On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

Because we’d had a difficult class the week before, I arrived at jail with a set of risqué poetry to read.  We discussed poems like Allison Joseph’s “Flirtation,” Galway Kinnel’s “Last Gods,” and Jennifer Minniti-Shippey’s “Planning the Seduction of a Somewhat Famous Poet.”

Our most interesting conversation followed Constantine Cavafy’s “Body, Remember,” translated by Aliki Barnstone.  This is not just a gorgeous, sensual poem (although it is that).  Cavafy also conveys an intriguing idea about memory and recovery.

The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.

“Rumpled Mattress” by Alex D. Stewart on Flickr.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present.  Our gratitude should encompass more, though.  We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance obstacle made futile.

In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs.  These could be many things.  On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance.  In another lifetime.  Another world, perhaps.

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

But we have the potential for so many glories.  In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game.  If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.

Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.  In the present, we try our best.  But our present slides inexorably into the past.  And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

Consciousness is such a strange contraption.  Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment.  The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction. 

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis.  This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind.  The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world.  It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.

And then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged.  The Boltzmann brain would vanish.  The self-perceiving entity would end.

Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t.  A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant.  And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.

Past success makes future success come easier.  If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future.  If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time. 

Our triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to remember.  If our life will be improved by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy?  “It almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires.”  The glow, the gaze: remember, body.

In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse.  Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.

We all need to know that we are fallible.  Our brains are made of squishy goo.  The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat.  Only the patterns are important.  Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.

As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure.  We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose.  As we live, we grow.  A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.

I imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never been, the sort of person who would assault a woman.  He surely believes that he would never thrust his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand.  And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current behavior is improved by this belief.  In his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve, rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record of consensus reality.

The main problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power.  In his personal life, he should preserve the mutable memories that help him to be good.  No matter how inaccurate they might be.

In public life, however, consensus reality matters.  Personally, I will have difficulty respecting the court rulings of a person who behaved this way.  Especially since his behavior toward women continued such that law professors would advise their female students to cultivate a particular “look” in order to clerk for Kavanaugh’s office.

The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights.  Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.

And, for someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to preserve a lingering memory of past sins.  I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to preserve.  But I would hope that he remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while intoxicated.

Episodic memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol.  When I discuss drug use with people in jail, I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization.  I think that people should be allowed to manipulate their own minds.

But certain people should not take certain drugs. 

Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin.  And I was handed more at college parties.  But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.

Some people really like opiates, though.  Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.

Brett Kavanaugh likes beer.  Sadly, he’s the sort of person who shouldn’t drink it.

Honestly, though, his life would not be that much worse without it.  Beer changes how your brain works in the now.  For an hour or two, your perception of the world is different.  Then that sensation, like any other, slides into the past.

But, whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of (mis)remembrance.

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

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

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

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

Sullen Telemachus said, “Mother, no,

you must not criticize the loyal bard

for singing as it pleases him to sing. 

 

         Go in and do your work.

Stick to the loom and distaff.  Tell your slaves

to do their chores as well.  It is for men

to talk, especially me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully it wasn’t important.

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

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

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

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

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

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Seriously, they are exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

The scientific method is the best way to investigate the world.

Do you want to know how something works?  Start by making a guess, consider the implications of your guess, and then take action.  Muck something up and see if it responds the way you expect it to.  If not, make a new guess and repeat the whole process.

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Image by Derek K. Miller on Flickr.

This is slow and arduous, however.  If your goal is not to understand the world, but rather to convince other people that you do, the scientific method is a bad bet.  Instead you should muck something up, see how it responds, and then make your guess.  When you know the outcome in advance, you can appear to be much more clever.

A large proportion of biomedical science publications are inaccurate because researchers follow the second strategy.  Given our incentives, this is reasonable.  Yes, it’s nice to be right.  It’d be cool to understand all the nuances of how cells work, for instance.  But it’s more urgent to build a career.

Both labs I worked in at Stanford cheerfully published bad science.  Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to notice the flaws because primary data aren’t published.

A colleague of mine obtained data by varying several parameters simultaneously, but then graphed his findings against only one of these.  As it happens, his observations were caused by the variable he left out of his charts.  Whoops!

(Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel quickly responded that my colleague’s conclusions probably weren’t correct.  Unfortunately, Warshel’s argument was based on unrealistic simulations – in his model, a key molecule spins in unnatural ways.  This next sentence is pretty wonky, so feel free to skip it, but … to show the error in my colleague’s paper, Warshel should have modeled multiple molecules entering the enzyme active site, not molecules entering backward.  Whoops!)

