Translating World To Word

by Jessie Roberts

Kathryn Schulz raves about Geoff Dyer’s writing prowess, calling him “one of our greatest living critics” and “one of our most original writers—always out there beyond literary Mach 1, breaking the how-things-usually-sound barrier“:

[T]he essential fact about Dyer’s nonfiction is that it works beautifully when it shouldn’t work at all. Some of that work gets done at the level of the sentence, where Dyer excels. Listen to him on a hot day in Algiers: “Even the ants out on the balcony drag a little sidecar of shadow.” On Roman ruins in Libya: “All around were the vestiges of nouns—columns, stones, trees. No verbs remained.” On a saxophone solo by John Coltrane: “It’s pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him.”

What’s going on in these sentences is the fundamental business of nonfiction: the translation, at once exact and surprising, of world to word. Writers weight that ratio of exactitude and surprise differently; you can stay close or reach further, out toward the risky and weird. Dyer reaches. You can see it in those precise but strange sidecars, in that startling grammar of ruin, and finally in the sax solo, where, like Coltrane, he pushes so hard on his medium that it threatens to break. Note the word blues, pulling three times its weight—noun, adjective, verb, so much pivoting around it that all the referents go briefly haywire and it seems like the solo is still rising and what’s falling is the sky. And note, too, how the sentence itself is pretty and then dangerous: dangerous because it starts out too pretty (“pretty” is a pretty word; “so high the sky” is Hallmark stuff); beautiful because it ends in so much danger.

Schulz goes on to praise Another Day at Sea, Dyer’s new travelogue of two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. John McAlley reviews the book (somewhat spoiling its ending in the last paragraph):

Dyer’s tour of the boat (that’s right: boat, not ship) is as closely monitored as an F-18 sortie, even though it’s a relatively stress-free time on the Bush: October 2011, more than a year after President Obama announced the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq. Once Dyer inures himself to the ’round-the-clock “crash and thunder” of the in-transit jets and the “aftertaste of the big meats” served in the mess, he’s at ease to report on the daily encounters prearranged for him. Each brief chapter gives us a peek into another nook and cranny of the carrier’s teeming underworld, or the above-deck “island,” “the bridge and assorted flight-ops rooms rising in a stack from one side of the deck: an island on the island of the carrier.” …

For all the snap and snark in his prose, Dyer can’t tamp down his generosity of spirit forever. This unbeliever — in faith, in wayward military action, in bad food and the snorting of bath salts, even in mourning the death of his parents — ends the breezy Another Great Day at Sea with stunning economy and emotional force, and in the most unexpected way. He says a prayer for the men and women of the USS George H.W. Bush — and for all of us at sea.

Subscribers to The New Yorker can read an excerpt of the book here.

A Cure For Aging?

by Jessie Roberts

Richard Walker, a scientist who specializes in aging research, believes the key to ending human aging lies in a rare disease known as “syndrome X.” Babies afflicted with the condition grow older but not bigger, remaining physically “marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy.” Here’s an excerpt from Virginia Hughes’s arresting account of Walker’s quest for immortality:

Brooke’s body seemed to be developing not as a coordinated unit, [Walker] wrote, but rather as a collection of individual, out-of-sync parts. He used her feeding problems as a primary example. To feed normally, an infant must use mouth muscles to create suction, jaw muscles to open and close the mouth, and the tongue to move the food to the back of the throat. If these systems weren’t coordinated properly in Brooke, it could explain why she had such trouble feeding. Her motor development had gone similarly awry: she didn’t learn to sit up until she was six years old and never learned to walk. “She is not simply ‘frozen in time’,” Walker wrote. “Her development is continuing, albeit in a disorganised fashion.”

The big question remained: why was Brooke developmentally disorganised? It wasn’t nutritional and it wasn’t hormonal. The answer had to be in her genes. Walker suspected that she carried a glitch in a gene (or a set of genes, or some kind of complex genetic program) that directed healthy development. There must be some mechanism, after all, that allows us to develop from a single cell to a system of trillions of cells. This genetic program, Walker reasoned, would have two main functions: it would initiate and drive dramatic changes throughout the organism, and it would also coordinate these changes into a cohesive unit.

Ageing, he thought, comes about because this developmental program, this constant change, never turns off. From birth until puberty, change is crucial:

we need it to grow and mature. After we’ve matured, however, our adult bodies don’t need change, but rather maintenance. “If you’ve built the perfect house, you would want to stop adding bricks at a certain point,” Walker says. “When you’ve built a perfect body, you’d want to stop screwing around with it. But that’s not how evolution works.” Because natural selection cannot influence traits that show up after we have passed on our genes, we never evolved a “stop switch” for development, Walker says. So we keep adding bricks to the house. At first this doesn’t cause much damage – a sagging roof here, a broken window there. But eventually the foundation can’t sustain the additions, and the house topples. This, Walker says, is ageing.

