America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them “black” ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from “dark-skinned” Africans), to entirely take it off.
Read my essay in the current Eclectica. Let me know what you think.
The longer I live on this planet the more it seems to me we’ve got it wrong about the sort of critters we really are. Even though we’re more or less willing to give up the idea we’re immortal spirits trapped in physical bodies — a notion David Hume saw through almost two hundred years ago — we cling to our reason and consciousness as setting us apart from the rest of creation like members of a middling caste that can at least feel superior to those below it on the social scale.
I’m not even talking about the revelations (science now provides “revelations,” a function once exclusive to holy writ) that our free will is as predictable as a crossing light if you apply electrodes to the right parts of the cranium. Rather, I’m referring to mind itself, the thing we experience on a moment-by-moment basis, the thing we like to think is separate from, if not entirely free of, our feelings or emotions. Hence we speculate on the possibility of a computer achieving something like human consciousness. No one but Hollywood script writers assume cyber-consciousness would be accompanied by emotion. Mind, reason, we like to think, can function by itself given the right algorithms and sufficient chip speed. Emotion is something left over from our more primitive days before the great evolutionary leap forward that gave our prefrontal lobes command and control.
It ain’t so. We are feeling animals, not thinking ones, or at least not as thinking as we like to believe we are. Other animals think. Probably all of them do. You could even say that plants think. One of mine recently outfoxed me when I tried to prevent its putting forth a powerful-smelling flower in order to reproduce itself. It got wise to my trick in the past of cutting off the shoot before it could fully bloom and stink up the room. This time it put forth the shoot hidden in the back of the plant where I didn’t notice it, and it did so entirely out of season in the autumn when the daylight was waning instead of in the spring when it had previously bloomed. And the clever little bugger almost succeeded. I smelled something but didn’t immediately recognize what it was until the shoot was almost in full flower and only then after skeptically searching through the dense leaves and discovered it sequestered deep down in the dark recesses of the plant. Tell me this isn’t intelligence, if not exactly conscious thought.
I don’t know what kind of affective life that plant has, though I worry when I cut off its withered leaves. But I do know so-called animals have a very rich emotional life. Yet, we have denied animals, even cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals, the possibility of having true feelings and have treated them more or less the way we would treat a vegetable or a stone. In the real world, though, we and they are identical in this respect, whatever our specific and superficial differences. A dog doesn’t think as I do, he thinks as a dog. But he seems to feel pretty much the same things I feel, and it’s his feelings, not his thoughts, that make him who he is, just as mine do me.
My consciousness gives me the illusion of operating at a distance from my emotions, those dark, animal chemical states left over from a deep past which other species have not been able to break free of. This sense of separation between emotion and consciousness is an illusion, but it’s a powerful illusion, and it must have been given a great boost when the mutation that took place tens of thousands of years ago changed us into the sort of people we are today. It made possible art, philosophy, science and, of course, language, the latter being our distinguishing attribute, or so our wise men and women keep telling us.
But just as we were wrong for so long about the mind’s being a spirit, we are just as wrong about its being the essence of what makes us human. And we are probably just as wrong about the quality of the so-called animals’ interior states.
We can see this same failure on our part to recognize other species’ likeness to ourselves if we look at the way we view human civilizations that have not had the same tools for recording themselves as our own have. Unless a people has left behind a written, architectural or some other discoverable proof of their intelligent life we assume they had none, or none comparable to our own. Until a couple hundred years ago the civilizations that lay beneath the sands of Mesopotamia were mere backdrop to the high achievements we accorded ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures, firstly and especially because the Greek and Hebrew cultures form the bases for our own but also because until fairly recently we had nothing from any other that compared with the Bible or the Homeric epics.