Another colleague of mine published his findings about unusual behavior from a human protein.  But then his collaborator realized that they’d accidentally purified and studied a similarly-sized bacterial protein, and were attempting to map its location in cells with an antibody that didn’t work.  Whoops!

No apologies or corrections were ever given.  They rarely are, especially not from researchers at our nation’s fanciest universities.  When somebody with impressive credentials claims a thing is true, people often feel ready to believe.

antibodies.JPGIndeed, for my own thesis work, we wanted to test whether two proteins are in the same place inside cells.  You can do this by staining with light-up antibodies for each.  If one antibody is green and the other is red, you’ll know how often the proteins are in the same place based on how much yellow light you see.

Before conducting the experiment, I wrote a computer program that would assess the data.  My program could identify various cellular structures and check the fraction that were each color.

As it happened, I didn’t get the results we wanted.  My data suggested that our guess was wrong.

But we couldn’t publish that.  And so my advisor told me to count again, by hand, claiming that I should be counting things of a different size.  And then she continued to revise her instructions until we could plausibly claim that we’d seen what we expected.  We made a graph and published the paper.

This is crummy.  It’s falsehood with the veneer of truth.  But it’s also tragically routine.

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41B1pZkOwmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Luke Dittrich intertwines two horror stories about scientific ethics in Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.

One of these nightmares is driven by the perverse incentives facing early neurosurgeons.  Perhaps you noticed, above, that an essential step of the scientific method involves mucking things up.  You can’t tell whether your guesses are correct until you perform an experiment.  Dittrich provides a lovely summary of this idea:

The broken illuminate the unbroken.

An underdeveloped dwarf with misfiring adrenal glands might shine a light on the functional purpose of these glands.  An impulsive man with rod-obliterated frontal lobes [Phineas Gage] might provide clues to what intact frontal lobes do.

This history of modern brain science has been particularly reliant on broken brains, and almost every significant step forward in our understanding of cerebral localization – that is, discovering what functions rely on which parts of the brain – has relied on breakthroughs provided by the study of individuals who lacked some portion of their gray matter.

. . .

While the therapeutic value of the lobotomy remained murky, its scientific potential was clear: Human beings were no longer off-limits as test subjects in brain-lesioning experiments.  This was a fundamental shift.  Broken men like Phineas Gage and Monsieur Tan may have always illuminated the unbroken, but in the past they had always become broken by accident.  No longer.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical.

Dittrich was dismayed to learn that his own grandfather had participated in this sort of research, intentionally wrecking at least one human brain in order to study the effects of his meddling.

Lacking a specific target in a specific hemisphere of Henry’s medial temporal lobes, my grandfather had decided to destroy both.

This decision was the riskiest possible one for Henry.  Whatever the functions of the medial temporal lobe structures were – and, again, nobody at the time had any idea what they were – my grandfather would be eliminating them.  The risks to Henry were as inarguable as they were unimaginable.

The risks to my grandfather, on the other hand, were not.

At that moment, the riskiest possible option for his patient was the one with the most potential rewards for him.

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By destroying part of a brain, Dittrich’s grandfather could create a valuable research subject.  Yes, there was a chance of curing the patient – Henry agreed to surgery because he was suffering from epileptic seizures.  But Henry didn’t understand what the proposed “cure” would be.  This cure was very likely to be devastating.

At other times, devastation was the intent.  During an interview with one of his grandfather’s former colleagues, Dittrich is told that his grandmother was strapped to the operating table as well.

It was a different era,” he said.  “And he did what at the time he thought was okay: He lobotomized his wife.  And she became much more tractable.  And so he succeeded in getting what he wanted: a tractable wife.”

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Compared to slicing up a brain so that its bearer might better conform to our society’s misogynistic expectations of female behavior, a bit of scientific fraud probably doesn’t sound so bad.  Which is a shame.  I love science.  I’ve written previously about the manifold virtues of the scientific method.  And we need truth to save the world.

Which is precisely why those who purport to search for truth need to live clean.  In the cut-throat world of modern academia, they often don’t.

Dittrich investigated the rest of Henry’s life: after part of his brain was destroyed, Henry became a famous study subject.  He unwittingly enabled the career of a striving scientist, Suzanne Corkin.

