Brandy Schillace: Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher (S&S 2021)

Experimental surgery always carries with it both “can” and “should”: the philosophical question of whether a thing ought to be tried at all. Transplant isn’t just about practical medicine; it involves questions about bodies and souls — the animating principle, however you define it. What is a meaningful life? Who decides it’s worth and value? Who decides when it ends?…. Transplant surgery asks hard questions about where the body ends and we begin. Who are we? Where are we? And what, for better or worse, does that mean for the future of bodies, brains, and the human soul?

I’m of two minds about this book (Ms. Thoughtful Reader and Madame Ranting Critic, if you will). I enjoyed it greatly; I’ve had a lot of trouble finding medical nonfiction aimed at the general reader over the past couple of decades, and this was full of technical details at just the right level. And, wonder of wonders, it was written with great narrative drive; I really had to finish many sections, though I had other things to do and other places to be. So it was a very good book.

Because it’s a good book, I’m quite disappointed in what seems to me to be an attempt to jack it up with the title’s reference to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the overhyped subtitle: “A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul.” These elements evoke an image of a staid doctor by day who goes rogue in his basement at night on some semi-psychotic pseudo-religious quest. That is not at all the case. According to the text, Dr. Robert White was a talented surgeon in good standing all his life, a devout Catholic who was invited to an audience with the Holy Father after a neuroscience conference on transplants, and conducted all of his research in a university hospital under laws and norms of the time. There’s no secret here, no hidden cabal with twisted motives. In spite of the frequent references to Dr. Frankenstein, often by Dr. White himself, there is simply a surgeon hoping that transplanting a brain – or, more accurately, transplanting a healthy body to a patient’s head when the body is failing – would save lives.

Ok, so it isn’t simple. It isn’t simple at all. But that’s what makes it interesting.

After a brief introduction to Dr. White, Schillace takes us to the world’s first kidney transplant in 1954. Dr. White is in the gallery, observing, and begins to form the ideas that will propel him throughout his career. I found the medical details of this historic surgery, and the surgeries that led to it, fascinating; those with less of an interest in what I airly refer to as “medical stuff” may be less entranced. In any case, it serves as a beginning to Dr. White’s story.

One of the more interesting philosophical issues raised throughout the book is the location of the soul. This has been pondered since people were people, and some of the history is given here. It was Dr. White’s belief “that all of the so-called human element resided in the brain as a soul,” both that which he believed survived after death, and the consciousness, the individual personhood.

The soul need not have a physical structure that we can detect, he explained, because it existed in “the fourth dimension.” We must look beyond a mind-body relationship, he insisted, and understand the more philosophically complex mind-soul-body relationship…. This strange metaphysical connection, in all its complexity, he called “the White principle.” Science demanded proof. Catholicism required faith. White never considered them opposed, but as he aged, he went further in trying to unite them through his own philosophical doctrine.

He also believed that animals did not possess souls. Whether that was theologically-based, or convenient, is unclear. But from the moment he heard a Russian Soviet doctor had transplanted a second head onto a dog – resulting in an ultimately disappointing visit to Moscow –  he knew he had to research brain transplants. And that meant dogs. And monkeys.

The experiments are described in detail, and can be hard to read for those of us who have loved our pets and never questioned their ensouledness. Much of the book concerns this battle between animal rights activists – from the fledgling PETA to Peter Singer – and medical research. For Dr. White, it was clear: his animal research saved human lives. He had specific patients he’d saved using techniques he’d developed in the lab on monkeys. He was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in hyperthermia,  the discovery that cooling the brain reduces metabolism and so allows it to go without oxygen, as in major cardiovascular surgeries, for longer periods of time. But the epithet Dr. Butcher arose for a reason (Mr. Humble was his own self-generated epithet).

His dream was, of course, to transplant a human head. His dream subject would have been Stephen Hawking or Christopher Reeve. It isn’t until fairly late in the book that we discover the catch: no, he hadn’t discovered the secret to reconnecting the spinal cord. Mr. Reeve’s head would have sat atop an equally paralyzed body. This makes the idea of a head transplant seem rather questionable, and is a good reason he never got that far.

However, the book goes on to cover more recent research into the brain-body connection via computer chips. Grey’s Anatomy viewers are familiar with those. There are ways to bypass the spinal cord and control devices, including prosthetics and computer consoles, by thoughts, and some progress has been made in controlling muscles. This would make Dr. White’s head transplant far more useful. But it’s still years away, and Dr. White didn’t live to see it. It is nonetheless a truly fascinating section of the book.

Schillace maintains a non-judgmental tone as she presents White’s work, allowing readers to make up their own minds about his research and larger questions of animal rights, the soul, and transplants. Dr. White’s enthusiasm and his motivation of saving lives are equally strong as the voices of his critics.

I discovered this book through the FiveBooks weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. It was an impulse addition to this year’s in-between reading, and a successful one.  

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (William Morrow 2016)

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.

I’d wanted to see the film version of this book, but for various reasons that never happened. So when someone recently mentioned it, I added it to my reading list, another “unusual career paths” book like others I’ve read before. It’s not that the careers are that unusual, but as the author says, the circumstances made them notable.

I was surprised to find out that the story of these women, the West Computers, started during WWII, when NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to NASA, worked on warplane design. Reducing drag seems to have been the biggest problem. Though different types of planes – bombers, fighter planes, transports – had very different requirements. 

Of course, the technical information, though interesting, isn’t the focus of the book. NACA was located at Langley in Virginia, a state where segregation was still law. Hence, the West Computers; the East Computers were the white women who did the same job, in a different building.

I kept reacting to the word “Computers” being used to denote people. I have a dictionary that was published in the 30s; I knew a long time ago that it defines “computer” as “one who computes,” so it’s not a new usage to me, but it still sounds strange. Then again, a lot of the language in the book, the language of the time and place, has an even stronger effect, as the battlefield against racial discrimination took place in strange ways:

Most groups sat together [in the lunchroom] out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. … It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny. The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.

This process of removing the sign, waiting for it to show up again went on for quite a while before whoever placed the sign gave up. The women still sat at the same table, but the stigma, the shame, was gone.

Race wasn’t the only issue, of course. Women who worked with engineers on extended projects wouldn’t be credited on reports, the public recognition of their expertise. “Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all” muses Shetterly.  

Then there was the question of attending an important weekly meeting. Katherine Goble asked to attend the meeting; she was refused. She asked again the next time, and again was turned down. Eventually, she was allowed in, and, wonder of wonders, the sky didn’t fall. Persistence once again paid off. But it was never a given: “Whether or not a woman was promoted, if she was given a raise, if she had access to the smoky sessions where the future was being conceived and built, had much to do with the prejudices and predilections of the men she worked for.”

The story is carried along a broad outline of history that intersects with both the mission of NACA/NASA and the Civil Rights movement. WWII, breaking the  sound barrier, school segregation (one county in Virginia closed its schools rather than comply with integration), Sputnik and the space race, and voting rights, all blend together. John Glenn’s orbit and safe splashdown became a turning point for Katherine Johnson, who undertook the assignment of figuring out how to make sure the capsule ended up near the ship that would recover Glenn:

“In the recovery of an artificial earth satellite it is necessary to bring the satellite over a preselected point above the earth from which the reentry is to be initiated,” she wrote. Equation 3 described the satellite’s velocity. Equation 19 fixed the longitude position of the satellite at time T. Equation A3 accounted for errors in longitude. Equation A8 adjusted for Earth’s west-to-east rotation and oblation. She conferred with Ted Skopinski, consulted her textbooks, and did her own plotting. Over the months of 1959, the thirty-four-page end product took shape: twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, two launch case studies, three reference texts (including Forest Ray Moulton’s 1914 book), two tables with sample calculations, and three pages of charts.

A woman receiving credit for her own work was almost as big a deal as the successful recovery using her work. It’s quite a joyous chapter.

And yet, it’s not so much the story itself as the very telling of the story that I keep thinking of. I’d certainly never heard of these women. It seems they did a fair amount of public speaking, but national recognition never came their way until a chance comment moved Shetterly to interview some of the women and research the book in order to tell the story. This is the importance of diversity, of access, of different voices in the room. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

Most people are astonished that a history with such breadth and depth, involving so many women and linked directly to the twentieth century’s defining moments, has flown below the radar for so long. ….For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies. …For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

The history that spans from the personal to the national to the scientific makes this interesting reading for a broad audience. That may be why there’s also a Young Reader’s edition and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as the film. But I was perfectly happy with the original.

Kathleen Flinn: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (Penguin, 2007)

This is not for pretend.
As we’ve done three or four times a week since January, my Basic Cuisine class gathered this morning en masse, on time and in uniform. We first watched a chef move through a three hour demonstration; we anxiously take notes, as we must repeat his lesson in a training kitchen later. This afternoon, I’m searing thick magrets de canard for a classic preparation of duck à l’orange. Magrets are the breasts of Moulard ducks force-fed corn to fatten their livers for foie gras, a process that fattens everything on the duck. We must take care with the sauce, a slightly complicated preparation that requires cautious reduction of veal stock and orange juice, the sweetness tempered with vinegar. Our potatoes and carrots must be “turned” – a cut that transforms an otherwise unremarkable vegetable into a precise seven-sided torpedo shape.
This is my life now.

Kathleen Flinn, food enthusiast and journalist turned software manager, found herself merged out of her upscale corporate job in London. She considered returning to the States, but instead, with the advice of her long-time-friend-turned-recent-boyfriend Mike, decided to do what any level-headed person would do under the circumstances: she cashed in her 401K and plopped down $26,000 to take a three-part Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I don’t know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training…. I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something I have to do,” she wrote in her application’s “statement of motivation.”

It would be easy to ridicule that step, but I get it. No one understands why I spend time reading stories and books, then writing about them in a blog no one reads, or why I spend so much time and effort taking moocs of no practical use whatsoever. The price tag may be a little different, but I get the power of internal motivation.

I got this book on impulse after I saw it mentioned in my Goodreads feed. I didn’t have any “weird career/educational move” books on my list for this year’s In-Between Reading, and I’d enjoyed the art school book, the trucking book, the football-player-turned-mathematician book from prior years. So I added it in.

My first thought was:  This book really wants to be Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, with a fired marketing manager heading to Le Cordon Bleu played against Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina. But the timing doesn’t fit; Flinn’s time in Paris roughly overlaps with the time Powell was writing her book, and was published before the movie (one of my favorites, by the way) was released. In my view, it suffered from the comparison, but that’s my failure, not the book’s.

Flinn goes through three levels of Cuisine (the savory side, as opposed to pastries and desserts): Basic, Intermediate, and Superior. She describes her struggles to produce the dishes required:

I put together several little vols-au-vent. They look as if a kindergartener put them together with Play-Doh. I agonize over my leeks to cut them into a perfect julienne. Then, I work on my eggs. We must make them the classic way, by dropping them in simmering water with vinegar and, with a ladle, wrap the egg white around the yolk as it cooks. Poached eggs should look like shiny, smooth parcels. Mine look like gnarled creatures from a horror film. As I finish the last egg, a strong burning smell hits me, a mix of burned grass and onions. I forgot my leeks. They’ve burned to black.

There’s a hilarious story of a duck dropped on the floor, and the decision to serve it anyway. Flinn even took it home with her after grading (permitted, even encouraged, so no food would be wasted) and the leftovers for her own dinner. “Don’t eat the skin,” she advises her boyfriend.

By the time she gets to Superior Cuisine, more is expected:

“La sauce n’est pas chaude,” says chef du Pont. He holds his wrist to the plate and looks at me with alarm. “L’assiette n’est pas chaude.” He waves me away. “Nous sommes finis.” How could I be so stupid? I’d forgotten to heat my plate – an utterly simple thing that I’ve learned the first day in . “We’re finished,” he says, ending his critique abruptly. He doesn’t taste anything. But for this, I can not blame him. In Basic Cuisine or even Intermediate, I might have gotten marked down for a cold plate. But in Superior Cuisine, it’s inexcusable.

Each chapter ends with a recipe based on the dish from class, or a thematically related dish. From simple veggie soup to pastry-wrapped fish and delicate sauces, there’s a lot of food info here.

There’s a lot more as well. During class, chefs relate various trinkets of information: the history of the word and entity restaurant (based on the French for restorative, meaning soup), and the origins of the term cordon bleu (a medal given to honored knights; it became associated with grand food when banquets were thrown in their honor). Flinn also explores Paris and relates her experiences, not just at markets and restaurants, but in various neighborhoods and, eerily, in the catacombs created in the late 18th century when the contents of graveyards were consolidated in underground quarries.

There’s also some rumination on wider implications of various aspects of her experience:

Who decides what is quality cuisine anyway? Some of the sauces we learned in Basic were once thought daring, revolutionary. The unusual combinations we’re learning in superior are trendy; unconventional pairings with classic technique are common on haute-cuisine menus. But it makes me wonder more about the general nature of evolution. We can reinvent anything, even ourselves, and some things will change, but in the end, something familiar always remains.

We also see, through Flinn’s eyes, the other students – Le Cordon Bleu attracts an international student body – including a super-competitive woman who’d been a lawyer before coming to the school. Flinn wonders if her attitude is acquired of necessity in the corporate world, where creativity and cooperativity take second place to “winning.”

I was surprised at how resistant I was to the occasional appearance of what I perceived as Hallmark Card sentimentality. At one point, after working on her consommé to get the right degree of clarity, Flinn writes, “I consider how wonderful it would be to toss some hamburger, egg whites, and tomatoes into the soup of life. Suddenly, everything which we clear and the purpose of it all would be revealed,” and I wrote in the margins, “Oh, please.” I’ve been reading too much edgy fiction and academic nonfiction, perhaps, nudging my reading style into a kind of intolerant cynicism. I’ve got to keep an eye on that. A little skepticism is fine, but I don’t want to start sneering at felt words from genuine hearts, whether I feel them or not.

Flinn has since written two other food-related books, gives classes (online during the pandemic), and hosts a podcast, all available via her website. I’d say she put her education to good use, if not in the most typical fashion. And she’s earned that cherished line in her obituary: “Graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.”

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (St. Martin, 1987/QPBC 1993)

People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country. People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction . . .
People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.
And people died while gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of human life.
… It is a tale worth telling, so that it will ever happen again, to any people, anywhere.

When I first read this book back in the 90s, I was most interested in the medical aspects, and secondarily in the politics. Over the years, I became quite fond of some of the people who appear within – and enraged with others. Because, although this is a work of journalism filled with details of budget battles and political wrangling, it’s also an engaging narrative, using recurring motifs, highly personal stories, and occasional lyricism to enhance its readability for the general public.

The Bicentennial Parade of Tall Ships in New York begins the book, and is referred to several times thereafter as a possible beginning to the epidemic, at least in the US. This theory seems to still be considered; a casual google didn’t turn up anyone objecting to it.

July 4, 1976
New York Harbor
Tall sails scraped the deep purple night as rockets burst, flared, and flourished red, white, and blue over the stoic Statue of Liberty. The whole world was watching, it seemed; the whole world was there. Ships from fifty-five nations had poured sailors into Manhattan to join the throngs, counted in the millions, who watched the greatest pyrotechnic extravaganza ever mounted, all for Americas 200th birthday party. Deep into the morning, bars all over the city were crammed with sailors. New York City had hosted the greatest party ever known, everybody agreed later. The guests had come from all over the world.
This was the part of the epidemiologists with later note, when they stayed up late at night and the conversation drifted toward where it had started and when. They would remember that glorious night in New York harbor, all those sailors, and recall: from all over the world they came to New York.

