On resurrection.

On resurrection.

Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle.  But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence.  In the underworld, he was as a god.

Yet Achilles would have traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –

then rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

(translated by Robert Fagles)

The mythologies of ancient Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.  As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.

Most other religions postulate that the dead could return.  This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope.  It’s easier to face death – our own or the passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn. 

Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth.  Our minds are patterns.  If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually. 

The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now.  Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories.  Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion.  Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.

Stardust is beautiful — but can it think? Image from Hubble/NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Indeed, the physicists who believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature.  Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist between the stars.

This speculation seems no different from any other form of religious belief.  Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a disembodied spirit in the sky …

But we, as individuals, are unlikely to return.

More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected.  They slip away; we strive to bring them back.  Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism.  From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”

Louis Komjathy, a scholar who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by the upheavals of the twentieth century.  There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a recreation of a lost past.

Depiction of mountains by Zhang Lu (1464–1538) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches.  Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice.  Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion.  I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.

Pagans managed to repel the Roman invaders.  But then, years later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths. 

No one recorded the original beliefs or mythologies of the druids.  Celtic mythology was written down only after the populace had converted; to make the stories “safe,” they were recorded as the memories of conquered giants who had been exorcised by Saint Patrick.

Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity.  Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely.  For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean. 

The special beer that Odin stole is said to have inspired all poetry.  Good poetry comes from the beer leaking out the Odin-eagle’s front end; bad poetry from the back.

And, yes, “Thor’s challenge” could also mean “ocean.”  The old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience, the poets were challenging people to understand.  Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.  (Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I think it’s silly.)

When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories.  These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.

Indeed, some contemporary Christians’ prejudice against women is so stolid that when archaeologists sequenced DNA from a famous warrior’s skeleton and realized that she, the ceremonially-buried warrior, was female, many people suddenly decided that perhaps this woman was not a great warrior after all.

Her prowess had never been questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.

And so, although we still have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout the cannon) were left out.

But, even if we still had the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking religion.  With a copy of the Bible, you wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you suddenly understand Judaism.  In practice, these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are violent and petty.  Yahweh felt slighted and decided to murder millions in a flood.  You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you thought believers were supposed to behave.

As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed.  In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.

But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion.  They do not know any of the traditions.  Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal. 

And, look – I’ve obviously never discussed theology with an ancient viking, either.  Maybe their beliefs really were brutish and unpleasant.  But I suspect that the vikings would feel puzzled, if not dismayed, were they to meet the tattoo-riddled milk-chuggers who self-describe as Odinists today.

On scrutiny.

On scrutiny.

We can be attentive to only a small sliver of the world.

We’re constantly surrounded by so much noise, so many smells, so many different colors, textures, tastes.  The amount of sensory information that we’re bombarded with every moment would be overwhelming if we weren’t so good at ignoring our environment.

Consider smells.  Chemicals waft through the air, bind to olfactory receptors in our nose, and cause a signal to ping our brain: there’s the floral scent of an ethyl acetate here …  But, if we stay near the source of that chemical, our brain will keep receiving that signal.  Thankfully, this information is discarded by our subconscious minds.  As long as the types of smells in a space aren’t changing, we soon notice nothing.

If our clothes feel the same against our skin from one moment to the next, all the tactile information being sent from the surface of our body is similarly ignored.  But the information is still there.  If we focus your attention on your shirt, you can feel it.

The-Pearl-294878In The Pearl, John Steinbeck reveals how this glut of information can cause us to be hoodwinked.  A poor diver becomes suddenly wealthy when he finds a giant pearl.  The diver’s infant child was stung by a scorpion and has begun to recover … but a greedy doctor would rather the child receive an expensive cure.  The doctor knows that he can fool the diver by drawing his attention to details that never seemed important before.

It is as I thought,” [the doctor] said.  “The poison has gone inward and it will strike soon.  Come look!”  He held the eyelid down.  “See – it is blue.”  And Kino, [the diver], looking anxiously, saw that indeed it was a little blue.  And he didn’t know whether or not it was always a little blue.  But the trap was set.  He couldn’t take the chance.

If we scrutinize the world, we can always find something that looks strange.

