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.

Prologue

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.

Introduction

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?
PLATO: MOOCs.

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.

Guam

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.

Rebecca Goldstein: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2009)

I was being true to Spinoza in leaving behind the personal sense of him that had opened up to me within the space of one small Hebrew phrase; and yet it is back to that personal sense of him that I am trying now to return, even knowing what I know about his philosophy. I would like to recapture the sense of the man behind the formidable system, locate the pounding pulse of subjectivity within the crystalline structure of radical objectivity.
There was a moment long ago when I knew next to nothing about the magnificent reconfiguration of reality laid out in the system of Spinoza, and yet when I felt I knew something about what it was like to have been him, the former yeshiva student, Baruch Spinoza.
I would like to know that feeling again, even though I know that the desire amounts to betraying Spinoza.

This wasn’t the book I expected it to be, but in retrospect, that’s a good thing. I’m nowhere near ready for full-on Spinoza philosophy, and here I got a gentle introduction to some of the key points wrapped in an engaging story of a person, a people, and three nations, as told by a philosopher.

I became interested in this book last year when I read Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. One of the characters referred to Spinoza as the “atheist’s theologian” (note: I don’t consider myself an atheist; there isn’t a commonplace label for my constantly shifting spiritual quasi-beliefs) and some casual googling uncovered his phrase Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. I wasn’t sure what the exact implications of this phrase were, and I wanted to find out. Goldstein’s book seemed like a start.

After a brief abstract that combines biography, history, and philosophy in a sort of preview-of-coming-attractions, Goldstein starts with a scene from her own childhood at a New York yeshiva high school for girls. Her teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, used Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew of Amsterdam, as “a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom,” and among other things as the perils of valuing philosophy over the Torah. We get a second biography from this point of view, along with a thoughtful student’s reactions. At one point, Mrs. Shoenfeld speaks of one small positive feature of Spinoza, and in doing so, made an impression she might not have intended:

However, continued Mrs. Schoenfeld, Spinoza did retain one Jewish virtue, and a very important one at that: Respect for his parents. Just think about that for a moment, girls. Even a man like that, completely godless, still honored his parents. He waited until both his parents had passed away before he revealed his apikoros. … He had followed exactly the prescribed mitzvahs for mourning a parent, going every day to the synagogue, saying Kaddish. And while his father lived, he had kept his silence because of shalom bayis.

But now, with this phrase, Spinoza burst into vivid life before me. It was as if I suddenly knew him, knew the manner of person he was. ….He had not wanted to hurt his family by speaking his doubts aloud. Though he was a man who had given himself over entirely to the search after truth – I knew this instinctively – still he would not speak the truth so long as his doing so might hurt those whom he loved.
And from this one fact about Spinoza I knew that Mrs. Schoenfeld was mistaken in thinking that it was his arrogance that explained his departure from orthodoxy. An arrogant person would not have shown such heightened consideration for others’ sensibilities. He would not have waited until his father had died before revealing how deeply he questioned the beliefs of the fathers. The thought occurred to me that he must have been a lovable man. I sat in Mrs. Schoenfeld’s class and I felt that I loved him.
My teacher had tried to make us feel Spinoza’s betrayal as our own, as if we, too, were part of that close-knit community of former Marranos, which in some sense we were. She had tried her best to put the seventeenth-century philosopher into familiar terms, and she had succeeded, though, at least in my case, not exactly as she had intended.

I hadn’t realized until I read Harold Bloom’s NYT review (which, I confess, I poorly understand, but I don’t think he’s a fan) that the title has two meanings. For me, Goldstein was the philosopher betraying Spinoza by approaching him in a more personal sense rather than through the radical objectivity he spent his life writing about. But “Betraying Spinoza” can also be a descriptive term for the yeshiva boy, the Sephardic Jew whose family fled from Spain to Portugal to Amsterdam long before he was born in search of a place they could safely be Jewish, who turned his back on Torah and Talmud and disavowed the special relationship between the nation of Israelites and God in favor of a view of the universe through reason, a view that made logic into God, into everything that is.