Dittrich writes that

Unlike Teuber’s patients, most of the research subjects Corkin had worked with were not “accidents of nature” [a bullet to the brain, for instance] but instead the willful products of surgery, and one of them, Patient H.M., was already clearly among the most important lesion patients in history.  There was a word that scientists had begun using to describe him.  They called him pure.  The purity in question didn’t have anything to do with morals or hygiene.  It was entirely anatomical.  My grandfather’s resection had produced a living, breathing test subject whose lesioned brain provided an opportunity to probe the neurological underpinnings of memory in unprecedented ways.  The unlikelihood that a patient like Henry could ever have come to be without an act of surgery was important.

. . .

By hiring Corkin, Teuber was acquiring not only a first-rate scientist practiced in his beloved lesion method but also by extension the world’s premier lesion patient.

. . .

According to [Howard] Eichenbaum, [a colleague at MIT,] Corkin’s fierceness as a gatekeeper was understandable.  After all, he said, “her career is based on having that exclusive access.”

Because Corkin had (coercively) gained exclusive access to this patient, most of her claims about the workings of memory would be difficult to contradict.  No one could conduct the experiments needed to rebut her.

Which makes me very skeptical of her claims.

Like most scientists, Corkin stumbled across occasional data that seemed to contradict the models she’d built her career around.  And so she reacted in the same was as the professors I’ve worked with: she hid the data.

Dittrich: Right.  And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

She paused for several seconds.

Corkin: Shredded

Dittrich: Shredded?  Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Dittrich: Really?  I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history.  Why would you do that?

. . .

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right.

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On elephants.

On elephants.

During springtime each year, my spouse tells a lot of people that high school prom is a blast … as long as you’re not a high schooler. Many teachers attend, nominally as chaperones, and they don’t have to worry about who they’ll leave with or what they’ll be doing afterward. (Shucking earplugs and going to sleep.)

Prom_crowded_dancefloor

We go to the local high school prom most years. My spouse greets her students and compliments their attire: you clean up well! The boys on the cross country and track teams shake my hand and compliment my attire: you clean up well, coach!

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The most magical night of our lives … every year.

At times, briefly, I am allowed to dance. (My only formal dance training was in preparation for the South Asian Students’ Association spring show during college – I was part of a Dandiya Raas set to “Chale Chalo” from Lagaan – and my preferred style of dancing still involves a lot of leaping.)

raas
Yep.

Each year’s prom is themed, with decorations prepared by junior members of the student council. My favorite was 2012’s “prom-apocalypse,” with fake flames and wreckage. Coincidentally, I prepared the same style of decoration for a fundraiser when I was my high school’s National Honor Society president. The kids here were inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar; our dance was held in December, 1999, when the newspapers were rife with reports of people hoarding cans or turning blue-ish from ingesting too much anti-microbial silver.

I also convinced a d.j. buddy to put together some music for the event, like a track splicing Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Despite having hated being in high school, I love the corny tropes involved. Like, okay, film noir about drug deals gone bad? Eh, seen it. But set that same noir in high school, you get Brick, with charming lines like “She knows where I eat lunch.”

This year, though, prom is circus-themed.

“Oh, cool,” I said. “Like Cirque du Soleil?”

“No. Like, elephants in cages.”

We won’t attend. It seems an especially bizarre choice of theme now, when even Ringling Brothers, after 145 years of torturing elephants, has announced that they’ll stop. They will, of course, continue to torture other species.

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As humans have learned more about animal cognition, we have steadily revised our claims as to the features of our brains that make us special. Once upon a time, we claimed that our superiority came simply from our very large brains; we contrasted ourselves to dinosaurs, whom we claimed (erroneously) had brains no bigger than walnuts.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal.

Later, we realized that sheer brain bulk does not equate with intelligence – actual neuron counts would be far more informative.

Elephants have three times as many neurons as humans.

We once posited that “tool use” separated humans from other animals, until we learned that chimpanzees, crows, and others use tools too.

We claimed that only humans understand death. Touting that no other species buries their dead, we claimed that only Homo sapiens have the emotional intelligence necessary to understand narrative. Other animals are trapped inside an eternal now.

This, too, is false.

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In elephants, the hippocampus – the brain region implicated in processing narrative emotional memory – is enlarged relative to humans. They routinely visit sites where friends or relatives died. They caress the bones of their lost. After violent encounters with a brutal species of hairless ape, elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Their children require the guidance of elders to learn behavioral norms.

Like human children, young elephant males who grow in broken communities run wild.

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We humans have treated elephants abysmally, not in spite of their magnificence, but because of it. When a small, flamboyantly-dressed circus tamer can break an elephant’s will so completely that the creature will perform in the center of a jeering crowd, we receive proof just how powerful humans are.