Brooke was special because she seemed to have been born with a stop switch. The media were fascinated by her case. Walker appeared with the Greenberg family on television several times and explained why he was so interested in Brooke’s genes. “This is an opportunity for us to answer the question ‘Why are we mortal?’” he said on Good Morning America. “If we’re right, we’ve got the golden ring.”

Naming Names

by Jessie Roberts

Oliver Farry considers how a writer’s name can make or break his fortune:

Geoff Dyer is finding himself being shadowed, in a manner akin to Poe’s William Wilson, by another Geoff Dyer, the Financial Times’ Beijing bureau chief, whose books on contemporary China have no doubt snared a few unsuspecting buyers on Amazon. David Cloud Atlas Mitchell has, on at least one occasion, been represented in a broadsheet newspaper by a photo of David Peep Show Mitchell. Dyer and Mitchell are sufficiently successful not to have been damaged by the confusion. Still, circumstances can change. Who now remembers the American writer Winston Churchill – three years Sir Winston’s senior – who was one of the world’s best-selling novelists of the early twentieth century?

Personally, I have to admit I am guilty of neglecting writers on account of their names being just a little too ordinary.

It took me a long time to get around to James Salter and George Saunders and I shamefully ignored the late Mavis Gallant’s work because her name, for some reason, conjured up the image of country parsonages and village fetes. It took best-selling John Green’s zany Flavorwire videos for me to pay attention to him because his name just blended into the background too much.

It’s one thing if you are getting a lot of press from the off – even then, if one is called Smith, it’s surely better to be a Zadie than a Jenny – but if you are relying, like most writers do, on word of mouth and exposure in bookshops and libraries, an ordinary name might not be the one you want. While China Miéville’s success is fully merited from a literary point of view, having a stand-out name has probably never harmed him either. A writer by the name of Peter Jones or Tom Jenkins is going to have a much harder time being remembered.

Why Pull The Trigger?

by Jessie Roberts

Support is building for “trigger warnings” on works of literature that address sensitive topics like rape or war (NYT):

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans. The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them.

Drum fails to see the endgame here:

I’m not especially sympathetic to the trigger warning movement, which seems more appropriate for explicitly safe spaces (counseling groups, internet forums, etc.) than for public venues like university campuses. But put that aside. What I don’t get is what anyone thinks the point of this is. You’re never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material.

Lowry scoffs:

The problem with the trigger warning as conceived by its most fervent supporters is its presumption that people can be harmed by works of literature; that every student is a victim of something and on the verge of breaking down; and that ultimately students have to be protected from anything departing from their comfort zones.

It is profoundly infantilizing. If someone can’t read Crime and Punishment (warning: includes scenes of near-madness, violence, sexual exploitation, cruelty to animals, and smoking) or Hamlet (warning: includes poisoning, drowning, stabbing, and intense intra-familial conflict) without fear of being offended, he or she should major in accounting.

Jason Diamond suggests the critics are being too callous:

[N]o matter how silly you might judge a trigger warning on a copy of The Great Gatsby to be, the mocking tone comes off as victim-shaming, whether it’s intentional or not. Of course, it takes two to tango, and the pro-trigger warning side, in some cases, could do a better job presenting its arguments. The Oberlin College draft guide mentioned in the Times piece, which asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabi, doesn’t make it clear how trigger warnings from the left are different from the right’s book-banning. …

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to figure out what’s best for them, and we are better if we support them when they need it — but, perhaps, attend to individual readers’ needs rather than make assumptions about what will upset certain groups. At the very least, we need to have more serious conversations about not just trigger warnings, but the causes behind them. And we should strive to make those conversations as compassionate as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that over-using the phrase “trigger warning” has diminished its meaning:

[I]t’s thrown around so much it easily becomes pointless and infantilizing. So explain what you’re teaching. Justify it. Have conversations and ask questions and set a tone that inspires complex thought. Be sensitive and respectful. Just take more than two words to do it. Don’t define a work solely by its most dramatic and upsetting elements, removing its context and giving it an automatically negative taint, because it’s hard to approach a work with an open heart and mind when the most important thing you know about it going in is that it’s going to be “triggering.”

Ari Kohen is on the same page:

[I]n my human rights courses, I’ve often told students that I’ve assigned something that might be upsetting to them, that they should be aware of the content before they begin, and that I’m available to speak with them about the topic at any time. … Reading about torture, genocide, or sexual violence can be deeply disturbing — and not only to people who have experienced these abuses; it’s important to let students know what awaits them in the week’s reading so they can prepare themselves both emotionally and intellectually for the challenge. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that discussions on these challenging topics are more thoughtful when students were warned that their reading might be emotionally taxing.