The Feast of the Hearts, a Danish tradition, ties together with the 1977 death of a Danish physician who worked in a clinic in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). She may have been the first European, first Westerner, to die of the disease, though it mystified doctors. A friend and physician wanted to study Pneumocystis after she died, but was discouraged from doing so because it was so rare; his tropical disease research later points to an African virus, which is, as I understand it, the current theory. The recurrence of the Feast of the Hearts is one of the most touching echoes of the book.

Another effective trope is Before and After, both as an overall structure and in the lives of various people who came to realize, at varying times, that this was not something that would go away in a few months.

….Before and after. The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself.
Before would encompass thousands of memories laden with nuance and nostalgia. Before meant innocence and excess, idealism and hubris. More than anything, this was the time before death. To be sure, death was already elbowing its way through the crowds on that Sunday morning, like a rude tourist angling for the lead spot in the parade. It was still an invisible presence, low, palpable only to twenty, or perhaps thirty, gay men who were suffering from a vague malaise. This handful ensured that the future and the past met on that single day.

Then there are the personal stories. Some are of the major players: Bill Krauss, Cleve Jones, Larry Kramer, told alongside more journalistic accounts of their actions. Or Paul Popham, who presents a complicated picture (an activist who is closeted in his work life) but watches friends who shared a house on Fire Island with him one summer die one by one:

A year ago, he had come here with the ashes of his friend Rick Wellikoff. It had been a sunny, melancholy day, warmed by the sharing of grief with Rick’s surviving lover and friends. Now, Rick’s lover was ailing too, the fourth person from the house on Ocean Walk to be stricken by this new plague, and Paul was alone with the ashes of Jack Nau.
The cold white fingers of the sea stroked the indifferent sand, littered by a winter’s worth of misshapen flotsam. Paul open to the box and shook. The sea’s fingers reached to grab Jack’s ashes and pull them into the brine. Paul gazed out to where the leaden sky met the gray Atlantic and wondered when it would all end. This can’t be happening, he thought, it’s simply too unbelievable. Yet, as he shook the last of the bone dust that was once Jack Nau into the sea, Paul knew that it was happening and it was all too believable.

Some are practicing physicians who watched patient after patient get sick and die. Some are public health officials, who fought the good fight against a unopposable foe for every small victory they could achieve. And some are just people caught in the crossfire. People like a woman who goes in for hip surgery and refuses a post-op blood transfusion, unaware she’d been transfused while under anesthesia. She later learns she has AIDS from a newspaper story. People like a kid from the midwest who came to San Francisco to get away from bigotry, but favored close relationships instead of the bathhouse scene. People like a flight attendant who refused to believe his KS was contagious so entered into three-city sexual liaisons with gusto, only to be labeled (incorrectly, as it turned out) Patient Zero.

And Rock Hudson, whose death somehow changed everything.

I chose to include this book in this year’s Re-Reading Project primarily because of COVID-19; that my reading fell during Pride Month was a happy coincidence. I’m well aware that AIDS and the corona virus are very different diseases and the epidemics have vastly differing courses and effects, but I wondered if reading in this moment showcased any similarities. Boy, did it. To wit:

The conflict between public health and politics\profit, with public health on the losing side most of the time. In the case of AIDS, this was most specific to shutting down the bathhouses (which both the gay community, and the bathhouse owners, vehemently opposed) and keeping the blood supply safe by banning donations from gay men (which, again, was opposed by blood banks and by the gay community). Shilts makes the community opposition to these measures seem more understandable by rooting them in the time, when gayness was far less accepted than it is now (and let’s face it, it’s not exactly popular in a lot of places even today) and owning one’s sexual preference was a new freedom in places like San Francisco. With COVID, there were early assurances from the highest levels of the Federal Government that this was “just the flu” and panic wasn’t necessary, to forestall an economic slowdown. Six hundred thousand deaths later, there are probably those who still feel that way.

Poor communication from medical experts to the public, even when the attempt to communicate was genuine. To my surprise, Anthony Fauci turned up in this category. He was just a name the first six or seven times I read the book, but of course he’s practically a celebrity now. In the early 80s, while considered a hero dealing with the epidemic on public health grounds, he made a comment about household contact, then walked it back as being out of context and remarked that the public didn’t understand the language of science.

This eerily parallels his early remarks on the inefficacy of face masks – which he also walked back as being out of context and in reaction to the shortage of protective equipment for hospital personnel. Even heroes trip over their feet sometimes.

Political animosities and personal grudges became higher priority than health. The most grotesque example of this from the 80s comes from a San Francisco newspaper editor, outraged when a group of gay readers wrote a letter calling for his resignation over poor coverage of the epidemic.

Paul Lorch decided to exact his own revenge. He took the letter demanding his termination and the list of all the people who signed it, and set it aside. One by one, as they died, he crossed their names off the list, gtting the last laugh, so to speak.

I usually think I’ve seen enough of this world to no longer be surprised by any depravity, but this shocked me.

Denial, willingness to believe hoaxes and rumors. This was not just a problem in the general public; for a year or so, much of the medical and research community did not believe the cause of the various illnesses could be a single virus, and a new virus at that. A significant portion of the gay community didn’t believe the disease – which at first appeared as Kaposi’s sarcoma – was contagious at all. Fear of homophobic reprisals kept a lot of the medical information more restrained than it should have been. As for COVID, I don’t have to go into it, do I? From  “just the flu” to “the vaccine makes you magnetic,” it’s been a wild ride.

Perception of victims as unimportant.

The NCI conference fueled Gottlieb’s suspicion that no one cared because it was homosexuals who were dying. Nobody came out and said it was all right for gays to drop dead; it was just that homosexuals didn’t seem to warrant the kind of urgent concern another set of victims would engender. Scientists didn’t care, because there was little glory, fame, and funding to be had in this field; there wasn’t likely to be money or prestige as long as the newspapers ignored the outbreak, and the press didn’t like writing about homosexuals. So nobody cared….

This might not seem to have much to do with COVID, but I remember a lot of talk about old and sick people who would’ve died anyway. It’s amazing how callous we can be when the stock market is our only metric.

The federal government’s unwillingness to spend money or take any role at all. Shilts outlines this with exquisite clarity: the CDC couldn’t provide airfare for epidemiologists to visit outbreaks and interview patients; even a textbook was out of the question, a virology lab, with the necessary precautions, was a pipe dream. Another agency waited two years for a centrifuge to conduct basic  experiments. When pressured, officials lumped together all kinds of spending as being related to AIDS, though the link was tenuous at best, and insisted everyone had enough money. Remember the bidding war over respirators and PPE in the early months of COVID, because the Feds let the states fight it out? The vaccines started out that way as well but fate intervened in the form of an election. In January 2021, when the vaccines were first approved, my local health service predicted my age group (65 to 70) would be eligible in June or July. The feds got involved in late January, made vaccination a priority, and I got my shots in March. Elections matter.

I confess, I started skimming around page 400. There is a certain repetitiveness to the major themes: lack of action, lack of money, inability to convince the community of the danger, divisions within both the public and the research communities. The fight between NIH and the Pasteur Institute, as well as the CDC, is the stuff of legend, and shows the worst side of some people. Every time I’ve read the book, I’ve become lost in the timeline, though it’s clearly indicated nearly on every page and chapters are separated by the year in which they occur. Still, it has a sameness, with escalating numbers.

It’s a monumental work of journalism, covering three cities in detail, plus a host of government agencies, health facilities, and ordinary lives. Yet it’s the humanity that makes it a beautiful read. Shilts, a gay man, decided not to find out his HIV status until he’d finished the book, in the interests of journalistic integrity.

“HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.

Randy Shilts, NYT interview, 1993

 The book was published in 1987. He died in 1994 at the age of 42.    

George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Sangamithra Iyer, “Governing Bodies” (nonfiction) from Kenyon Review #XLI/1

I do think our younger selves are always still a part of us, but like our memories, we can’t access them fully. This is also true for family history for many of us, where colonialism, war, migration or death have left those of us still living with only pieces of stories. “Governing Bodies” is a narrative formed by salvaging fragments, while acknowledging the losses. I was also exploring other kinds of split-selves from the elephant-headed Ganesha to colonized subjects under the British rule like my grandparents, as well as logging elephants who once roamed free. I was interested in this tension between subjugation and freedom, complacency and rebellion, and the moments when a suppressed self rises to the surface.

Sangamithra Iyer, Author Interview at Kenyon Review

Iyer covers a lot of ground in this essay – her grandfather’s life in Burma and India, her loss of her first language, her experience as a childhood immigrant to the US, her reactions to the legends of Ganesha and stories of prearranged marriages, her decision to continue vegetarianism outside of her upbringing – but the image that stays with me most is water. Flow. I’ve always been fond of the Lao Tzu idea that water, the softest of things, overcomes hardness with its flexibility, but Iyer has something different in mind: continuity. The self, maintaining its integrity over time and distance and changes.

But her life, and her grandfather’s life, is aligned with water in a more concrete sense. Grandfather was a civil engineer until he walked away from one way of life and became a water diviner – yes, the guys with sticks who find water – and activist with Gandhi in India. This decision is the backbone of the essay.

Iyer, too, became an engineer, but recounts her life in terms of water:

The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.” My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.

I got a bit distracted (don’t I always) by a single sentence later in the piece: “Can you re-create a life—re-member a body—from the knowns and the unknowns?” Iyer was describing various ways her bodily truth – her first language, her early yoga training – was no longer accessible to her.  I was quite taken with that idea of re-membering the body’s memories, dismembered by time and change. However, I discovered that the etymology of “remember” is very different from that of “dismember”; the first comes from the Latin memor, mindful, and the second, from the Latin membrum, limb. I was disappointed to learn this; thinking of the words as related felt much more satisfying.

Iyer’s investigation into her grandfather’s life revealed other fascinating tidbits, such as the account, by a gentleman known as Elephant Bill, of training elephants to haul teak for commerce. This ties in with Ganesha, of course, and tangentially to her vegetarianism. Even here, I see water coursing around, getting into nooks and crannies that a hard, straight substance like iron would overlook.

In researching her grandfather’s life, she discovered his employment records indicated he was “permitted” to resign. We can say it was a different time, we can talk about how the world has changed, but when one man decides whether to permit another to resign, that means something else: in this case, colonialism. And again, she brings in the water metaphor:

But I wonder what his resignation letter—this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter, from subject to rebel—said. Thatha, like all of us, was produced mostly of water. It wasn’t about resigning but rather about restoring flow—like water desiring to be undammed.

It’s a lovely essay, full of interesting events (her moment in school when she refused a hamburger; a yoga class where the child’s pose is eventually recalled; her childhood horror at the idea of an arranged marriage) that all work with this idea of flow, with the continuity of self even as the self changes, and the ability to find one’s course.

I think that may be why the editors of this volume chose this as the last piece. Literature will continue on. We will continue on. Even after a year of disruption and isolation, grief and loss, we are changed but we are still who we are. And there will be a next year, and a new volume to read. We will find our direction.

* * *

Essay available online at Kenyon Review

Author interview available online at Kenyon Review

Editor’s note “Why We Chose It” available online at Kenyon Review

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Naira Kuzmich, “My Father Recycles” (nonfiction) from The Pinch #39.2

Recycled Art: “Flow,” Kaneko Organization
My father: greencard holder, watching his breadwinner wife leave early in the morning, return late in the evening; my father, once a dreamer dreaming of his own shoe repair shop in East Hollywood, California, but soon a cynic, embarrassed of his accent, of who he has become, made to be, in this new country, in the America of the Americas, the always bigger and better, new city of Los Angeles. My father does not care about the environment, about green grass, about ozone layer and smog. He recycles only for the homeless who roam the alley behind his house with their grocery carts. At first, he collects the bottles in a plastic bag, just holds it out for any man or woman he sees rifling through other people’s trash, waits for them to come to him. But sometimes, he does not wait. …Watching the men and women in the alley, he quickly finds a favorite, likes the best discipline of one man, a man of routine, the homeless Mexican who comes by every week, loyal to his route.

At first glance, this essay – a three-page-long paragraph – might seem very stream-of-consciousness, like a diary entry written one long night, or a letter never meant to be sent. But even brief examination will show that it’s quite intricately constructed, weaving together many disparate threads – family, the immigrant experience, other immigrant experiences, tragedy, comedy, irony, bitterness, joy, grief – in a way that keeps everything firing at the same time.

The lead-off topic is the father’s recycling project, which isn’t recycling as we think of it but more like turning over redeemables to those who survive on such things. The concern is not for things, not even important things like the health of the planet, but for people who are now struggling as the father once struggled as a new immigrant with a family.

We get to see a little bit about that, how this family survived by redeeming boxtops:

I’m a nobody, an immigrant, too, once a five-year-old staring at her feet as she wandered the streets of her new neighborhood, collecting cigarette cartons, mama and daddy cutting out the paper barcodes to send in an envelope to a Marlboro catalog. A family exercise in getting by, getting what you can in America: a red duffel bag, an air mattress, a small portable grill. A family of nonsmokers, never-smokers, never-ever-smokers, advertising a tobacco company during Sunday trips to the beach. Me, a nobody immigrant, it seems, always and forever, at 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, taking the red duffel bag to countless cities and countries after I’ve left home, this house, left only a year after my parents sign on the dotted line, buy it, mortgage it, finally, finally, after fifteen years in America. The red duffel a handy carry-on, the perfect size, all this before my diagnosis, all this before 28, this year, this faithful year, now -where was I?

I don’t know if youngsters today know how popular boxtops were at one point. Cereals offered items in exchange for ten boxtops, something like trading stamps (I’m old enough to remember trading stamps, the messy job of pasting them into books, the trip to the redemption center where a hundred books – hours of work, thousands of dollars of purchases – would redeem an electric frypan or an ottoman; my cutlery is courtesy of Betty Crocker, in fact) and of course we all learned the word “facsimile” because we were told that would do, in order to get around sweepstakes rules if a purchase were required.

But what’s this about a diagnosis? And here’s where the architecture of the story demands our patience: we won’t find out for a while, as we return to the father and his interaction with the recipients of his recycling. But in a half page we come across the word cancer and we realize this isn’t about recycling bottles, it’s about something much larger.

Among the ironies is the one about Marlboro providing comfort and joy to a struggling immigrant family (“magically we had a bed, a red duffel bag, a novel way to cook our hot dogs”) of never-smokers and non-smokers (the words mean different things to epidemiologists) while the products most associate with lung cancer are, in fact, not involved in about twenty percent of annual lung cancer deaths.

Another aspect of this essay that I treasure is that bitterness is not overlooked or ignored or pretended away. The struggles of the family, the long road to finally signing the mortgage on their home, the daughter who was taking the world by storm when the right side of her body started dying, the blamelessness of her illness: these are not covered over with uplifting words of courage, though of course there must have been tremendous courage all along. And that blamelessness is recalled almost with embarrassment and connected to the blamelessness of all illness, in an act of generosity equal to the father handing out recycled bottles.

The Mexican man appears only a few years older than my father, but both are healthier than I. I can’t help but to think this sometimes, especially at night: luckier. You can google the statistics for lung cancer, you can take the time. I will take your pity. I will take anything you give me. Tell me: what can you give me that I can exchange for more time? I’ve already taken what the universe has given me and I’ve taken from the universe what I can. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here. But how can I say in words that I have never smoked, and where did that get me? How can I say it without suggesting others deserve my fate? Because they don’t. Still, which lyric turn holds my bitterness, the terrible surprise? What immigrant language can explain irony without resorting to coincidence, mere cliché? But I can say I’ve watched my father run, that I’ve watched him recycle. I can say I’ve come back home, to this house, to this city, the America of Americas, to be healed and to die. I can say it, I’m saying it. I’ve tried to make something beautiful happen here.

