
– I was just asking.
– Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?
And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.
They’re in high school. Their relationship won’t last forever. Which she knows.
So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.
And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else. Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to. He sits alone in his room and ruminates:
I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing. For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t. Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.
And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.
– When you are older –
That’s the only part of the advice I hear. But, Dad, I’m not.
I’m sorry, dude. It does hurt.
And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt. There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.
Life would be excruciating if we were not. Can you imagine: consciously remembering to breathe every few seconds? Concentrating with the intensity of a toddler each time you stand and walk across a room? Carefully considering the rules of grammar and conjugation when you stop to ask someone for directions?
Our brains zip through so much unconsciously. Most of us can drift into reverie while driving and still go through all the motions correctly, stopping at red lights, making the appropriate turns, our mind set on autopilot.
We live, and we learn, and our brains constantly change – neurons reach out to form synaptic connections to one another. Other connections wilt away. The resultant network determines who we are. More precisely, the pattern of connections determines which thoughts we are good at having. Thoughts we’ve thunk before come easily.
But our propensity for habit can hijack our lives. In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, viewers of the highly-addictive titular film are unable to think of anything but watching it again. One taste and you’re hooked!
Or, in an example closer to most humans’ experience, Marcel Proust writes of the way our shared experience with a lost love causes the brain to ache each time a similar experience must be forded alone. Over and over we hurt: going to sleep alongside her was a habit. Chatting in the evening was a habit. Walking to the store hand in hand was a habit. The brain is still wired such that it could effortlessly zip through these tasks, but… she is gone.
In an example that is – unfortunately! – increasingly relevant today, William Burroughs writes that powerful opiates do not hook users right away. It takes many recurrent episodes to rewire the brain. In his (overly cavelier) words:
The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?
The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict. It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all. And you don’t really know that junk sickness is until you have had several habits. It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild. I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.
. . .
You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.
And then, depression. To perceive the world a shade darker than it ought to be comes easily… to someone who is depressed. A depressed person’s brain has been rewired through perhaps a lifetime of rumination and pain. Suicidal ideation gets easier and easier and easier… unless it goes too far, and then it becomes impossible. Dead matter doesn’t think.
Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to use the brain’s own habit-forming capabilities to battle depression. Because today’s depressed thoughts enable tomorrow’s depression, a conscious effort to find joy and beauty today could ease tomorrow’s struggle. Phrases like “virtuous cycle” are bandied about.
My wife, each evening, asks me to list four good things that happened during the day; if we forget the ritual through a harried week or two, it’s difficult to start again. I lay in bed, pondering, “What was good about the day?” Which should always be easy. I have two loving children whom I am graced to spend time with. I am not in jail. I have a warm, safe place to sleep. I have enough to eat. I live near phenomenal libraries.
But the habit of depression digs the mind into a rut.
Which has caused several researchers to wonder, “Would cognitive behavioral therapy work better if a patient could be jolted out of the rut first, then trained in a new virtuous cycle?” We have access to several potent chemicals that wrest the brain out of its routines. Psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethyl amide, dimethyl tryptamine, and psilocin are powerful beasts.
Which is not to say that, if you’re feeling sad, you should go find that raver dude you know and ask what he’s holding. For one thing, most psychedelics are illegal in the United States. This contributes to the dearth of high-quality clinical information about their uses – obtaining permission to run clinical trials with Schedule I compounds is difficult, and drugs can’t be downgraded from Schedule I status without reams of data from clinical trials. Nonsensical bureaucracy at its best!
Plus, high-quality clinical trials must control for the placebo effect – neither patients nor doctors should know whether an individual is receiving the treatment or a control. But I’m guessing most recipients recognize the difference between an injection of DMT or saline. Did your visual field suddenly fragment into geometric patterns? Did you feel an out-of-body sensation akin to alien abduction? Did your memories begin to unfold like interlocking matryoshka-doll puzzle boxes? Those are sensations I rarely experience from salt water.
And the sheer power of psychedelic drugs also makes them dangerous. Dr. Lauretta Bender, whose least harmful contribution to science was the idea that emotional disturbances could be diagnosed by asking a child to reproduce pictures of geometric shapes, assumed that LSD would cure autism. If she’d been right, this sort of baseless cognitive leap would’ve been heralded as brilliance. She injected large doses into the muscles of children as young as five. Daily. When that “cure” proved insufficient, she combined it with electroconvulsive therapy: high currents to overwhelm their little brains.
Enforced acid trips in nightmarish environs of total control can ruin lives.
Especially since Dr. Bender was diagnosing autism in routinely-abused orphans based on symptoms like “avoids eye contacts” and “difficulty forming trusting relationships.”
