On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

335px-The_Victory_of_Buddha.jpgSiddhartha was born into luxury.  Wealth wasn’t enough to banish a nagging sense of emptiness, but if Siddhartha hadn’t left the palace, he never would’ve known deprivation.

Instead, he walked.  He met people afflicted with worse ills than his own lack of purpose – bedraggled souls who were poor, and sick, and miserable.  He was horrified by the world we humans have been given.

Seeking a way to improve people’s lives, Siddhartha began to meditate.  He sat beneath a tree and cleared his mind until it effervesced with psychedelic hallucination.

The local gods feared that Siddhartha would gain enlightenment.  Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, these gods believed that knowledge should be the exclusive province of the divine; like white supremacists in the Jim Crow era, they believed that shared access to the fountain would tarnish their own privilege.  And so they sent a storm to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration.

320px-Muchilinda_Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAALike Satan in the Old Testament, a snake came to help.  Mucalinda, a cobra-like naga king, believed in equality – humans too should have access to knowledge.  The cobra’s hood formed a protective bubble around Siddhartha, protecting him from the storm.

Siddhartha gained knowledge.  He now knew that non-attachment would free humans from suffering.  Everything in this world is impermanent – in the very end, each speck of matter will be so far from every other that the entire universe will be dark, empty, and cold – and so our attachments can only bring us pain.  We must recognize that our transitory world will always leave us unsatisfied.  Even our moments of joy will fade – those fleeting bursts of dopamine aren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness.

To be free of suffering, we have to let go.

But I’m an assistant coach for the local cross country team.  I run with the kids.  We suffer – that’s kind of the point.

Attachment brings suffering, but, again – that’s kind of the point.

My favorite superhero right now is Deadpool.  Most heroes have powers that keep them safe from harm – spider sense, super strength, telepathy.  Deadpool’s power is simply the willingness to endure harm.  As though tattooed with the word THOLE down his neck, Deadpool knows that life will hurt and sardonically accepts it.

He briefly considers non-attachment.  When he learns that he has a daughter, he plans to stay away from her.  Distance might keep her safe from Deadpool’s enemies – and would keep him safe from emotional turmoil.

Instead, he lets himself become attached.  He will suffer; so will she.  But he’s decided that the pain is part of life.

When Deadpool meets a young woman who’s so depressed that she’s contemplating suicide, he doesn’t advocate non-attachment.  It’s true that her torments will be temporary, but that’s a Buddhist consolation.  Instead, he tells a joke (he justifies his levity by claiming that his powers came when he was “bitten by a sad radioactive clown”) and takes her to experience more pain and suffering.

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Find the full story in Deadpool (2015) #21.

My own depression has seemed more manageable for similar reasons.  Since I’ve been working with people entrapped in the criminal justice system, I experience more pain.  More horrors are shared with me now.  But that very sharing connects me more clearly to the world.

Those connections – attachment – will bring suffering, but that’s the very stuff of life.  All you can do is endure.  As the chemist Primo Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, his account of time spent in a Holocaust concentration camp (translated by Stuart Woolf), as long as you can resist becoming too absorbed in your tiny experience of the present moment, there is always cause for hope:

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

You could always kill yourself later, Levi says, so why not see how much more you can bear?

And, yes, Deadpool takes the young woman to the hospital.  When one of my acquaintances needed to go, I took her in as well.  (I was on the phone with my father: “Just lie to her, tell her anything, but get her in.”  I keep the volume on my phone loud enough that she heard everything he said.  At least it was something to laugh about.)

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Hang in there.  The suffering won’t change.  But you might.

On prayer.

On prayer.

In jail, we read Czeslaw Milosz’s “On Prayer” (translated by Robert Hass), which opens with the lines:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft

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Photographs by Robert Croma on Flickr.

After somebody read the poem aloud, I asked him: “What would your ideal god look like?”

“Um … tall … blonde, blue eyes …”

I was worried he was describing Thor.  It’s a bad bias, reminiscent of the old surgeon riddle.

The guy went on: “ … thirty-two D …”

Greek_-_Aphrodite_-_Walters_2399“Oh,” I said.  “You wanna worship Aphrodite.”

“Man, she’s great,” he said.  “I’ve been reading all the Greek myths and stuff.  But she is wicked when she’s mad.  Like Arachne committed suicide, and there’s Echo, and Na … Nar …”

“Narcissus.”

“… who she just wrecked.”

It’s true – the god of desire can hurt you.  We were discussing mythology in a room full of dudes incarcerated for possession.

Many of them know that desire is wrecking their lives.  I often say that I’m not against drugs, but certain drugs, mixed with certain people, are definitely bad news.

