On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On extraction.

On extraction.

The womb-suckers are trying to eat your children. Poke a soda straw into the future and sluuurp, away they go.  Hopes and dreams, metabolized today into so many dollar bills.

I spend a fair bit of time with drug dealers. Most are ethical people – they wanted to ingest drugs, and they knew some other people who wanted to ingest drugs, so they started selling.

But there’s an unethical way to push – some dealers focus on getting new users hooked.  That way they’ll have a steady income stream.  Most of the guys in my poetry class, if somebody talks about getting clean, congratulate and encourage the dude.  But some dealers would see rehab as a threat to their own livelihoods.

The future-eaters are like the second type of dealer.  They’re trying to kill babies – including babies who haven’t even been conceived yet – while proffering incredibly cynical rationalizations.


Yup, you’re right, kid.  Earth is beautiful. 
I’m sorry the grown-ups aren’t trying very hard to keep Earth beautiful.

Here’s the deal: regions of the Earth’s crust that lie beneath territories claimed by the United States contain rich deposits of hydrocarbons.  These could be dug up and combusted to power our factories, our automobiles, our giant arrays of computer servers that enable the internet.  The average person’s lifestyle in the U.S.gobbles energy, and deep below our lands is solar energy that photosynthesizing plants captured millions of years ago.

But we now know that there is only a limited amount of ancient stored sunlight beneath us.  The world’s oil reserves will eventually be depleted.  And so a smart investor, even if that investor believed that all the hydrocarbons beneath us should be combusted, bringing our planet closer to the hellhole that runaway climate change allowed Venus to become, would decide to wait.  Right now, the price of oil is low.  The total supply of oil is decreasing.  The population is rising.  If oil really is the best energy source, then the price will obviously rise. 


Venus was habitable once, but after atmospheric carbon dioxide levels got too high, climate change spiraled out of control.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live there now. Artist rendition from NASA.

I believe this relationship, lower supply = higher price, is taught within the first two lectures of any undergraduate economics course.

Since we’re rich enough to do it, we would make more money by buying oil now from those foolish countries who need cash right away and are currently selling their buried wealth, then extracting our own oil later when the total supply is lower and each barrel is worth more money.

The womb-suckers love money.  So why isn’t this their plan?

After all, we as a nation are wealthy enough to invest.  Throughout the ages, that’s what people blessed with current prosperity have done. By socking away money now – maybe by lending it to a neighbor and charging interest – you gain a constant source of income for the future.

The usual stereotype is that it’s foolish poor people who eat the future.  When you’re starving, you might eat seeds from the granary.  That’ll help you survive another winter, but next year the famine will hit even worse.  Methamphetamines let you trade away future health to do more today.  So do cigarettes.

The womb-suckers rarely pull drags of nicotine into their own bodies.  But they’ll happily light one for our planet.

The president of the U.S. wants to drill for oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The president of Brazil wants to cut down the Amazon rain forest for gold mines and hamburgers.

But there is a framework in which their urgency to eat the future is rational.  If people will notice what’s happening and stop them later, they need to get it done now. The window for personal gain is closing: slash and burn while you can.

And there is, of course, the comparison to an unethical drug dealer.  You have to keep selling even when the heat is closing in because otherwise your customers could get clean and then you can’t make money off your product anymore.

We’ve reached a point where many people have realized that the future is in peril –most people who get their news from any source other than the state-endorsed propaganda network – but, let’s face it, people are lazy.  I’m lazy too.  Even though I know that disposable diapers are wasteful to manufacture and then ship off to landfills, my family resorts to them during weeks when we’re too overwhelmed to wash another load of excrement-encrusted rags.

Similarly, everyone knows that a vegan diet is better for the planet. But most people still eat meat. The Republican party’s big-government subsidies make hamburgers cheap … and those burgers are already cooked, waiting at the drive through, chock full of delicious fat, salt, and MSG. Being vegan takes more effort.

But we’re well-meaning, most of us.  And lazy, well-meaning people just need a little nudge to start doing the right thing.

The womb-suckers are justifiably worried that a small hiccup in the rate of extraction now might be the final nudge necessary to get the world to change.  Switch to renewable energy.  Recycle and re-use more of what we’ve already dug from the ground.

The womb-suckers need to flood the market, get what money they can before the rest of us sober up.  It’s the best thing for a murderous hedonist to do; with enough money, they can soar the skies in gold-plated airplanes.  With enough money, even boorish, ugly men have a shot at having sex with pornographic film stars.

The future eaters see no contradiction, calling themselves “pro-life” while they frantically strive to make billions of unborn children die.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On intent.

On intent.

Investigators are searching for incontrovertible proof that our nation’s current president has conspired (or is conspiring) with an enemy nation to undermine the United States of America.

So far, there’s no public evidence that 45 is knowingly employed as a Russian saboteur, nor that he knowingly engaged the aid of other Russian agents to win the presidential election.  His intentions are occluded from us.