To get to Spinoza’s ideas of the fundamental nature of the world and the route to salvation, Goldstein takes us through Sephardic history in Spain and Portugal as well as his life in Amsterdam where Jews were relatively safe. She sees his vision of identity as a reaction to the Jewish identity which, prior to arrival in Amsterdam, was denied, hidden, or forgotten, yet always existed. The question of “What is a Jew” – is it a cultural, genetic, religious, voluntary, or permanent trait? – for her resolves in his idea that, in the system Spinoza envisioned, “To the extent that we are rational, we, all of us, partake in the same identity.”

We also need to understand the importance of Kabbalah to Sephardic Jewry in particular. I was glad I’d taken a mooc explaining the basics of Kabbalah, since the ideas come at you quickly.

Lurianic Kabbalah, transmitted from his visions of Elijah, offered a new narrative to explain the moral history of the suffering world, and the role that the Jews were chosen to play in that moral history. It is a tale of a shattering – a shevira – at the very beginning of the creation of the world, when the
Ein Sof, or that without end, contracted itself so that the world could be created. The divine light entered into the ten vessels that were waiting to receive it, and some were shattered, the shards falling into the abyss from which the world arose, carrying sparks of light that were trapped within. From the moment of its first being, then, the world was not as it ought to have been. ….It is tikkun ha olam – healing the world – which in mystical terms is described as the gathering up of the shards of the broken vessels, the divine light caught within them. ….When all is restored to its rightful place, the Messiah will come; his arrival will not deliver our redemption to us, but rather signal that redemption has, through man’s spiritual efforts, been achieved.

This view that the world was broken from the start and our job is to fix it somewhat parallels Spinoza’s idea that the world is made of logic and everything in it is as it should be; and if we can attain that logical view, much of our conflict stemming from differences will be unnecessary. I see the likeliness of either approach happening getting slimmer all the time, but I’ve become more pessimistic every day over the past three years. In any case, Spinoza departed from Kabbalistic ideas at the broken vessels, because why should they break? He’s got a point.

Biography is sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes it’s factual and objective from the academic side of Goldstein; other times it’s through imaginings as her fiction writer self steps forward. Aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy are explained as well: conatus, the essence of identity that makes us who we are; the pleasure of expanding into the world, the pain of withdrawing from it, the desire towards pleasure are the primary emotions. “Reality is ontologically enriched logic”: that’s the sort of thing I’m going to need to read more about; it almost makes sense, but not quite.

It’s a book that makes me want to know more. I suspect Spinoza’s ideas have been superseded by those of others – Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, a more contemporary discussion of radical objectivity in light of information we now have from science, keeps cropping up here, as it did in Goldstein’s novel. But it’s a start, and, in places, an emotionally gripping one.

Allen Gee: My Chinese-America (SFWP 2015)

I think that those African-Americans who like to assume that I have white privileges, or the upper hand of lighter skin pigmentation, aren’t aware that some whites, especially in the academic arena I work in, view me as a fierce source of competition, fearing I’ll match the stereotypical Asian prodigy, or be the diligent hardworking immigrant. One white male writer once complained to me in a jealous tone, “I wish I had a cultural background like yours to draw upon!”
….
While I do consider myself hardworking, which stems from my family’s original blue collar Toisanese farming roots in China, my determination stems more from a desire to live the most involved writing and teaching life possible, for the sake of wanting to fully explore the life of the mind. So for me, being Asian in the New South means occupying a unique space, a territory of my own, neither black nor white …. And although some African-Americans believe I have advantages because my complexion is lighter, or supposedly more acceptable, and might also view me as a competitor vying for limited claims to minority status, they have not walked far enough in my shoes, and would certainly be surprised to know how much we have in common, as different as we are.

It’s easy for those of us in White America to see Asians as the “model minority,” and more or less forget about them when we have those Twitter fights about racism. Then a pandemic comes along and shows you what was just under the surface all along.

That has little to do with why I chose to read this book, however. Back at the end of January, I read a piece by Gee recalling his mentor James Alan McPherson in Pushcart 2020. I put both this book, and a volume of short stories by McPherson, on my list. As it happens, current events added to my interest.

As an English professor, a former basketball player, and skilled fisherman, Gee bucks a lot of stereotypes about Chinese American men. As his essays point out, he often has to deal with them anyway. He covers a wide spectrum from the very personal – family and dating – to the societal, to the universal experience of aging.