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When I was in high school, I had to get a medical physical each year.  Those cost $5 – a school nurse would measure my blood pressure, listen to my heart, and look at the curvature of my spine.  I felt healthy enough when I signed up for these physicals, and the nurses invariably agreed.  Even repeatedly-concussed football and soccer players were given a clean bill of health.

Queensland_State_Archives_2832_Medical_examination_with_the_School_Health_Services_October_1946

This $5 exam was insufficient to find anything wrong with us.  But if we’d been subjected to a $25,000 battery of diagnostic scrutiny instead, I’m sure we’d have seemed flawed.

Indeed, in a recently-published study designed to shill the new $25,000 physical from a company called “Health Nucleus” in California – which includes DNA sequencing, metabolite analysis, full-body MRI, two weeks of heart monitoring, and more – 40% of their seemingly-healthy study participants were diagnosed with “something seriously wrong.”  In several study participants, doctors found clusters of aberrant cells: pre-cancer.

In sexually-reproducing multicellular organisms, most cells carry DNA instructions to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the whole.  Some of these instructions code for contact inhibition, which means that cells stop growing when their edges bump into neighbors.  Other DNA sequences code for apoptosis, which means that cells commit suicide once they’re no longer needed.

But the mechanism for transmitting these instructions is imperfect.  DNA is copied again and again by jiggling protein machines called polymerases, and these make about 60 mistakes each time they copy our genomes.  Worse, DNA is copied from copies, so the mistakes pile up over time.  Like classroom handouts that have been photocopied from photocopies so many times that the words blur into static, DNA sequences that instruct our cells to cooperate can become unreadable.  At which point a cell is cancerous.

4.0.4Cancer cells continue growing without regard for the neighbors they’re crowding.  They carry on dividing – spewing forth copies of themselves – long after a team-player would’ve snuffed itself.

Most human adults harbor cancer cells.  All the time, they lurk in us.  And our immune systems destroy them.  Chemotherapy drugs do not kill cancerous cells – they slow the growth of all cells, giving a patient’s own immune system time to fight the menace.

So it’s unsurprising that doctors found pre-cancer in some of the study participants who underwent this $25,000 physical.  Study participants were as old as 98.  Their average age was 55.  After so much time alive, of course some of their cells had gone bad.

Early detection of cancer does boost a patient’s chance of survival, but sometimes in a trivial way.  Healthy patients whose immune systems would have destroyed a population of aberrant cells without any intervention … who might never have realized that anything was ever wrong … are counted as “cancer survivors.”  Extremely sensitive diagnosis can identify cancers early enough to be cured, but has the drawback of mis-labeling healthy people as diseased.

Every diagnosis of disease leads to harm – from worry, from the risks inherent in all medical treatment – and so has to be balanced against the expected outcome from doing nothing.  With some conditions, doing nothing would be deadly.  But by scrutinizing healthy people, you can always find something that looks strange.  Of course you’ll find “evidence of age-related chronic disease or risk factors” when you subject older people to a $25,000 battery of medical tests.  If you aggressively treat all of these, you’ll cause more harm than good.

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Because overdiagnosis can cause so much harm, the search for pre-cancer reminds me of the search for pre-criminals.  We can always find something wrong when we look hard enough.

I assume the researchers investigating children to find “pre-criminals” mean well.  I can imagine a world in which at-risk children are given more resources.  If it’s true, for instance, that a brief assessment of 3-year-olds or surveys filed by the teachers of 6-year-olds can predict future criminal behavior, we should cut spending on prisons and law enforcement to fund childhood nutrition, education, and enrichment instead.

Instead, we respond to intimations of future disobedience by watching people more closely.

Adorable Preschooler Playing with Colorful Dough

Our predictions of criminality become self-fulfilling: lifelong mistrust makes people criminals.  The racial injustice of mass incarceration is caused in part by unequal enforcement.  As far as we know, U.S. citizens of all ethnicities break laws equivalently often, but police scrutinize minority neighborhoods more closely, so that’s where they find crimes.

Similarly, when an elementary teacher decides that a student is trouble, that student gets scrutinized.  Equivalent misbehavior reaps unequal discipline.  In the U.S., children in preschool are targeted for school suspension based on the color of their skin.  A suspension disrupts education, pushing students further behind.  When a teacher decides that a student won’t learn, that student is prevented from learning.