61m03HD3UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Elena Passarello writes of our dominance over nature in her essay “Jumbo II,” which interlaces two histories: that of elephants brought to the United States, and our ability to harness electricity.

From the beginning, the elephants were tortured: placed in small zoo enclosures (Passarello: They gave “Old Chief” to the Cincinnati Zoo, which shot him by the end of the decade. Two days after, Cincinnati’s Palace Restaurant added “elephant loin” to its dinner menu.), beaten by circus trainers until they learned to do “tricks,” condemned to death for unexpectedly dangerous behavior during musth.

As our technological prowess grew, electricity was put to ever new uses. Electricity could light our streets! It could power our factories! It could execute the condemned!

The histories of elephants and electricity in America merge in 1903. In Passarello’s words:

[Electrocuting an Elephant] is a minute-long, live short of the first elephant – and the second female of any species on the planet – to be condemned to electrocution for her crimes.

In the yards around Coney Island’s Luna Park, the condemned elephant places each foot onto a copper plate. Once ignited with over 6,000 volts of alternating current, they smoke beneath her planted feet. The smoke rises around her body, her trunk goes rigid, and all five tons of her list forward.

And, from Ciaran Berry’s poem, “Electrocuting an Elephant:”

…though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls
like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

I could not bring myself to watch the video footage to verify this description, but I am glad her eye was open. We humans behave better when we believe we are watched. And our behavior, in the past, was not good enough.

Even now, we make mistakes. If we want a world with elephants, the money from ecotourism is not enough. Those who have been born to wealthy nations – beneficiaries of a long history of exploitation and violence – should devote funds to repairing some of the damage we’ve inherited.

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On isolation.

On isolation.

Richard-feynmanThe physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious.  He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler.  And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking.  He decided to investigate himself:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.

We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.”  Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water.  In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.

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Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings.  He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.

I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank I suddenly realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!

Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.

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The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a provocateur.  By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.

For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin.  The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks.  In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.

The dolphin did not learn to speak.  The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer.  Eventually, she offered manual release.

In total isolation, we change.  Our brains atrophy.  Our inhibitions wane.  Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.

The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.

Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs.  Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.

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For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages.  These housing conditions seem to affect their minds.  When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages.  These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.

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Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs.  The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids.  The animals living alone, in cages, drank more.  From the research publication:

A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.

Opiates are highly addictive.  But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles.  Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.

And among the rats?  These are social animals.  Isolation is painful for them.  They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.

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10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConfining social animals in isolation is a form of torture.  Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.

After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible.  Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.

In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress.  Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time.  For some, decades.

Large protests have been held outside of prison walls.  Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight.  Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.

Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary.  One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months.  “I get through it okay.  I got myself a system.  This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place.  I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”

“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time.  But for rec time?  You can’t see the sun no how.  You just in a different box.”

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According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture.  But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”

A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial.  Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man.  He was decidedly un-dangerous.

From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”

The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.  Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.

Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect.  Theoharis:

Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes.  The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.

But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:

These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence.  Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense.  The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.

In this case as well, our government won.  Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke.  One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.

After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage?  Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.

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29supermax1-blog427-v2ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado.  Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.

A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX.  This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs.  He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.

That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX.  From his essay describing the place:

We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.

It has become normal.  And we the inmates are voiceless.  Our voices are not heard.  If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies.  I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here.  This is what should be thought of as a lie.  I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.

This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls.  I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles.  So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary.  Prison.  Cages and craziness.

Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls.  There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing.  I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.

Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights.  This spring they had two babies.  We watched them grow up and fly away.  On any given day the sky here is breathtaking.  The beauty out my window stays in my mind.  I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.

The window helps greatly.

I’m in the hole so there is no TV.  Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain.  But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.

Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.

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hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgThe essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.

You should read this book.

If you are human, you will cry.

If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you.  The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.

Mayhaps you should do something.

On literature as a weapon for social change.

On literature as a weapon for social change.

Every work of art is akin to a virus intended to change the architecture of the mind.  This is Richard Dawkins’s original concept of the meme: a unit of culture that, over time, will pass through a culling process like natural selection.  The evolutionary victors are the works best able to change our brains.

mementoAt the most basic level, this is obvious.  After all, good art is memorable, and in order to remember that we have seen a painting, heard a song, or read a book, the network of connections among our synapses must be different after experiencing the art than before.  Unless a changed self exists after experiencing the work, we will always feel ourselves Memento-style to be encountering it for the first time.

