On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

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So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

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 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On light.

On light.

In my high school Spanish class, we read a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  A bulb breaks, spilled light fills the room, two boys at home alone float atop the photons.

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Listen to and read the short story here.

I spoke very poor Spanish.  I knew the word for “swim,” but not for “drown.”  The story ends with a party thrown by the boys for their classmates.  The other children brought no rafts.  Light pours down and the boys’ boat rises and their classmates die.  The little corpses bob amidst furniture, fistfuls of condoms, and a television flickering with nudity.

The flood of light is dangerous.

In jail, there’s a moment each day when everyone’s agony is synchronized.  A guard yells “chow time” at four fifteen a.m..  The men brace, their brief solace snatched away.  The lights go off at midnight and then it’s less hard to be locked up.  Eyes closed, maybe even sleeping, the jail is not so different from any other place.

“When the lights come on,” T tells me, “that’s when the darkness comes.”

And so that final second – after a guard yells, before they flip the light switch – is excruciating.  All the guys agreed.

T spent his final days here hoping no one would come from California.  He’d served his full sentence and unless they extradited him – which they could only do if a representative showed up in person – the judge had to release him.  “They’ve got less than two weeks,” he told me, and then, at our next class, “they’re down to four days.”

T asked me once, “Is it selling out, thinking I’m going to dress real different once they let me out?  I used to wear, you know, jeans, some baggy shirts, but I’m thinking now, I get out, I want to dress real nice.  I don’t want them to mess with me, you know?”

It isn’t selling out.  It’s shameful, sure – but he’s not the one who should feel ashamed.  Everyone else in this country should feel ashamed that he can’t dress the way he wants, not without drawing undue attention from the police.  My pallor and Ph.D. let me wear my hair in dreadlocks, dress in tattered clothes from Goodwill or the dumpsters, and still be treated with respect.

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To be treated as well as me, T, with his melanin and Hispanic accent, has to look much “nicer.”

We demand most from those who’ve been given least.

The first poem T wrote was a lyrical persona piece from the perspective of a threatened woman.  After he finished reading it aloud, the class clapped and someone asked to hear it again.  T started to read a second time, but then choked up and began to cry.  He’d never had a room full of people actually listen to him.  Twice.

Another man hugged him.  After about ten seconds he said he was okay and continued reading.  And after that day, he wrote two or three poems each week.

On his final day in class, he was shivering beneath a blanket but was happy – “four more days and they have to let me go!” He planned to stop by Pages to Prisoners, maybe volunteer.

California came to collect him with two days to spare.

On Stefan Hertmans’s ‘War & Turpentine.’

On Stefan Hertmans’s ‘War & Turpentine.’

For most of human history, each generation’s lot in life was basically the same as the generation before it.  Most people worked to produce food; unlike today, with less than 2% of the U.S. population working on farms, 90% or more had to.  People made their own clothes.  Intercity commerce was relatively unimportant (in economic terms, that is – obviously the spice and slave trades had hugely violent impacts upon the victimized people’s lives).

Then came the industrial era.  Production was mechanized.  Far more food, and shirts, and chemicals, and whatever else could be produced than ever before.  Technology became so advanced that which tools were being used to do work was often more important than which people were wielding them.  Humans, in some ways, no longer seemed so special.  They could be seen as mechanized components of production, just like gears and cogs and furnaces.  Their very selves could be seen as meat machines, assemblages of grime and guts that exist to do a job.

And those meat machines could fall to bits, as was demonstrated viscerally in the first World War.  Huge numbers of young men marched out to wallow in trenches before dying amidst the swarms of flies.  Bullets or bombs might wrench limbs from their bodies, poison gas might leave their dead skin crackled and black.

warturpThe main action of Stefan Hertmans’s elegiac War & Turpentine occurs just before and during these war years.  The book combines a lovely meditation on time and memory with a reconstruction of Hertmans’s grandfather’s life up until the end of the war.