I do my due diligence: I look up the statistics on lung cancer, and more importantly, I look up Naira Kuzmich. She was an emerging writer with a singular voice, significant publications and a promising future  when she died in 2017. And that surprised me. Pushcart usually includes posthumous entries, and due to its nature delays are inevitable, but this one seemed to take longer than usual to work through the system. In any case, I’m glad this essay made its way here. It’s a bit of recycling itself, perhaps. And if some reader wishes to take the title “My Father Recycles” in a more universal sense, maybe even a religious sense, that we are all recycled through the memories of others and the love we left behind, well, that’s something too.

Shenandoah magazine ran an online memorial, including this recollection from Kuzmich’s writing mentor, a comment that ties in perfectly with the essay itself:

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

Josie Sigler Sibara, from “Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” in Shenendoah Magazine

It’s quite an effective piece. Add me to those who wish we could have seen what Kuzmich would have done, had she had more time.

* * *

“Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich” available online at Shenandoah magazine

“Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers” available online at Yale Medicine

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Shena McAuliffe, “Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure” (non-fiction) from True Story #26

I would not have come across the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones by chance…. I looked up Marceline’s grave on, and then located it on the cemetery map. I have visited deliberately, driven by twin habits of walking and curiosity. I do not know exactly what I am looking for.
It is a hot day in early spring, and I have sweated through my shirt. I have not brought water. I stand before the headstone. I see no evidence that anyone else has been here recently—no flowers or plants, no folded scraps of paper or envelopes. I hear the banging of a construction site somewhere far beyond the row of slender trees that marks the back edge of the cemetery. A few birds chirp.

The question that comes up in these opening paragraphs is, of course, who is this Marceline Baldwin Jones whose grave McAuliffe is visiting? A relative or friend – it can’t be someone very close, since she had to look up the grave – maybe a colleague, mentor, someone who was important to her at one point, who gave her good advice, who got her started on a good path? Or someone more distant, a friend-of-a-friend who just recently became known to the author recently (oooh, a juicy story, perhaps, a long-hidden love?), a local figure enjoying some resurgance of fame for some reason?

Why would you look up and go to the grave of a stranger? To pay respects, to report back to the living that you had gone, perhaps with a picture? To contemplate more deeply the effect she’d had on your life?

In the next paragraph, it clicks into place.

Marceline Mae Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. She was a Methodist, a daughter and sister. She was, by all accounts, a generous and mild woman all her life. According to her cousin Avelyn Chilcoate, Marceline longed for a life outside the small town; the two young women, both nurses, had plans to move elsewhere together, maybe to somewhere in Kentucky. But then, in 1948, Marceline met a strange young man named Jim Jones, an orderly at the hospital where she worked, and together they stepped into the stream of history.

I was in my mid-20s when the news of almost 1000 deaths, almost all by suicide, broke. I was busy with my own stuff, as most 24 year olds are, so it was a bit hazy, but the pictures of fields of bodies were clear enough. And then there was the Congressman and his staff, about to return from a fact-finding mission, who were shot to prevent their departure.

A few years later, a TV movie came along to explain the events to those of us who payed more attention to entertainment than news. Powers Booth was impressively creepy as the adult Jim Jones who went from an earnest preacher genuinely trying to help the poor and needy to a paranoid drug and power addict constantly fleeing perceived persecution, eventually all the way to South America. A lot of scenes stuck with me, though I was never sure how accurate they were. One such scene was of his wife, Marcy, passing out the poisoned Kool-Aid, then, with a sense of utter resignation, drinking a cup herself and laying down to die.

That was Marceline Baldwin Jones.

I suppose I am walking here to meditate on Marceline, though I do not valorize her. She is mostly a mystery to me. Thinking about her makes me wonder about loyalty and love and how they can blind us, about agency and belief, about devotion and delusion. Perhaps I am only a lookie-loo, seeking her grave to stand safely near tragedy without truly experiencing it, to feel the buzz of some electrical darkness. It has been forty years since the deaths at Jonestown. There is nothing here but names on stones, bodies deep in the earth, invisible, still, and decayed.

Although McAuliffe traces the path of Jim Jones in some detail – in fact, I would guess he gets the majority of the word count – she nevertheless keeps bringing the focus back to Marceline. One way she does that is by bringing in a couple of similar stories of hard-to-break-away-from groups: her husband grew up in a commune that underwent several fractious changes, and her parents got roped into Amway. We all know people who’ve stayed in destructive marriages too long. Loyalty, persistence, determination to succeed, these are positive traits, yet need to be tempered.

Be moderate; love reasonably, her story whispers, opposing every message of love and idealism and generosity I have ever heard. This whisper is part of what drew draws me to her story and to her grave, part of what puzzles me. Why did you do it, Marceline? What happened to you, Marceline? Why this blind spot? Why did you stay?

I don’t see that Marceline had any answers for McAuliffe, but I’m not sure she knew the answers herself.

I know from experience that sometimes chaos doesn’t look like chaos from the inside. Some of us have ways of seeing things as not too bad, as fixable, even as they get incrementally worse. The occasional indigestion that eventually has you taking pills and swallowing antacids seems manageable until you start vomiting blood. The husband who comes home drunk once in a while, then once a week, then always, can start to feel normal at each level. We can tell ourselves it’ll be ok right up until we pour ourselves a cup of Kool-Aid. And then we realize it’s too late, so we just drink it and lay down to die.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Annie Sheppard, “We At Old Birds Welcome Messages From God, Even If Unverifiable” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #21.1

Though we tend to lose sight of the fact, it is not unheard of for the occasional missing species to be rediscovered. An entire taxonomy — the Lazarus taxon — has been created for species thought to be lost forever but found again.…
Although it seems wrong to complain when a lost species is found, on the whole I think it preferable that our missing things say missing. If we find these things definitively, we need no longer go looking for them come, and we clearly need stuff to look for. This is a view I inherited from my father, who always favored things that were missing over things that were found.

This is one of those essays that seems to meander — from the Lazarus taxon to birdwatching to an aging father with a complicated legacy — but manages to say something quite profound along the way, even if it’s not entirely clear how it hangs together. And, here’s a tip: when someone’s described as complicated, that does not mean good things.

The Lazarus Taxon originated in paleontology, classifying species that disappeared from the fossil record for a substantial time, only to re-emerge in later eras. It’s now been broadened to species thought to be extinct but discovered alive. Dozens of such species have been found in recent decades.

This seems to be the closest thing to a unifying theme here: just when you think they’re out, they drag themselves back in. This certainly applies to the complicated father:

And he took liberties with his daughters. He took things from us — innocence, trust, confidence — that were not is to take, and he has been, so far, more defensive about this then repentant.
Dad’s an old bird now, held in captivity well past his natural lifespan. He’s tangled up in his diaper, he’s weathered and hairless. He has, at best, a handful of rather grim years left to him. Science says that’s all he has. One chance, you blew it, too bad. But the Lazarus taxon says otherwise.…The world — the natural world — speaks a language more hopeful than the language of science. It says life is as resilient as it is beautiful. It says things come and they go and they come back again. They return.

I would say it isn’t the father himself who will return, but the effects he has had on his daughters, and through them, the world. I get the sense that the family has done a good job of moving past his destructiveness, though that might be wishful thinking on my part; yet the past is always lurking, ready to spring out at a vulnerable moment, making self-defense a skill perpetually carried at the ready.

The title, which lends some jocularity to the piece, comes from a different idea:

A citizen science website that someone should create but not me is Old Birds. This would be both a reporting site and a literary Journal. Subjects sought by the editors of Old Birds: aging, dying, birds, anything numinous. Artists please submit. …Your long hindsight will find a home here, as will how dumb you still feel, even now, when you have been promised wisdom. We at Old Birds also welcome possible messages from God and any other sightings of a holy nature, even if unverifiable.

We wait all our lives for Wisdom to come. Could we have had it all along, but didn’t recognize it?

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Janisse Ray, “The Lonely Ruralist” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Fall 2019

GC Myers: “The Isolation”
When people departed Altamaha, they took the quilting bees, barn-raisings, hay-mowings, syrup-makings, and peanut-boilings of rural Georgia society in the early- to mid-twentieth century. They took the lowing and bleating of farm life, the beating of hooves on red clay. They took the fiddles and mouth harps. My neighbors, the last of the old guard, spool out their lives in these home-places, too old to square-dance or raise beams. In our ten years here Ben died, Leta Mac died, Howard died, Lynease died, Bill died, John had a stroke.
Almost every day on our farm, therefore, is a day with three people in it—myself, my husband, and our teenage daughter. I have seen days in which no car passed.

I’m hesitant to say much about this essay because I’m not sure I get it’s point. I think the point is, yes, rural life can be isolated, but it doesn’t need to be lonely if you attune yourself to what that isolation offers: a quieter place for reflection, for introspection, for connection to the natural world instead of the social world. Some things are not available, but other things are only available here.

On her way to getting there, however, she has some paragraphs that puzzled me. Some sounded like snobbery, like people who don’t read the latest hot book or care about yoga can’t be thoughtful and have ideas worth sharing. Like, everyone in the rural wilds are right-wing reactionaries. Like, gentrification is a good thing.

There’s a wonderful passage about a time when she tried to recreate the kind of attachments a person not born to rural life would have in more populated settings. We first hear about the delight she felt in sharing the birthing of a calf with her daughter, and then:

Cow society or not, Facebook or not, I needed people. To that end, therefore, at least part of my daily life became an engagement with creating community. I organized countless events, from full-moon potlucks to organic conferences to clothing exchanges to cheese-making workshops, from readings to concerts to harvest festivals.
People came—usually from Savannah, the closest city—nostalgic and hungry for a country life.
And then they went—back to their homes far from mine.

It’s this duality that runs through the first four-fifths of the essay, this sense that the country is great but it’s not enough, that confuses me. But I think that was the path she took, and those were the missteps along the way, before she arrived at her way of embracing rural life without giving up herself and without trying to recreate the city on a farm:

Rural people can self-actualize, even in the vacancy and the vacuum, and this sense of self-actualization derives from the relationships we do have in the rural, relationships with ourselves, with our beloveds, with our places, with art and ideas, with our sense of what some might experience as the divine and others might experience as the essential. After a while, anything that was not this quiet, deliberate, even transcendental consciousness felt dead to me.
Community is attachment. Much of what people suffer is caused by disattachment. In hollowed-out places, disattachment looks different than it does in populated places. Rural loneliness can look impenetrable, dark, roadless, like a thicket. It can look like a wall. So the attachment must look different, too, maybe something like a meadow or a gate. A bell, a nest, a wood.

I find myself pushing back against things I usually push back against, in particular, that the online is no substitute for the in-person. One line in particular annoyed me:  “If they live online, do they exist?” I suppose I’ll have to write my own essay about how online relationships are tailor-made for some of us who struggle to relate in person (a ten-second pause to analyze the query “How’ve you been” and formulate a response appropriate to the questioner and the circumstances makes most people uncomfortable, so I give up and go with “Fine” which makes me seem not quite real in person), but that would just make me look deficient and pathetic. So I assume goodwill and the validity of a different viewpoint and move on, until she lands it in the last paragraphs.

I doubt it ever occurred to Ray that her essay, written some time prior to fall of 2019 when COVID-19 was yet to become part of the commonplace in the US, that her essay would be read in a time when many of us were undergoing a cold-turkey withdrawal from previously active work and social lives. There is a difference, of course: her move to rural Georgia was a choice, not a public health crisis, and it was something she needed to adjust to over the long term. Most of us now feel like the degree of isolation we’re experiencing, however great or small (because it varies depending on several factors, from geography to demographics political affiliation) will end at some point and we’ll get back to “normal.” So the ways we fill in the gaps – with Zoom and online schooling and virtual parties – are seen as stopgap measures rather than permanent changes. Ray’s experience was quite different.

I wonder if normal will seem normal when we get back to it. If.

* * *

Complete article available online at The Georgia Review.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, “Touch” (nonfiction) from Granta #146

Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina, ca. 7300 BCE
Between 1999 and 2007, I lived in China on and off….
I was having my own passionate relationship with China. Just to be awake was to absorb – the language, ways to live – like a baby learns the world. Every day I was touched. Many times, by friends, by strangers, by the lady who swept the street by the courtyard where I lived. By the water sellers, the restaurateurs, by old men playing chess, by people I didn’t know. Most I would never meet again. I was handled, pushed, pulled, leaned upon, stroked, my hand was held. And it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.

As I type this, it’s early January, 2021. Over 4000 people in the US died yesterday from COVID-19; a total of 365,000 Americans have died since last April. In Portland (ME), city busses shield drivers from passengers with impromptu plexiglass doors. The supermarket sprays shopping cart handles before returning them to the store, and has red discs painted on the floor to show where to stand in line for the cash register so as to maintain six-foot social distancing. Nearly everyone encountered in public is masked.

Reading this article now is a very different experience than it would have been when originally published by Granta in February 2019, before COVID became part of the vocabulary.

I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.

It’s ironic that Sebag-Montefiore starts her examination of touch in China for several reasons. First, of course, because that’s where the disease first emerged in large numbers. But also, because strict measures, including absolute city-wide quarantines when outbreaks occur, have significantly controlled the pandemic. I wonder if there’s a lot of touching going on in China today.

The article, however, points out a change was occurring even in the early 2000s. She examines the effects of   urbanization on the cultureof touch, of the construction required for the 2008 Olympics and the  restrictions placed on laborers from the countryside, of class differences over time, of the strictures of Mao’s communism and the harsh control of the contemporary State over bodies, of the addition of psychotherapy and modern techniques that avoid or downright prohibit touch to traditional Chinese medicine, which relies heavily on touch.  

Then she ends up in my favorite zone: neuroscience.

Francis McGlone’s work centres around nerve receptors in our skin called C-tactile afferents. They’ve only been recently discovered in humans. They lie within our hairy skin, and are particularly concentrated in our back, trunk, scalp, face and forearms. They respond to slow and light stroking. None are found in the genitals. When stimulated, through stroking, the C-tactile afferents produce pleasure. It’s not a sexual pleasure, but the kind of feeling brought about by the touch between a mother and baby. Neuroscientists call this ‘social touch’.
These nerve fibres are ancient, they existed early in the life of the species, long before language, and even before the receptors that tell us to move our hand away from pain. This is a sign that they’re vital for the protection of life and health. In early times we needed people nearby throughout our lives to help us groom and to clear us of parasites. The reward for sticking together was pleasure.

Sometimes I wonder if, behind every human behavior, there’s a neuroreceptor or neurotransmitter affecting a sensory-regulatory system.

It’s a fascinating article, available online (link below). But before you run off, read that first quoted paragraph again, especially that last sentence: “I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.” And think about what it might mean for the coming years, that we have all gone so long maintaining a six-foot distance from each other, starving our C-tactile afferents for touch.

* * *

Complete article is available online at Granta.

Youtube has videos of several lectures by Prof. McGlone on his neuroscientific investigation of touch.

Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt Harvest, 2003)

Once upon a time in the West, in Spain, to be exact, a collection of documents that had lain in darkness for more than one thousand years was brought to light, and the effects of the discovery were truly revolutionary. Aristotle’s books were the medieval Christians’ star-gate. For Europeans of the High Middle Ages, the dramatic reappearance of the Greek philosopher’s lost works was an event so unprecedented and of such immense impact as to be either miraculous or diabolical, depending on one points of view. The knowledge contained in these manuscripts was “hard” as well as “soft,” and it was remarkably comprehensive. Some three thousand  pages of material ranging over the whole spectrum of learning from biology and physics to logic, psychology, ethics, and political science seemed to be a bequest from a superior civilization.
Or, I should say, from two superior civilizations. For Aristotle’s books were not discovered written in Greek and stored in clay jars, but written in Arabic and housed in the libraries of the great universities at Baghdad, Cairo, Toledo, and Cordoba. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of order in Europe, the works of Aristotle and other Greek scientists became the intellectual property of the prosperous and enlightened Arab civilization that ruled the great southern crescent extending from Persia to Spain. As a result, when Western Europeans translated these works into Latin with the help of Muslim and Jewish scholars, they also translated the works of their leading Islamic and Jewish interpreters, world-class philosophers like Avicenna, Averroës, and Moses Maimonides.


