On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.

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The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.

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The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.

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Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.

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The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.

51EoHkd8RcL._SX434_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy.  When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.

This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God.  He began to harass Dr. Curtis.  He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing.  The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.

This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital.  Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic.  But she caved.

Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor.  Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left.  The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.

One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away.  She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran.  He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.

Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage.  Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate.  The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.

The police declined this offer.

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Movie poster from a film made about the incident.

Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered.  He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes.  He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.

In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues.  He was better than them, he said.  His plan was righteous.

The other inmates beat the shit out of him.  Repeatedly.  It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.

The angry man tried repeatedly to escape.  He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts.  During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.

His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said.  That much I agree with, I suppose.  I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind.  But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.

Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces.  (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks.  Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years.  Jail is a miserable place to be.)

It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine.  Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty.  His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.”  Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.

This country has a long history of Christian terrorism.  Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children.  In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:

61NK-8V3GdLMany Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview.  In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.

These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes.  Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human.  Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.

(Human life does not begin at conception.  A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities.  Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight.  Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s?  Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)

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Obesity & ill health terminate pregnancies, but I’ve never seen pro-lifers protesting at McDonald’s.

Davis also writes that:

In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon.  Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ”  In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.

Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God.  In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):

KierkegaardIt is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.

Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy.  I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation.  This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.

[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world.  He is no fool.  First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation.  He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.

That’s great, Kierkegaard!  But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”?  Abraham does not need your defense.  Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.

According to the King James translation of the Bible,

Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder.  And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.

Oops.

At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder.  Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists.  In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions.  Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people.  But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.

Again from the King James translation:

holy-670718_1280And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;

And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly.  So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.

Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:

And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.

In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder.  In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:

31m-sWuKYQL._BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes.  Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.

After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god.  Yahweh himself murders a lot of people.  He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice.  And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children.  These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.

And this book is supposed to be the wellspring of American values?

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

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

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

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Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agni_pariksha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On violence against women (part three): rape, evolution, and the dangers of partial truths.

IMG_0430-0This is third in a series.  Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Were you sired by a jerk?  Don’t worry!  You can still be good!

I’m mostly familiar with two theories addressing the question, “Why do men rape?”  One comes from feminism, like the thesis put forward in Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: violence against women is intended to keep them from overstepping boundaries.  This theory, to me, doesn’t provide a great rationale for why specific individuals would be rapists, but seems compelling when viewed from the perspective of culture, i.e. rape culture flourishes to subjugate women.  The second theory is from evolutionary biology; the main gist is that because human females make larger contributions toward the success of offspring than males, females have the upper hand in choosing mating partners.  Therefore males who are would seem to be poor choices for mating (because they’re unattractive, or unintelligent, or otherwise would make poor genetic sires) have an incentive to rape because it’s the only way they can pass on their genes.

I tend to think this latter theory is hogwash.  But I’m pretty biased against evolutionary psychology in general.

One thing I appreciate about the evolutionary biology theory, though, is that it addresses the individual perpetrator.  Especially the idea that rapists are motivated by sexual desire.  What I think the feminist theory gets right is that rapists are aided and abetted by a culture interested in suppressing women, but I imagine individual rapists to derive pleasure from their violence.

The thing I’m unconvinced by is the idea that there is an evolutionary explanation for rape, that this propagation strategy has been sufficiently “successful” over enough generations to now have a significant genetic driver.

Which is important to think about, for a couple reasons.  Like, more studies are published all the time in support of the evolutionary biology rationale.  The latest is from Langstrom et al., “Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study.”  And the second reason why I think this is an important topic to think about is more pernicious.  Because if the evolutionary biology explanation isn’t correct, but we as a society allow the trappings of science to convince us that it is, then there’s less incentive to rectify all the cultural problems that I feel are the major culprits behind violence against women.  Like, if we believed the problem was simply encoded in some people’s genes, why work hard to fix it?

Honestly, I don’t know of any work, in any species, that’s provided compelling evidence for rape as an evolutionary strategy.  Which isn’t to say that the idea is bad; I’d be pretty surprised if there were no species that had evolved a split set of mating strategies including the options 1) be attractive or 2) rape.  Because there are several species wherein males seem to be genetically programed to follow one out of a possible menu of many mating strategies, and the aforementioned split is just as reasonable as a split between 1) appear masculine, control territory or 2) appear feminine, mate with females in secret while scuttling through another male’s territory.

And, I’d like to think that I shouldn’t have to state this, but the fact that a certain behavior occurs somewhere in nature, perpetrated by some species or other, is obviously not a reason why we shouldn’t consider it loathsome.  Child neglect, bullying, cannibalism, murder, etc., are all perfectly valid evolutionary strategies.  My point in writing this essay is simply this: I saw a new scientific study with that attention-grabbing headline about sexual aggression running in families.  I wanted to put their findings and methodology in context.

Rape as propagation strategy seems to be best studied in orangutans.  If you’ll excuse me a moment of anthropomorphism here, it sounds very crummy to be a female orangutan.  Males exist in two forms: as juveniles their faces are “unflanged,” and after reaching sexual maturity they can either remain unflanged or proceed through a unidirectional transition to become “flanged” males, with hemicircular outcroppings of flesh from their temples to their jowls.  As a flanged male, their faces look somewhat reminiscent of stingrays (apparently female orangutans think this is quite attractive), and they are asserting bad-ass-itude; once flanged, a male will have to fight for its territory.  The transition is only worth making, therefore, once a male orangutan feels that it could successfully fight the other nearby flanged males.