But his actions are plain to see.  45 has obstructed investigations into the connections between his administration and the Russian government.  The dictator of Russia wanted for him to be elected, and devoted significant resources toward either bolstering his chances or directly manipulating the vote.  Numerous whimsical actions taken by 45 have caused strife among nations that were formerly allied in their opposition to Russia.  As with his personal businesses, 45 is using kickbacks to bankrupt the United States – we won’t have the financial resources to fix future calamities.

This list of offenses could be extended – indeed, other writers have enumerated many more.

But, absent proof of his intent, 45 cannot be punished for acting as though he was a Russian agent.

And the punishment he’s being protected from?  He’d lose his job.  The Senate would step in to say “You’re fired.”

donald_trump_PNG5.png

When the threatened punishment is 20 years in prison, however – somewhere between 25% and 40% of a poor person’s total lifespan – we don’t require proof.  In those cases, if something looks like a rat, we call it a rat.  Honestly, things don’t have to look all that rat-like – four legs, a tail, a too-pointy nose?  We call it a rat.

562px-Mustela_nivalis_-British_Wildlife_Centre-4.jpg
Looks like a rat to me! Photo by Keven Law on Flickr.

We’ve passed laws outlawing various molecules in this country – it’s illegal to sell them, it’s illegal to possess them, it’s illegal to have them floating through your bloodstream.  But we don’t stop there – it’s also illegal to possess objects that might be used to ingest those molecules.

Usually, hypodermic needles are legal.  As are glass pipes.  And soda straws.

STRAW.PNGBut we’ve decided that it’s illegal for certain people to have soda straws.  If a person looks suspicious, he can’t drink through a straw.  If a suspicious-looking person foolishly does receive a straw along with his soda, he can be sent to Rikers, where he might receive permanent brain damage when actual criminals wail on him.

45 sowing discord among America’s allies isn’t enough – we need proof that he’s acting at Russia’s behest to undermine our position in the world.  But possession of a soda straw?  That’s sufficient evidence for us to ruin somebody’s life.  Not even his accompanying soda could absolve the man of presumed guilt.

The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is far less severe than the punishment for possession with intent to sell.  Again, we don’t require proof that somebody’s selling drugs.  If you buy in bulk, you must be selling.  Never mind how many people love shopping at Cosco (or my own propensity to purchase restaurant-sized jars of pickles because each would be a wee bit cheaper per).

Our criminal justice system routinely divines intent from a person’s actions.  When people’s lives are on the line, our suspicions are enough to convict.  Yet now, as our country plunges toward disaster (climate change, nuclear war, or economic collapse could do us in), we need proof.

On protest, the Supreme Court, and autocratic minority rule.

On protest, the Supreme Court, and autocratic minority rule.

I was planning an essay on cell phones and surveillance.  The central thesis was that our Supreme Court is a massively flawed institution.  Many of our current Supreme Court justices are both willfully ignorant and opportunistically illogical.  This set of people are not exceptionally knowledgeable, nor are they particularly clever.  But we have given them extraordinary power to shape our world.

I will still write that essay – Carpenter v. United States is definitely worth discussing – but shortly after I prepared my outline, the Supreme Court released a slew of misguided, malicious decisions.  And then Anthony Kennedy – who is already a pretty crummy jurist – announced his resignation.  A narrow-minded ideologue will be nominated to replace him.

Last weekend, people gathered across the country to protest recent developments at our nation’s immigration detention centers.  And I couldn’t help but think that the protesters’ energy and enthusiasm was misdirected.

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 2.19.43 PM

Don’t get me wrong – wrenching families apart is awful.  Every citizen of this country should feel ashamed that this is being done on our behalf, and we should want for it to stop.  It’s worth being upset about, both these new developments at immigration detention centers and when families are severed because the parents were incarcerated for semi-volitional medical conditions like drug addiction.

(To be fair, living with addicts is often also horrible.  It’s a point of pride among people in jail if they kept clean while their kids were young.)

In My Brother Moochie, Issac Bailey writes beautifully about the harms suffered by millions of families across the country:

Bailey_BrotherMoochieFINAL-260x390.jpgAs a member of the perpetrator’s family you don’t know what you are allowed to feel, or think.  Victims can mourn, and others will help them mourn.  When prosecutors and pundits talk about justice, they are referring to victims and their families, not families like mine.  Why should anybody give a damn that the ripple effects of crime change our lives, too?  We don’t get to mourn.  We don’t get to reflect, at least not fully, not publicly.

To stand by a man you love after he has done something dastardly is to be accused of having a lack of respect for what the victim has endured.  To demand that he not be known solely by his worst act is to be accused of excusing evil.  To not be there for him would feel like a dereliction of familial duty, a betrayal of the worst order.  To state the truth – that sentencing him to a long stay behind bars would be a devastating blow to your family – is to open yourself up to ridicule and screams of, “He should have thought about that before he decided to kill a man.”

