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

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

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

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

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

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

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

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

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance obstacle made futile.

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

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

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

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

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

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

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

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But certain people should not take certain drugs. 

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

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

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

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

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

On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years.  We’ve been using cocaine even longer.  Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience.  Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

Not all drug use is good, obviously.  Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost.  Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught.  I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time.  I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me.  I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking.  I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”

Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose.  When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.

In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter.  Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”

DADDY WAKE UP

Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled.  Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use.  Possession is a felony.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising.  Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments.  Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.

In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters.  Prohibition was mediated through racism.

It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound.  But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey.  Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.

Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative.  Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that

No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.

And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests.  I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience.  I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests. 

For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.

That idea is true enough, as far as things go.  Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin.  Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence.  But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.

And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs.  For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin.  The drug can hurt someone who uses it.  But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain.  Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery.  Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views. 

Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink.  Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended.  But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.

Or consider antibiotics.  Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse.  With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.

And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs.  If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all.  But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.

In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die.  Any infection could turn septic and kill you.

In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me.  Or kill my children.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them.  We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse.  Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.

Is that reasonable?

On consent.

On consent.

When we were growing up, my sister accidentally signed up for a “record of the month” club.

It began with an innocent mistake. She saw an advertisement asking if she’d like a free copy of an album that she really wanted. So she sent in the little card and checked the box to say that, yes, she would like a free copy of that album!

But then the company kept sending more records … bad records … music that she didn’t want, and quite possibly that nobody wanted … and she had to return them or else get billed … but she had to pay shipping to return them … and, after agreeing to receive that first free album, it was excruciatingly difficult to take her name off their mailing list.

She did say “yes” … but the thing that my sister thought she was saying “yes” to, and the thing that the sleazy record company thought she was saying “yes” to, were very different.

#

In a recent New York Times editorial, Peggy Orenstein cited data from a study that asked college students what they’d “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d just met and danced with at a party. In this scenario, someone is saying “yes” … in response to the question “Do you want to go back to my place.”

But many college students assume that the “yes” suggests impending consent to something other than a late-night stroll. Almost half the men surveyed thought that vaginal sex was likely in that scenario; only a third of women thought so. This disparity suggests that there are a whole lot of pairings out there where somebody thinks that a woman’s “yes” is consenting to a lot more physical intimacy than she desires.

Indeed, a third of the women surveyed had previously been pressured into unwanted sex because they’d wanted to do some fooling around – touching, groping, kissing – but a partner persistently tried to do more even after being told “no.”

Why keep going? Perhaps somebody thought that his partner was simply mercurial – having said “yes,” at first, then “no,” perhaps he figured that she’d soon say “yes” again. Without stopping to think that her original “yes” was consenting to less than he assumed.

And without stopping to think that, even if she had said “yes” to activities that they’d collaboratively, explicitly described, she’s still allowed to say “no” later. Refusing to respect her right to maintain bodily autonomy – even after previous consent – makes for assault.

#

One flaw in Kate Harding’s otherwise lovely Asking For It is her repeated assertion that “you cannot prearrange consent.

This statement is obviously false, because all consent is prearranged. Asking precedes doing. Otherwise, there wasn’t consent when the doing began.

The phrasing from Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More than Two is preferable: that all people “should have the right, without shame, blame, or guilt, to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

In Asking for It, Harding elaborates with the idea that:

A sleeping person cannot consent to sex. This should be the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the place where a lot of folks get hung up.

In some cases, it’s because people don’t want to think of themselves or their lovers as rapists. Every time I’ve made this point online, commenters have rushed to tell me that they enjoy waking up their partners with penetration or vice versa, or even that they have a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I would feel weird about fooling around with someone who was asleep. Active participation from all parties makes things more fun, and someone who was asleep would be passive to the extreme.

But “a standing agreement that it’s okay to do so” means that the parties involved did arrange consent. “Do you want to have sex with me right now?”, “Do you want to have sex with me in an hour?”, and “Do you want to have sex with me while you’re asleep?” are all valid questions. Strange, but valid. Someone might be interested in responding “yes” to any or all of those.

And of course, per Veaux and Rickert, that “yes” can be retracted. At any time, for any reason.

Although I enjoyed most of Harding’s book, this distinction is important. We are causing real harm when we equate strange but valid practices with assault – in doing so, we give people more opportunity to rationalize assault. If we incorrectly narrow the definition of consent, we empower others to incorrectly expand the definition.

And that – the ability to explain away crimes – is one reason why these assaults are so prevalent.