Now we know that the Bible is largely a product derived from those buried civilizations, that ancient Israel, which disappeared as a state about 750 BCE, and Judea, which only came into its own after the sixth century BCE, were, like every other culture, products of contact with the great civilizations surrounding them plus their own local contributions to those derivations. For millennia we lived without any major literary text that predated the stories in the collection of Hebrew texts we call the Bible, until in the mid-19th century the epic tale of Gilgamesh emerged from beneath the sands covering the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, Gilgamesh, like the Book of Genesis, is itself a compilation of tales put together from material dating all the way back to the Sumerians many centuries earlier, predating either the Bible or the Iliad by a thousand years.
My point being that it’s only because we can express ourselves, put into literary or some other artful, recordable form our thoughts and feelings, that we claim a priority for our own or other recorded civilizations in what used to be called the Great Chain of Being. We write, paint, build, invent, compute…therefore we are. If it were only thought that proved our existence as human beings, the great majority of human beings who have occupied this planet could not be considered existential human beings, because they left behind no record of themselves, any more than a dog or a cat does. The peoples (we dare not call them “civilizations” if they left no sophisticated records) who have lived without acquiring the art of writing and built no monuments to themselves we dismiss as irrelevant to human history. An oral culture may in fact surpass that of one that is literate or at least one that has a scribal class (all cultures have been 95% illiterate for much of their development, the ancient Greeks being the first to achieve something like 10% literacy), but we have no way of knowing such a civilization apart from the artifacts it created and so discount it as “primitive.”
An oral culture that dies out or is subsumed by one that either incorporates or rejects its body of oral art becomes a non-culture. In effect, it never existed. It is the literate cultures, in the West the Greek and Hebrew, that we see as the great achievers because, like us, they not only produced significant art and thought but, more importantly, they recorded themselves. If other cultures also recorded themselves, as did the one that produced that version of Gilgamesh that lay buried for so long under the sands of Nineveh, but remained unknown or underexplored because we believed we had all the art and literature of the ancient world that mattered, they may as well have not existed at all, even if, as in the case of the Sumerians, they were seminal to all the civilizations that followed them in that part of the world. We already had the intellect of the Greeks and the revealed Truth of the ancient Jews, so why go digging in the desert to see what may or may not turn up when we had such low expectations of finding anything comparable there?
But all peoples in every age have led full, rich emotional lives whether they had the means to express those feelings or not. Less “civilized” societies must have also been less encumbered by the illusion of a disembodied consciousness and lived in their bodies more comfortably, or at least without the fantasy that they were essentially different from the other living things around them. The notion of a separate entity — call it “soul” or “spirit” — marks the beginning of our ignorance about our true nature and even about how we live on a moment-to-moment basis. Art is our best way of expressing this life, what it means to be human/mammalian. Art is accessible to the consciousness but cannot be experienced except in a much deeper part of ourselves. Do other animals also express themselves in some similar way? For the most part we have worked hard to prove they do not, and that unwillingness to share a common life with our fellow creatures has hobbled even our most rigorous scientific efforts. After all, it’s only in the last century that some parts of the world have admitted the female sex to humanity. We have a lot of catching-up to do with our more furred and feathered brethren, especially the domestic, edible versions for whom, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “every day is Treblinka.”
Descartes should have written, “I feel, therefore I am,” but he was victim to more than two thousand years of Western hubris. And, by “feel” of course I’m talking about the very rich and complex total state which we subdivide at our peril into “consciousness,” “subconsciousness,” “emotion,” etc. Even Descartes, when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” was really describing an experiential rather than a purely rational state. That’s why the proposition he stated seems self-evident: it’s compelling, like the experience of free will, and the experience of a compelling notion is hardly something that can be called abstract or purely rational. We exist because we experience existence. We have free will because we experience choice. In that we are not a whit different from any other creature with a brain. We just prefer to believe we are. But, then, I suppose if dogs or cats could express themselves in a way we could understand as language they would also claim preeminence over every other species.
Imagine if there were no such thing as circumcision — or, if you prefer, as I do, “genital mutilation” — either female or male. No history of it anywhere among any ethnic or religious group. And then one day someone reported finding a group deep in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or the wilds of Utah practicing it on their young children and newborns.