Acid trips can end lives, too. At least one involuntary research subject ensnared in the CIA’s efforts to use LSD as mind-control reagent committed suicide. And there are innumerable horror stories of murders committed by people mired in psychedelic trips. Then again, most murders are committed by people who haven’t taken psychedelics. In Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication he writes that:
Many bad trips are a function of personality; not everybody is a good subject for a mind-altering experience. And even experienced users can have a bad day. … Harold, a veteran of one thousand LSD trips, wanted to volunteer to be a psychonaut but he had a history of violence, both on and off the drug. “Ever since I was small,” confessed Harold, “I go ape when I’m bothered.”
.. [a grim description of Harold murdering two hikers outside Santa Barbara in 1984 follows. Yes, Harold had “drank some beer, smoked a little marijuana, and swallowed a few amphetamine tablets along with a full dose of LSD.” But he’d also “been bothered by financial problems. He was passing bad checks and had failed to make child-support payments to his ex-wife.” So I’m not sure the drugs were at the root of his malaise.]
Cases like Harold’s tend to confuse the issue of intoxication and violence. Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug. . . . What seems difficult for us to understand is that despite overt behaviors, the subjective experience can still be fun. In other words, one’s inner feelings and sensations can be under the influence but such influence may not extend to outside acts in the real world that remain chillingly sober. This is most difficult to accept if users are obviously intoxicated when they commit criminal acts. The subjective intoxication can remain an enjoyable experience, despite our desire to blame the fires inside for the destruction outside.
Used incorrectly, psychedelic drugs are awful. They disrupt habits, seeming to dissolve the mental filters that allow humans to function despite constant bombardment by thoughts and memories and myriad sensations from the world. This newfound wonderment & reset can help, of course, but for someone in a bad place, it can be horrible.
Then again, for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the world might be horrible already – even if the chance that psychedelics could help were low, they’d be worth investigating. Thankfully, the FDA finally granted permission for a trial to be run on the use of methylene dioxy methamphetamine (ecstasy – when I was a TA for undergraduate organic chemistry at Stanford, I wrote most of the quizes. After they learned about acetal protection of ketones, all 200 or so pre-meds wrote out a partial synthesis for MDMA. The reactants and products were unnamed, so I don’t think the students or the other TAs noticed) to treat PTSD .
Many people, as they live, drift into routine and no longer consider the implications of their actions. I’m well aware that drugs can wreck lives, but sometimes we need a jolt. I wish people weren’t shunted to jail for drug addiction – and obviously the dudes in there wish they were almost anywhere else – but a surprising number are grateful that something interrupted their habits. Junkies don’t want to look back on a wasted life, either.
Our world was stolen. Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.
I’m no communist, mind you. It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number. People’s effort to create more should be rewarded. The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.
For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves. But petroleum, for ages, had little value. It was noxious black muck. Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.
And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated. They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth. Those inventors did nothing wrong.
The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.
This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings. Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land. Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).
As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away. The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans. There were zero survivors.
Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors. Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this. You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.” “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.”).
And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land. Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed. It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.
Which always seems unfair. After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end. Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.
I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.” A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.” And quite telling. It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.
For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece. He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.
No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.
So, the world formed. Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own. Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land. Taking it from others. In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it. This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:
anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right
Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago. The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves. Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.
But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means. Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it. And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another. From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.
We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species. Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent. But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from. That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers. Their tragedies birthed our prosperity. True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.
It’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge. Did they know that their culture was being obliterated? Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals? The last Homo habilis? The last Homo floresiensis? Did they know that their kind were going extinct? Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?
In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion. The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically. The man’s family is killed by the French. He is driven away from his land. And his way of life is coming to an end. In Kingsnorth’s words,
The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.
As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree. The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation. Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats. The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people. The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food. Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.
Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.
three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows
a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me
But then he loses his land. All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king. Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population. Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no. There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.
Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps. But, inequality has been with us forever. From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive. Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared. With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases. It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk. And easier still to horde gold. Grain rots. Gold does not.
Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself. This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking. At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe. That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated. Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory. The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch? So compensation decreased. Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine. Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all. Only the owner of the machine makes money.
It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually. But in this world, in England, it happened then.
I do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English. As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t. The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read. Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents. Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.
The early English created the nation we now live in. They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from. Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis. Language seemed the best way to convey this.
Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings. I speak only English and read many books in translation. I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work. I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit. I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.
(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms. I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ” And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)
Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice. The book’s language compels a reader to slow down. Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words. Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention. And good literature rewards attentive reading. In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.
All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world. It gave me a lot to think about. And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals. It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss. Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans. People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.