But, honestly, that whole preceding paragraph is just the idea “good art sticks with you” gussied up in some scientific language.

Art can change us in ways more meaningful than simply remembering that we have encountered it before.  A piece I always loved at the San Francisco MoMA is Gerhard Richter’s Two Candles.  There is a slight strangeness tied up in contemporary photorealistic painting – we can print actual photographs on a canvas that size, so why put forth the effort to paint it? – but each time I stood in front of Richter’s work it seemed a triumph of the human spirit.  Seen in person, it feels incredible how much warmth and motion is captured in the piece.  The painting helped me not give up on arduous tasks in my own life.

And I think that books – composed in the very language of thought – have a still greater potential to alter our minds.  In his memoirs, D. Watkins relates his own transformation after he encountered the writing of bell hooks.  For me, reading The Idiot shortly after I began freshman year of college taught me to be a nicer person.  Until The Idiot, I was a jerk.

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The author, reading.

My favorite authors – Dostoyevsky, Bolaño, Doctorow – all sought to create works of lasting beauty and change the way their readers lived.  Honestly, this is why these authors are my favorites.  Why bother choosing between style and substance if you can have both?

A Naked Singularity demonstrates that Sergio De La Pava aims to join these authors’ ranks.  The book is magnificent – the first 400 or more pages are among the best writing out there – and deeply meaningful.  De La Pava is deeply pained by injustice in our world.  Just reading his novel made me feel proud that we share a planet.  If you haven’t read A Naked Singularity yet, please, click the link & buy a copy, or browse away from here to your local library’s catalog and reserve it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

Would that every artwork were a weapon.

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Books not bombs. Handwritten words from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

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 Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

During graduate school, I participated in a psychology study on aging. The premise behind the experiment was simple enough: young people, when given the choice, tend to spend their time with new acquaintances, whereas older people would often rather spend time with family. But what happens when we inoculate young people with a sense of their own mortality? Will they make the same choices as their elders?

At the beginning of the study, I was interviewed and asked to play a memory game: photographs of smiling faces, nature scenes, & car wrecks were displayed on a computer screen before then interview, then afterward more photos were shown and I was asked which were repeats from the initial set. Then I was asked to spend twenty minutes a day for the next two weeks listening to a speech about the inevitability of death. No matter what we think awaits us next, I heard each day, one thing is certain. All of us will die. The time we share now is our only time in this life.

That sort of thing.

After two weeks of this, they gave me another interview and a repeat of the memory game. Was I changed by two weeks’ worth of meditation on death?

Honestly, I doubt it. The data they collected from me was probably worthless. I was about to finish my doctorate and leave California, so there was already a sense of finality to most of my actions there. Plus, I’m the sort of depressed weirdo who always thinks about death, psych study or no. I don’t usually get paid $300 to do it. But it seems unlikely that I’d be altered by an experimental treatment so little removed from my everyday experience.

My laboratory baymate also participated in the study. He seemed to be affected more than I was. After two weeks of meditation on death, he started talking about lobsters.

Blue-lobster

I’ve written about the connection between lobsters and immortality previously, so all I’ll say now is that there has been a big push to understand the cellular and molecular consequences of aging in order to reverse them. For instance, our chromosomal telomeres shorten as we age. Can we lengthen them again?  Young blood has a different composition from the blood of older individuals. Can we make someone youthful by pumping young blood through their veins? Caloric restriction extends lifespan. Is there a way to reap the benefits without suffering through deprivation?

The meat machines we call our bodies evolved to live fast and die young, but we might be able to tweak and tune them to persist an extra hundred years.

Two hundred years is still a far cry from immortality, though.

Not, of course, that true immortality is possible. Over time, the entropy of the universe increases. Someday there will be no more life, no planets, no stars – nothing but a homogeneous smear filling all space. But many orders of magnitude separate our lifespans from the expected heat death of the universe. Humans could live much, much longer than we do now and still never need to worry about that cold, lonely end.

Human_brain_01Which brings us to the idea that a human mind could be preserved independent of this biodegradable shell. Conceptually this is not so strange. The workings of a mind are due to electrical currents pulsing through a particular configuration of synaptic connections. If different currents pulse through, you’re having different thoughts. If the synapses are connected in a different pattern, you have a different mind, a different personality, different memories.

If our mind is nothing but the pattern of our synapses, it should be possible to map all their connections and use this information to reproduce ourselves. Even if our mind is also molded by components other than the synapses (such as the myelin sheaths formed by glial cells), it should be possible (using a very powerful computer) to simulate the entire mess.