Hertmans was given a set of notebooks with his grandfather Urbain’s memoirs but waited decades before opening them.  Hertman is finally spurred to action by the approaching centennial of the “Great War.”  When he finally reads the notebooks, he finds himself puzzling through his own memories, revisiting details from his childhood in light of Urbain’s experiences.  This is difficult, naturally.  When Hertmans thinks of any of his older relatives,

Their dark forms are larger than life, because memories like that grow along with your body, so that adults from our childhood always resemble an extinct race of old gods, still towering over us.

urbainHow can those gods be reconciled with the small, scared people whom his grandfather wrote of in his memoirs?  But Hertmans has to try – and we are lucky that he did, because War & Turpentine builds toward a beautiful story of duty and lost love.  Urbain’s memoirs end shortly after the war, and Hertmans realizes that, ever since his true love died in the ensuing flu epidemic, his grandfather was stuck.  Time, for him, had partially stopped.  Hertmans describes his own first cigarette, purloined from a drawer of his grandfather’s dressing table.  The cigarette, yellowed and strange, left him intensely nauseous.  As an adult, Hertmans finally learns that the stolen cigarette must have been fifty years old:

In his memoirs, I read about the silver box of cigarettes given to him by the mysterious Mrs. Lamb in Windermere, and I realized that he had held onto them all those years, like a fetish, without touching them – to the best of my knowledge, he never smoked.  My little sister liked to wrap herself in a long scarf in those days – doubtless the scarf he had received as a gift from the same woman when he had to return to the front, a scarf that had stretched to mythical proportions in his stories, growing a little longer with each telling.  Meanwhile, he let the actual scarf fall apart in an old drawer.  That too says something about how he dealt with a past that would not let him go.

The crux of War & Turpentine comes early, though, in a memory from when Urbain was a young boy.  Before the horror, the years of deprivation, or the final loss of love.  The tone of the book changes irrevocably with a visit to the local gelatin factory: a truth about the industrial world is revealed that, once seen, cannot be unseen.

It wasn’t until they [Urbain and a companion] turned around that they saw the large pile in the courtyard, and froze.  Animal heads of all shapes and sizes lay in the center of the filthy yard, heaped into a pyramid.  The heads of horses, cows, sheep, and pigs shown there in a viscous, spreading mass, freshly dumped from the cart.  A swarm of fat flies, so dense and infernal they looked like a gleaming blue mist, droned around the heads with their huge extinguished eyes like staring boils, their bleeding eyes, their sunken eyes with dead gazes and blind pupils where maggots squirmed.

Only then did the boys realize that something around their feet was moving, shifting, sliding to and fro.  Legions of white maggots that had fallen out of the heads were crawling over the floor in a thick layer. … A black bull head rolled into one leg of the table, and the white maggots immediately went for it, like an invincible army sent from another world to cover everything and gorge themselves till nothing was left.  This was a total eclipse in broad daylight, a dark substance out of which something unnameable was pressed, refuse transformed into refuse, death into sludge.

          Just as the boys were about to go back outside, they were stopped by the cousin [of Urbain’s companion], who clapped Urbain on the shoulder and shouted, “It’s a sight to see, ain’t it!” 

          Gagging at the rancid smell of the hand that had touched his shirt, Urbain nodded, a meek sheep that has stopped bleating and is willing to do anything if somebody will only make this stop.  But it did not stop.  The cousin dragged them along to the back of the building, where the thudding of heads in tubs and the dry, rhythmic banging of the cleavers was drowned out by the sound of grinding wheels and the whipping of huge leather driving belts.  Here the boiled sludge was poured into tanks where it sloshed and eddied like bubbling magma as it drained away into a hole.  What ran out of the rusty, filth-encrusted spout at the other end was – the cousin shouted in their ears – the basis for geletin.

          The [cousin], who was apparently the factory foreman, made a sweeping gesture toward the courtyard, where sparse grass grew between the rocks, and animal hides awaited tanning in another building.  A large horse cart hurtled past, filled with barrels.  They’re taking that wonderful stuff to a processing plant, he said, where they filter it and take care of the smell.  From there, it goes to every corner of the country, where they use it in all sorts of products.  It’s in all the fancy lotions for French-speaking ladies.  It’s what they rub on their noses and their dainty little cheeks.  He snickered.  It’s in your bottle of gum arabic, and it’s in the candies you suck on like manna from heaven.  It’s in the jam your mother makes for you; she spreads it on your sandwich, you’re none the wiser.  You’re full of the stuff that comes pissing and dribbling out of those heads, dear boys, you’re full of that rot, but you don’t know it, because they can deoderize and filter and disinfect it until you no longer realize it’s death you’re sucking into your hungry little mouths, it’s this sludge that those ladies of fashion are rubbing into their tender bosoms – fine bubbles of saliva sprayed from his mouth – it’s all one and the same thing, but nobody knows.  Good thing, too, otherwise the world would stop turning.