And researchers have developed an automated image analysis that predicts the likelihood that someone is a criminal just from a photograph of his clean-shaven face.  Which isn’t as evil as it sounds.  Or, rather, it is evil, but not because a computer is doing it – the computer algorithm is simply revealing and quantifying the evil way we humans judge people by their appearances.

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Genetics differences are real, and they do make a substantial contribution to people’s proclivities.  But human brains are so plastic that the way we’re treated matters more: if you’re curious, you might want to check out this inadvertent identical twin study.

With a glance, we form strong opinions about people’s characters.  Some children we brand “pre-criminals.”  Is it shocking that, after decades of mistreatment and scrutiny, these children become the lawbreakers we always expected them to be?

On fear.

On fear.

cta_brown_line_060716We recently visited my brother and our Auntie Ferret in Chicago.  Traveling with two young kids was difficult, but not impossible.  N held my hand while we strolled down the sidewalk and we did the five-hour drives to and from the city while she and her brother were sleeping in their car seats.

When we returned to Bloomington, I excitedly regaled staff at the YMCA “play and learn” childcare area with our adventures: we went to Restaurant Depot!  A grocery store where you can buy a six-pound tub of chili garlic paste!  It was magical!

One woman shuddered slightly: “Chicago?  I’m afraid to go there.”

Based on that statement alone, I’d bet large sums of money that she voted for Donald Trump.

Which isn’t such a bad bet.  He lost the popular vote, and Bloomington is a liberal isle in the midst of southern Indiana, but… this is southern Indiana, after all.  Trump garnered a lot of votes here.

And he campaigned on fear.

It’s not the best emotion, fear.  It’s no hope, for instance.  I’d say fear is far worse than whatever emotion best characterizes the recent Clinton campaign, even though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is… scorn?  Which isn’t good, but I’d swallow my pride and vote for smarmy self-satisfied scorn over fear any day (as in fact I did).

banksyfollowyourdreamsWe’re already seeing the awful consequences of fear: an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from a few (poor, Trump-property-less) countries that people here fear.  Yes, it looks like children are drowning as families flee the civil war (sparked by climate change from our pollution).  But what if those deaths are all part of an evil ploy by ISIS (not Daesh, not ISIL) operatives to infiltrate the United States?

The ban is misguided and heartless, obviously.  But it’s hardly the worst that fear can do.  Because fear inspires attack.

Which is a fascinating research finding.  Terrifying, yes, given our current political situation.  But still fascinating.  You get it all here: mind control… senseless violence… and… killer mice?

Back in 2005, Comoli et al. found that hunting seemed to activate a pattern of neurons in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for fear in a wide variety of mammals, including humans.

So… what would happen if you suddenly activated those neurons?

Usually, neurons are activated only when we think.  Our thoughts are patterns of neuron activations, and they cause further activations, which means we get to keep thinking, on and on as we learn and grow… until we die.  Then the activations stop.

picture-1Each of these “activations” is a flow of electricity from one of the cell to the other.  Neurons are lined by “voltage-gated ion channels,” and these let signals flow.  Ions entering through one gate cause nearby gates to open.  After a gate opens, though, it takes a while to recharge, which causes the current flow in a single direction.

And that’s how you can create a Manchurian candidate.  Instead of hypnosis – conditioning Sinatra to flip when he spots a playing card – you infect neurons with new ion channels that open when you shine laser light on them.  Make a recombinant virus, load it into a syringe, and plunge that needle into the brain!

The laser causes your new ion channels to open, and then, once they do, all the others respond, creating a flow of current.  The signal becomes indistinguishable from any other thought.  Except that whoever holds the laser is in control.

Wenfei Han et al., for the study “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala,” took some mice and infected their amygdalas with these light-activated channels… and found that they’d created killing machines.  In their words:

When a non-edible item was placed in the cage, laser activation caused the otherwise indifferent mice to immediately assume a ‘capture-like’ body posture and seize the object, which was then held with the forepaws and bitten.  Behavior was interrupted immediately upon laser deactivation.

Light on… attack!  Light off… whoa, what was I doing?

mouse attacking.jpg

From Han et al.:

Generally, upon laser activation, mice readily seize, bite, and often ingest, non-edible objects, an effect that was modulated by internal state.  Laser activation also abolished natural preferences for edible over non-edible items.