Another idea:

[G]enerate the warnings and make them available on request and online. Make them easy to find for anyone who needs them — but underplay them. I think it’s good that people with nut allergies can find allergan notices by reading side-panel labels on packaged foods. I think it’s also good when the rest of us find them easy to ignore. That’s the right balance.

Previous Dish on trigger warnings here.

A Human Zoo

by Jessie Roberts

European Attraction Limited, a project by artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner, seeks to re-enact a human zoo that Norway hosted in 1914:

Three years ago we stumbled upon information about a human zoo that had taken place in the heart of Oslo in 1914. Not being from this country, naturally, we assumed that this was common knowledge among natives, so, in an interest to learn more about the general consent on the exhibition, we started asking around. As it turned out pretty much no one we talked to had ever heard about it (even if they had heard of human zoos in other countries). Given how popular the exhibition was (1.4 million visitors saw it at a time when the population of Norway was 2 million) the widespread absence of at least a general knowledge was surprising. It is hard to understand the mechanisms of how something could be wiped from the collective memory.

The original zoo was explicitly racist:

[F]or five months, 80 people of African origin (Senegalese) lived in “the Congo village” in Oslo, surrounded by “indigenous African artefacts”. More than half of the Norwegian population at the time paid to visit the exhibition and gawp at the “traditionally dressed Africans”, living in palm-roof cabins and going about their daily routine of cooking, eating and making handicrafts. The king of Norway officiated at the opening of the exhibition.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire notes that some are taking offense to the restaging:

Muauke B Munfocol, who lives in Norway and is originally from DRC, thinks that the project does not recognise the “racial order and systems of privilege in the country”. She says: “One might wonder why at such a time, rather than putting its efforts to acknowledge the existence of racism, paying reparations, and changing the historical-political and cultural relationship to other non-white countries, the Norwegian government chooses to finance a project that reaffirms their part in a global white domination system where black people are dehumanised spiritually, economically, socially and culturally.”

Muauke’s argument is that the re-enactment of the human zoo as exactly as how it was presented in 1914 means “a re-enactment of the fantasies about exoticism and bestiality that have been historically linked to the black body in the colonial mind”. The re-enactment will be a living reality for her, as an African living in Norway. … Muauke is not alone in her indignation. Rune Berglund, head of Norway’s Anti-Racism Centre says: “The only people who will like this are those with racist views. This is something children with African ancestry will hear about and will find degrading. I find it difficult to see how this project could be done in a dignified manner.”

Jillian Steinhauer also has doubts about what the new zoo will achieve:

For their contemporary update … Fadlabi and Cuzner have altered things slightly but significantly: participants are not limited to one race or nationality. “We chose volunteers based on the texts they submit as their application to participate,” Fadlabi told Hyperallergic; the volunteer form is posted online and includes an invitation — “We welcome anybody from anywhere in the world who believes in the importance of the discussion about colonialism, the evolution of racism, equality” — as well as caveats like “You will most likely be asked to defend your participation.” …

On one hand, it’s a relief that the artists have omitted the horrific racism of the original exhibit — it’s hard to imagine how a restaging of those stereotypes could advance a productive conversation of any kind. On the other, it’s hard not to wonder if the change renders the whole project too vague to achieve the intended effect. What will the takeaway be — that putting humans in zoos is bad? …

When I asked [the artists] specifically about the races, nationalities, and/or ethnicities of the zoo volunteers, Fadlabi turned the query on me: “The question itself poses another question – is it different for you if all the volunteers are black? Is it different for you if 2 out of 80 are white?” My response was that if we’re attempting to talk about racial dynamics and prejudices, then yes, these things do matter. I do not wish for Fadlabi and Cuzner to recruit 80 Norwegian residents of African descent and build a zoo for them in the name of art and a wished-for national conversation; but I am uncertain, and curious, about how “European Attraction Limited” will inspire thoughtful conversation of any kind.

(Video: Footage from the 1914 exhibition)


If Memory Serves

by Jessie Roberts

Reviewing literature that explores “the intersection between memory, memoir-writing, and science,” Cara Parks praises contemporary attempts to investigate identity:

“Autobiographers flush before examining their stools,” wrote William H. Gass, and the tendency exists even this super-sensitive mode of memoir to skip the boring bits in the search for self-justification. But these memoirs serve a valiant role:

they force questions of memory and illness out of abstraction and into a temporal context, demonstrating how the search for identity, the struggle for sanity, and our comprehension of our own minds will change as scientists look more deeply into the dark recesses of the brain. “We are comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors,” [Michael] Kinsley concludes in his New Yorker piece. “That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems.”