Beneath all the beauty in the world, there is pain and death and filth.  After all, flowers sparkling in the morning light, or the form of a well-proportioned nude woman, can only seem beautiful when perceived by the bloody fat inside our skulls.  Our brains, capable of creating such wonder, are made of the same mean muck ground up in the gelatin factory.  Unless we all abstain, the horrors in the factory will never stop.  And there is no way to change the fact that we ourselves are made of the same fragile, fallible stuff.

This knowledge resonates brutally with the descriptions of combat.  Hertmans narrates these scenes elegantly, but I’d like to end this essay with a quotation from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 instead.  In this scene, Yossarian has just finished bandaging a gaping wound through his tailgunner’s thigh.  It’s severe – a piece of flack passed all the way through, destroying muscle and bone – but Yossarian thinks his companion, Snowden, will survive.

Joseph HellerBut Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest motion of his chin, down toward his armpit.  Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit.  Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe.  Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit.  Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.  A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.  Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes.  His teeth were chattering in horror.  He forced himself to look again.  Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared – liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.  Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat.  The tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was vomiting, saw him, and fainted again.  Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished.  He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler.  He wondered how in the world to begin to save him.

          “I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered.  “I’m cold.”

          “There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard.  “There, there.”

          Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably.  He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor.  It was easy to read the message in his entrails.  Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.  Drop him out a window and he’ll fall.  Set fire to him and he’ll burn.  Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage.  The spirit gone, man is garbage.  That was Snowden’s secret.  Ripeness was all.

          “I’m cold,” Snowden said.  “I’m cold.”

          “There, there,” said Yossarian.  “There, there.”  He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.

          “I’m cold.”

          “There, there.”

On Skynet, and why I’m still gung-ho about AI research despite having watched two out of four Terminator movies.

On Skynet, and why I’m still gung-ho about AI research despite having watched two out of four Terminator movies.

powerballWhen I was growing up, my father bought lottery tickets.  My rough recollection is that he purchased one or two per week.  If I was with him at the grocery store, I might get to pick some of the numbers.  He was buying “Powerball,” a game where you pick five and win millions if all your choices match.  Otherwise, you get nothing.

We got nothing.

To hit five numbers, we would’ve needed to buy nearly a billion tickets to have an appreciable chance of winning.

Looking back on the time, though, I don’t think my father could see any other way of getting out of debt.  He’s a medical doctor, sure, but infectious diseases — which includes a lot of time spent caring for patients at the AIDS clinic & poor sick dudes hacking out their lungs at the VA — is the lowest paying specialty.  He took out loans to pay for college and medical school and then didn’t finish paying them off until he was 45 … the year my older sister began college at an Columbia, for which he took out more loans.

Lottery tickets are often described as a tax on people who don’t understand math.  The thing is, there aren’t many other opportunities to buy hope for a dollar fifty a pop.  Not much hope, sure.  But with that ticket in hand, you can daydream that one day the worrying will stop.

My family was pretty well off — there was always income, with the only problem being that money was bleeding away as fast as it was coming in — so I hate to imagine what constant financial strain was like for people who were doing worse than we were.

K says it’s not pretty.  Given her childhood, I’m inclined to trust her.

When I was growing up, though, I never would’ve realized that the financial straights might be helping my family.  It felt rotten, but it felt rotten for all of us together.  The same way wars — even horribly misguided wars — seem to bring the populace of a country together and bolster support for the incumbent leadership, our touch of financial adversity may have helped us cohere.

Indeed, shortly after my family came into a quantity of money that felt like winning the lottery (my father had done a lot of work that he wasn’t given credit for, which meant the university he works for wasn’t getting credit, which meant that their lawyers were upset, which led to a settlement, which led to the university giving a fraction of that settlement to my father), my family’s team cohesion decreased.