The first essay, “Profile,” is a harrowing account of an encounter with a Kansas State Trooper as he was traveling from his then-home in Houston to the midwest to Albany to see his parents. That’s followed by a more reflective look at the past in “Is It Safe There?”, which takes its title from a friend’s question about going to Chinatown. Gee, as it happens, spent his early childhood in New York’s Chinatown, where his family owned restaurants. He writes with fondness of his memories, and with sadness about how so much of the flavor is being lost to gentrification:

These days, I fondly recall accompanying my grandfather on his self-appointed rounds, but as more and more of the Chinatown I knew vanishes, I have the sense that more of my own history is disappearing, and so part of myself seems to be winnowing away , like I am slowly being erased. I’m left feeling less and less connected to where I once felt the most culturally anchored and secure and alive.
We are constantly told that change is inevitable in life, but what happens when we have almost nothing left to return to?

We then shift to a peculiar date he had with a woman I would describe as an Asiaphile/stalker. It’s almost comical; it’d make a great scene for a movie, but this was real life, with people looking on. But we’re back to serious business with “Fraught with Masculinity” as Gee, buying formula for his infant daughter at WalMart, finds himself about to walk into a showdown between two rival gangs. He took a detour into a McDonalds to avoid the situation, and in the essay uses the opportunity to look at images of masculinity in multicultural American:

What I intuited before the age of twelve was how American representations of Asians failed to correspond with who I was, and aside from the dearth of rolemodels throughout popular culture, Asian-American male stereotypes were already prevalent. …[W]hile emasculation is how Asian-American males are otherized, hypervirilization and being attributed with a menacing intent to elicit fear is how African American males are most often stereotyped. Neither minority group is allowed to be thought of as “normal” – that would deem them equal with whites.

I’ve never thought of Asian men (and I’m thinking of East Asian in particular; as Anthony Bourdain once said, Asia is a big place) as being less masculine, but I’m aware that’s a common trope. What particularly interested me wasn’t even in the piece itself, but came up as I was dictating the above quote using word-recognition software to save wear and tear on my disintegrating hands. Instead of “how Asian-American males are otherized”, the result was “how Asian-American males are authorized.” A perfectly understandable substitution based on pronunciation of a rarely-used word, but remarkably pertinent semantically as well: stereotypes, particularly those that weaken and dismiss the target, are ways of authorizing, both in terms of permission, and in terms of writing them as characters rather than allowing them to be who they are. While this author-izing of Asian men writes them as harmless and allows them to be ignored and dismissed, rewriting African American men as threatening justifies abusive treatment and assumption of wrongdoing.

One of the most contemplative pieces is “Silences” and outlines Gee’s relationships with the men in his family. One startling revelation is that his father didn’t know he’d been adopted until he was 45 years old. I’m a little confused as to how that’s possible, but I suppose birth certificates weren’t required in the past as much as they are now. While considering his father’s reluctance to give him advice throughout his life, Gee comes to embrace the habit of silence that is part of the family.

“Point Guard” is a fascinating essay both structurally and informationally, even for those of us who don’t basketball at all. Gee discusses his own basketball career, originally undertaken as way of fitting in as a teenager, in parallel with a second essay about Jeremy Lin and the reaction America had to a Chinese basketball star.

When you feel that you can affect or dictate the flow of the game by determining the pace – by scoring on your own and creating opportunities for teammates, or by shutting down an opponent or outplaying him or her – or when you are dominant because of your vision come up dribbling, and passing or shooting skills, and when you want the ball and everyone looks to you and wants to get you the ball so that you are the locus of play, like a conductor or floor general, or when you are the man, the woman or the one whose play determines whether your team wins or loses in “clutch” moments, only then do you know what it is to be a “true” point guard.

I have no idea what a point guard is, but that paragraph sure makes me wish I was one.