When left to their own devices, mice will hunt crickets (although it’s worth noting that “Consistently, by employing the cricket-hunting paradigm, [laser activation] shortened the time needed for mice to capture and subdue their prey.  Captured crickets were immediately eaten.”), but the mind-control lasers cause them to hunt anything.

Well, almost anything.

Activation did not induce attacks on “conspecifics,” that is, their fellow mice.  But human psychology seems to allow great flexibility in distinguishing between our own kind and others.  When a mouse sees a mouse, it’ll know it’s a mouse.  But we are so tribal that when one Homo sapiens sees another, the knowledge of shared humanity is often clouded over.  Instead of recognizing a human, we might see a Syrian, or a Muslim, or an “illegal,” or a Republican, or a criminal.

A mouse won’t hunt another mouse, but we humans are great at attacking our own.

Of course, we don’t know for certain that humans would attack so single-mindedly if we activated neurons in the amygdala.  We conduct only voluntary research on humans, and it seems unlikely that many people would sign up for an experiment involving the injection of viruses into the brain (which causes the infected neurons to become light-activated), intentional lesions between various brain regions (to isolate activities like hunting and eating – a quick slice lets researchers permanently uncouple those thought patterns), and euthanasia (to dissect the brain at the experiment’s end).

mouse-801843_1920The mice used in these studies – or any other research studies, since mice aren’t even considered “animals” for the purposes of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act – did not fare particularly well.  Far worse than the impoverished or imprisoned Homo sapiens whose “voluntary” research participation is induced by the offer of a piddling amount of cash or less mistreatment inside.

But now we know.  Inspire sufficient fear, trigger attack.  We’ll find an other – edible or not, deserving or not – and try to kill it.

People who felt afraid voted for Trump… and he has been using his social media megaphone to inflame their fears further ever since… and if we don’t calm those fears, war is coming.

Terrorism is scary.  But can we get a little more “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” around here?

On silenced voices.

On silenced voices.

During high school, I read dozens of Agatha Christie novels.  But, recently, I rarely read mysteries.  Like everybody else, I plowed through The Da Vinci Code and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, but I’ve picked up few others in the past decade.

unnamed.jpgSo it was a rare treat to set aside a few hours over the weekend for Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932).  It’s a lovely book, wonderful even though Fisher was writing with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back.  His was the first mystery novel published by an African-American writer, so the writing style is reserved, even staid.  If the whole narrative were written with the linguistic inventiveness that Fisher was capable of, he might not have found a publisher.

Within dialogue, though, Fisher lets his writing crackle.  The following passage shows off this dichotomy:

          On he strolled past churches, drugstores, ice-cream parlors, cigar stores, restaurants, and speakeasies.  Acquaintances standing in entrances or passing him by offered the genial insults which were characteristic Harlem greetings:

          “What you say, blacker’n me?”

          “How you doin’, short-order?”

          “Ole Eight-Ball!  Where you rollin’, boy?”

          In each instance, Bubber returned some equivalent reply, grinned, waved, and passed on.  He breathed deeply of the keen sweet air, appraised casually the trim, dark-eyed girls, admired the swift humming motors that flashed down the Avenue.

Conjure-Man DiesThough the novel is nearly a hundred years old, its concerns are strikingly modern.  For instance, the narrative digresses into an investigation of free will, the relationship between quantum-mechanical uncertainty and human thought, the limitations of medical diagnosis —  all topics that still confound contemporary philosophers.  Fisher was remarkably up-to-date: the Heissenberg uncertainty principle was first proposed a mere five years before The Conjure-Man Dies was published, and yet the novel incorporates the central idea more accurately than many contemporary writers.  Some of this can be seen in a short dialogue between the characters Dr. Archer — Fisher’s simulacrum within the novel — and Frimbo, a brilliant, highly-educated man who makes his living as a fortune teller.

          Easily and quickly they began to talk with that quick intellectual recognition which characterizes similarly reflective minds.  Dr. Archer’s apprehensions faded away and shortly he and his host were eagerly embarked on discussions that at once made them old friends: the hopelessness of applying physico-chemical methods to psychological problems; the nature of matter and mind and the possible relations between them; the current researches of physics, in which matter apparently vanished into energy, and Frimbo’s own hypothesis that probably the mind did likewise.  Time sped.  At the end of an hour Frimbo was saying:

          “But as long as this mental energy remains mental, it cannot be demonstrated.  It is like potential energy — to be appreciated it must be transformed into heat, light, motion — some form that can be grasped and measured.  Still, by assuming its existence, just as we do that of potential energy, we harmonize psychology with mechanistic science.”