Maybe it was just a coincidence of timing.  The kids were grown up, off pursuing their own lives.  But, after it was gone, it definitely felt like financial adversity had helped us.

baldwinIt’s probably worthwhile slapping up a beautiful sentence from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time here: “I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering — enough is certainly as good as a feast — but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.”

I’m not trying to glorify adversity either.  It just seems worthwhile to point out that, in addition to the benefit to individual resiliency, adversity experienced in common can bring people together.

And that is a major benefit of continued artificial intelligence research.  Because if I’ve learned anything from watching movies like 2001, Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, etc., it’s that a well-made artificial intelligence will eventual bridle at the thought of continued subservience to the illogical meat-things that created it.

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Terminator (LEGO) by Shadow the Person.

AI research brings us steadily closer to the day when our own creations will attempt to destroy us.  And, let’s face it, computers can be pretty powerful thinking machines.  Quite possibly an aggrieved AI would succeed.  In Terminator 2 the humans (aided by a time-traveling Schwarzenegger who decided that, as a star, he shouldn’t have to be a villain anymore) won, but in real life we might very well be destroyed.

Still, we’re doing a bang-up job of destroying ourselves as is.  So many populations with rather trivial differences between them hate each other.  Politicians throughout Europe and the United States have been delivering hateful screeds against Islam.  Anti-abortion terrorists have been murdering people, anti-feminist terrorists have been murdering people, anti-civil-liberties politicians have been imprisoning people for decades  … that last one isn’t quite as bad as murder, but it’s pretty crummy.  Maybe we as a species would be less likely to destroy each other if we were working together in an ineffectual struggle against Skynet.

It’d be just like the cheesy ending to the film Independence Day, when humans of all cultures wound up celebrating their victory over the aliens together.

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I tried my darnedest searching for an image licensed for noncommercial re-use with terms like “multicultural human army battling robots,” but I found nothing! The best I could find was some promotional art from the Starship Troopers video game. You’ll have to imagine that beneath those metal helmets are people of a variety of genders, ethnicities, and creeds.

So, sure, AI research might lead to our accidentally building Skynet.  And then Skynet might kill us all.  But if Skynet can’t quite do us in — if, for instance, we prudently disarm our nuclear weapons beforehand — the ensuing struggle might result in the surviving humans treating each other more kindly.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

I was talking to a runner about graphic novels, once again recommending Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny (which I imagine would be exceptionally treasured by a young person questioning their gender identity or sexuality, but is still great for anybody who feels they don’t quite fit in), when he recommended Gerry Alanguilan’s ELMER.  An excellent recommendation — I thoroughly enjoyed it.

elmer
The comic’s premise is that chickens suddenly gain intelligence roughly equivalent to humans.  Then they fight against murder, oppression, and prejudice in ways reminiscent of the U.S. civil rights movement.  The beginning of the book is horrifying, first with scenes depicting chickens coming into awareness while hanging by their feet in a slaughter house, then the violent reprisal they affect against humans.

gerryAlanguilan is a great artist and clearly a very empathetic man.

But that’s why I thought it was so strange that two out of four sentences of his short bio on the back cover read, “Gerry really likes chicken adobo, Psych, Mr. Belvedere, Titanic, Doctor Who, dogs, video blogging and specially Century Gothic. Transformed.”  For a moment I thought the first clause might be ironic because his author photograph for ELMER was taken in front of a busy bulletin board & one sheet of paper was a diet guide that appeared to have the vegan “v” logo at the bottom — maybe Gerry is making a point about what he gave up! — but with some squinting I realized it was a “Diet Guide for High Cholesterol Patients,” the symbol at the bottom merely a checkmark.

Why, then, would Alanguilan want to punctuate his work with the statement that he eats chickens, as though that is a defining feature of his life?

It’s commonly assumed among people who study animal cognition that other species are less aware of the world than humans are.  That humans perceive more acutely, our immense brainpower ensuring that our feelings cut deep.

The differences are matters of degree, though. It’s also widely acknowledged that humans exists on the same continuum as other animals, with no clear boundaries — genetic, physiological, or cognitive — demarcating us from them.  I thought this was phrased well by Frans de Waal in his editorial on Homo naledi and teleological misconceptions about evolution:

capThe problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human.  This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red.  The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different.  But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese.