This dramatic prologue sets the stage for Rubenstein’s primary discussion of the intellectual history of twelfth- and thirteenth- century Europe. He begins further back, with Aristotle himself and then the workings of the fourth- and fifth-century Church, to explain the foundations of the Church as we move into this period of focus, and show the impact the re-discovery of some of Aristotle’s texts – for some of them had been long extant and merely overshadowed by Neoplatonism – on theology, on science, and on history itself, as all these areas are interlinked. While adding a dash of dramatic flair, Rubenstein’s use of the Star-gate analogy (referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s use of the term in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is not merely rhetorical. One of his points is that, just as Clarke’s star-gate was located in a place that humanity could only reach at a certain level of functioning, a culture chooses its primary mode of intellectual investigation depending on the ethos of the time:

To comprehend this choice, it helps to recognize that, in some periods of history, Plato’s ideas and attitudes make obvious sense to thinking people, while in others, Aristotle’s vision of the world seems far more realistic and inspiring. In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society…. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their most common vices.
Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatised by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves – not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be….They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) our self hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

Chapter 2: The Murder of “Lady Philosophy”

He supports this view with a look at the periods involved:  the optimism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as economies and populations grew, and the decline of Aristotelian inquiry by the thirteenth century when even the weather stopped cooperating (the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”) and growth slowed and stopped.

Rubenstein tells his story by tracing the lives of various thinkers, from Aristotle himself, to Augustine and Boethius, and then to the main cast beginning with Peter Abelard and Anselm, moving on to Thomas Aquinas and finishing with William of Ockham. Various groups also feature prominently: the Dominicans and Franciscans, the Picardy Nation, the Cathars. Then there are the popes and other ecclesiastical leaders, and the academic institutions: the early School at Notre Dame, the University of Paris.

One of his primary points is that all this takes place within the Catholic Church. This is in contrast to the usual mindset that the Church squelched all scientific inquiry. Not so, shows Rubenstein: a great deal of effort was expended to find a way to bring reason and faith into a relationship, one laden with creative tension:

The belief shared by virtually all medieval scholars that, in case of conflict, faith trumped reason clearly had limiting effects on scientific inquiry. …For the most part, however, the attitude of Catholic intellectuals toward scientific research was remarkably sanguine. Although they agreed that the faith must at all costs be preserved, both Dominicans and Franciscans, teaching friars and secular masters, assumed that what the researchers were discovering by using their senses and their reason was real, and that religion would have to come to terms with it. The great issue, in other words, was not whether inquiring into nature’s workings was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a good thing, since both reason and nature were from God. The issue was how to define the proper territory and boundaries of the religious and scientific (“philosophical”) modes of inquiry, how to establish a healthy relationship between them.

Chapter 5: Aristotle and the Teaching Friars

This setting of boundaries makes up a great deal of the central portion of the book. At times, teaching of certain Aristotelian precepts was banned. Some theological notions were considered matters of faith, particularly the nature of God and of salvation through Christ. Aristotle’s idea (supported by Averroës but challenged by Maimonides) that the universe was eternal was never accepted, as that would have implications leading to something like pantheism. And so on.

Rubenstein uses the metaphor of marriage between faith and reason to explore the dual approach to inquiry. Thus, he sees Thomas Aquinas as a kind of marriage counselor, trying to keep the duality together, with William of Ockham as the judge granting the divorce decree on the grounds of simplicity:

Ockham’s razor, on the other hand, implied that the task undertaken by Thomas – the attempt to construct a unitary system capable explaining both natural and divine things – was impossible. Behind his call for simplicity, in other words, lay a conviction that natural science and theology must go their separate ways. On the science side, there are concepts and methods derived from experience and processed by reason that help us to understand the natural world and the world of human society. On the theology side, there are doctrines revealed by Scripture or the Church that help us to understand God and what he requires of us. From Ockham’s point of view, Thomas had made a hash of things by conflating the two realms of understanding. His system had mystified nature. Worse yet, by claiming that we could reason our way to an understanding of God’s attributes and intentions, it had demystified God. The job of the new school of philosophers theologians, as William saw it, was to reverse this mistake – that is, to demystify nature and remystify God.

Chapter 7: The Divorce of Faith and Reason

Rubenstein ends by looking at why today we see the Middle Ages as anti-science, in spite of this attempt to integrate reason into faith, and how the relationship might be improved in the present age by  understanding the difficulties of the past.

The use of story-telling technique and metaphors make this a far more readable book than it might be, considering the detail of history and philosophy included. I found it remarkably clarifying in the brief but clear explanation of the heresies of early Christianity: Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism. It might just be that I was ready to absorb that material, having encountered it before; like the theory that a culture is primed for Neoplatonism or Aristoteliansim by its nature, I was primed by prior reading. It does get quite complicated when it comes to the politics of the Church, at least for someone, like me, who isn’t that familiar with such things.

This was my first detailed encounter with the faith-reason interaction, and with some of the persons mentioned within. I’ve heard of Peter Abelard in connection with Heloise; while that story is a pretty wild ride, Abelard’s philosophic-religious journey is none the less exciting, and I’d like to know more about that. Anselm, as well, interests me. These two predated the release of the Latin translations of the Aristotelian documents, but they were on the way to science – or reason, or natural philosophy, whichever term works – in their day. The Cathars are described as a kind of puritanical gang, and I’m interested in them as well. I’ve never really understood the Orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, and so that’s something else I need to learn more about.

This book goes nicely with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, another tale of a “lost” intellectual document found. I remember there was significant push-back on that book, since it portrayed the late Middle Ages as anti-intellectual, and rescued by Lucretius. That makes these two books somewhat in tension with each other. And, just as Rubenstein credits the tension between reason and faith as generating great creative energy and discovery, so this tension between the two books inspires me to find out more.

I found out about this book in the first place through Edith Hall’s recommendation on Five Books, a site I highly recommend, by the way. I’ve discovered several interesting reads through them this year since I started following them on Twitter instead of waiting for some other account I follow to retweet them. I find them most useful for nonfiction, since I have numerous sources for fiction, but it’s always fun to see what different people recommend.

Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi (RH, 2004)

Together, my relatives form an alliance that represents a genuine and enduring love of family, one that sustains them through difficulties and gives them reasons to celebrate during good times. ….Before I married Francois, I told him that I came with a tribe – a free set of ginsu knives with every purchase, so to speak. Francois said that he loved tribes, especially mine. Now, whenever we visit my relatives, all of whom dote on my husband, I realized that he didn’t marry me despite my tribe, he married me because of them. Without my relatives, I am but a thread; together, we form a colorful and elaborate Persian carpet.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Cheaper by the Dozen, the charmingly humorous family story written  (don’t even talk to me about the movies) by two of the grown-up Gilbreth children about childhood in their very large family in the early 20th century. On the surface, these are very different families, but the books paint a similar picture: life has its ups and downs, and in the moment some things can seem embarrassing or even scary, but from a distance, it’s the family connection that makes it all ok. Dumas has written, sure enough, a charmingly humorous family story, if in a much drier voice.

Dumas’ father first came to the US as a Fulbright scholar, then as a grad student, and later, with his family on work assignment as a petroleum engineer for an Iranian oil company. All of this was before most Americans had ever heard of Iran, that is, before the 1979 hostage crisis. The family later moved here and became citizens. This is their story; instead of the huge family of Cheaper as a central point, it’s their transit between cultures that serves as the rail the story rides on.

Dumas begins with her experience of entering second grade:

To facilitate my adjustment, the principle arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: “White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green.”
The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to the school. He had decided it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn’t matter much.

Language, as you might expect, features in many of the anecdotes. “Thanks to my father’s translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mudpie.”   When Dumas, now fluent in English, gets separated from her parents at Disneyland, the staff tries to get her to translate for other lost children who don’t speak English, not really caring that they don’t speak Persian either. This was, remember, a long time ago. What I found really hilarious about the Disneyland episode had nothing to do with language: in an attempt to find her parents, staff asked Dumas what they were wearing. “No seven-year-old, except maybe a young Giorgio Armani, could tell you what his parents were wearing on a given day.”

Her father features in many of Dumas’ stories. She mentions in the Afterword included in this paperback edition that she hadn’t realized, as she was writing, how central he was, and still isn’t sure how that happened. Interestingly, the father is the most dominant character in Cheaper as well. I see a lot of parallels between Frank Gilbreth Sr. and Dumas’ father (he asked her not to use her maiden name as she wrote the book, then asked why she hadn’t used it when the book was published). In many ways he seems like any American father: he loves Denny’s, Las Vegas, and fancies himself a handyman:

[H]e purchased and installed a medicine cabinet in our bathroom while my husband and I were at work. Perhaps if it hadn’t been hung crooked, François would not have been so upset.
During his next visit, my father secretly decided that our bathroom needed towel hooks. Using nails that were too long, my father pierced the door, creating towel hooks on one side, medieval blinding devices on the other. My husband has since taken the situation into his own hands, hiding all our screwdrivers and hammers before my parents visit.

Other anecdotes involve Dumas’ childhood in Iran, her father’s year as a Fulbright scholar in Texas, her summer of language study in France, her multicultural wedding. We also meet some other family members, including Uncle Nematollah, who decided to lose weight gained via the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken and the many flavors of Baskin-Robbins, by ordering a silver “weight-reduction suit” advertised on late-night TV:

The instructions stated that the outfit had to be worn for 20 minutes before each meal, during which the wearer was supposed to engage in some form of exercise. My uncle decided to speed the weight loss process by wearing his moon suit all day. He thought nothing of circling the block endlessly, leaving neighbors wondering whether perhaps he was looking for the mother ship. Dressed for a jaunt on Venus, he strolled to the supermarket, the hardware store, and everywhere else he needed to go. Unable to understand English, he had apparently forgotten the international meaning of stares as well. Kids at school asked me about the strange guy who was staying with us. In terms of weirdness, my family I were now off charts.

There are stories of adjustment, of fitting Persian traditions to their new home. The holiday Nowruz celebrates the first day of Spring, and is about a big a deal in Iran as Christmas is in the States. Of course, Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for the family, though when she married, Dumas found delight in gingerbread and decorations. Then there are the celebrations that don’t translate that easily, but where there’s a will, there’s a way:

The Persians, like the Romans and Greeks before them, believe in slaughtering a lamb when something good happens. This is supposed to ward off the evil eye…. Iranians in America have had to tweak this tradition a bit. Slaughtering a lamb on one’s front porch in Los Angeles might not do much for the neighborhood, so when something good happens that calls for a lamb slaughter, who ya gonna call? Relatives in Iran, that’s who. Lambs are now slaughtered long distance and distributed to the poor in Iran. Your son bought a Lexus? There goes a lamb. The grandson graduated from UCLA law school? Don’t forget the lamb.

The book is more a collection of anecdotes than a consecutive narrative, which is appropriate for the style. This isn’t an in-depth examination of The Immigrant Experience or of Iranian-American relations;, it’s a fun family story that sometimes brushes by deeper issues – political, cultural, and social – along the way. While it follows a general chronological sequence, there are a lot of digressions, so it’s a bit hard to reconstruct the family’s life, which included several moves from Iran to the US and within the US. But as a charming family story, it works very well – well enough to have generated a sequel, Laughing Without an Accent, and a semi-autobiographical children’s novel, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.

Rebecca Buxton, Lisa Whiting, Eds.: The Philosopher Queens (Unbound, 2020)

In the pages that follow, we intentionally adopt a broad definition of ‘philosopher’ as we believe that part of the reason why women have historically been excluded from our discipline is because many of them have instead been considered activists or ‘learned ladies’. This has led to a prevailing image of the white male philosopher thinking from his armchair. Instead, it’s time to recognize the clear intellectual rigor, questioning and insight that makes these women worthy of the ‘philosopher’ title.
The authors and subjects in this book come from many different backgrounds with their own unique ideas, experiences and histories. The philosophers written about here are complex, challenging, often inspiring, and sometimes deeply problematic. However, they all contribute an important element to our understanding philosophy.


If you ask a random person at a party to name a philosopher, chances are – well, ok, chances are they’ll move very far away from you and go find someone normal, but the ones who would play would probably go for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, maybe Nietzsche if they were into goth. You’d have to go a long way before anyone came up with a female name. As students undergoing advanced training in philosophy, Buxton and Whiting noticed most philosophical histories and anthologies skipped over the women as well, including maybe one or two, often in a perfunctory or referential manner. They thought they might want to change that, so they collected a team of contemporary women in philosophy, and put together this readable introduction to twenty lovers of wisdom you might want to know more about.

The title plays off Plato’s use of Philosopher Kings in The Republic, the wise men who should be leading countries rather than relying on heredity or political power (and don’t contemporary events make that sound like an idea whose time came long ago). The entries, arranged chronologically by the philosophers’ birth dates, are rather short – four to six pages – and are intended to highlight the lives and works of women who have contributed to philosophy over the last couple of millennia. They’re all jumping-off points, chapters that might interest you enough to find out more.

The book is a lovely physical object, put together with thought and care. It’s heavier than you might expect for a book its size, probably because the paper is thicker than usual, possibly to provide the appropriate substrate for the illustrations. Illustrations? Yes – each entry includes a full-color illustration by Emmy Smith of the philosopher under consideration. Most of the illustrations are backed by rich block-color pages; whether that’s to prevent bleed through or just for design I don’t know, but it’s very attractive. The cover features the illustrations, glossy on a flat background. For each essay, the name of the philosopher appears on the title page in a decorative font using a color chosen from the illustration. Minor details, yes, but pleasing ones.

Several useful appendices follow the collection of essays: a Further Reading section, a list of more Philosopher  Queens, and a very handy About the Authors section giving brief bios of each of the contributors. And of course there’s an introduction by the editors, tracing the conception of the book.

You may be wondering if I’m ever going to talk about the philosophers included in the work. Well, of course I am. A quick glance at the table of contents revealed several names I knew, though not necessarily as philosophers; as I read the essays, I became intrigued to know more about some, dismayed by others, and found out something I didn’t know about even the most familiar names. And I noted some connections I wasn’t expecting.

Diotima leads things off, courtesy of Zoi Aliozi. What I found most interesting about her is that her very existence is up for debate. Plato writes her into Symposium; Socrates recounts how she taught him about love, beauty, and The Good, and the ladder of love ranging from lust to appreciation of Goodness itself. Whether she’s real or not, even if she’s a fictional character or a stand-in for a god or a dream or Wisdom itself, that Plato shows her as a teacher of Socrates makes her pretty impressive. I’ve taken, what, four or five moocs that dealt with Plato in some detail, but it’s interesting Symposium wasn’t one of the texts examined, nor was Diotima ever mentioned in any of the brief summaries of that text. The Further Readings list is going to come in handy.

Ban Zao gives advice for surviving marriage. Seriously. Eva Kit Wah Man writes:

For Ban, the most important principles for a wife’s conduct are respect and acquiescence. Although Ban adapts many keywords traditionally associated with femininity when she elaborates on the principles with instructions – for example, terms such as weakness, softness, inferiority, malleability – it is interesting to see how she actually describes the practical reasons for abiding by the principles. She determines, for example, that the heart of disrespect originates from the habit of the two spouses staying too close to one another. She also says that accusations and quarrels in family affairs are derived from bluntness and crookedness in words. Here, respect and acquiescence are recommended as a result of what Ban observed in married life in reality, not because of some moral and ethical deduction ….Her intention is to provide young wives with a survival kit necessary for marriage.