This is why some people want their heads lopped off and brains frozen after death. Not me. When I read about these people, I generally feel sad. I hate the idea of dying. It terrifies me. But I still believe it adds something to the human experience. And, although my particular brain seems to work well, I’m not sure the people of the future would want to expend the resources necessary to keep it around. They might decide to use their (very powerful!) computers for something else.

zero-k-9781501135392_lgStill, there is the dream. Maybe the people of the future will be able to bring us back to life. And maybe, just maybe, they will want to. This is the premise of Don Delillo’s Zero K. A few very wealthy individuals have funded an institution that will preserve their brains and bodies to be revived at some future time.

Any future resurrection, especially one mediated by computers, would be akin to the creation of an artificial intelligence. It will always be impossible to use nondestructive methods to perfectly map the components of a human brain. Given the quantum-mechanical fuzziness of reality, it’s hard to imagine what the concept of mapping “perfectly” would even mean. A future resurrection would be no more than an approximation of the original person.

Maybe this would be enough. After all, our brains change day by day and yet our personalities remain the same. Even severe brain injuries can leave our identities largely intact. Maybe the information inevitably lost when scanning a dead brain would prove to be irrelevant.

But we don’t know. And so one of the first experiments that anybody would suggest is: Can the resurrected mind pass a Turing test? If someone attempts to engage the resurrected mind in conversation, would the interlocutor walk away convinced that the mind was human?

CaptureUnfortunately, the characters Delillo sculpted to populate Zero K allow him to skirt this idea. It’s worth mentioning that Delillo’s White Noise is one of my all-time favorite books. I think he’s a great writer, and in his other books have loved the way he does dialogue. He beautifully depicts the interpersonal disconnect that permeates modern life. Consider this passage from White Noise in which two professors visit a tourist trap together:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

This is not a conversation. The speaker is unconcerned by the narrator’s lack of response. I think this is a beautiful, elegant commentary on modern life. You could read Martin Buber’s philosophical texts about the meaning of dialogue, or you could learn the same concepts while having a heckuva lot more fun by reading Delillo’s White Noise.

And yet. I think Delillo does a disservice to the ideas he’s exploring in Zero K to have the characters of his new novel also converse with each other in this disjointed way. Consider two fragments of dialogue, both from about a hundred pages into the novel (which just happens to be when I first realized that this style of dialogue, employed throughout, might be problematic here). In the first, a wealthy man is speaking to his son about his wife’s decision to be put down before she deteriorates farther:

“Yes, it will happen tomorrow,” he said casually.

“This is not some game that the doctors are playing with Artis.”

“Or that I’m playing with you.”

“Tomorrow.”

“You’ll be alerted early. Be here, this room, first thing, first light.”

He kept pacing and I sat watching.

“Is she really at the point where this has to be done now? I know she’s ready for it, eager to test the future. But she thinks, she speaks.”

“Tremors, spasms, migraines, lesions on the brain, nervous system in collapse.”

“Sense of humor intact.”

“There’s nothing left for her on this level. She believes that and so do I.”

In this next, a traveling monk is describing the facility to that same son – the wealthy man’s son is our window into this world.

“This is the safehold, the waiting place. They’re waiting to die. Everyone here dies here,” he said. “There is no arrangement to import the dead in shipping containers, one by one, from various parts of the world, and then place them in the chamber. The dead do not sign up beforehand and then die and then get sent here with all the means of preservation intact. They die here. They come here to die. This is their operational role.”

2000px-Turing_Test_Version_3.svg
A Turing test: Can we distinguish between an artificial intelligence and a human being?

If I were evaluating a Turing test and my conversational partner started speaking this way, I’d suspect my interlocutor was a robot. In my experience, most humans don’t talk this way.

By making the human characters more robotic, resurrection becomes an easier prospect. The more computer-like someone sounds – liable at any moment to spout off lists of facts instead of sentimental interpretations of the world – the easier it would be for a computer to encapsulate that person’s mind. The stakes seem artificially lowered.

I’m not trying to say that the resurrection of Elizabeth Bennett would dazzle me whereas bringing back Mr. Darcy would leave me yawning. But even Mr. Darcy, for all his aloof strangeness, feels far more viscerally engaged with human life than any of the characters in Zero K. Which, to me, undermines this particular exploration of the ideas.

Would you die happier knowing that a rigid automaton vaguely like you would someday be created, and maybe it would live forever? For me, the answer is “no.” I think my passions matter.