Some Skeletons Don’t Stay in the Closet

My novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones, is now available on Amazon! Feel free to share, to order, to write Amazon reviews…

See summary and sample page below the link.

“Drenched in the sights and sounds of mysterious New Orleans, this story is heartwarming, funny, and serious all the same. Three kids searching an abandoned house for hidden silver find themselves confronting long-forgotten ghosts and the house’s dark memories of racism, loss, and betrayal.  The quest for the silver is especially nerve-racking for Annie, the kid who actually sees the ghosts, both of her deceased mother and of the bygone denizens of the house. Her friends want to believe her but can’t, and she herself is torn between running away from it all and following the ghosts into the house’s dark history. With the help of assorted old characters on the block, the kids restore order to the community and lay bare the bones of what makes a neighborhood: the ability to work together while accepting some differences as absolute, maintaining an organic connection to the communal past, and having some kind of unity of purpose for the kids and the old people of the neighborhood.”

Sample page (midpoint):

The kids moved slowly into Mr. Jimmy’s dimly lit house. The two steel-hooped barrels sat fat, glum, solid as ever, like surly guardians in the dismal light, but with the incongruous festivity of tiny gadgets and figurines on their heads.  The dark painting hung in its place, but the broad strokes of purplish-blue waves seemed oddly different, as if they had moved a few paces toward edge of the canvas. The bedroom, dining room, kitchen along the shotgun path of the house were otherwise just as they had seen last time, as if no one had lived there in the interim. Instead of conducting them to the back porch, Mr. Jimmy sat them in the kitchen this time, at one of the interchangeable thrift store tables that seemed to sprout up in various rooms and porches of this fantastic setting.  Mr. Jimmy had apparently been engaged at the table a short time ago. A photo album, some loose photos, and reading glasses lay on the scored and pock-marked wooden surface. Mr. Jimmy put the reading glasses on and eyed a photo for the album, like Melissa and Annie weren’t there. But then he spoke.

“Well what?”

“You know the silver in Mr. Robert’s house?” faltered Melissa.

“I told you about it, didn’t I?”

“Well, we kinda been looking around for it.”

“I know you been looking. Well quit looking.”

Mr. Jimmy took a photo into his gnarly black fist, installed it into the album, and eyed another. Even Melissa remained daunted at his demeanor.

“Some people,” continued Mr. Jimmy, “knows more than you kids about that house. Some people knows more than he’s saying right now. That silver is tainted. Cursed. Blood money. Touched by the devil’s own hand. You understand what I’m saying?”

The speaker paused and let the question float. Then a heaviness descended on his countenance. With a delicate movement he took off his glasses and stared at, or through, the kids with a fixed intensity that pushed a chill up their spines.

“’Cause this is the last time I’m saying it.”

The kids hesitated, immobilized by dread but eager to forge on. Mr. Jimmy put his glasses back on and installed another photo.

“There’s more, Mr. Jimmy,” Melissa said.

Mr. Jimmy continued to fiddle with the album.

“Well, what more?”

Why April is the cruelest month

For T. S. Eliot, it’s simple. Because April means rebirth.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In these opening lines of “The Waste Land,” the “dull roots” and “dried tubers” feel the full weight of pain at being called back to life from their comfortably deadened existence under ground. It is an interesting concept – to start your death and rebirth poem with the cruel anguish of rebirth, the agonized stirring of memory and desire pulling those presumed dead roots upward through the soil toward the surface and rebirth – or perhaps with memory pulling downward into the lost unconscious depths of the soil and desire pulling upward toward rebirth. It doesn’t help that the surface we’re being born into is a barren waste land. Indeed rebirth here pretty much means being re-initiated into another form of death, rising from the subsoil to a surface where “the sun beats” mercilessly on “dry stone” and “the dead tree gives no shelter.” So April’s rebirth is cruel both for what it pulls us from (our comfortable deadness under the “forgetful snow”) and for what it pulls us to – the waste land of life on the surface.

It’s a little bit like the tulips in Sylvia Plath’s poem of that title.  The painfully red tulips in her hospital room recall her to life, remind her of her commitments, of the emotional “baggage” of “husband and child,” whose “smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks,” drag her back from drowning in the white sea of obliviousness, and for that she resents them as much as Eliot does April.