From Orenstein’s editorial:

When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate in sociology, interviewed male college students, most endorsed the current “yes means yes” standard, which requires active, conscious, continuous, and freely given agreement by all parties engaging in sexual activity. Yet when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who claimed to practice affirmative consent often had not.

When they realized that their actions conflicted with that benchmark, though, they expanded their definition of consent rather than question their conduct. Their ideas of “yes” were so elastic that for some they encompassed behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.

#

In jail last week, we read Fatimah Asghar’s “When Tip Drill Comes on at the Frat Party,” alternately titled “When Refusing to Twerk Is a Radical Form of Self Love.” I’m a sucker for narrative poems that talk about consent, precisely because so many men end up in jail for violating consent.

And Asghar’s poem is excellent:

Sometimes it’s as simple as the boys, howling
under bright lights, who only see the dissected
parts of you –
nose, wrist, nape of neck, nipple –

that which can be held down, pinned back, cut open

Photo of Fatimah Asghar by S L O W K I N G.

Asghar writes about the way young women at collegiate parties must learn to enforce the boundaries of their “yes.” Although a woman has said that “yes,” she wants to dance, or to drink, she did not consent to the “sweaty nails pushing / gritty into your stomach, the weight of claws ripping / at the button on your jeans.

People in jail experience a dramatic loss of personal autonomy. Whenever the men walk to or from my class, they must stop, spread their legs, place their hands upon the wall, and wait for a guard to grope with gloved hands over every contour of their bodies.

Perhaps this sense of violation helped them to understand Asghar’s perspective:

Sometimes it’s as simple
as standing still amid all the moving & heat & card

& plastic & science & sway & say:
No.
Today, this body
is mine.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

image (5)

Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

best

I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

image (6)

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

On genetic inheritance and sexual assault.

How does evolution work?

Each child receives genetic information from its parents.  Some of this information conveys distinct traits.  And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own.  If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.

The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite.  A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population.  Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.

800px-JH_Dolph_Cat_Mouse(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier.  The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)

All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on.  This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own.  But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain.  Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans.  Maybe humans, too.

So, who controls which genes are passed on?

In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.

prumIn The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful.  The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes.  And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around.  The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures.  Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest?  She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.

Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles.  Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire.  Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.

That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.

It’s a nice idea.  After all, choice means the ensuing activity is consensual, and the opportunity to consent is sexy.

Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice.  You know – those ducks.  Orangutans.  Humans.

meanMyriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying.  In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:

A stranger chose me to rape.

There was no nepotism involved.

Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)

Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.

It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.

It’s classic.  I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.

 

You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.

 

In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:

prumOf course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals.  But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice.  Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals. 

Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals.  Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species.  As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.

Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice.  Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else?  And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.

Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting.  Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.

Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all.  It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.

(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans.  Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf.  Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories.  We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)

Not all species rape.  In some, coalitions of females defend each other.  In others, males enforce fairness.  Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose.  Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females.  Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.

On romantic failure.

On romantic failure.

singularity-valentineMy first collegiate relationship survived almost the entirety of freshman year (ending via phone call the day before my birthday). The second held out through four months of sophomore year. The third, two months of junior year. And the last person with whom I had any appreciable romantic success during college dated me for about two weeks, just before graduation.

The half-lives of my romantic entanglements seemed to be dwindling inexorably toward zero. I feared that the duration of any future relationships would be measured in hours… or minutes… or seconds. How quickly might one progress from a first kiss to “I don’t particularly want to see you again”?

Instead, I passed through a singularity. My next relationship has held out for a decade and still seems to be going well.

Not that I deserve too much sympathy for my past failures. I was less than ideally suave.

naked-singularityI laughed aloud (while grimacing in recognition) at this passage describing a first date from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity:

On Her Job:
“Plastic surgery? Really? That’s interesting.”
“Very lucrative.”
“It seems like a mostly New York/L.A. type thing right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is actual plastic involved?”
“Sometimes. Why?”
“Well otherwise the term would seem to be a slap in the face at the type of person who becomes a patient.”
“I don’t think I have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know, like there’s surgery for when something is actually wrong and then there would be plastic surgery for plastic, superficial people who can’t cope with their nose.”

On Misunderstandings:
“No I didn’t mean to imply that at all.”
“Right.”
“I’m serious. What kind of a hostile lunatic would purposely insult their dinner companion? I was just trying to be funny.”

Trying – and failing – to be funny. Well, not failing, exactly. I think that is funny. But De La Pava’s protagonist, like my own younger self, was insufficiently careful in considering the audience for his jokes.