Perhaps the most engaging element of these books of memories lost and memories found is their focus on questions instead of answers (forgetting everything seems to shake one’s sense of certainty). “Our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote in his novel When We Were Orphans. “There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.” We do not yet have answers to our biggest questions about memory, but with the help of science and narrative, we are slowly discovering the path we will take toward them.

“Refined Religion”

by Jessie Roberts

In an interview with Gary Gutting, philosophy professor Philip Kitcher – who describes himself as “a humanist first and an atheist second” – offers a view of religion he calls a “halfway house” between belief and thorough secularism (NYT):

P.K.: … I think there’s a version of religion, “refined religion,” that is untouched by the new atheists’ criticisms, and that even survives my argument that religious doctrines are incredible. Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed.

But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.

G.G.: And so, since they don’t regard them as factual, refined believers don’t have to deny the stories and metaphors of other religions.

P.K.: Right, they don’t have to pick and choose among the religions of the world. They see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. Prominent examples of refined believers include William James, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and, in our own day, Karen Armstrong, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. When refined religion is thoroughly embedded, religious tolerance thrives, and often much good work is done.

Before And After

by Jessie Roberts

Kate Good shares the story of her husband’s physical transition from female to male, writing that she’s “learned that ‘transgender’ is a ridiculously large catch-all”:

There’s no such thing as gender reassignment surgery, despite what various government and news agencies seem to think. There’s a menu of therapies, medications, and surgeries, and people pick what combination works for their body, their health, their mental and emotional needs and, not least, their finances. The government as a whole doesn’t have a good grasp on what it means to be transgender, and definitions and regulations vary wildly from office to office and day to day. What it really takes to get a passport issued is anyone’s guess. Even in the time we’ve been together these things have improved, thanks to hard-working activists, but there’s still a lot of work to do both in writing new regulations and clarifying existing ones.

There’s not a line — before here he was female, after he is male.

I think he’s still deciding on how to think about the person he was before transitioning. Every once in a while I see a picture of him before he cut his hair and changed his name and how he dressed, before he was the man I married. It’s an odd feeling. It’s him but not him. I don’t dwell on it.

I don’t dwell on my own sexuality either. I’m straight. I wasn’t attracted to him when he started transitioning, when there was still a feminine curve to his cheeks and hips. If you had asked me then if we would ever date I would have said no. It took two years of being friends before I realized I liked him (liked liked him). One day he asked me out and I thought well, why not? And then we fell in love, fast. We were almost immediately talking about our future, marriage, kids. His being transgender faded to the background.

It sounds unbelievable but I still sometimes forget. He has to remind me that people he met in the past might not know who he is now. I don’t know, or care, what loving him means for my placement on the Kinsey scale, or whatever spectrum is the going standard. If I lost him I would undoubtedly date cis-men. I love him, and I love being his wife. Figuring out what that labels me as seems like a waste of time.

Seriously Strange

by Jessie Roberts

A half-century after its release, Eric Schlosser revisits Dr. Strangelove. He notes that “Kubrick’s original intention was to do a straight, serious movie,” but the director “gagged on the idea of a straight version” once he began working on the screenplay:

Pauline Kael wrote that “‘Dr. Strangelove’ was clearly intended as a cautionary movie: it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing. But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity.” In the same vein, Susan Sontag asserted that, in future decades, “the display of negative thinking” in the movie would seem “facile.” And Sontag wrote that “Dr. Strangelove is nihilism for the masses, a philistine nihilism.”

I find both of these sets of remarks strange. Why should a popular artist have any obligation to propose “sane” solutions to an intolerable situation?

Surely it’s enough to expose with overwhelming comic energy the contradictions and paradoxes of “mutual assured destruction.” Sane actions are the business of scientists, the military, and Presidents, a few of whom may have been roused to act by this movie. (When Ronald Reagan entered the White House, he wanted to see the war room. This gives one pause. But, later, working with Mikhail Gorbachev, he brought about a partial reduction of nuclear weapons by both sides.) And Sontag’s distaste for “Strangelove” feels off. It’s actually a “cheerful film,” she says. Well, yes, that’s the point of the joke. The movie teases the many Americans acquiescing in a mad logic. At the end, Strangelove leaping out of his chair, and General Turgidson warning of a “mine-shaft gap” with the Soviet Union, are continuing their assertion of high acumen. For them, the game of “strategy” just continues. Sontag wanted a serious film, but I don’t see how anyone could miss, under all the buffoonery and juvenile joking, a furious sense of outrage.