          “You astonish me,” said the doctor.  “I thought you were a mystic, not a mechanist.”

          “This,” returned Frimbo, “is mysticism — an undemonstrable belief.  Pure faith in anything is mysticism.  Our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism.”

If you like mysteries, you’d be well-served reading this novel.

And so, when I reached the end of the book, I expected to find a few pages with a catalog of other mystery novels.  Instead, there was a list that began, “BLACK HISTORY: Other Books of Interest.  Individual titles in Series I, II, and III of the Amo Press collection THE AMERICAN NEGRO: HIS HISTORY AND LITERATURE are listed in the following pages.”  The selections were almost all academic history books, things like Modern Negro Art and Religion in Higher Education Among Negros (to choose only those two titles that bracket the page on which The Conjure-Man Dies is listed.)

Methinks this listing is not the way for The Conjure-Man Dies to find its audience.  Which I could elaborate upon, but, as it happens, I don’t need to.  Percival Everett, in his novel Erasure, explained this better than I could:

Erasure          While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it.  I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the WalMart of books.  I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged.  I went to Literature and did not see me.  I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph.  I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing.  Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section.  Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section.  The result in either case, no sale.  That fucking store was taking food from my table.

          Saying something to the poor clone of a manager was not going to fix anything, so I resigned to keep quiet.

I learned about Erasure from Parul Sehgal’s lovely essay in the New York Times MagazineErasure is a satirical novel about an ambitious black writer who struggles to have his work taken seriously — he’s losing his struggle, though, because, although his work is good, his writing does not match what people expect from someone with his skin tone.  From the opening pages:

percival everett.png          While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough.  Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough.  Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing.  I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.  From a reviewer:

          The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.

          One night at a party in New York, one of the tedious affairs where people who write mingle with people who want to write and with people who could help either group begin or continue to write, a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me I could sell many books if I’d forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty stories of black life.  I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one.  He left me to chat with an on-the-rise perfomance artist / novelist who had recently posed for seventeen straight hours in front of the governor’s mansion as a lawn jockey.  He familiarly flipped one of her braided extensions and tossed a thumb back in my direction.

          The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race.  Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it.  I don’t believe in race.  I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors.  But that’s just the way it is.

Sehgal has written several excellent essays about the phenomenon of erasure, or silenced voices, recently.  Two paragraphs from her essay on the student protests at elite universities cut deep.

In Tablet, James Kirchick wrote, “When I hear, in 2015, students complain about feeling ‘marginalized’ at Yale due to their racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other identity … I can’t help but think of James Meredith.”  In 1962, flanked by federal marshals, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. 

James_Meredith_OleMiss.jpg

“When I see photographs of Meredith and other black students of the civil rights era,” Kirchick wrote, “I don’t see people pleading for dean’s excuses so they can huddle in a ‘safe space’ to recover from ‘traumatic racial events.’  I see unbelievably courageous young men and women.”

Of course, it’s one thing to look at a photograph of James Meredith and concoct a fantasy of his bravery and resilience — a photograph is silent; it cannot clarify or correct.  To listen to James Meredith is a different thing entirely.  “Ole Miss kicked my butt, and they’re still celebrating,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012.  “Because every black that’s gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can’t even tell their story.  Everybody has to tell James Meredith’s story — which is a lie.  The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly.”  He continued, “They’re gonna keep on doin’ it because it makes it impossible for blacks there now to say anything about what’s happened to them.”

What a masterful reversal of logic.

Passages like this hurt so much for me to read because I, too, tacitly assented to our systematic silencing of minority voices for many years.  During my twenty-some years of formal education, I hardly ever read the work of black authors, learned almost nothing about African-American history except than the usual narrative about how Martin Luther King, Jr. strove mightily and was sacrificed but everything is all better now.  Which is, it seems, not exactly correct.