So De La Pava’s protagonist returned home alone. Perhaps he then whiled away the evening reading some erotically-charged literature… like this eyebrow-raising article from the newsdesk at Science. Decidedly the most fescennine piece of writing I’ve stumbled across in some time. Each weekday morning I bring the kids to the YMCA to play while I check my email and do some typing, and I blushed while reading in the snack room.

So obviously I’ll share it with you now.

From Virginia Morell’s Science news article:

He did not penetrate her, but did ejaculate, and [she] then licked her back clean …

Which seems quite racy even knowing that the pronouns refer to a male macaque and a female sika deer.

Unfortunately, the article then alludes to violent rape porn – maybe this appeals more to all the Fifty Shades of Gray fans than it does to me. A kinky set of male fur seals has taken to pinning king penguins, thrusting for minutes (with, um, likely penetration), and, in a gruesome S & M twist, devouring the object of affection.

Just like rape culture in frat houses – or the White House – each assault makes future violence more likely. From Matt Walker’s BBC Earth article on the seals:

seals“Seals have capacity for learning – we know this from their foraging behavior for example,” explained de Bruyn.

So male seals may see each other coercing penguins, then attempt it themselves.

That might explain why the number of incidents appears to be increasing. “I genuinely think the behavior is increasing in frequency.”

15798589947_7b6d029ae8_zIt’s unfortunate that our press so rarely uses accurate language when describing violence against women… or against penguins, for that matter. “Coercing” sex is bad, but what these seals are doing is not coercion. Similarly, the word used for 45’s behavior toward women should not have been “groping.” The appropriate word is “assault.”

(A bit of linguistic mincing might be appropriate sometimes… like when describing the crabs who forcibly trigger asexual reproduction of anemones. Although the process sounds violent – “the crab tears the … anemone into two similar parts, resulting in a complete anemone in each claw after regeneration” – the crabs are acting calmly, and, besides, these anemones live only on crab claws and do reproduce this way.)

monkeydeerIn the case of the deer-humping macaque and those penguin-molesting seals, scientists have documented that low status individuals are the most likely to assault other species. The same principal holds among orangutans – only low-status males assault females.

Yet another indication – as if all the pomp and bluster and Twitter bullying and gold-plated doodads weren’t enough – that 45 is a pusillanimous individual at heart.

Because, after all, consensual behavior is more fun. Contrast those dour seals with the ribald joy of W. H. Auden’s “The Platonic Blow”:

We aligned mouths. We entwined. All act was clutch,
All fact, contact, the attack and the interlock
Of tongues, the charms of arms. I shook at the touch
Of his fresh flesh, I rocked at the shock of his cock.

If only those low-status seals – or our low-status president – calmed their desires with some Auden! We’d live in a world with fewer traumatized women (and penguins).

Or, if you’d rather get your kicks from prose, might I proffer this passage from Victor Pelevin’s The Clay Machine Gun (translated by Andrew Bromfield):

710579MGT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.gif“And you talk, talk …”
“Of what exactly?”
“Of anything at all, just talk. I want to hear your voice when it happens.”
“By all means. To continue that idea… Imagine that everything which a beautiful woman can give one adds up to one hundred per cent.”
“You bookkeeper…”
“Yes, one hundred. In that case, she gives ninety per cent of that when one simply sees her, and everything else, the object of a thousand years of haggling, is no more than an insignificant remainder. Nor can that first ninety per cent be subdivided into any component fractions, because beauty is indefinable and indivisible, no matter what lies Schopenhauer may try to tell us. As for the other ten per cent, it is no more than an aggregate sum of nerve signals which would be totally without value if they were not lent support by imagination and memory. Anna, I beg you, open your eyes for a second… Yes, like that… yes, precisely imagination and memory. You know, if I had to write a genuinely powerful erotic scene, I would merely provide a few hints and fill in the rest with an incomprehensible conversation like the… Oh, my God, Anna… LIke the one which you and I are having now. Because there is nothing to depict, everything has to be filled in by the mind. The deception, and perhaps the very greatest of a woman’s secrets… Oh, my little girl from the old estate… consists in the fact that beauty seems to be a label, behind which there lies concealed something immeasurably greater, something inexpressibly more desired than itself, to which it merely points the way, whereas in actual fact, there is nothing in particular standing behind it… A golden label on an empty bottle… A shop where everything is displayed in a magnificently arranged window-setting, but that tiny, tender, narrow little room behind it… Please, please, my darling, not so fast… Yes, that room is empty. Remember the poem I recited to those unfortunates. About the princess and the bagel… A-a-ah, Anna… No matter how temptingly it might lure one, the moment comes when one realizes that at the center of that black bage… bagel… bagel… there is nothing but a void, voi-oid, voi-oi-oooid!”