Somewhere in today’s feeds was a request that more white people write about their white privilege instead of about the problems faced by people of color. I will own my white privilege here: “Asians in the Library” was hilarious. It’s hilarious to me because I’m not the subject of the rant of the UCLA student who simply was fed up with so many Asians in the library – “they come to our school, which is fine” – committing atrocities like talking on cell phones (which is annoying, but is annoyingly cross-racial, trust me on this) and having family over on weekends. It’s funny in the way the current crop of freedom fighters are posting rants about refusing to wear masks in stores that require them. That is, not funny at all. Enter Jimmy Wong, who made his own song/video in reply, and it’s even funnier/sadder. It’s all available on Youtube, but no, I’m not going to provide links.

“The Real New South” gives us a sense of Gee’s experience living in Georgia as an English professor. It’s an interesting look at what it is to not fit into a binary society based on black and white. The experiences of aging take the stage in “Echocardiography” as an erratic heartbeat leads to the realization that the body does, eventually, betray us all. I could identify with the sense of shock as he found himself “buying a long plastic pillbox with letters for each day of the week on top of seven compartments.” Ah, yes. The first pill bar. It felt like giving up. I now have one with AM and PM compartments for each day. And an extra one for as-needed analgesics. You can get used to anything, turn anything into normal. Whether you should is another question.

A fishing trip provides the narrative for “By 2042” that somehow pivots to the question of minorities becoming the Ugly Americans when they become the majority. Just as he did with basketball, Gee took an activity in which I have no particular interest – deep-sea fishing – and made it fascinating. I had no idea so much was involved. Most of the people on the boat that day probably had no idea, either; it turned out to be that kind of tourist trip where someone else does most of the work but you get to pull on the rod at the right moment and claim your fish. My father, who’d never been fishing before, hung a sailfish on our living room wall after such a fishing trip. But the boat captain wasn’t prepared for someone at Gee’s level of expertise,and that led to a decision on how to handle disappointment when a silly mistake let the big one get away.

The book wraps up with a state-by-state travelogue relating various experiences or statistics related to Gee and/or to Chinese American history. Turns out his grandfather came to Maine in the 30s on vacation. And Gee wants to retire to Florida. I grew up in Florida. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But I hear there’s good fishing.

Some aspects of my life are directly contrary to Gee’s; on others, we share traits. My father held secrets. I never did find out exactly when he came here from Sweden. He was determinedly American. I learned a few words of Swedish and a couple of recipes from his older sister, but that’s about it. Our culture was supposed to be American, though I still have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I didn’t find out my older sister was adopted until I was sixteen. I thought it was cool. To my parents, it was something to be hidden. I connect with him on the unlikeliest things: the pill box, the descriptions of fishing and basketball. From his Pushcart essay, I learned that he considered himself not very well-read at the time he became interested in literature. These reading projects I do are all aimed at fixing my similar lack of background.

And further considering how silence has pervaded our family, I know it is not simply something mysterious, shameful, confounding, and divisive; nor is silence something to be resented. It is a behavior that will forever be in the air, seeming as natural as the wind or the sun. For although I might wish otherwise, not only is silence a deeply ingrained part of our history, but I sense it’s deep in our bones, as if it’s a part of our destiny, and so in many forms, it will most likely continue.

I’m glad he let his voice, and through him his father’s and grandfather’s voices, be heard in this volume.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Suzanne Farrell Smith, “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” (nonfiction) from Brevity #59

If you find a mouse on a glue trap, he’ll eyeball you with one black shiny eye while breathing in and out faster than you have ever seen anything breathe. You will panic, though you know the mouse is panicking harder.

Complete story available online at Brevity

How would you tell the story of finding a mouse stuck in a glue trap you yourself did not put down, but was rather a carryover from the former owners of your house? What would you want to convey: what actions, tone, emotions, persons secondarily affected?

You might use second person, if you wanted to dramatically increase the chances of some random editor/slush pile reader tossing it into the Rejects bin, then make it very short, in order to mitigate that possibility. But you’d make it all one paragraph, again shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’d send it to a litmag that specializes in very short, very creative nonfiction, that wants to see something different.

You might want to cram in a range of emotions, and make them evident not by explaining – “I felt sad/happy/scared” – but through actions and considerations. This is, of course, show don’t tell, the first rule learned in Writing 101, but if you think about it, it’s also Real Life: nobody reads a Bad News Letter and thinks, Wow, I’m sad and scared; no, you crumple up the letter, maybe throw it, maybe cry, maybe stare at nothing, maybe grab a bottle or a pile of chocolate or the phone, maybe a lot of things, but naming emotions wouldn’t be one of them. That’s why it’s a rule.