This gives some insight into what life was like for women in first-century China. However, Man brings in a deeper philosophical connection: while Confucianism is the usual context of this text, it’s worth looking at Daoism, which sees weakness as overcoming strength, using water and air as examples.

I was introduced to Hypatia last year when I read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, and did some extra reading at the time, so it was nice to see her again in Lisa Whiting’s chapter.  I remember reading that she was more a mathematician than a philosopher, and Whiting bears this out but considers that her teaching, rather than writing, was where she excelled. This, too, fits with the characterization in Ziedan’s novel.

Even in fourth century Alexandria, women had to put up with men who couldn’t see them as anything but sexual possibilities:

Hypatia tried to stifle one of her most persistent student’s affections by playing a musical instrument for hours in the hopes he would get bored. When this did not work she turned to more extreme measures and one day pulled out a bloodied menstrual rag and waved it in the boy’s face, proclaiming that it was only lust that he desired, and this was not beautiful compared to her intellect and the true wonder of philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hypatia succeeded in halting the young man’s advances….

Let’s put that anecdote on the internet and see what happens.

I would quibble a little on one comment Whiting makes on the significance of Hypatia’s legacy: “She was one of the first women to successfully break into the academic sphere that had been largely reserved for men.” Hypatia was torn apart on the street by a mob who then paraded her body parts around before setting her on fire. That’s a high price for success.

I recognized the name George Eliot, of course, even the name Mary Anne Evans (though not Mrs. Lewes, her preferred social name) though as a novelist rather than a philosopher. I’ve even had Middlemarch on my reading list (since I saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein included it in her list of Five Best Philosophical Novels). Clare Carlisle’s chapter has convinced me to add Adam Bede, and to overcome confront my hesitation to read nineteenth-century literature.

Jae Hetterley’s chapter on Edith Stein left me sad and angry. I’d never heard of Stein, which is not a surprise, since she was screwed over six ways from Sunday by just about everyone, from her academic supervisor Edmund Husserl who refused to grant her doctorate to his collaborator Martin Heidegger who took credit for the extensive editing work Stein did on Husserl’s compendium to the Nazis who eventually murdered her at Auschwitz. But to look beyond that to her work, she was elemental in developing phenomenology, a kind of first-person-experience based philosophy that I only vaguely understand. Again, I find myself in the Further Reading section.

Hannah Arendt has become a familiar name to those of us concerned about what’s been happening in the US over the past four years. “Origins of Totalitarianism (1951),  Hannah Arendt’s most famous political work, was difficult to find in bookshops across America in November 2016,” writes Rebecca Buxton. Interestingly, Arendt didn’t consider herself a philosopher but a political theorist. I was also surprised to find that she was a racist, viewing Africa as savage and black Americans struggling for equality as “social parvenus”. People are complex, aren’t they. It’s her examination of totalitarianism, of course, that has her in the spotlight now. And you haven’t been paying attention if you haven’t muttered “the banality of evil” a few dozen times in recent years. I put her Origins of Understanding on my TBR list a couple of years ago (I thought it might be a better place to start, to keep my mounting panic at a controllable level), but I keep getting distracted by shiny new things.

Iris Murdoch is another figure from literature who I didn’t realize until recently was a philosopher. I had a traumatic experience with A Severed Head in college so I’ve avoided her, but Fay Niker has convinced me to overcome that. I love the female foursome that developed as WWII made room for women in Oxford – Mary Midgley and Elizabeth Anscombe also appear in this book, maybe Volume II will include Foot – and the “Mods and Greats” course of study that turned them into philosophers. I’m drawn to her idea that “adjustment of inner vision” – thinking about something – is moral activity, whether or not it results in behavior change, her focus on attention. This seems a bit over my head, but I’m going to see if I can find a good way to approach it.

I already had Mary Midgley’s What is Philosophy For? on my reading list, and Ellie Robson’s chapter added a few more on philosophy as seen in everyday life and relationships between people and the world. Seriously, all of her books sound like something I really want to read. And most of her writing came later in life: “Between the ages of fifty-nine and ninety-nine she wrote over two hundred books, articles and chapters….” I’d better get cracking.

Sophie Bosede Oluwole focused her attention on examining and, in fact, legitimizing Yoruba philosophy, not an easy task since it was orally transmitted rather than written. Minna Salami tells us:

…[S]he demonstrated how Yoruba oral genres qualified as philosophy. More specifically, she argued for the interpretation of the ‘corpus of Ifá,’ which is the quintessential Yoruba compendium of philosophical themes such as wisdom, justice, time, human agency, destiny, democracy, misogyny and human rights, as philosophical rather than system of divination as it is commonly assigned. The corpus of Ifá, which now largely also exists in written format, is a geomantic system consisting of 256 figures to which thousands of verses are attached. It has been stored through memory for thousands of years by traditional Yoruba philosophers known as babalawos, which means ‘fathers of esoteric knowledge’.

Having just read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” which in part dramatizes  the competition between oral tradition and written records, I connected to this right away. As Oluwole points out, if Socrates, who never wrote a word and in fact opposed using books for learning, can be the premier Western philosopher, why should African philosophy be disqualified on those grounds?

The focus of Anita Allen’s philosophical arena is privacy, an issue that doesn’t really tempt me (don’t start, I understand the importance, I’m just more interested in other things). Yet, interestingly, as I read more about her via Ilhan Dahir’s chapter, I realized I’ve encountered her before: she was one of the lecturers in Penn’s mooc “An Introduction to American Law”; the Torts unit, to be precise. It’s one of the few moocs I completed but never wrote up because, well, it’s one of the few Penn moocs that just fell flat for me. But I’m delighted it served as an introduction to Allen.

Nima Dahir sums up Azizah Y. Al-Hibri’s work as: “How does Islamic jurisprudence fit into the twenty-first century?” In the US, any discussion of Islamic law quickly becomes saturated with all kinds of implications, so I’m always interested in looking at different points of view, in this case, one that sees Islamic scripture being overlaid with cultural patriarchy, resulting in its more misogynistic aspects. That it doesn’t have to be that way is good news.

These are only some of the philosophers included in the book. The others are just as interesting; I just had to draw the line somewhere, so I picked those I was particularly interested in finding out more about, or with whom I had some connection through books or moocs.

And why would someone who isn’t a philosophy student, or who doesn’t expect to be at any parties anytime soon where “name a philosopher” comes up, be interested? First, the stories of their struggles can serve as inspiration to keep going even when … well, you know, insert your story here. Or when someone tells you you’re too old, or your culture never produced anything of value.

And second, philosophical questions go interesting places. There’s nothing like defending your vision of morality to shake your world view, or trying to convince someone you’re not a brain in a vat.

Then again, I was that weirdo at the party playing Name A Philosopher.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosopy Won’t Go Away (Vintage, 2015)

When I was a child I was addicted to science fiction, and my favorite science fiction required the reader to accept just one preposterous premise, and then everything else made sense. That is what the dialogues of this book ask of the reader. Just accept the one preposterous premise that Plato could turn up in twenty-first century America, an author on a book tour, and everything else, I hope, makes sense.

I wasn’t aware of that “preposterous” premise when I decided to read this book. It’s the sort of thing that might immediately put some people off as gimmicky, but it would’ve sold me from the get-go. What would Plato have to say about computer technology, how would he be as a guest on a cable news show or on a discussion panel, as an advice columnist, or when confronted with contemporary neuroscience?

Overall, the book tries to answer the question in the title: is philosophy, as imagined 2400 years ago, still relevant? If not, why does everyone still know the names Plato and Socrates? And if it is still relevant, that’s almost worse: doesn’t that mean philosophy has made no real progress at all?

While the 21st century Plato chapters are both informative and entertaining, they only form half the book. The chapters proceed in pairs: first there’s a more traditional chapter on some aspect of Plato’s life and work, and then a chapter further illuminating the concepts via a contemporary setting. As such, instead of thinking of it as a ten-chapter book, look at it as five modules with two sections each. The chapters, by the way, are accounted by Greek letters (α, β, γ, δ, etc) rather than numbers, which makes me smile since I just recently started a course on ancient Greek and have just become somewhat comfortable with the alphabet. But it’s another of those things: some people see fun and charm, others see gimmicks.

The first module looks at how Plato saw the purpose of philosophy:

Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do . And yet he did write; he wrote a great deal. And the literary form he invented for his writing should give us an indication of what he thought philosophy was supposed to do .
And what is it, according to Plato, that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world….
Progress in philosophy consists, at least in part, in constantly bringing to light the covert presumptions that burrow their way deep down into our thinking, too deep down for us to even be aware of them.

This last sentence brought to mind the central metaphor from Sophie’s World, the wonderful YA novel-about-philosophy that, almost thirty years ago, first got me (and a lot of other people I’ve encountered) interested in philosophy, except that it’s the reverse: in Gaarder’s book, most people are burrowed deep down into the rabbit’s fur, while it’s the philosophers who climb out to the tips of the hairs to stare the Magician in the face as he pulls it all out of a hat.

We then join Plato on his book tour in the company of Cheryl, his author escort showing him around the Google complex where he’s to give a book talk. They encounter tech-bro Marcus, and though Cheryl tries to prevent it, Plato invites him to join them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic method at work, and the eventual effect is to break down some of Marcus’s smugness and get even super-focused Cheryl thinking about more than the schedule and the book sales that will result from the upcoming presentation – which we never see, because it’s this impromptu seminar, the kind so often featured in the Dialogs, that takes center stage.

The chapter is somewhat difficult reading, because it’s told via a narrator who’s listening to Cheryl give her account of the afternoon; quotes are omitted and dialog tags are sparse, but it’s worth it: What starts simply with Marcus’s need for orthodonture, and the question of who gets to decide, travels through having algorithms for ethical questions (and where do the algorithms come from?) to the value of super-arguers, aka philosophers, working on complicated issues and finding the errors in the initial arguments, and finally landing on the question of how changing attitudes towards slavery, so acceptable in Plato’s day and so anathema today (it still is anathema, isn’t it?) are an example of whether argument changes feelings or feelings create the argument, and when it’s in the decision-makers’ interests to maintain the status quo, how do you break through that, until we get to the kicker:

…[H]ow do we know we aren’t any different above all sorts of things we feel perfectly okay about right now because it’s in our interest to feel perfectly okay about them? Why should we be different from people in the past?

And of course we aren’t. We’re seeing this play out in real time with #MeToo, how “back then” it was ok to grab women or make salacious comments to subordinates at work or pin teenaged girls down at drunken parties because boys will be boys, and suddenly it isn’t. Some day maybe we’ll be amazed, like Keiko on ST:TNG, that people actually ate real meat from dead animals, or that people could die from poverty and it would be their own damn fault.

The next pair of chapters looks at how cultures have viewed what makes a life worth living, and the role of the state: is it to protect, or perfect, the citizenry? The expository chapter lays out the Axial Age, the five centuries during which, all around the world, cultures began looking at the meaning of life. The world religions were born during this period: very different religions, from Confucius and Lao Tse, Buddha and Hinduism, Jain and Zoroastrianism to the monotheism of Judaism that would become Christianity and Islam, to the philosophy of Golden Age Athens. Which one of these is not like the others? Only Greece, which was replete with gods and religion, looked to humans to define what made life worth living. Goldstein shows how this evolved, from Homeric kleos to arete, and how Platonism not only established itself and sent offshoots into different directions but met up with Christianity several centuries hence.

This idea of what makes a life worth living, and the state’s role in the arete of its citizens, is dramatized by a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Plato, a Tiger Mom, and a Jungian analyst. Should parents push their children to be the parents’ version of exceptional, or create the circumstances under which children will find their own exceptionality, though it might be more humble? This mirrors the questions about the State, about which character traits the State might want to encourage, and how it might do that, or whether it just holds invaders at bay and makes sure there’s bread for all.

As you might expect, a lot came up that rang with contemporary urgency, from Plato admitting “[W]hat I have not been able to figure out yet is if the Internet itself strengthens your democracy or weakens it” (yeah, we’re still working on that one, too) to the role of reality in a State:

PLATO: And, conversely, when I say that it is right that the guardians should be those who are capable of apprehending reality, and most importantly the aspects of reality that account for goodness and justice and wisdom, then I would expect that you would concur with me. Let it be reality that chooses the powerful, rather than the powerful who choose reality. Isn’t that less tyrannical?
MUNITZ, still speaking uncharacteristically softly: But then you enthrone reality as the tyrant.
PLATO: It is a better tyrant than any one of us, certainly with more of a right to impose itself on our minds than any human being possesses.

Having seen the effects of ignoring reality, that seems to be a good way to think of it. But then there’s the Noble Lie. Nothing with Plato is ever simple or absolute.

In another creative (or gimmicky, you pick your adjective, I’ll pick mine) attempt to illuminate Plato, Goldstein provides in this chapter what she believes would be his answers on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, developed with Jungian principles. I was surprised that the two axes on which I score the most definitively coincide with the philosopher’s.

I’m a little confused about the next pair of chapters. Ostensibly, they’re about philosophy as the pursuit of Eros (it figures this would be what trips me up), and spends considerable time on who Socrates and Plato might have had the hots for (Alcibiades? Dion?) but is really about whether morality should define the state, or the state should define morality:

Is the best state the one that maximally allows arete to flourish, where arete is independently defined? Or is areteto be defined in terms of the qualities that will allow a person to become justifiably notable in the polis, the qualities of an individual that best allow the values-setting polis to exist and to flourish ? …. Plato moralized political theory, while the Athens to which he objected politicized morality – or at any rate it politicized arete. And it judged Socrates to be severely lacking in the qualities that would conduce to the flourishing of his polis, which made him, though notable, not justifiably notable, and so deficient in arete.

The contemporary chapter gives Plato the role of consultant to a popular advice columnist (the importance of Ann Landers’s Rolodex is emphasized) and shows how he approaches a variety of interpersonal issues.

Then we come to the death of Socrates, the history and politics in play, and Plato as a guest on a cable news show based on Bill O’Reilly’s show at the time. I found it so annoying I couldn’t finish the chapter. Draw your own conclusions.

The final pair of chapters is all about reality, our perception of same, Socrates’ Daimon, epistemology, and a very detailed look at the myth of the Cave. This lends itself nicely to imagining Plato in conversation with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist. Those who are familiar with my love of neuroscience will understand why these were my favorite chapters (though I did love the first two as well). The contemporary chapter is in the form of a dialog, complete with clear tags this time, and references where/if the brain ends and the mind begins, determinism vs free will and the implications of both, and whether morality can be determined by algorithm (the neuroscientist’s view). And it contains my favorite half-page in the book in a discussion of whether something besides an algorithm could be needed to explain why Socrates went peacefully to his death rather than avoiding it:

PLATO: So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that causes the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long term goals and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allows me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which caused the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.
SHOKET: OK, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?

And I KNOW WHICH MOOCs – I’VE TAKEN THEM! Dartmouth’s Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence is the most on-point (by the way, philosophical libertarianism is completely unrelated to political libertarianism), complete with ACC and DLPFC and all the other cortexes and modules and nodules.

While all this circuitry is well and good, this leads directly to the invocation of the field of embodied cognition, the study of interplay between the brain, the body, and the world, to truly understand Socrates’ action:

PLATO: Do you not see what is missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.
AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

Ok, so not everybody loves this neuro stuff, but remember there was the advice columnist and the cable tv show and the Googleplex and the 92nd Street Y as well? Surely there’s something in there for everyone.