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.

The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated.  Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered.  But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction.  Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.

There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece.  Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong.  She should not have broken in to the house with those men.  She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them.  She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.

And yet.  Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions.  She did wrong.  Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate.  But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large.  Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it.  Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.

It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us.  It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love.  But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.

71O975JXqtLJoanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly.  If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.

Connors was hurt.  Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt.  The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.

She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness.  She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.

All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.

(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant.  That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault.  At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)

Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail.  A rarity, as most of us now know.

But Connors’s pain did not go away.  A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated.  That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.

Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.

And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like?  Why had he ruined hers?

Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused.  Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings.  One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.

Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped.  Repeatedly.  Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters.  I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn.  The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.

Those words were not true in Connors’ case.  And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters.  No one deserves to be tortured.

And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family.  Connors does not belabor this point.  She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.

Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt 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.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

3654539475_6185d49e9d_o
From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

K & I live pretty cheaply.

We try not to spend too much on food, but we always buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  We stock up on pasta when it’s on sale — on a recent shopping trip we bought 40 pounds at $0.50 per pound — and we eat a lot of rice, homemade bread, lentils, beans we rehydrate ourselves.  Still, I give us a budget of $30 per day for food, almost double what SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “food stamps”) would let somebody spend.

Then there’s our mortgage, which costs another $30 per day.  We have two phones between us, which together cost $1.80 per day.  Internet, $1.50 per day.  Heat, water, and electricity?  Another $5.00 (which might sound like a lot — our little city prices water such that you pay more per unit the more you use, and N wears cloth diapers).  Our car needs gas and maintenance; even though we had enough in savings to buy it outright, it still costs us close to $2 per day.  Our sundry insurance policies (car, health, life, homeowner’s), roughly $20 daily.

We’re not profligate spenders.  Graduate school stipends aren’t huge amounts of money, and California’s Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but we were able to put away a lot of savings during our time there.  Starting salaries for public school teachers aren’t so high, either — because K had eight years’ worth of continuing education credits from her Ph.D., she started at $37k here — but we were supporting four adults on her salary for a while.  During those first few years we made do without a car, and the rent we were paying was cheaper than our mortgage is now, and I had to cut our food budget back from grad school’s fancy-pants $15 per person per day to about $6.  We had fewer treats like cauliflower, eggplant, and chocolate than we do now.

We’ve been lucky enough to rarely visit doctors or hospitals (except when I’d go retrieve K’s father after his government-funded surgeries).  The cost of what little care we receive is typically bundled up with our insurance.  But we maxed out our co-pay when N was born, and we’ll max it out again when we have another kid.  So — most years, zero, some years, $10 per day.  I’ll budget the higher number.

We pay $1.90 per day for childcare.  People who look after children ought to be compensated much better than they are now; it’s absurd how little this is valued in our country.  At the same time, I’m grateful that we can afford such high-quality childcare.

We wear clothes till threadbare.  I’d estimate that our whole family spends no more than $0.50 per day on clothes.  Most of my best shirts have come from the dumpsters after the university students moved out.

Still, our current version of austerity has us spending over $100 per day.

Reading Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day was brutal.

unnamed.jpgEdin & Shaefer spent time with impoverished families to learn what life is like at the bottom of our nation’s income distribution.  Their work focuses on anecdote and portraiture.  Despite the fact that, as a math brain, I love numbers and statistics, I was completely convinced that their method was best for this project.  In their words:

In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter.  A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash.  When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex.  Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans — perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small.  Others — particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another — may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address.  The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances.  But this kind of research is time-consuming.  Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.

Because it takes a lot of ingenuity to survive extreme poverty, everyone’s solutions are unique.  Aggregate statistics would cause you to overlook the idiosyncratic blend of trash picking, plasma selling, sexual favor trading, and apartment sharing that allows people to scrape by.  But Edin & Shaefer, by taking time to get to know people, were able to see these strategies.

Edin & Shaefer argue — correctly, I’m convinced — that you can’t learn what it takes to survive poverty when you think about people as numbers.  You have to get to know people as individual human beings.  Then you can understand.