“That’s me,” said a guy who told me that he’s been shuffling in and out for the last twenty-four years, with the durations out often lasting no more than weeks.  “Last year … after my wife died … my son had to bring me back.  I was over at my nephew’s, and we’d had something like a full gram, each time we sold some I had to be like, here, let me try it with you, and I was falling out … but my son just happened to come by in my truck, and I had all the stuff.  He hit me with Narcan.”

Narcan – naloxone – revives people after overdose.

“So I know I gotta quit.  If I don’t stop, I’m gonna die.”

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In AA, people work with a higher power to stay sober.  A buddy told me, “It was hard coming out as an atheist in AA.”  But Milosz, the poet, would say that there’s no contradiction.  Milosz approached religion from a “scientific, atheistic position mostly,” and then he lived under the Nazis in Warsaw – an experience that could shake anybody’s faith.

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

And yet, prayer does change the mind.  Earnest prayer can heal. 

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

 if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

The men know the grim statistics – rehab fails most people.  A counselor can’t reach into their minds and save them.  Neither can any god.  I’d argue that scientists can’t, either, but some scientists are trying – they’re testing transcranial magnetic stimulation aimed at a region of the human brain associated with impulse control.

Zap.

Do you want drugs now?

Transcranial_magnetic_stimulationA few people in the clinical trials have said “No,” but most people probably still do.  Which isn’t to disparage magnets – we’re asking an awful lot of them.  Addiction is a loop.  So many memories cause desire to swell.  For the guys in jail – many of whom started using when they were eleven or twelve – this is the only life they’ve known.  Their minds have never dealt with the world sober.  They are being asked to start all over again.

But some people manage to quit.  When rehab works, change comes from within.  And so it doesn’t matter whether any god is listening – prayer is for the person who prays.

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But his exploits were still celebrated.

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

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

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

2014-01-31demon001In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide.  Again and again.  Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.

Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse.  Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell.  Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.

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We incarcerate drug dealers.  But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand.  People’s lives are still broken.  Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy.  When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.

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Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison.  When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!”  When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished.  Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.

Child molesters were often abused as children.  In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.

The demon leaps from one shell to the next.

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During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work.  When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger.  We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.

Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others.  And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again.  After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else.  But the initial mistakes were made by a child.  Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.

We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not.  We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not.  We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.

After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.

If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it.  I too believe in free will.  But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain.  If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?

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51ZgODW8D+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons.  A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.

This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted.  It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others.  This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen.  Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right.  After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.

Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult.  Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.

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In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised.  In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.

Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment.  A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.

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Some demons might never leave the body.  The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history.  Even after years clean, addiction lingers.

In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted.  Apparently demons love to guard treasure.  It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.

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Addicts are shuttered in jail.  The walls are concrete.  Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day.  People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark.  The block is noisy, and feels dangerous.  The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance.  Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.

Thoughts of drugs.

But poems can be treasures.  If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there.  Something for the demon to guard.

We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.

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Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

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Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

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In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

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Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

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And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

*

Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

******

post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.

 

On storytelling.

On storytelling.

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

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

1280px-Jelly_Fish_in_Ocean_Park

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

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

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

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

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

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

From the King James translation of Genesis,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

415343655_3aa0e7a54f_o
Image by bies on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though shalt not kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On unilateral reproduction.

On unilateral reproduction.

My parents never sat me down to discuss the birds & the bees, but I think I’ve got the basics down.  You need a male parent and a female parent, their gametes fuse, an embryo develops, and, voila!  You’ve got a kid!  Or a grub, or a chick, what have you.

Although this process seems cooperative — if the kid grows big and strong, it’ll carry on both its parents’ genes — it’s cooperative the way shared-grade group projects in college are cooperative.  Everyone wants to get an A, but the more work you can con your partner into doing, the better.  The outcome is shared, but when it comes to divvying up the effort, your partner is your adversary.

In game theory, arrangements like this are notoriously slippery.  As soon as one partner does a tiny bit more work than the other, that person has more to lose if the rest of the project doesn’t get done right.  They’ve already invested more, and their investment will be wasted if nobody does the rest of the work.

A friend of mine was majoring in nonprofit management: most of her assignments were group projects.  And she’s very bright.  Rarely procrastinates.  Which her assigned partners would typically notice — on the first day they’d plan out which tasks each person would do, then on the second day my friend would announce that she’d finished hers.

group-project-2-300x225At that point, her partners would slough off more of their own work onto her — if they do nothing, they’ll all get a low score, sure… but she would get a low score despite having done as much work as somebody expecting to receive a high one.  That’s worse!  So she’d do far more than her fair share.