So why doesn’t philosophy go away? I think this might be revealed in Goldstein’s introductory chapter:

His words sound natural in conversations that will be familiar to the reader , and this is a testament to the surprising relevance he still has – but not because his intuitions always ring true to us. His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think…. I rarely give him the answers, and I think this is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers . What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away . His genius for formulating counter reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Maybe the point isn’t to answer questions, but to engage people in asking them. This is in fact what happens in the Googleplex chapter: both the tech-bro and the author escort move out of their comfortable assuredness into query mode. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility”, a poem I haven’t thought about for a long time: the point is to ask questions, not write down Answers for All Time. Maybe there are answers for one set of circumstances, and maybe not for another. Maybe an answer that once worked, no longer does. The work is to keep asking, and that’s why we still read Plato: because we still have questions, and always will.

This is the third Goldstein book I’ve read, and I find them all wonderful in different ways. Fortunately, there are several more geared towards general readership. I do make a conscious effort to read other philosophical explainers and apologists to keep from getting stuck in a rut, but I have to admit a fondness for her humor and style.

Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand (UNCPress 2018)

The ways we tell history often make transitions from one period to the next seem permanent and strict. But in truth every moment and movement bleeds with the ink of a previous era. This truth emerged dramatically as I researched the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was the epic anthem embraced by black institutions as well as black and multiracial social movements. Although the tides shifted, and ideologies and tactics rose and fell, the anthem kept people afloat. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” moved with social history, but it also always stands as a sign of a particular racial identity and culture. Even as it was embraced by widely divergent political actors, some aspects of its meaning were and are resilient. It tells the singer to see herself or himself as emerging magnificently through struggle. It nurtures an identity rooted in community. It is a song that moves regionally and internationally, yet holds fast to a sense of particular belonging. It has had a remarkable longevity due to both its beauty and its vision. Perhaps most important, it was and is the song of a people, my people. In the following pages I will trace its journey and with it I will trace a story of African American life over 115 years.

This past June, the confluence of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the birthday of Rosamond Johnson, and Juneteenth had this book, published in 2018, popping up on my Twitter feed regularly. I love the song, and I remember how much I’d enjoyed learning the story of how Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” when I took the Pre-Modern Women Poets mooc, so I ordered it.

When I say “I love the song” I have to admit I don’t remember when I first heard it, or when I became aware of it as the Black National Anthem; I’m guessing a TV program (I don’t get out much). But I remember the last time I heard it: it was sung in the Sunday service of the local Unitarian Church when I was in the choir there. I got goosebumps; it’s a wonderful song, musically and lyrically. And I say that as a little old white lady whose taste generally runs to folk and classical. My current favorite version is by the a capella group Committed (even if you have your own favorite version, listen to the last 30 seconds for some truly fine vocalizing), but there are hundreds of other options on Youtube, from soloists to choirs, jazzy to hip hop.

The book spends some time on the writing of the song and its first performance in 1900, and on the two brothers, James and Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the words and music. Both were trained in their disciplines, James as a writer, Rosamond as a musician; this wasn’t their first collaboration, nor would it be their last, though they eventually went their separate professional ways. For James, Spanish sonnets influenced the form, and, most interestingly, Kipling (or, more accurately perhaps, a pushback to Kipling) served as inspiration for some of the content: “Perhaps we ought to consider ‘Lift Every Voice’ as a processional in contrast to Kipling’s ‘Recessional,’ in terms of both substance and form.” Rosamond’s music references the march and the dance, rising and falling with the lyrics. And that minor note in the bridge is nothing short of brilliant.

But the primary focus of the book is on the anthem’s place in the cultural, social, and political milieu of the black community over the last century-plus from the collapse of Reconstruction, to the mid-century push for civil rights, to the right-wing reaction to the election of President Obama. It’s quite a story.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” would become an important feature of a cultural practice that I refer to as “black formalism.” Black formalism emerged in the late nineteenth-century United States. It is a term I am using here to describe the performance and substance within black associations and institutions. Black formalism includes ritual practices with embedded norms, codes of conduct, and routine, dignified ways of doing and being….
I argue that black formalism is distinct from the politics of respectability. Black formalism describes practices that were primarily internal to the black community, rather than those based upon a white gaze or an aspiration for white acceptance. It was engaged in across class lines rather than being rooted in a belief in white and middle-class superiority and pushed from the middle class top down to the poor, as was the politics of respectability. The source material for my account of black formalism is made up of thousands of documents—school and church programs, graduation ceremonies, works of literature, oral histories, material culture and images—that revealed a captivating cultural landscape within black communities from the late nineteenth century on, which included not only a striking vernacular culture of spirituals, blues, and the like but also a similarly compelling formal culture of pageantry, oratory, and ritual.

Since I, like a lot of people, think the world started when I was born, I was surprised to read about the numerous organizations formed by black people starting right after Reconstruction. There was conflict in these organizations, just as there was conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in what direction education should take. Of course people with this level of gravitas have different thoughts, see different priorities, have different ideas of how to attain goals. Somehow that makes me feel better about the conflict between black leaders we see today.

This extents to disagreements between cultural icons: I wasn’t aware of Jackie Robinson’s disapproval of Paul Robeson’s vocal activism (a disapproval he later regretted; this one’s for you, Roger Goodell), but it doesn’t surprise me, given the wide range of opinion we see aired today. And again, it makes me feel better: things are not falling apart, there was always diversity of view within the community.

Perry includes a reference to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that directly references the anthem: the eighth-grade graduation story. If you’ve read Angelou’s book, you know what I’m talking about; it’s an almost cinematic moment, a journey of a community from joy and anticipation, to shame and humiliation, and back to pride and confidence led by a boy giving his valedictory speech based on Hamlet (it sounds weird, but it works) and the singing of a song that can’t help but uplift.

Another section about the 1948 Democratic primary between Henry Wallace and Harry S Truman also speaks to the current moment:

Racist intimidation was also often political intimidation in the 1930s and 1940s. The widespread assertion that Wallace was a “red,” a charge repeated by not just segregationists but also the executive director of the NAACP, was a sign of the McCarthyism that was coming to sweep the nation. But more than that, it signaled the coercive power of postwar liberalism. Liberalism framed the outer limits of the kind of calls for justice black people were “supposed” to make. At times, this meant going further than encasing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in Americana; it meant rejecting the very idea of a black anthem….
[A]t the 1948 Democratic Party convention Truman was silent on civil rights, despite his knowledge that black voters would be a decisive force in the presidential election that year. Truman’s support only went so far. He didn’t want to rock the boat with southern white Democrats, whom he considered an essential constituency.

The Democratic party, scared of losing even one white voter for three quarters of a century.

Perry describes the tumult of the 50s and 60s, and the competing anthems, particularly “We Shall Overcome.” There’s also a divide between black people in the North, and those raised in the South even after the Great Migration: those in the North weren’t familiar with the anthem. But it still survived.

Perry makes use of advertising to make a wonderfully effective transition. It turns out Miller Beer was trying to sell beer to black men. As part of the project, they commissioned posters with the song and a record (this was 1984) of LEVAS featuring contemporary stars like Al Green, Deniece Williams, with Roberta Flack and Melba Moore on backup (!). Producer Deborah McDuffie has made some takes on Youtube. Perry takes a more jaded view of the hoopla, and transitions into something completely different:

In this era, to be “for” black people, nominally, could mean absolutely nothing of substance. It might simply mean somebody was trying to sell something, or, in the tradition of Reagan, it might actually mean a paternalistic damnation. Frank speech was needed to clear away the underbrush of race in America.
Then came hip-hop.

This leads us to the opening moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “The movie begins with a solitary horn playing strains of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and then suddenly actress Rosie Perez bursts on to the screen, dancing hard and fast to ‘Fight the Power.’”

As R&B music lost nearly all of its political content in the 1980s, and became increasingly sentimental and “smooth”, hip-hop was unflinching and explicitly both hard and political, even when it didn’t have an overt political message. It was the music of the young people dispossessed by the Reagan era. It was the music of migrants and their descendants, from the Caribbean and the South, from the country to the city, who arrived to far less opportunity than hoped for, and with only their resilience and rich cultural archive to rely upon.
The introduction of hip hop into black popular culture must be understood alongside the diminishing sphere of black institutional life.

And then there’s Bill Clinton. Perry notes the negative effects of his welfare and crime legislation on the black community, the increases in poverty and mass incarceration, the weakening of parental and community support for the “village” it takes to raise a child, and notes “It is somewhat ironic, then” that he claimed to know all three verses, and, at the ceremony awarding Rosa Parks the congressional Medal of Freedom, indeed did sing all the words, in effect “doing a duet” with Jessye Norman as she led the Anthem.

Clinton’s intimacy with rituals of black space, one that he was afforded by virtue of his many years in the South living with close ties to black communities, one that earned him a good deal of trust from black constituents, was increasingly unavailable to young black people who came of age during his presidency.

This, too, has an eerie connection to the present moment, when a lot of people are talking (and expressing “concern”, a word that may take on a whole new meaning after this) while making sure nothing of substance changes. I wonder how we’ll view today from 2050, assuming anyone’s around to get there, and assuming the actual history of the moment hasn’t been erased, rewritten, or diluted by those with reason to obscure truth; or, at least, the closest we can come to truth.

It’s a strange experience writing this now. And by now, I mean this week, I mean today, Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Six months, a year from now, what will this day mean? If you have no idea of the significance then (or now, for that matter), google Kenosha, see what comes up. Maybe it’ll be just another day, another place, by then, like August 9, 2014, like Ferguson, MO, like February 26, 2012, like Sanford, FL like August 28, 1955, like Money, MS, like so many other dates and places, but maybe it’ll mean something, this way that with tears has been watered.

I’m recalling yet again the Emily Dickinson bit about “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I find I learn a lot more about history when coming at it from an angle. I’ve said this about much of the fiction I’ve read set in the Renaissance or the earliest centuries of Christianity or the Thirty Years’ War (usually in the process of cross-checking for historical accuracy), this ability to drive home a direction through a character that a history book might reduce to dry rhetoric. I’ve seen it in the nonfiction I’ve been reading, whether about salt or the US Territories. And again, here: Telling the history of a community, and the nation’s regard of that community, by means of this Anthem somehow makes it more comprehensible, more impactful than a straight-on history-of-black-America book would be. Show, don’t tell, manifest. Good job, Dr. Perry. And good job, Johnson brothers.

John Kaag, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (PUP, 2020)

Today, William James is known in philosophical circles as the founder of pragmatism, arguably the only distinctively American school of philosophy…. James did not, from the start, have pragmatism in view as a philosophical tradition. Instead, he slowly, thoughtfully, sometimes gropingly, made his way through early adulthood. Even his groping, however, was deeply meaningful, the stuff that can, I think, save a life or make a soul a little less sick: his struggle with determinism, his excavation of free will, his emphasis on action and habit formation, his sensitive study of the stream of consciousness. These were the different vectors of meaning that helped James make it to middle age. Yes, pragmatism happened on the way, but it appeared so gradually that its formation actually took James by surprise at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’ve had John Kaag on my list for a couple of years now for his general-readership philosophy books with intriguing titles – Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, and American Philosophy: A Love Story. And, now, this book, which was published just this year. I follow several academic philosophers doing online academic outreach, and they were talking about this book. I was dubious: it sounded like self-help (the official description even says it “may be the smartest and most important self-help book you’ll ever read”) and I’m really, really not into self-help books, having gone through that phase in my youth and realized they’re all someone else’s self-help, not mine.

But I also realized I know very, very little about William James. His name comes up once in a while (though not so much in philosophy classes though it did come up in philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God), his brother was the writer Henry James, and… that’s about it. So I thought it might be a good way to make his acquaintance, get an introduction to his ideas.

It didn’t really work out that way. The book is primarily a biography, secondarily a memoir of Kaag’s personal interaction with James’s work, and only then a presentation of James’s contributions to science, psychology, and philosophy. And it is all told from a self-help perspective. I was warned; I should’ve listened. That being said, I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t useful or enjoyable, just that it wasn’t the type of thing I would normally read. And yet, I did discover some very interesting points along the way.

Point one: James was a depressive mess from a very young age.

“I am a low-lived wretch. I’ve been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.” William James was on the brink of adulthood and, as he confessed to his friend Henry Bowditch in 1869, on the brink of collapse. In the coming two decades, James would write – letters, essays, books – incessantly, like his life depended on it. He’d become the father of American philosophy and psychology, but when he wrote to Bowditch he couldn’t foresee any of it. Actually, he often struggled to see the next day.
….Today, James is usually described as a man who faced mental illness without the help of doctors.
That isn’t exactly true : he was the doctor. William James’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life. Philosophy was never a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of word play. It wasn’t a game, or if it was, it was the world’s most serious. It was about being thoughtful and living vibrantly. I would like to offer the reader James’s existential life preserver .

The image on the cover of the book (which is nicely produced, by the way: a ¾ paper slip over full cloth binding) is a self-portrait in red crayon, with the title “Here I and Sorrow Sit”. This dates from the late 1860s, so James would have been in his 20s. Kaag mentions and dismisses the “poor little rich boy” quality of his early life (and I know enough about endogenous depression to concur), and points out the pressures: his brothers served in the Civil War while he could not due to physical problems; his father was an avowed Calvinist (making James’s work on determinism all the more interesting), and while he was an excellent student, he struggled mightily with chemistry (I can sympathize). That Kaag sees the work he produced as being in service of his own mental health is interesting.

James began in biology, and worked his way through comparative anatomy to psychology and then philosophy. His first work was to dismember determinism, the idea that, since everything is the result of what has come before, free will is an illusion and we are merely playing out parts already written. This has gone through some interesting twists with physics, first supporting determinism, then making it less likely. Is free will an illusion we were destined to believe in from the moment of the Big Bang? Or do we truly choose? By the way, there’s a mooc for that, combining contemporary neuroscience and physics with philosophy.

But James’s approach was more direct: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Which brings us to another interesting aspect of his work, the power of belief, of faith in the absence of evidence, as shown in his lecture “The Will to Believe”:

This address, given to the Divinity School at Yale in June of 1896, is usually understood as a contribution to the philosophy of religion, and argument for voluntarily adopted faith. When empirical evidence is insufficient to prove the reality of the Divine, James argued that one could still will belief, and that this does not violate the strictures of reason. The belief itself, according to James, can change a believer’s world such that the belief is validated over time.
….What is often overlooked in commentaries on “The Will To Believe” is the way that this linchpin of classical American philosophy applies to the maintenance of meaningful human relations, relations that can be lost on the sick souls of the world. …
He is explaining how a certain sort of truth – like the truth about love – comes to be. It doesn’t just emerge fully formed in the head of a lover or beloved. Instead, it grows – or doesn’t – between two people in there actively meeting halfway. And this communion requires a bit of faith, or at minimum an act of optimism.

If you’re wondering how we went from religious faith to romantic love, it’s linked via the account of James’s relationship with the woman who would become his wife, and Kaag’s own personal history as well. Not only can we make a Kierkegaardian Leap to Faith in God, we can approach another person with openness and generosity instead of cynicism and caution, and in doing so, allow reciprocal love, if it is there in seedling form, to flourish.

I thought I heard echoes of “Fake it ‘til you make it,” one of the Twelve-Stepper’s mantras, in this. In any of the Anonymous groups, you’re welcome to be skeptical, but advised to pretend “as if” it works; the idea is to be open to the possibility that it might. The “maybe” is also one of James’s watchwords: when he doubted that life was worth living, he found the “maybe” could get him through another day.