It is probably no coincidence that both Eliot and Plath, standard-bearers of modernist poetry, suffered emotional breakdowns around the times they were writing these poems. Indeed, one could say that the psyche peering into the abyss of emotional breakdown, paralyzed and overwhelmed by the equal and opposite forces of desire for and fear of human contact, became to a large extent the default for the human condition under modernism. Is such a default determined by conditions of modernity or by the simple fact that anti-depressants were unavailable to most 20th-century poets? Or is the development and ubiquitous use of anti-depressants a self-fulfilled prophecy, the final concrete expression of emotional numbness as the norm for the modern condition? I have no idea. Decide for yourselves. I was only trying to say why April is the cruelest month.

Henry V: Compartments and Counterfeits

One thing about Shakespeare’s Henry V – everyone in the play seems to misjudge him for one specific reason: prior to coronation, he was the frivolous prankster we know as Prince Hal, drunkenly cavorting with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. No one expects a dissolute boy to become an effective king overnight. Indeed, the initial disruption that sets the play and the course of Henry’s reign rolling is this very misjudgment by the French Dauphin, who rouses Henry to action with a mock-gift of tennis balls “as matching to his youth and vanity” (II.iv.130). Thus underestimated, Henry nabs his traitors within, handles French diplomats justly and firmly, and defeats the French army abroad. Indeed he is the epitome of kingliness, more an epic hero exhibiting the highest ideals of his people than a troubled king such as Shakespeare normally gives. Or is he?

As James Mardock (editor of Internet Shakespeare editions) points out, there is a doubleness to Henry’s character and to the play itself that has haunted critics. Henry is indeed the idealized king, but bloodthirsty enough to murder his prisoners and callous enough to break the heart of audience-favorite Falstaff. Some critics find the play too one-dimensional in its patriotic zeal, with a man-of-action king who lacks the introspection that makes Shakespeare’s other kings interesting. Others find Henry too Machiavellian to warrant his idealized status. Still others object to the doubleness itself, as if Shakespeare could not decide whether to make Henry this or that, nor whether to present war as national glory or bloody chaos.

Here’s my solution. The signature trait that separates Henry V from Shakespeare’s other kings, and that allows him to bring forth a specific form of kingliness, is his masterful ability to compartmentalize. He is quite capable of introspection, as for example in the “ceremony” soliloquy on the battlefield (IV.i.230-284), where, despite his mock-dispute with Williams, he takes Williams’s point to heart about the moral hazards of kingship. Henry is introspective enough (in soliloquy) to feel responsibility for the human consequences of his actions, that “hard condition, / twin-born with greatness” (IV.i.233-34). Though he can compartmentalize private emotions from kingly duty, he recognizes both, and indeed plumbs his own instinct to compartmentalize to remarkable depth, noting that the only thing that separates a king from a commoner is “ceremony.” Everything in the social order rests upon the distinction of king from commoner, and yet Henry sees that only an act of convention keeps those boundaries in place. It is neither natural nor divine law but rather the human effort to compartmentalize ranks through the instrument of “ceremony” that allow kingship, and indeed social order, to exist.

But with Henry, more than with other Shakespearean kings, we can rest assured that this introspection will not follow him to battle. He recognizes that there is a time and place for introspection and never blurs the boundary:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger
(III.i.3-4)

Similarly, when condemning the traitors (II.ii), he delivers a nuanced theory of justice, pardoning the man condemned for drunkenly cursing the king but showing no mercy to those who would threaten the kingdom (“Touching our person seek we no revenge; / But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender…,” II.ii.173-74), even though he “will weep” for these treasonous “bedfellow[s]” of his youth. Then he enjoins the “poor miserable wretches” to “true repentance” before their execution, and as they are marched off stage, he turns to his other lords: “Now, lords, for France” (II.ii.181). Thus, the great compartmentalizer. He speaks eloquently not only on the national implications but on the human values at stake in the traitor scene, but when he turns, he turns completely, the man of action now focused on France. This capacity to compartmentalize separates him from history-play heroes like Richard II or even Henry IV, from tragic heroes like Macbeth and most of all from Hamlet. Indeed, he can reference those antecedent kings with introspection, as he privately prays God’s mercy for his father’s actions in securing the crown from Richard (IV.i.290-305). But no self-doubt will trouble him on the battlefield.