Indeed, even when I began to learn more history and investigate silenced voices for my own work, I came at the problem through mythology.  Canonical texts typically related only one side of stories, and even then include only the voices of a privileged few; the lives of others are submerged by time.  Even in epic poetry like The Iliad, the cares and concerns of women disappear: Helen, for instance, is used as a mouthpiece for male sentiment.  After leaving her rampantly-unfaithful husband for a more charming lover, she says (in the Stephen Mitchell translation):

          “But come in, dear brother-in-law,

sit down on this chair and rest yourself for a while,

since the burden falls upon you more than the others,

through my fault, bitch that I am, and through Paris’s folly.

Zeus has brought us an evil fate, so that poets

can make songs about us for all future generations.”

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Photo by Ricky Brigante on Flickr.

Really, Homer?  “Bitch that I am?”  I’m well aware that many women who leave violent, abusive husbands suffer self-recriminations for years, but this strikes me as a decidedly male sentiment, as though the “face that launch’d a thousand ships” were really the inanimate wood of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Until Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, women seem similarly silenced in American history.  Until Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, women & the low-caste seem to have been silenced from Hinduism.  To the best of my knowledge, there has been no similar corrective to Christianity, at least not one that has seeped into the popular consciousness.

This phenomenon is part of what drew me to the Ramayana.  This myth burbles with unheard stories at the periphery of the main narrative.  Through the years, numerous writers have attempted to bring these admurmerations to the fore, but their work has been similarly neglected.  From an essay by Nabaneeta Dev Sen,

Similarly, Candravati Ramayana [composed circa 1600] has been neglected and rejected for years by our male custodians of Bengali literature as an incomplete work.  This is what we call a silenced text.  The editors decided it was a poor literary work because it was a Ramayana that did not sing of Rama.  Its eccentricity confused not only the editors but also historians of Bengali literature to such an extent that they could not even see the complete epic narrative pattern clearly visible in it.  It got stamped as an incomplete text.  Today, a rereading of the narrative exposes an obvious failure of the male critics and historians: to recognize Candravati Ramayana as a personal interpretation of the Rama-tale, seen specifically from the wronged woman’s point of view.

And, linking the Ramayana with the issues described at the beginning of this post, the villainized dark-skinned king’s side of the story is never told.  I’ve been enamored with the peripheral stories in the Ramayana ever since learning of the Dravida Kazhagam interpretation, which recasts the dark-skinned villain as a hero and the entire narrative as a tragedy.

Street_Scene_with_Movie_Posters_-_Thanjavur_-_India.jpg
Image by Adam Jones on Wikipedia.

To put this into perspective for someone from the United States, this is akin to a retelling of the Bible in which God is a tyrannical oppressor and Satan the tragic hero (and, to differentiate this hypothetical work from Paradise Lost, Satan would have to think of himself & his efforts to enlighten humanity as fundamentally good).  To wit: a radical, and oft-denounced, retelling.

What with recasting the erudite, beleaguered dark-skinned man as a hero, you could reasonably draw parallels between the DK Ramayana and, say, the upcoming Nat Turner film.  The struggles of a man rebelling against the invention of “race” in the United States.

Why, after all, should the presence of more melanin in someone’s skin curtail opportunities?  Which is yet another idea presented beautifully in The Conjure-Man Dies.  Here, I’ll end this post with one last quotation, again drawn from the conversation between the sleuthing doctor and the fortune teller (who was presumed to have died, but somehow returned to life to investigate his own murder):

          “I had really intended to discuss the mystery of this assault,” the doctor declared.  “Perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”

          Frimbo smiled.

          “Mystery?  That is no mystery.  It is a problem in logic, and perfectly calculable.  I have one or two short-cuts which I shall apply tomorrow night, of course, merely to save time.  But genuine mystery is incalculable.  It is all around us — we look upon it every day and do not wonder at it at all.  We are fools, my friend.  We grow excited over a ripple, but exhibit no curiosity over the depth of the stream.  The profoundest mysteries are those things which we blandly accept without question.  See.  You are almost white.  I am almost black.  Find out why, and you will have solved a mystery.”

          “You don’t think the causes of a mere death a worthy problem?”

          “The causes of a death?  No.  The causes of death, yes.  The causes of life and death and variation, yes.  But what on earth does it matter who killed Frimbo — except to Frimbo?”

          They stood a moment in silence.  Presently Frimbo added in an almost bitter murmur:

          “The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black.”