Ok, I can’t do this any more; see, its harder than it looks.

When the mouse starts to struggle, you will tell your husband to kill it, no save it, and you will run to your phone and search “how to remove a mouse from a glue trap.” Articles will tell you to use oil, so while your husband brings the glued mouse out to the back walkway so that your three young sons, in jammies and waiting with popcorn bowls for a Saturday-night Christmas movie, don’t see it, you will hunt for the carafe. Outside, the mouse will sniff and stretch from the trap…. You will cover his body with an old tri-fold cloth diaper and douse his legs with olive oil. Your husband will say, “He’s going to smell too good to predators,” and you will tell the mouse, in all honesty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you smell delicious.”

I would never think of a two-page memoir about finding a mouse as being interesting, but this really was, as writing. We know the narrator has conflicting feelings; we see a strange juxtaposition (every time I use that word, I worry, because I was once told it’s a signal of bad writing, but it’s a useful word and fits what’s happening here) of the drama in the basement and the kids getting ready to watch a Christmas movie upstairs. Hilarious sentences are followed by maudlin ones, but it combines to give an honest portrait of the moment.

The title had me stuck on “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” simultaneously the cutest and the most right-wing children’s story ever written. But the text had me comparing it to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad”, often considered hyperbolic, more of a satire of romantic poetry given its subject matter. Smith stays firmly within real limits, even as she explores a reaction some of us might find odd.

It’s a great example of putting the creative in creative nonfiction without going gimmicky. Yes, I know, there are those who think second person is automatically gimmicky, but it works here, distancing the narrator from herself enough to present the scene, and putting the reader in her place, a place some readers, again, might not consider, um, normal. The kids upstairs are just the icing on the cake, offering a parallel to the end stage and the morning-after scene, a scene that is as inevitable as it is… no, not heartbreaking, but more than wistful: let’s call it appropriately somber.

No, let’s not call it anything at all. Let’s just read it, and that’ll tell us more.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Patricia Foster, “Eulogy” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares #134

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal's Vision

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal’s Vision

“Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”

Complete essay available online at Ploughshares

The prior story, “In That Time,” let us watch a twelve-year-old discover, in one moment on one morning, a different way of viewing his father, a discovery that altered their relationship going forward. Here there’s a similar core event – new information alters the perception of a person – but it takes place over a longer period of time, and by adults, one of whom was not involved in the relationship to begin with; whether it alters anything going forward is uncertain.

Foster was aware her husband had been spent time in foster care as a very young child, never knew his father, and was abused by his stepfather and, ultimately, his mother. His rage at his mother is understandable, almost inevitable. For reasons I don’t understand, they obtained records of his mother’s involvement with state agencies, and a different picture of the mother emerged: she was, in post-WWII-America, simply another girl who couldn’t find her way out of poverty to reclaim her son. But she tried – boy, did she try.

The 40s were a different era from today. An unwed mother was an abomination, and mercy was in short supply. In order to retain what today we would call parental rights, she had to pay for foster care out of her salary as a waitress and factory worker. She visited him as often as possible: first, four times a week, then, when the foster placement was changed, once a week, the maximum permitted.

Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.

There are those who feel that most troubles are caused by bad choices. That may be true, but there are people living in circumstances where the only choices are bad ones.

And yet Ann managed to run a boarding house that provided some financial security. She still had to work, of course, and with childcare still decades away – and with the predominant moral attitudes of the era – she was still unable to claim her son. “It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband.” So she got that as well.

How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.