Here’s a quick summary of what they found: 1.) People are hungry.  2.) When you’re depending on others for shelter, sexual assault is rampant.  3.) These assaults, and negative encounters with the police, and pervasive fear — that the car will break, that Walmart won’t assign enough hours, that there won’t be food tonight — has led to innumerable cases of PTSD.  Which makes it even harder to think, to plan, to do anything but worry.

The statistical problems Edin & Shaefer described in the quote above mean we don’t know how many people are living this way.  But a reasonable guess is: many.  In their words again:

unnamed (1)Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children?  It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor.  It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP.  In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely.  Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession.  But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile … is not that hard.  It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country.  This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t.  And it has grown.

Perhaps I should mention, now, that the comparison between my family’s spending and the daily cash allotment of many people in extreme poverty is somewhat flawed.  For instance, I included our mortgage.  Many people in extreme poverty spend a portion of each year paying no rent — they might be renting an apartment but using their money on other expenses, knowing that they’re about to be evicted, or they might be in a shelter, or sleeping in a car, or sharing housing with a relative or romantic partner or complete stranger.

But, during those times when people at the bottom of the income distribution do pay for their own housing, they often pay more than my family does.  For unsafe, unsound properties.  This phenomenon is described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

unnamed (3)… rent in some of the worst neighborhoods was not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas.  For example, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

This has long been the case.  When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods.  As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations.  The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing.  They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.

There are so few options at the bottom that poor people get squeezed much harder than those who could actually afford it.

Similarly, my family’s $100+ daily expenses includes everything we spend on food.  At the bottom of the income distribution, most people have access to SNAP — other than my wife, everyone in her family received these.

K’s father actually had enough to eat when he was on SNAP.  We helped him buy a bus pass, so he was able to ride out to a real grocery store.  But many people who receive SNAP don’t have access to transportation, which forces them to shop at the one small store nearby, which means they often pay more than wealthier shoppers for equivalent items.  When you’re getting gouged, food stamps don’t go far.  Worse, you might need to buy gas so that you can get to work.  Food stamps don’t buy gas.  You’d be stuck trading your stamps for cash at something like 50 or 30 cents to the dollar.  At the end of the month, you & your kids won’t eat.

Childhood food insecurity causes lifelong mental and physical changes.  My dear friend who made it gets laughed at all the time because food makes her behave so strangely — she still hears that voice in her head urging her to stake out her own portion when she sits down to a family-style dinner with people.

The people laughing have never been hungry.

The people laughing have bones that break less easily.

And I included the amount K & I spend on insurance.  So many types of insurance!  People living in extreme poverty often pay nothing for insurance.  There’s no money for it.

But this means, obviously, that poor people have to spend more eventually.  In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado writes that she did not grow up impoverished.  But she was poor enough as a young adult that she couldn’t afford insurance, which meant she was a single flood away from losing everything she owned.

There are countless stories of U.S. citizens who were getting by — not doing well, but not struggling to survive — until a medical disaster left them unable to work & swamped with unpaid bills.

Which means yet another challenge that poor people in this country have to face that us lucky wealthy ones can remain blissfully ignorant of.  Honestly, the fact that I could list my family’s expenses at all reveals how well off we are.  We can budget our spending, because spending, for wealthy people, is relatively stable.  We have enough money that we can set some aside for eventual car repairs, which means we won’t have to borrow when our car breaks, or lose a job, or…

Could people living in extreme poverty set aside money for those eventual expenses?  Honestly, no.  If you’re hungry — worse, if you’re watching your kid be hungry — you spend money on food.  Or so I’ve heard.  I’m lucky.  I get to learn about poverty from books instead of by living it.

Of course, this also means I have to deal with the attendant shame of reading books like Edin & Shaefer’s.  The message is clear: we, as a people, are failing.  We should not have made a world where people have to live like this.

It’s not as though the solution is so difficult to come up with, either.  I disagree with some of Paul Theroux’s economic ideas here, but you should take a moment to read his lovely editorial, “The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor.”

Yes, food stamps help.  No, they don’t help enough.  But the real solution isn’t to boost social welfare spending (although that would be a step in the right direction).  Many people living in extreme poverty want to work.  But there aren’t jobs.  (In the future, there’ll be even fewer).

And yet much of our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.  We would all be better off if the federal government started pouring money into laying fiber-optic cable; fixing roads; manufacturing, installing, & maintaining solar panels; providing low-cost, well-compensated, high-quality childcare…

There’s plenty that could be done, and there are people who would be thrilled at the chance to do it.  Instead, we’re leaving them stranded: hungry, assaulted, cold, traumatized.

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.