The echoes of “as if” are not my imagination. I discovered that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous read James’s later work, Varieties of Religious Experience, and incorporated it into his vision of the Higher Power that has become a central tenet of AA.

I also found some echoes of Chinese philosophy in James.

James concludes his analysis of habit by underscoring its possible transcendence, writing in the Principals, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.“ Following his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, James believes that every individual is imbued with this rare and beautifully disruptive faculty. We just have to exercise it.

I happened to be taking a mooc that, guess what, turns ancient Chinese philosophy into self-help, so I was probably unusually susceptible to hearing Confucius’ idea of “overcoming the self” – that is, breaking out of habits – and learning to pay closer attention to the world itself in order to react to reality rather than act out of habit. James wanted to break out of the same ruts. Too bad European philosophers (looking at you, Kant) dismissed the idea that non-white people might have philosophies worth learning about.

James also delved into what today we call “the hard problem of consciousness”: how can we analyze consciousness since we must be conscious to analyze? James apparently tried some tricks with nitrous oxide to experience the edge of consciousness, but that isn’t really a good idea, is it. What is it about the neurons in the brain that turns it into a thinking mind that experiences the world in an exquisitely personal way? While I was reading this section, a marvelous comic take on this comment came across my Twitter feed (and again, thank you serendipity):

Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing our understanding of the day’s most important meal and ushering in a golden age of innovation.1 Yet there remains one problem that has proven frustratingly resistant to our efforts at resolution: What is often referred to as The Hard Problem of Breakfast.
The stubborn fact remains that, no matter how deeply we probe into the nature of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast — to say nothing of shakshuka, grits, bear claws, or dim sum—or the interactions between these fundamental building blocks and, say, orange juice or coffee and the morning paper, we simply have no convincing theory to explain how such disparate, seemingly inert components give rise to the phenomenon we subjectively experience as “breakfast.”

Jonathan Bines, “The Hard Problem of Breakfast” at Nautilus

One aspect of James’s work that is in contemporary practice today is his understanding of the relationship between physical states and emotions.

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.” The action itself is enough to bring about a particular affective state.
James had studied Physiology long enough to begin to understand what today we call “biofeedback,” The mutual reinforcement of the expression of emotion and its subjective feeling, and he had concluded, for a number of different reasons, that certain bodily activities and responses gave rise to the “coarser emotions”: regret, anger, fear, and joy. This is at the core of what became known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.

While he was going through a divorce, Kaag reread a passage about changing one’s posture from “moping” to upright, with chest raised and shoulders back. He decided to accept a colleague’s suggestion that he try yoga, and he noticed that the “Sun Salutation” series of Ashantaga Yoga forces the posture into different forms, including the upright stance. I myself remember a semi-therapeutic singing group for seniors that included some yoga-like activities prior to vocalizing, and one of them was exactly this chest-out, chin-up pose. The purpose was not to enhance breathing, but to instill confidence and openness. And anyone who’s watched Grey’s Anatomy remembers the “superhero pose improves performance” episode that does, in fact, have a research study to support it (whether or not the results have been replicated, I can’t say).

This idea of controlling emotions through physical posture – and through changing thought habits, noticing when you think “I always screw up” and changing it to “I made a mistake here so I can improve on that” – is part of various behavioral therapies today. So this saving-your-life thing isn’t made up out of whole cloth.

My disappointment in the book had more to do with James’s research. At one point Kaag cites bench research done in the 1880s in the pursuit of consciousness, and I’d love to know what that was. I suppose I’ll have to read James to find out, but… I don’t want to go through a 1200-page book from the 19th century. My other disappointment was in connection to pragmatism.

James’s most fundamental contribution to philosophy was pragmatism. I’d love to give you a clear, concise definition, but the closest I found in the book is “Truth in ideas is their power to work.” That didn’t really give me a good idea of what we’re talking about. And yes, there’s the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy, a truly authoritative and wide-ranging work that gives me a headache every time I read more than one sentence. So for those of us who aren’t up to Stanford levels, I found a video by a lesser professor who at least got me to the ball park, if not (yet) into the game: a true idea means it fulfills some purpose for you. He uses the example of directions to his house: they are true if they get you there.

The process of writing this out has been useful, as these posts often are (if anyone else finds them useful, that’s fine, but it’s a side effect of their benefit for me). I debated not writing this book up at all, just listing it as one of the “mistakes” I made in choosing my in-between reading this year. It’s a short book, about 200 pages, the size of a trade paperback, with generous margins and spacing, so it’s a quick read. It’s pleasantly written, even in places it deals with depression. And once I started going through my notes, I found a great deal to write about, and found numerous connections to other areas of interest, from Confucius to humor to television.

Maybe this wasn’t the book I wanted it to be; maybe some things remain for me to find elsewhere. But clearly, this read was not a mistake. And for someone who is looking for self-help, something grounded more in science than in a celebrity’s idea of the good life, it might be perfect.

Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) (Chronicle, 2017)

Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.

It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.

Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.

But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:

Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.

Grace Loh Prasad

Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.

The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.

I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.

The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.

I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.

The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”

From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.

But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:

Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.

Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.

Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”

The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution

There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.

When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.

The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:

“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.

Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.

And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”

So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.

I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.

Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.

The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.

With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.

If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.

In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.

Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.

The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:

Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.

I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.

Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.

While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.

The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:

In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.

Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.

Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:

Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.

As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.

But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:

At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.

In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:

Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.

I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.

O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.

Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:

Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.

I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.

It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.

Bart D. Ehrman: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (S&S 2020)

When I’ve told people the title, they have often been puzzled or even slightly offended. But let me be clear: I am not saying that a literal heaven and hell have experienced historical changes. I’m saying that the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years.
And I think that can be proved. There was a time in human history when no one on the planet believed that there would be a judgment day at the end of time. At another time, people did believe it. It eventually became a standard Christian teaching and is accepted as orthodox truth by many millions of people today. Between the time no one believed it and many people did, someone came up with the idea. That is, it was invented. So too with every idea of the afterlife. That doesn’t make the ideas wrong. It just means that they were ideas that once did not exist and then later did.

I’ve mentioned my misspent youth as a fundamentalist before. In the years since, my interest in religion has been more academic and historical (and, musical: I love church music from Palestrina to Mozart and standard Protestant hymns; I bounce in and out of various churches periodically because that’s where the music is). This book is just another attempt to make sense of a pretty insane path that, in spite of the difficulty of pinning anything down, keeps affecting our daily lives for better or worse. And it’s less prone than Dante to give me nightmares (once the Pentecostals get into your brain, you can never completely get them out).

My impression – and I haven’t done the careful study that would be necessary to confirm this – is that this book at least generally follows the flow of thought as presented in the Yale OCW’s I went through last year, and has at least some elements in common with the mooc “Early Christian Outlook and its Jewish Matrix: Narratives of Gospels and Acts”, which looked at Christianity as a Jewish sect and examined the influences in the Jewish world that would have been in play at the time. That is: Judaism itself, under the pressures of exile and Roman rule, underwent a shift towards anticipating a Messiah and into apocalypticism in the late Second Temple period; that shift influenced both the message of Jesus and Paul; early Christianity had many different beliefs, and what ultimately became today’s Christianity was also influenced by apocalpyticism generated by, among other things, Roman persecution and the need for unity to expand and maintain the church. I still think there’s another phase of development: the Roman Christianity that used hierarchy and strict obedience to orthodoxy to maintain power. But I’m just a dilettante, though I prefer to think of myself as a learner at an elementary level.

The book starts at the end: In Chapter 1, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman looks at the early Christian period, between the time of Jesus and the original apostles and the codification of the Canon, a time when many varieties of Christianity existed in widely separate places. We learn about “the earliest Christian forerunner to Dante’s Divine Comedy”, the Apocalypse of Peter, attributed to the disciple but written some time around 100 to 150 CE, too late to have come from his pen. Several other works are included here to underline the second-century belief in a hell of torment versus a heaven of paradise. Then comes the kicker:

None of these visions can be found in the Bible, because they do not, in fact, represent the earliest Christian views of the afterlife. The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found in either the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell.
But this became the standard Christian view over time, and it will be helpful to see where it ultimately came from, when it started to be adopted, and why it seemed so attractive….To see where this belief originated, we will need to begin our explorations many years before Christianity – before even the most ancient writings of the oldest parts of the Bible.

The rest of the book is the examination of how we got to this view of heaven and hell, essentially the one most commonly held today in Western Christianity. We start in 2100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first extant written literature in the world, to look at the fear of death. Enkidu goes to great lengths to find a way to cheat death, but ultimately fails. In several philosophy and religion moocs I’ve encountered the idea that the fear of death – the very impossibility of imagining what it is to be dead – may have been the motivation for imagining an afterlife; this seems to jibe with Ehrman’s thinking. I’ve also frequently seen the idea that the lack of justice in this world may have motivated consideration of judgment in the afterlife, where those who were wicked but went unpunished or even profited from their wickedness would finally get their just desserts. Again, this fits with the ideas in this book, though it comes in much later.

Another idea I encountered in some mooc along the way – I wish I could remember where – is that Virgil invented the hell of punishment in the Aeneid. Ehrman concurs with this as well, showing how, in Homer, the shades lived in Hades as sort of depleted, bored people, but weren’t punished, except for a very few (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus); the pleasant Elysian Fields await heroes (or perhaps offspring of the gods, favored of the gods, it seems to shift). Then, several centuries later, comes Virgil, who turns the afterlife into reward and punishment galore.

Some six or seven centuries after the Homeric epics, Virgil does not populate Hades with shades that all experience the same boring and pleasure-free existence. He writes of hellish torments for some and heavenly glories or others. Most have to be punished for their sins before being given a second chance at life. Why such a change from Homer? What has led to this invention of heaven and hell?
It is hard to say what among the enormous changes in the political, social, and cultural worlds between seventh century Greece and first century Rome might have affected the shift in thinking. But it is relatively easy to see what happened in the realm of ethical thought. Equity has become an issue. …The wicked, no matter how powerful and revered in this world, will pay a price in the next. Those who have done what is right, however, will be rewarded.
By the time of Virgil, these ideas had been around for centuries, popularized most importantly by the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Plato.

I was glad to see that my hazily-recollected notion was confirmed, and that further explanation was forthcoming. We spend a few pages looking at Greeks and early Roman philosophers before arriving at the main event: the Biblical view of what happens when we die.

Ehrman’s primary point is that throughout much of the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), resurrection concerns not individual people but the nation of Israel. In later books and in the apocryphal books such as the Maccabees, a more apocalyptic view comes into play, possibly a reaction to the Babylonian captivity and/or the growing awareness of Hellenistic philosophy – specifically, Platonism – in Jewish thought. While resurrection of the body and soul becomes more prevalent, the punishment for sin is annihilation: death, in other words. Torment isn’t part of the picture yet.

In a very interesting section subtitled “What Did Jews Believe at the Time of Jesus”, Ehrman gives us an overview of the work of Pieter Willem van der Horst, who examined a thousand epitaphs that have been preserved in the archaeological record in a thousand-year period of Jewish life leading up to Jesus. He points out what an extremely small sample this is. In fact, the conclusion doesn’t go much beyond noting the variety of beliefs about resurrection. We then take a look at the work of Josephus, the first-century historian who wrote extensively about the Jews as a people and a nation. This gives us three distinct groups with differing views on the afterlife: the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These views boil down to “annihilation, immortality, or resurrection.” This is where we start with Jesus and the Greek bible (the New Testament).

I get antsy whenever someone, anyone, points to a Biblical verse and declares what it means, whether it’s a PhD who’s studied six ancient languages and knows the history and archeological findings of the area of ancient Israel, or a country preacher who is sure he has a direct connection to God via prayer. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with documents written by people in a very different time and culture, in a different language, and, to boot, those documents were recopied over and over, broken apart, reunited, and so may or may not closely resemble the original texts. We in the US can’t agree on interpretations of the Constitution, which was written in our language a mere 200 years ago and is buttressed by a fair amount of supportive documentation including the explicit Federalist Papers; how can anyone claim to know the exact meaning of esoteric references in documents far more alien to us?

But we have what we have, and Ehrman goes through the hot spots of afterlife theology in the gospels: Gehenna, sheep and goats, poor man Lazarus and the rich man. He ends up here:

One of the other criteria I take very seriously is the need for any saying of Jesus to fit well into his own early first-century historical context as a Jew from Galilee. I have pointed out that for over a century now critical scholars have been widely convinced that Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview. My contention in this chapter is that his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife. Jesus did not focus on what would happen to an individual at the point of death. He was principally concerned with that great act of God that was coming soon with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal Kingdom. Those who lived as God wanted to them to – loving their neighbors as themselves, doing good for others in need – would enter into that Kingdom. Those who lived lives of self-centered sin and wickedness, on the other hand, would be destroyed, never to exist again.
Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed this day of reckoning was coming very soon ….But what happens if it doesn’t come? Then adjustments have to be made, and those who accept Jesus’s teachings have to reinterpret and possibly even alter them – maybe a little at first but then, possibly, more thoroughly. …It will be these later developments that lead to the views of heaven and hell still believed by so many of Jesus’s followers in our day.

We then go on to look at the books of Paul, and how it seems he might have changed his view when he began to realize the End of Time might not come before his death. It’s one thing to talk about what happened to some other people who die before the Return; but when it seems it might be your fate as well, maybe you reconsider. However this mostly concerns whether, at death, souls go into a kind of hibernation until the Return, or whether they immediately go on to be judged and rewarded or destroyed (because annihilation is still the punishment for sin, not eternal torment).

One of the topics I found most interesting was the discussion of 1 Corinthians on the new incorruptible and eternal body that will be given to the righteous at the resurrection. This draws from the transitory state of matter in neo-Platonic thought and removes that problem from the afterlife by a “mystery”: “We shall be changed.” This interests me for a musical reason: I remember all those Messiah performances, as a singer and an audience member, hearing that phrase from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and not having a clue what “we shall be changed” meant but loving the sound of it. Paul turns it into an act of God that allows the resurrection of the body in incorruptible form.

So Ehrman considers that the actual words of Jesus and Paul indicate a heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and destruction, eternal death, for the wicked. He then looks at how the notion of torment crept into both the scripture and thinking of earliest Christians. This is the section that is likely to cause the most discomfort for those whose belief follows from the King James Version of the Bible. I can appreciate that discomfort on two levels. Spiritually, if you’ve been raised with a belief, it’s hard to hear that maybe Jesus didn’t say that, or maybe this piece here was appended to that part there three centuries later by a Roman empire now adjusting to Christianity. And aesthetically, the KJV is, in many places, beautiful to those of us whose first language is English, so saying it’s wrong is like editing Shakespeare. But we’re looking at analysis here.

And, of course you knew we’d get here eventually, there’s the book referred to as Revelation, or, if you prefer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Ehrman points out that this is not whoever wrote the Gospel of John, as the writing is very different (“a bit like reading a page from a Dickens novel and then another from a sophomore in a creative writing class”). There are also some important points about the genre that affect how it is read.

This book, like all books of the Bible, was written both in and for its own day, and if we want to understand what its author meant, we have to place his book in its own historical context.
In addition, we have to understand better what kind of book it is. I will be arguing that it is not a prediction of what was to happen thousands of years after the author’s day. He was describing what he thought would take place in his own time. He did so by using a literary genre common at the time, called the “apocalypse,” a genre found in a number of works, especially during the four-hundred-year period between the Maccabean revolt and the end of the second Christian century.

In other words, the Whore of Babylon isn’t whatever scandalous actress is making gossip sheets these days, nor is it your least favorite politician; it’s Rome. And the Beast isn’t Hitler, it’s Nero. The Lake of Fire is a symbol. Just as Gehenna was a dump used to burn trash, the wicked were destroyed, not tormented.