It’s quite a task, to turn an abusive mother into a sympathetic figure. Her husband finds some peace in the information. Not a happily-ever-after kind of uplift – hence the marvelous line quoted above about family being something out of bizarre and often horrific art – but a realization that his mother loved him, a realization that went a long way. “And she really tried,” he tells his wife. Yes, she did. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it makes a difference.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Megan Baxter, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to my Skin” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2018

To consider my tattoos we must first consider skin. Skin is our barrier against the world, enveloping our body so that we don’t lose our precious water and evaporate like dew. …. The strata of our skin resemble a slice of the earth, where twenty-five to thirty layers of skin cells separate us from the outside world. Scratch your epidermis and you might flake off a few dead cells, but cut into your dermis and you will bleed and slap your hand to the cut in pain. It is in the dermis that tattoo ink is deposited and where, as the years of a life progress, the ink sinks like heavy water, fading away through layers of skin like a figure retreating into shadow.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

Is there a philosophy of the tattoo? Given the devotion of a not insignificant number of people to this art form, I would imagine so, but it might be a bit different for each practicioner or participant. Baxter gives us several viewpoints, all accented with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Not a bad choice, as he was the poet of everything and everyone, a singer of every physical experience a person might undertake from love to war to death to lying on the spring grass. Baxter speculates he might have encountered tattoos on Civil War soldiers he spoke to, as that was a means of identification should they perish on the battlefield. That practice, she explains, lives on in the military, particularly the navy.

She mentions another historical tattoo story which I’d never heard: an Iconoclast emperor in the Byzantine empire punished two priests who refused to destroy their icons to torture, first by beating, then by tattooing poetry on their foreheads. I looked up the poem; it’s quite long, and I wonder how it would fit on one forehead. I also wonder if Kafka was inspired by this when he wrote “In the Penal Colony”, another story about tattooing as punishment.

Pain is part of the process, and Baxter finds it a benefit:

The pain of fading, the pain of mistake, is not as bad as the pain at its origin under the needle.…
But the pain is essential. It releases endorphins that flooded you with something like love and joy. The two-beer buzz. Sex. French fries and milkshakes. The good stuff. And after a while you won’t be able to describe the pain but you will know that it is a key and the release is worth the scratch.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
– Walt Whitman

Exercise advocates also insist that the pain of running or aerobics releases endorphins and improve mood; maybe my endorphin system is defective in some way, because all exercise ever did for me was make me tired and sore.

Baxter also reveals some of her own inspirations that resulted in tattoos, most dramatically, a Utah eagle, but also her first experiene as a teenager. She has seven tattoos, and considers herself done at this point. “You came into the world perfect”, her mother says after each one. She isn’t immune to the implications of that statement.

I’m pretty laissez faire about tattoos, much as I am about most things consenting adults wish to do with their bodies. I’ve occasionally thought about what kind of tattoo I would get, much as I sometimes, even in my senior dotage, think about names for children I never wanted to have. I’ve seen some beautiful work, art that used the anatomy of the body as a platform for non-planar art. And I’ve seen some stupid stuff, including my husband’s self-tattoo of my initials on his fingers.

If there is a philosophy, or a psychic drive that I don’t happen to share, that’s fine. To each their own.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Samantha Libby, “Chinko” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.3

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.

Complete story available online at New England Review

Libby has had a remarkable decade working on the front lines of global justice: from Hanoi to Ethiopia to the US, from art to children to anti-violence to returning soldiers, her resume
glows with good works and challenges Twitter SJWs everywhere. As she outlines the dangers of this particular place and time in this essay – “Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire” – I lose track of the exact nature of her mission. Something about connecting remote communities by radio in the hopes of reducing violence.

But the project doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. It’s background.

As we read, we find sandwiched in between the Chinko material some of the horror Libby endured as a child who became the target of an entire cohort of bullies.

The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away….
I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.

No explanation for this abuse is given, perhaps because there is nothing that would explain, much less justify, it, even in the slightest degree. Typically, children react to some perceived difference when they choose a target for mass bullying: a physical trait, a new arrival in town, an unfamiliar cultural background, family history, something. In Libby’s case, we have no idea, and of course, as a child, neither did she. She only knew everyone else saw something terribly wrong with her, and she had no idea what it was.

The abuse isn’t really what the story is about, either. More background.

I remembered the story from BASS 2019, “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson, and the inspiration for her fictional story: a team of domestic violence therapists believed that most abused people “spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.” Simpson’s story was all about keeping powerful destructive impulses contained.

And that, I think, is what the essay is about: Libby struggling to keep her Invisible Beast, the pain and rage of an entire childhood, from bursting loose. Still convinced she does not deserve the kind of life others might think of in their dreams, she understands what the people of Chinko are dealing with.

Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.

Imagine a childhood with threats equal to the poachers, armed militias, animals, and diseases of Chinko.

It would be easy to hold Libby as an example of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” but I don’t believe that, either. Yet there is a connection between her childhood experience and her presence in humanitarian projects: by keeping her Invisible Beast contained, her energy is pouring into the negative places and making them, if not positive, at least a little less negative. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted every minute of my own life. Except I grew up with a different experience, leading to a different conviction: that the most generous, caring thing I could do for anyone was to keep far away from them.

Libby is the sort of person I could have been, the sort of person many of us could have been. Maybe someone reading her experience will realize that soon enough to do something about it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ottessa Moshfegh, “Jailbait” (nonfiction) from Granta #144

The day before I left home for college, I made a phone call to the publishing house of a writer I’ll call Rupert Dicks. Dicks had a reputation as one of the most audacious and brilliant minds in literature in the last century, and his work represented everything I held as sacred at the time – he was innovative, unapologetic and dedicated to the craft of honest prose. At seventeen, I knew I was a writer, and I wanted to know what Rupert Dicks knew. I was determined to get him to tell me.

Complete story available online at Granta

The stress of recent events must be getting to me: this is the second Pushcart piece I have a strong urge to push back on, despite finding several points of agreement.

Moshfegh tells the story of how she entranced a high-end writer she calls Rupert Dicks (the literaria probably know who he is, but I don’t) into reviewing her writing and giving her solid notes. She never promised him sex; she just let the implication hang in the air until, after what must’ve been a few months of meetings (and one touch, and an insipid kiss, both of which came as a surprise to her), she got the detailed analysis she wanted. Then she breezed off.

Part of me admires a 17-year-old who can pull that off. Twenty years later, in a terrific interview with Alex Clark for The Guardian, she’s impressed, too, “that I had so much gall.” Given all the ways this could’ve gone wrong – from blacklisting to rape – she was also lucky that the writer was basically law abiding, if lecherous.

Did she, in fact, do anything untoward at all? There was no promise. Dicks (I love the use of that name) could’ve told her to buzz off at any time. I have a feeling that the idea that a young writer-to-be wanted his guidance was as much of a draw as the anticipated sex.

Where I start wanting to push back is when Moshfegh pats herself on the back a little too proudly in the interview: “It gave me some insight into my own strengths and, like, arrogance, which has been an asset. My arrogance as a writer has been really important [laughs].” And in the memoir itself:

At thirty-six, I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism. My assumption that people are ultimately self-serving lowers my expectations and allows me to forgive. More importantly, it empowers me to be selfish, and to cast off the delusion that I’ll get what I want just by ‘being nice’. We are all unruly and selfish sometimes…. One has to be somewhat badly behaved to write above the fray in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity. One has to be willing to upset the apple cart. Apples go flying, people trip and fall, yelp, grab for one another. A street corner is transformed into a tragic circus. And everybody gets an apple, each one bruised and broken in a special way. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be, a troublemaker. I can’t fault Dicks or anyone else for wanting the same.

Again, I have to agree with so much. Moshfegh has received a great deal of recognition for her work; obviously she’s doing something right. Reviewers love to use phrases like “brutal honesty” and “disruptive”, and they use them a lot with her. I’ve only read one of her stories; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m the first to admit that isn’t really a problem. I seem to have trouble with the contemporary version of honesty.

Where I want to push back is first of all the idea that a woman using sex to get what she wants is a good thing since men have used sex to dominate women and have used women in general to get what they want forever. While it’s cute that Dicks is hung by his own petard, his own desire, I don’t see all of us getting down into the mud as a forward step. Possibly a necessary one: when men are used by women in the same ways women have been used by men, maybe they’ll realize how scuzzy their own behavior has been. I doubt it, but I allow for the possibility. It seems to me it’s more likely we’re going the route of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The second thing that bothers me is the value-laden language that declares this kind of writing, this kind of writer, this kind of person, to be superior “in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity.” I think there are other ways to speak, to be, to write, that are not mediocre, and that palatable is not automatically bad. I continue to worry that the loud voices, the “at least I’m honest” crowd, are simply uninterested in others and don’t want to be bothered with subtlety and tact, let alone contemplation or reason. I worry that it’s not by accident that we ended up with the current national administration at this moment.