Females voluntarily mate with flanged males; they pick whomever suits their fancy when in estrus, he protects them and mates with them.  But flanged males seem not to care much about the wellbeing of females at other times.  When not in estrus, females are on their own, and while they’re foraging they might be raped by unflanged males.

This is the closest I’ve stumbled across to a clear evolutionary explanation of rape within a species.  Even here, though, there are caveats: as far as I know, any male could transition to the flanged type, and no one has documented sexual violence by the flanged males.  So it seems that any orangutan might grow up to be a rapist, as long as he’s living in a region where all the other males are bigger and burlier than he is.  I don’t think anyone has shown a correlation between genetic factors influencing male build and sexual aggressiveness.

In other words, they’re all bad, but those who are lucky enough to think they can get what they want without violence don’t resort to it.  Or, wait.  No.  Because the flanged males still have to bash each other’s heads in.  So I guess it’s, there’s a developmental switch between using violence against women to propagate, versus using violence against other men to win mates.

See why I thought it was silly to mention the caveat that just because something happens in nature doesn’t mean it’s good?

The only other evidence I stumbled across is from chimpanzees, like in Feldblum et al.’s study “Sexually coercive male chimpanzees sire more offspring.”  What they found wasn’t rape, however.  They found that it takes being a violent jerk full-time for a male to increase his rate of paternity; aggressive behavior only while females were in estrus was not enough.  And, sadly, because this means reproductive success driven simply by a personality trait — a full-time propensity for violence — rather than a particular mating strategy, this is something that’s much easier for evolution to enrich in a population.  Because evolution is a sloppy process; it can only take what’s already present and make more of it.  But if there are genes that confer a predilection toward being a violent jerk, and being a violent jerk helps a chimp have more chimplets, then, yeah, over many generations it’d be easy for those genes to become prevalent.

Of course, that last claim was not addressed in the Feldblum et al.’s study.  And it’s important.  To build an evolutionary argument, it’s not enough to find that a certain trait confers reproductive success; you also need to ascertain whether that trait can be passed on to children.

And that, in particular, is what Langstrom et al.’s study addresses, which is why I thought it was important enough to write about.  If, in humans, the tendency to rape runs in families, perhaps it could have a genetic component.

Not that it does, mind you.  Religious sect also runs in families.  Language use.  Voting record.  Countless aspects of culture.  And it’d be silly to claim that all of those are dictated by genetics instead of going with the more parsimonious explanation that there are genetic contributions toward the use of language in Homo sapiens and that language usage allows us to pass on bits of culture through a parallel but separate evolutionary process (which is the underlying principal behind Richard Dawkins’ coining the term “meme.”  Which he originally applied to long-lived ideas like particular religious precepts, not pictures of kittens with silly captions.  But his word, like all words, evolved).

So, especially with small effects like what Langstrom et al. observed (feel free to glance at this editorial about the research to get a sense of why a “Five Fold Increase!” isn’t as meaningful as it sounds when the absolute numbers are very low), I’d worry that the issue is simply that growing up in a culture conducive toward violence against women might sway someone toward perpetrating further violence.  No genes necessary.  They did attempt to control for this by computing genetic relatedness for sets of children raised together, but I find it hard to imagine that half-siblings, for instance, could be expected to receive near-identical environmental exposure.  Which makes me predisposed to discount their findings.  Somewhat unfair, I know; except with retrospective data analysis, how could anyone test something like this?

Well, maybe we can’t.  I mean, honestly, we still don’t even know what  people should eat in order to be healthy.  (Click away.)

Or you might imagine that, even if there is a genetic predisposition toward sexual violence, that it could be explained away by postulating a genetic contribution to impulse control.  Perhaps that is the simplest explanation for Langstrom et al.’s results, since nearly half of their sample set of convicted sex offenders were also convicted of other non-sexual violent crimes.

Still, despite my qualms about this research, I wanted to write about it.  Because, whether correct or not, the publication of results like this can change our world.  If we convince men that they’ve evolved to be sexually aggressive, or that sexual aggression is a biologically reasonable response to cultural constructs in which they are relatively powerless in terms of attracting partners, we make it that much more likely that these bad behaviors will continue.  If we convince women that this is simply how men are, they’re much more likely to tolerate malignancy (consider that amongst victims of assault, a quarter have subsequent sexual relations with their assailants).

And, sure, if you trawl the literature you can find studies that claim the promulgation of these theories won’t make violence against women more common, but there is a big difference between a university student soberly contemplating a fictional scenario and actually behaving badly while drunk and at a party.  To me, it’s still an open question (to which I’m inclined to answer “yes”) whether believing that they’re genetically predisposed toward evil makes people more inclined to do evil.

Which leaves me with a conflict.  As a scientist, I care about truth.  I want people to know about our world.  But then, what should we do if the very act of spreading truth might make the world worse?

The whole truth wouldn’t — the idea that, sure, maybe your genes would have you do this, that, or the other thing, but even then, you still have a choice — but I honestly don’t know what to think about the risk of people learning only dangerous partial truths.