We would, most of us, be outraged, just as most of us are now outraged by the practice of the cutting of female genitalia whether it is performed in Africa by an old woman with a rusty knife or by a top-flight surgeon in a fancy Western hospital. And, yet, a lot of intelligent, even well-educated people who approve of female circumcision in both those places do so on grounds that it is a revered and time-honored tradition. Most of us find their attitude appalling, given the frequent consequences of female circumcision — sexual dysfunction (which, we are told, is ultimately its purpose, i.e. the reduction of female sexual desire) and the incontinence that is its unintended but not infrequent consequence.
Less criticized, in fact more frequently defended and even, in the case of HIV/AIDS, promoted, is the practice of male genital cutting. It is, of course, a less radical procedure than what is practiced on young women, though female circumcision from what I understand varies from the removal of part or all of the labia major to complete excision of the clitoris. Male circumcision means removal of the foreskin, the tissue that covers the sensitive area just behind the crown or tip of the organ. That area in an uncircumcised penis becomes exposed during an erection and contributes greatly to sexual pleasure during intercourse.
Or, so I am told. I wouldn’t know because I was circumcised at birth, not for religious reasons but because it was until very recently standard medical practice for newborn boys. Why?
There seem to be many answers to that question. The usual medical — really pseudo-medical — one is hygiene: an uncircumcised penis is more prone to infection. Odd, that we should not only have survived as an organism for so many millions of years without evolution correcting for this defect in the male anatomy if it has been serious enough to cause modern doctors to do so with such regularity. You would think the males whose penises got infected during the course of that evolution would have died out at such a high rate that nature would have selected for a penis without foreskin, though the opposite seems to be the case, and not just among humans, as any pet owner or visitor to a zoo can attest.
I suspect the main reason for widespread secular male circumcision in the 19th and 20th centuries was moral: male, like the more drastic female circumcision, decreases sexual pleasure and therefore, the reasoning goes, reduces the incidence of masturbation, which was considered a serious physical and mental danger to human health once modern methods of surveillance in boarding schools, prisons and other mass-residential institutions was introduced. About 1800 “an epidemic of masturbation,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, seems to have broken out all over Europe, thanks to that surveillance.
Medical texts in the 19th century depict side-by-side portraits of the Masturbator — thin, stooped, slovenly, wild-eyed, a physical and mental wreck — and the non-Masturbator: upright, clear-eyed, healthy. Not just men were under suspicion. Girls had their fingernails inspected for the tell-tale erosion caused by pubic fluids, and even in the late 19th century clitorectomies were performed on middle class women for the purpose of curbing their sex drive while during the same period physicians treated high-strung, “hysterical” women — the word means something like “womb crazy” — with something they called therapeutic “manipulation.” Sigmund Freud, otherwise fairly original, is said to have inspected the trousers of boys brought to him for traces of dried semen. And, in the mid-20th century the high school catechism in use at Jesuit (also considered otherwise progressive) high schools listed the effects of masturbation, among which were “insanity and even death.”
Just in case you think male circumcision is a more or less benign procedure, ask a nurse who has assisted at one. They describe babies howling in pain. Some of these professionals say they refuse to participate in circumcisions after experiencing what they are really like.
Nor do we hear much about what happens when a circumcision is botched in a hospital, though recently there has been coverage of the more frequent injuries done by the mohel, the man who does the cutting at a Jewish circumcision ceremony (Muslim male circumcision is usually done medically). I have no idea what the incidence of fistulas is, but I can tell you from personal witness a fistula can result in the loss of the entire crown of the penis, ending virtually all sexual feeling in the organ.