In terms of the biological mechanics of reproduction, K has put in far more effort than I have.  The imbalance started early.  Female gametes carry everything an embryo will need.  Male gametes are worthless little things, just delivery mechanisms for DNA.  And, like with my beleaguered friend, initial imbalance leads to more and more unfairness.  Human females carry the developing fetus for nine months.  They might breastfeed for years.  Meanwhile the father is out cavorting with his new girlfriend, maybe dropping off some food from time to time.

Or, wait.  I guess that’s not what I did.  Despite investing little in my gametes, I became our family’s primary daytime parent, talking with N, cooking lunch, reading her books …

Genetics aren’t destiny.  We don’t have to conform to the brutishness of the natural world.  Still, I’m consciously ignoring what my genes would have me do.

Capture.JPGSo I’m not surprised that some bees have decided that men — shiftless freeloaders!often aren’t worth the bother.  There’s a type of bee that ditches males from time to time.  Females fertilize their own eggs and carry on as a single-gendered colony.  It’s not just bees that do this, either.  Numerous species reproduce at least occasionally (for some of them, exclusively) by parthenogenesis: virgin birth.  Instead of putting forth almost all the effort and getting half the credit for raising a kid, they go it alone.

I don’t blame them.  If you’re not doing much more work, and your outcome is comparable (sexual reproduction gives more genetic variation than parthenogenesis, which can give a population more opportunities to survive in a changing environment — but, under stable circumstances, children mirroring their mothers is good enough), why carry the mooch?

Single parent offspring are also common throughout mythology.  The phrase “virgin birth” makes most Westerners think of Mary, pregnant with Jesus despite no genetic input from a male, but, in mythology, the single parent is more often male.  I think Wendy Doniger’s description of this contrast in Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts is charming:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In the medical texts, it is clear that women can procreate unilaterally but men cannot; in the myths, the situation is reversed, and men, but not women, are capable of unilateral procreation (albeit men do it into a “female” receptacle of some sort — any container at all).

Jesus was born to a single mother, but Eve was produced from the flesh of a man alone.  During the birth of Athena, in Jane Ellen Harrison’s translation, “Her life as the lightning was flashed from the light of her Father’s head.”  No help from Hera.  In some versions of the Ramayana, Sita is birthed nasally by Ravana during a sneeze (ouch!).  Prometheus, who created mankind and all the animals, was male.  The rabbis who enlivened clay golems: all male.  Even Victor Frankenstein, himself the creation of a female, sired a motherless child.

For Mary Shelley’s tale, she might’ve chosen a male creator because the idea of a female doctor seemed more fantastic than electricity quickening dead flesh.  In traditional mythology, though, male writers likely gave male heroes supernatural powers because they wanted to feel special.  According to Doniger,

In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

In real life, female bodies are productive in a way that males are not, so my supposition is that the religious tales were inspired by envy.

Indeed, between scientists uncovering the genetic switches that allow females of other species to reproduce unilaterally, and the ease with which human embryos could be modified by CRISPR, human males might find themselves jettisoned from the species.  Dudes had better start making themselves useful in other ways.

On computing and word magic.

On computing and word magic.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Philippe Semeria.
Art by Philippe Semeria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

On Y chromosomes, surnames, and reproduction.

Invisible-History-Human-Race_Author-ImageFor me, the most interesting section of Christine Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of the Human Race” was the section on Y chromosomes.  Because, sure, if I’d spent a moment thinking about it I would have realized that sons of sons of sons carry the same Y chromosomes as their forebears… but it isn’t something I’d bothered thinking about.

But the connection that was most interesting for me – and, yeah, also retrospectively obvious – was that in a patriarchally-named society, surnames will make the same journey as Y chromosomes.

They are coupled throughout time, in ways that researchers have investigated for, say, Scottish clans: a sort of scientific validation for the lineage claims that even in modern times are accompanied by property rights.  From Kenneally’s book:

“It wasn’t until 1957 that the ancient chiefly Arms were finally officially recorded.  Donald’s father assembled a significant amount of evidence to prove that he was in fact descended from the last known MacLaren chief, and he presented it to the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, the Scottish heraldic authority that rules on title and is famously rigorous in its judgement.  The court decreed that Donald’s father had indeed descended from the last-known chief of Clan MacLaren.  When he was made chief, he acquired the legal title to some of the clan lands at Balquhidder that had been lost a few centuries earlier, including the famous Creag an Tuirc, the Clan’s rallying point from earliest times.  When he died in 1966, his three golden feathers were passed on to his eleven-year-old son, now the twenty-fifth chief since Labhran.”

Obviously the evidence presented at the time, as described in the above paragraph, did not include DNA testing – but apparently the MacLarens have been quite involved in DNA testing recently, and current results correlate with the prior historical claims.