Although the numbers are smaller, what we’re doing at immigration detention centers is worse.  The only “crime” that these people are accused of is fleeing torture, rape, and murder.  They migrated to land controlled by the U.S. government too late – European immigrants already staked claims to territories by murdering the previous inhabitants.  Those prior inhabitants had immigrated from Siberia and staked their claims by murdering dangerous macrofauna and their human competitors.  

All claims of sovereignty, among almost all species, have involved violence.  Even plants strangle their competitors, or steal sunlight, or waft poisons through the air. 

But I digress.  My worry isn’t philosophical.  I’m simply afraid that horrendous abuses of power like what’s happening at the immigration detention centers will become tragically routine. 

Lots of people voted for POTUS45 in the last presidential election, but demography is working against his political party.  Through gerrymandering, a minority party can maintain control over democratically-elected legislative bodies for a long time.  (Indeed, the electoral college is itself a form of gerrymandering, designed as a tool to suppress the influence of liberal northerners.)

But the Supreme Court is an even better tool for minority control.  A mere quintet of hate machines can shape the entire country.  Barring a constitutional amendment imposing term limits, or a wave of Supreme Court assassinations during the next administration, they will.

Given their fundamental misunderstandings regarding terms like “free market,” “privacy,” “speech,” and “person,” it will be pretty horrible.

1024px-Panorama_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_Building_at_Dusk.jpg

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys.  I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.

No luck.

Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail.  I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.

Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys.  The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.

On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up?  I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”

Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb.  They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard.  It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).

I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass.  I hoisted my keys toward the sky.  Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.

I know, of course, that magic isn’t real.  Neither is luck.  But knowing is different from believing.

I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes.  That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up.  I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.

Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander.  I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous.  Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent.  Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite?  What if I used my up on the keys?  What if I found my keys but lost my family?

I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.

1024px-Ambulance_Toronto_March_2010Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren.  A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven.  Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?

I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights.  I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.

Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance.  I dashed back.  I waited again.  I grew worried again.  Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.

By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store.  Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.

“We thought you were meeting us at the library.  We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”

An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.

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Dollarnote_siegel_hqIn jail, conspiracy theories run rampant.  Everyone’s mind is idle there.  People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening.  The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem.  So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them.  The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be.  I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”

We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen.  After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild.  We’re building a wall.  This time it’ll be hewn stone.

Certain numbers take on inordinate significance.  The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives.  They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.

Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned.  If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse.  Jubilee has never been celebrated.

The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse.  Again I nodded sagely.  What does one say?  People inside wait, and wait, and wait.  Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.

Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them.  Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.

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In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced.  We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait.  When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read.  And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.

The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …

Great wealth can accomplish the same.

jacobsenIn Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity.  The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious.  Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation.  Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls.  Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability.  Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.

But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue.  In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:

One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells.  In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA.  For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.

At other times, funding came from the idle rich.  The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.

Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic.  Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.

[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory.  She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends.  To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.

Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty.  Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017.  Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.

A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate.  Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.

While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?

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What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?

Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur.  An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.

shanbhagIt’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.  Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The narrator’s sister marries.  Insufficiently pampered, she returns home.  The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.

The narrator marries, too.  An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach.  But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:

After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room.  Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday.  Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.

We entered the room.  I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.

I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.

No, I’m serious.  I really want to know.  Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.

I just told you,” I said.  “It’s the truth.  I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”

She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.

I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company].  Which was, of course, true.  The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.

Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable.  She is too honest.  She has too much integrity.  She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference.  She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family.  The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.

When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:

The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.”

You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though.  He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”

There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen.  It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.

But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them.  They were all released …”

These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said.  “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught.  Remember that techie who recently killed his wife  He was caught because of his overplanning.”  He laughed.

What are you people saying?” [my father] asked.  He looked upset.  “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”

[My uncle] sighed.  “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said.  These things are not as big a deal today.  I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala?  Everyone else does it, too.  You never know when you might need these people.  It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”

Now it’s Tuesday.  Anita hasn’t called since she left.  Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon.  I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning.  Haven’t been able to summon the courage.

Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:

As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well.  He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”

I began to shiver at the mention of blood.  Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this?  He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort.  He went away without speaking another word.

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If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.

I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously.  For what, I don’t know.  The phone rings.  I grab it and look at the screen.  An unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”

A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”

No, it’s not.

Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up.  My mind is in a whirl.  Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls?  First the insurance agent, now this.  Could it be a sign?

Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad.  Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me.  Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station?  What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house?  Or could something have happened to her after she came home?  What if she’s killed herself?  Everything she might need is there.  A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills.  A tall building not too far away.  Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?

Enough of this madness!  Let me go home now.  I reach for the glass of water in front of me.  It shatters in my hand.  Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me.  He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.

I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.

As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand.  There’s blood on it.”

I freeze.  What is happening?  What have I become entangled in?  There must be some way out of all this.  The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.

Ghachar ghochar.”  A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined.  Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.

Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry.  Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings.  Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

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In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

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The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.