Maybe I’m just one of those quiet voices too mediocre for this moment, and jealous of the arrogant who get their way by demanding it. You have to be super-confident to pull that sort of thing off. When I get assertive, I get squashed, and then I obsess about it. Really, I still worry about the stupid things I said and did in high school, and they weren’t really all that stupid.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy from current circumstances. It really is a fun essay to read, with that pulsing thread of danger lurking underneath. Sort of like real life these days.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allan Gurganus, “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #197-198

I.
It kicked in early, my confusion: When is cultural appropriation appropriate? By the age of six, I owned three good puppets. Those being gifts, I had not made them. My mother boasted a Master’s degree in education; so Christmas brought me a cardboard marionette theatre. It was red and gold. My arbitrary players? A yellow fur lion, one ancient Austrian woodcutter and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Having only these actors might seem limiting; but, odd, all my plays about the world fit them exactly.
The character-puppet I did not need was one representing a sensitive freckled white boy with bangs, seersucker shorts, and his own National Geographic subscription. He would have bored me very much. It was others, always others, I pursued. The less like me, the more I needed them. What I didn’t know, they were. By asking them, by moving them around our little stage, I farmed my life toward theirs. I kept trying to understand them from the inside out. My strings lifted their hands and paws. Manipulation, you say? Don’t puppets require that? Isn’t all art manual labor in the service of certain truth-telling tricks?

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

Once in a while, I run across a story in these anthologies that suffers by mere timing. When originally published in early 2018 in an issue devoted to “This Age of Conformity” it would’ve been an interesting extension to the discussion of cultural appropriation. Now, in the post-American Dirt period, it seems a little late. Some things, when lead times of over a year are involved, can’t be anticipated.

Gurganus defends his ability to write characters unlike himself by recalling two experiences from his childhood. One, as above, is his puppet collection. The other is his foray into ventriloquism, and the metaphor of throwing one’s voice. He also raises, in the third part, the artistic tradition of the homage, of building on an older work and continuing the development of an idea. He also brings in his own oeuvre, which started off with a bang in 1989 with the immensely popular and highly acclaimed The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. That novel included a prominent black character, and he provides testimony for the authenticity he endowed her with.

This is all well and good, though it seems like a self-defense to a charge not made. Much of the appropriation discussion sounds like that, with writers asserting their right, their mission, to bring to the page the lives of people unlike them, to leave the “write what you know” advice in the past and use imagination, research, and empathy to include characters that serve the work, whatever their demographics. It is a confusing conversation, to be sure, one that I struggle with. But I think we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that there’s no prohibition against white writers writing non-white characters, as long as a) they are honest characters and not stereotypes, and b) not all non-white characters are translated through the vision of white writers.

About a month ago, in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, my blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote a few posts about his experience dealing with the question of appropriation as a writer. I felt like I got a little closer to understanding the boundaries as a result. If Gurganus’ post does the same for others, I’m all for it. The metaphors are quite clever. But I’m still aware that every time a writer of color objects to a particular work, white men line up to argue back.

I’d suggest that such ethnic guardians—advocating enforced cultural monopolies—are accidentally practicing their own form of one-voice one-note puppetry. To say that six-year-old black children should be issued only puppets depicting six-year-old black children—that backs us into an enslaving literalness. I grew up in the south of water fountains marked “Colored ONLY.” To willingly re-nail that sign onto any human replenishment as essential as Narrative, that repeats a tragic mistake for tricky new reasons.

Until the 60s, white American children played virtually exclusively with white dolls. I would venture that in most households, they still do. We don’t call that enslaving literalness; we don’t call it anything, it just is.

This is a complex issue. I don’t mean to argue with Gurganos. I haven’t read any of his work, so
I have no standing whatsoever. I’ll leave the arguments to those better versed in the details. I will just say that, while more or less agreeing with his basic point – that a writer can find ways to incorporate characters unlike herself – I’m a bit antsy about the overall tone. And frankly, I’m tired of the whole argument. Hmmm… is that called privilege?