The interesting thing to me is that names, and land, and Y chromosomes, all traveled together.  There has long been the sense that sons are special – even in western cultures, where to me it has not seemed like sons provide for their aging parents any better late in life than daughters do – with the idea that some special spark is passed from fathers to their sons.  And the journey of names reflects that.

And, right – now might be a reasonable time to mention that when K and I married, neither of us changed our names.  And we gave N a surname distinct from either of ours.  I am not particularly keen on the idea of patriarchy, and didn’t want to make my own contribution to that system of beliefs by giving my daughter her father’s name.  And, sure, some people pass along a mother’s name instead, but I personally don’t feel like the solution to a patriarchy is to institute practices that we’d have in a matriarchy…although in the short term it does seem reasonable.

(Like, okay, affirmative action in hiring – I assume that most people think that in an ideal world, employers wouldn’t care about your ethnicity and so affirmative action would not be needed.  But given that you can find numerous studies on racist hiring decisions – every few years there are articles about the effect of stereotypically black names in America, and here is a similar study on the effect of African/Arabic names on hiring decisions in Sweden – it seems like affirmative action is definitely still a worthwhile policy in many countries.

And that’s in cases where there is an equivalence between CVs, etc., between people with different names.  You could make a much stronger argument by suggesting that employers should care most about a person’s ability to make the best of their circumstances, or overcome challenges, so if race were correlated with a difference in material advantages at birth, you’d not only want to preference minority applicants with equivalent CVs, but also those who might appear slightly worse based on numerically-documented facts on a job application.)

So, N has a new name.  She does have some amount of my genetic material, though.  Almost 50%.  So there’s that.

Although you could make an argument for using more of the trappings of matriarchy in cultural decisions.  Especially as reproductive science moves forward – it isn’t difficult to imagine a world that doesn’t need men.  Which isn’t just a joke, although I do recall their being a good joke-y treatment of this in a dialogue at the beginning of “Roger Dodger.”  Because you can produce mammalian offspring without the aid of men  – yeah, you need to deliver the genetic material in a laboratory instead of having it be carried by sperm, but is that such a big cost?  Already many couples in the U.S. employ the help of laboratory personnel for reproduction.

And, yes, recently it’s proven possible to engender children with the nuclear genetic material of two males, but this technique still requires a mother to carry the embryo, and a female to provide the egg (and the mitochondrial DNA, although presumably you could develop a technique to displace the mother’s mitochondria with those of one of the fathers).  So you could have a world without men, and humans would be able to propagate, but at the moment a world without women wouldn’t work.

(Bonus parenthetic insert!  Because I already have one exceedingly-long parenthetical inserts in this essay already – why not another one?

Many of those laboratory techniques to aid in reproduction were developed by men, and many of the doctors implementing them are men.  So is it unreasonable to think that this may have influenced the remunerations received by sperm donors, which are relatively high given the low risks and low time input after initial screening, versus those received by women, which are pretty crappy… crappy in a way reminiscent of the low prices flowing to organ donors.  Egg donors, like organ donors, tend to be impoverished and relatively un-educated.  And it seems that there has been collusion on the part of medical providers to keep compensation low.  From Kimberly Krawiec’s analysis of gamete markets:

“In February 1998, the Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey set off a firestorm of controversy when it placed advertisements in several New York-area publications offering potential egg donors $5000, twice the $2500 that the center had been paying.  The firestorm was provoked not because Saint Barnabas proposed to pay egg donors for their services, which it and other fertility clinics had been doing for years, but because the proposed payment increases were made in violation of an alleged understanding among New York-area fertility centers to pay no more than $2500 for eggs.  The ensuing debate (during which many fertility doctors openly discussed the need to control egg prices) quickly garnered newspaper and other media attention, and generated arguments in major medical journals.”)

And yet, despite the fact that reproduction from women alone is much more reasonable than reproduction from men alone, the production of offspring from men appears much more often in mythology.  There’s Zeus, creating Athena from his head.  A similar story associated with the Ramayana, in which Ravana created Sita with a sneeze.

Presumably men throughout time have felt bad about their limited role in propagation of the species and created stories to celebrate that men could have an important role… they just often don’t.

And there are others: Shiva created a mountain range by ejaculating onto the ground.  The sage Bharadwaja saw a beautiful woman bathing and ejaculated into a basket, creating his son Drona.

Which, right, scientifically seems ridiculous – children arising from spilt sperm?  Eggs, maybe… but sperm?  So naturally I had to include the phenomenon in my work.  As a twist on the very-real possibility of a world propagated by women alone, and a nod to the underlying mythology.