So how did we get to burning forever? The post-Biblical period; the apocalyptic books; and the earliest communities of Christians who every once in a while faced a new round of persecutions from Rome. And a sense of justice. He even mentions apocatastasis, Origen’s theory that no one is in Hell forever but all are eventually purged of sin and saved. I learned about this back when I read Jo Walton’s Lent, and wish Augustin hadn’t dispatched it to the dustbin of theology.

I was a bit disappointed that the book ended here. I suppose it is the end of the story, since we’ve now got people going to heaven when they die, then being reincarnated for the Final Judgment, and the wicked being punished forever. But it seems to me heaven and hell continued to develop in different ways, as reflected, not only in religious and academic discourse, but also in fiction. Look at Dante, at Milton, and, yes, at Walton.

I chose to read this book after seeing a blog post Jim Harris about a previous Ehrman book. We’d just crossed paths discussing BASS stories, so I was intrigued my new friend was, like me, interested in religion as an academic rather than a spiritual pursuit; that is, more interested in the history of Christianity than it its truth or guidance. He mentioned this book would be published soon, and since I’d so enjoyed Walton’s Lent just months before, I put a hold on it at my local library.

That brings us into a bit of contemporary drama. I placed the hold in late February 2020, knowing the book was scheduled for release on March 31. In late February, COVID-19 was something happening in China and, maybe, Italy. On March 15, 2020, the Portland Public Library shut down the physical building (online services continued) following the diagnosis of two cases in Maine; what we now refer to as lockdown followed within days. I forgot about this book; I was still working on Pushcart and had a shelf of other reading, and the closure was only for two weeks (we were so naïve).

During the first week of June, the library announced it would open a “Library-to-go” service, initially to distribute books that had been placed on hold before lockdown by appointment only, staggered to reduce the number of people at the library at once. The pickup notice I found in my email delighted me, as 1) I’d forgotten all about it, and 2) the library was waking up! On June 11, stepped into the library building for the first time in months; it was only for about 30 seconds, but it was wonderful.

This has nothing to do with Ehrman’s book, of course, but does show how unexpected events can influence one’s viewpoint. I probably have a positive bias towards this book because of its place in my personal COVID history, minor as it is. So I have no trouble imagining the impact exile, destruction of the Temple, or persecution could have on one’s point of view. And for those who find these kinds of man-created-God thoughts offensive, that’s fine; there’s plenty of other stuff you can read.

Doug Mack: The Not-Quite States of America (Norton, 2018)

The United States of America is not just a nation of states but also – legally and officially – of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our outposts far from the North American continent: the territories of the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, along with the uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands.
They have U.S. National Parks and American Legion posts and U.S. post offices – just a standard first-class stamp gets your mail there; it’s all the same country. Their millions of citizens earn American dollars and pay into Social Security and Medicare and serve in the U.S. military at impressively high rates. They participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and receive Pell Grants and play Little League baseball and have 4-H Clubs and serve as United States Ambassadors. They pledge allegiance to the American flag, even if Old Glory hasn’t made room for them.
Yet for the average resident of the states (lowercase s – because States would be the whole nation), the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential, vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini-golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there – an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical-island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form – and for a moment we think, oh, right …we have territories. Then, just as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.
The territories are not part of our conception of ourselves.

I know we’re all dealing with multiple crises at the moment – pandemic, police violence, economic disruption, racism finally under national examination – but try to remember back in 2017. Man, that was a long time ago. Ok, hurricanes, especially Maria, that devastated Puerto Rico (and the US Virgin Islands, but somehow that never really got on our radar screen), the President of the United States throwing rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, Jose Andre’s World Central Kitchens feeding an island while politicians sat on their thumbs, a corrupt deal with an out-of-its-element electrical company to repair the Puerto Rican grid, and it went on and on for months until we got bored and started looking for new outrages, which, sadly, are always available.

Somewhere in that time frame, a tweet by Doug Mack crossed my path. The question about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans kept coming up, and it seems his book about the US Territories had been published earlier that year and answered a lot of the questions that were coming up. Not just about Puerto Rico, but about all the territories, however many there were, because most of us had no idea.

I got that book for last year’s in-between reading period, but I never got to it (appropriately enough) so I rolled it over to this year. I was a little unsure, since I’m not really interested in “travel books”. Turns out it’s not a travel book at all. Oh, there are some tales of people and interesting places and a chance encounter with a CIA-trained chef (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy shop, for those who didn’t spend years mesmerized by Top Chef), but it’s really a book about history and culture and American colonialism and why we don’t know anything about the US Territories.

Mack became interested in researching the Territories after an encounter with “the Quarters of Destiny”: you know, those special-issue quarters each state has, with a specific image carved on the back. Turns out the Territories have them, too, which he discovered looking at a portfolio of the quarters. Then a few days later he read something about American Samoa, and thought, “That’s one of those mysterious places on the quarters.”

Until very recently, I couldn’t even list the territories, let alone tell you anything about them. And if there’s anyone with no excuse for this, it’s me, a travel writer with a college degree in – ahem – American Studies.
My obsession with Americana runs deep, pulsing through my childhood in Minneapolis ….Years later, at Carleton College, amid the prairies and cornfields of southern Minnesota, I channeled this fascination into actual academics. I could rattle off esoteric facts (about the states ) and tell you the name of just about every capital (of the states). I graduated with the self-satisfied confidence of the newly diploma: I am a credentialed expert on all things American.
When I started out as a writer, my gaze turned overseas. I filed stories from Rome, from Ecuador, from a tiny Icelandic island. I was ever on the lookout for Americana and how it translated abroad ….
Yet in all this time, it never occurred to me, Mr. American Studies Guy, Mr. Globally Aware Travel Writer, that there was more of my very own country to consider. Parts of the USA about which I was not just fairly ignorant but almost wholly unaware. Places I could not reliably find on a map, within a thousand miles or even, in some cases, within the correct hemisphere.
And then one day I encountered what I now think of as the Quarters of Destiny….
It also seemed that, right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation….It was one of the focal points of the 1900 presidential election, between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
A century or so ago, Americans didn’t just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation? Was there a compelling reason why they mattered for the present day USA, or were they just remnants of a long-past historical moment?

These questions form the backbone of the book. Some of the answers may surprise you. For instance, in some ways they seem an awful lot like… colonies, can that be true? What’s a commonwealth, anyway? What’s the difference between an American national and an American citizen? What does guano have to do with all this?

It all started with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, when farmlands needed fertilizer and all these uninhabited islands covered in bird poop were just sitting around waiting for the taking. We still have Navassa (Haiti thinks they have it, and we’re pretty much in a stalemate that nobody seems to care too much about) though mining ended in the 19th century. From there, it became a game of I’m a Big Boy Now, as the US decided to make its mark on the world by acquiring non-contiguous lands; at the same time, the Navy wanted to become King of the Pacific, ceding the Atlantic to Great Britain. War seems to be a major motivation. Some territories were picked up after the Spanish-American war. Others became strategically important in the World Wars.

Mack goes through the territories one by one, while continuing the overall theme of answering those questions of how we came to have territories and why we don’t think of them now. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the history, he switches over to a nice little dinner he had with some people he met in a bar and we find out more about the attitudes towards the US and some of the culturally important aspects of island life. And then we’re back to political analysis and maybe a little economic scrutiny, ending with another group of new friends in “the rain forest version of Cheers. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, keeping a full-length narrative running while delving into details for each individual territory. It’s also very successful at keeping me turning pages.

Some details I found interesting:

The US Virgin Islands

In terms of the overall structure, Mack focuses his attention in this chapter on why the territories were acquired to begin with (guano), while delving into the USVI specifically.

On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum is a paean to “Danish industry and Manor life” and pretty much ignores the indigenous peoples and the more recent colonial struggles, including a major slave revolt in the 18th century. There’s a reason for this:

[Danish tourists] come to the territory in droves, specifically for the history, for the portal to their 19th century glory days. The American tourists come for the beaches and the shopping. The museums and historic sites, intentionally or not, reflect this imbalance and tailor their content to their ticket-buying audience: the Danes. History is written not just by the victors but by those who are most eager to underwrite it.

Next time someone tries to tell you only White Christian Europe has ever produced anything important, remember all the peoples and things that have been left out, overshadowed, or appropriated to create that impression.

American Samoa

This seems, to me, like the most appealing of the islands Mack discusses. Again, he contributes to the overall story by focusing on the Imperial Moment and Insular Acts of the early 20th century, with the assistance of Columbia Law Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa.

Ponses answers all pointed back to the turn of the twentieth century, the USA’s so-called Imperial Moment. “That’s what the historical actors at the time see as the question: can we do empire?” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government has become more powerful and the United States is now flexing its muscle on the international stage and European powers have been annexing colonies, so the question arises, Do we do this, too?
The nation’s answer: “Let’s go for it!”

This leads to constitutional questions: does the Constitution follow the flag? The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, left that up to Congress. Yeah. There’s also some routine racist stuff about how alien races can’t possibly be included with Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, it’s a well-constructed book, it can handle being thrown across the room a few times.

Turns out American Samoa made the decision to decline citizenship – they are American nationals – to avoid possible “outsider land-grab”. The Lapita have been here for 3500 years, and trace their ancestry back another 3500 before that. They aren’t giving that up for a Marriott and a bunch of designer outlets. “There was pressure, even duress, but the fact remains – and American Samoans are deeply proud of this fact – that these islands were granted to, not claimed by, the USA.” They’d rather keep fa’asamoa – the Samoan way.

One surprising fact is that American Samoa – the Territories in general, in fact – have a much higher rate of military enlistment than any state. The NFL and professional wrestling also have an outsized proportion of Samoans. And: they have fa’afafine, the third gender, a person who is born male but identifies as female. Maybe they could help some mainland Americans understand how that works.


The prominent overall theme of this section is the general public’s waning interest in the Territories:

The Spanish-American war had helped put the United States on the global stage, and soon there were much bigger battles, literally, than what was going on in these small islands. The United States became more deeply involved than ever before in goings-on across the globe, at the same time that the ever-growing mass media was covering ever more stories in ever more distant places. The territories were overshadowed by the competition. These “foreign” islands were no longer the most interesting foreign lands.

We always have been suckers for bright shiny new objects.

One of those goings-on was a little thing called WWII, and Guam bears the scars. They may have the world’s largest Kmart (not sure if that’s still the case) and watch out for karaoke clubs (they aren’t really about karaoke) but they also have the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, where signs warn you to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the brush.

When Guam fell to the Japanese in the early days of WWII, the Chamorros were put in rapidly constructed, crude concentration camps, or just murdered.

Nearly twelve hundred Chamorros died during the years of Japanese occupation and the Battle of Guam. (If you think about the standard narrative of the war in the Pacific, it’s always USA versus Japan, with little acknowledgement that many of these islands were already populated by people caught in the middle.)
The South Pacific Memorial Park was established in 1970, a joint Japanese-Chamorro project. There’s no ill will here, just a mutual sorrow.

“Nearly a million Japanese citizens visit Guam every year.” Guam also has a very high rate of US military service; in the Iran and Afghanistan wars, the casualty rate for troops from Guam was six times higher than any state. I’m trying to understand these things.

The Northern Mariana Islands

In terms of the overall arc of the book, this section looks at some of the legal and political issues the Territories have dealt with in more recent decades, including the growing discomfort the US began to feel with their role as colonizers. Yet, as you might imagine, when a group of people can’t vote for President and have congressional representation that can’t vote on anything, there’s little motivation to cater to their needs and opinions. Alas, the territories can’t seem to agree themselves on their relationship to the US.

“Saipan is the most welcoming place on the planet,” Angelo had told me in an email before I arrived, and every day I met people who proved him right. And the landscape really was gorgeous, with the sky so pristinely blue that it felt manufactured and seemingly endless flame trees, ablaze with bright orange flowers.
But there was also an unmistakable sense that all was not well on Saipan, a disquieting feeling that the whole island had been burned, hardcore.
It was often the stillness of abandonment: empty houses, empty shops, entire vacant factory complexes, with broken windows and the occasional tree growing out of a roof.
I pulled my Hyundai to a halt when I saw an entire abandoned mall. …
The more modern the ghost town, the more disconcerting it is. Pompeii has a certain charm area Chernobyl does not. Recent ruins indicate research, relatable failings: THIS COULD BE YOU. Here, not too long ago, were vigor and joy and laughter and big plans. And then something went horribly wrong.

I’ve read this chapter three times now, and I still am not sure what it is that went wrong. It seems to be the predictable aftermath of Congress using the territories to experiment with economic approaches. One Speaker of the House called it his “Galapagos Island.” Mack has a particularly juicy way of describing it: “Imagine that you used a Club Med brochure and Atlas Shrugged as your manuals for constructing a new economy in a place with a long history of insularity and colonialism. What’s the worst that could happen in this laissez-faire Shangri-la?” Then there’s this tidbit, which I find shocking: “On Saipan, the tap water for most residents is not potable.”

The wartime history of this island again echoes the “caught in the middle” tragedy. It’s not just the mass suicide of the Japanese who realized they were losing the island. It’s the ghost of the North Field airbase on the small, now mostly abandoned island of Tinian, where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the Enola Gay and Bockscar. Mack incorporates these aspects of the island with great sensitivity.

On the softer side, there’s the ubiquitous laundromat/poker room combination, and a lovely evening that included “Fanta with a Founding Father.” But overall, it’s the bleakest chapter.

Puerto Rico

The overall sense of this chapter is a summary. Mack presents his nine points answering the question of why no one cares about the Territories any more, one of those points being “it can get ugly so let’s not think about it.” That might be the ultimate American attitude towards everything, from colonies to race to COVID testing.

The chapter starts out, however, with an anecdote that delighted me: a visit to artist Samuel Lind’s house and a close look at his sculptures and prints celebrating the bomba dance. This charmed me because, four years ago in Pushcart 2016, I read a fascinating short story featuring bomba as both a plot and structural element: a dance with doctors in the interests of patient advocacy. As the header image, I chose a Lind print. All of this was out of a place of complete ignorance; I had to google “bomba” to learn what it was and why it was pertinent, and my choice of Lind was completely random. But it stuck with me, and now, four years later, I run into it again. This is why I blog what I read; it makes it more likely I’ll remember it later.

The main issue here is the conflict within the territory about its relationship to the States. The three sides – status quo, independence, and statehood – are passionate about their positions. The politics goes a little beyond me. The humanity doesn’t.

This is also where, by sheer accident, Mack ran into the CIA-trained chef (“I was Emeril’s sous chef in Orlando”), as well as an architectural student who, along with his photographer wife, got them into what might be the most opulent home Mack had ever seen – including “around eighty handmade tiles telling the story of Don Quixote.” There was a year when everything I read or did ended up connected to Norway; this year seems to be all about Don Quixote. And, fun fact: Puerto Rico has the highest concentration of Walgreens in the US, and the highest concentration of Walmarts in the world, which depresses the hell out of me.

The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them – implicitly or explicitly – as foreign. But when you consider everything tangled up in the territories – issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world – it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today. And there’s the rub: the territories are the most important domestic policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic policy issue at all.

Yes, the territories are, in fact, modern day colonies. Of course they are. This fact has not changed since the Imperial moment. And that’s a problem, one that we, the United States of America, must resolve.

This was, in terms of the political content, a more intense read than I was prepared for at the moment. Turns out, it was a good read anyway. I learned a great deal about the Territories (beginning with what they are), actually found them on maps, figured out the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia (sort of), and felt everything from sorrow to amusement to delight. It’s not a travel book, but it’s not a history book, either; it’s somewhere in the middle, which is so appropriate for the subject of places somewhere in the middle of us and them.