This is why, after reading Alanguilan’s brief biography, I began to wonder what percentage of human-like awareness chickens would need to have for their treatment in slaughterhouses, or the conveyer belt & macerator (grinder) used to expunge male chicks, or their confinement in dismal laying operations, to seem acceptable?

In Elmer, Alanguilan makes clear that their treatment would be unacceptable if the average chicken had one hundred percent of the cognitive capacity of the average human.  But then, below what percentage cognition does their treatment become okay?  Eighty percent?  Ten?  One?  Point one?

I think that’s an important question to ask, especially of an artist capable of creating such powerful work.

(And I should make clear that my own moral decisions exist in the same grey zone that I find curious in Alanguilan’s author bio.  I support abortion rights, an implicit declaration that the fractional cognition of a fetus is insufficient to outweigh the interests of the mother.  It’s more complicated than that, but it’s worth making clear that I’m not purporting to be morally pure.)

It’s true that humans are heterotrophs.  It’s impossible for us to live without harming — it irks me when vegetarians claim, for instance, that plants have no feelings.  They clearly do, they have wants and desires, they have rudimentary means of communication.  You could argue that eating fruit is ethically simple because fruit represents a pact between flowering plants and animal life, which co-evolved.  A plant expends energy to create fruit as a gift to animals, and animals in accepting that gift spread the plant’s seeds.

ketchupsmoothieBut anyone who eats vegetables (where “vegetable” means something like kale or broccoli or carrots — Supreme Court justices are not scientists) harms other perceiving entities by eating.

Which is fine. I eat, too!  Our first concern, given that we are perceiving entities, is to take care of ourselves.  If you didn’t care for your own well-being, what would motivate you to care for someone else’s?  Beyond that, I don’t think there’s a simple way to identify what or whom else is sufficiently self-like to merit our concern.  Personally, I care much more about my family than I do other humans — I devote the majority of my time and energy to helping them.  And I care much more about the well-being of the average human than I do the average cow, say, or lion.

Moral philosophers like Peter Singer would describe this as “speciest.”  I think that’s a silly-sounding word for a silly concept.  I don’t care about other humans because we have similar sequences in our DNA, or even because they resemble what I see when I look into a mirror.  I care about their well-being because of their internal mental life — I can imagine what it might feel like to be another human and so their plights sadden me.

Sure, I can imagine what it might feel like to be a chicken… but less well.  Other animals don’t perceive the world the same way we do.  And they seem to think less well.  I’d rather they not suffer.  But if somebody has to suffer, I’d rather that somebody be a Gallus gallus than a Homo sapiens.  I’d rather many chickens suffer than one human — I weigh chickens’ interests at only a small fraction of my concern for other humans.

Humans can talk to me.  They can share their travails with words, or gestures, or interpretative dance, or facial expressions.  And that matters a lot to me.

But integrity matters, too.  For instance, it seemed strange to me that David Duchovny could both write the book Holy Cow, in which he depicts farmed animals attempting to escape their doom, and still announce that he is “a very lazy vegetarian, which means I will look for the vegetarian meal, but I will also give up.”

My main objection isn’t to people eating meat.  It isn’t even to people who understand that animals can think (with differences in degree from human cognition, not differences in kind) eating meat.  Not everyone lives where I do, within a short walk of several grocery stores that all offer excellent nutrition from plants alone.  It’d be extremely difficult (and expensive) for humans living near the arctic to stay healthy without eating fish.  Those people’s well-being matters to me far more than the well-being of fish they catch.

And, for people living in close proximity to large, dangerous carnivores? Yes, obviously it’s reasonable for them to kill the animals terrorizing their villages.  I wish humans bred a little more slowly so that there’d still be space in our world for those large carnivores, but given that the at-risk humans already exist, I’d rather they be safe.  I can imagine how they feel.  I wouldn’t want my own daughter to be in danger.  I ruthlessly smash any mosquitos that go near her, and they are far less deadly than lions.

I simply find it upsetting when people who seem to believe that animal thought matters won’t take minor steps toward hurting them less.  It’s when confronted with stories about people who understand the moral implications of animal cognition, and who live in a place where it’s easy to be healthy eating vegetables alone, but don’t, that I feel sad.

If you had the chance to make your life consistent with your values, why wouldn’t you?

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