I don’t know what the doctor who cut my penis or the doctors who cut my sons’ penises a generation later were told in medical school was the reason for this procedure. I discussed the matter beforehand with the man who performed it on my younger son (the idea of doing so never occurred to me nine years earlier, such was the degree of acceptance for the procedure). Sensing my misgivings, he smiled and suggested he do a “partial,” whatever that meant. But doctors have notoriously recommended procedures and practices in other matters — breast milk bad, formula good (1930s); women with radiation sickness living near atomic-bomb proving grounds diagnosed as neurotics (1950s) — on the grounds of good medical science only to have their theories later exposed as politically, racially or morally motivated. Think of the Eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century, endorsed by many of the people we regard today as secular saints, from Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes…and, of course, Adolph Hitler. Thousands of Americans were sterilized, and millions of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the US after 1925 — a large part of whom could have been spared the Nazi slaughter — as a result of an act passed by Congress after testimony before appropriate committees by well-credentialed members of the scientific community.
Circumcision has been around for a very long time (it’s dated to at least 15,000 BCE), at least in the form practiced by what we drolly refer to as homo sapiens. Australian aborigines, who separated from the rest of us about 40,000 years ago, circumcised themselves in their adolescence, sometimes vying with each other for who could cut more off. Circumcision was already common in ancient Egypt and the area of the world we now call the Middle East at the time the ancient Israelites adopted it. What possessed the man or woman who first got the idea that it would be a neat thing to cut off some of their own or their child’s sex organ is beyond me, just as it is beyond me why there is still so much tolerance for the practice today in the United States. But, then, we put up with a great deal in the name of either religious freedom or science (which is frequently anything but), even when that involves violating the right of a minor to her or his bodily integrity. The BBC recently ran a piece about a young woman, a British Muslim opposed to female circumcision, who went out onto the High Street and asked non-Muslim pedestrians to sign a petition in support of female circumcision. She approached nineteen people, as I recall, and only one failed to sign the petition, some of them saying they don’t approve of the practice but, since it is “your tradition,” Muslims should be allowed to go on with it.
But there are push-backs current as well. Not all Muslims feel obliged to have their sons, never mind their daughters, circumcised, and there is a group called Jews Against Circumcision numbering in the thousands in the US. And, of course, there is a worldwide campaign being waged against female circumcision/genital mutilation, which is still widespread in both the more remote and most cosmopolitan parts of the world.
But I don’t think it’s wise to separate the horrendous practice of FGM without addressing its male counterpart (leaving aside for the moment the question of AIDS prevention, which can perhaps be argued on medical grounds and on a temporary, voluntary basis in places where AIDS is epidemic; the argument for circumcising males in order to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer may also be worth addressing but not as a way of simply ending the discussion). In both cases mutilation is taking place for no good reasons that outweigh the risks, according to a growing number of medical professionals, some of whose numbers were of this opinion even at the height of the practice of male circumcision in American hospitals. And, unless you subscribe to the notion that sexual pleasure is not a serious reason for anything or believe that males have enough of it anyway without demanding what nature provides for when left alone, there don’t seem to be any reasons left for the practice except religious ones. We already hold parents accountable for withholding medical attention for religious reasons from a seriously ill child. Why would we not hold them accountable for mutilating their child’s sexual organ?
15,000 years seems long enough to be held captive to this cruel, gruesome practice. No one I know would support FGM, but male circumcision, though far less drastic and usually less horrific in its consequences, is mutilation nonetheless. To allow one while condemning the other is not only illogical, it’s counterproductive because when you make exceptions for one group of victims and not another the result can be bad news for both. If we want the maximum support of men for the abolition of female genital mutilation, we should not pretend their own experience of genital mutilation is not worth addressing just because it’s not as extreme as FGM or because by addressing it we will step on the toes of one group or another. Circumcision is genital mutilation in both cases. Pretending otherwise is like denouncing racist or anti-religious murders when they are perpetrated against one group or religion while remaining silent about lesser violence against another.
It just makes no sense.
In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.
I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently American, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.
The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.
My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.
But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?
These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.
I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see the same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?
What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.
A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is built on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.
I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.
The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.