This view of Henry V as compartmentalizer-in-chief finally casts a light on the “counterfeit” theme, one of Shakespeare’s favorites. The classic counterfeit in Henry V is Pistol from the low plot. Pistol, with a “killing tongue and a quiet sword” (III.ii.34), is a savvy enough braggart to fool Captain Fluellen (III.vi.12-20). But of course, he’s a total coward of the lowest and most comical sort – in a word, the very archetype of the counterfeit. At the outset of the play, it seems all the movers and shakers see Henry the way the audience sees Pistol – as a counterfeit, a punk kid who is all talk and no guts. No one expected that Henry V could so quickly shift gears from dissolute Prince Hal to proper king. But Henry, master of compartmentalization, closes the door on Hal and opens the door on Henry V in one stroke. As at the end of the traitor scene, when he turns, he turns completely, decisively. This is the signature trait of his character and the source of his peculiar brand of kingliness.

To be sure, that instantaneous shift from Prince Hal to King Henry has some ugly human consequences, as when the dying Falstaff conjures up the image of Hal’s cruel dismissal at the end of 2 Henry IV. In this case, what’s “right” for the king Henry seems “wrong” for the private human being Henry, and Shakespeare’s inclusion of Falstaff’s death scene (II.iii) indicates that he does not intend to wash the moral ambiguity away. It is a double-bind such as Agamemnon faced in the choice to sacrifice his daughter to save his men and perform his kingly duty. Faced with moral double-binds of such great human consequence, as Henry himself notes in soliloquy, no king “can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave” (IV.i.268).

The counterfeit theme on this level holds a double irony. The concept of the counterfeit is itself based in irony, an appearance that turns out to be quite the opposite of reality. It would indeed be ironic if the king who vows to “show my sail of greatness” (I.ii.274) in vengeful war with France were a boyish coward at heart. The double irony is that King Henry, whom so many perceive as a counterfeit, is the real deal, the true coin that will shine most brightly against the French on the battlefield and against the foil of Pistol in the dramatic structure of the play.

But, this being Shakespeare, the counterfeit theme gets more complicated. What about the charge of hypocrisy? Henry’s great “band of brothers” speech is counterpointed by his sorting of the dead by rank a few scenes later (IV.iii, IV.viii). Is it hypocrisy? Or is it another instance of compartmentalization? Henry makes clear in the “ceremony” soliloquy that rank and royalty are fictions necessary to the social order, but fictions nonetheless. If one puts the emphasis on “fictions,” then one can read Henry as a cynical manipulator, a hypocrite who will take the most opportune stand at any given time. But if one puts the emphasis on “necessary to the social order” (an emphasis I believe most consistent with Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience), then we can credit Henry with recognizing that in any life’s course of action there is a time to engage our shared humanness and a time to engage the fictions of distinction. Although that doesn’t relieve him of the moral consequences – Williams is right in the battlefield speech and the poignant scene of Falstaff’s death is there for a reason – it is a signature marker of his greatness as a king.

(All line citations of Henry V are to The Riverside Shakespeare.)

Unhappiness

“All unhappiness,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “is a result of false expectations.”

I might add that it can also be a result of habit. I would never have understood this when younger, but once habituated to unhappiness, the habitué might well, given a choice between happiness and unhappiness, willfully choose unhappiness simply because that has become their comfort zone.  Thus, when the Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782), was permitted to visit heaven and hell, he learned that in the afterlife all people choose for themselves whether to go to heaven or hell, based on the preferences they’ve become accustomed to in life.

Fallacies of Science

To the scientists in my circle: I’m more with you than you think. I don’t doubt for a minute the value of science. I find it absurd, e.g., that some people think religious texts can compete with science as a source of information about how the physical world works. But I like to amuse myself by playing watchdog for my scientific friends.

Even in my watchdog role, I can raise no objections to the scientific method, or to the analytical power that science has to unpack the facts and processes of the physical world. But as self-appointed guardian at the gates, I propose the following fallacies often committed by the scientifically-minded – all, again, fallacies of application or of scope, not intended to impeach the core value of the scientific method but to snap at the heels of scientists — and even our most admirable scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking — when they make claims that go beyond the scope of their expertise.

The fallacy of metaphysical (external) scope

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this fine blog, science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and anything else is nonsense, thus implying that science is the one and only path to truth.

I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane may, and probably does, have an “object” called Wayne xxx. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc. A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne xxx but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction. But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons. It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

The fallacy of substantive (internal) scope

Let’s look more narrowly at the role science plays within the scope of the objective world it studies. It mines and generates much knowledge about the physical world, and for that we are grateful. But how much of its substantive area does it really grasp? Even at its present power, it only nibbles the tip of the iceberg. Take the human body. Medical science knows much more about the body’s processes than it knew 350 years ago, when the Age of Science really started coming on line. We look back at the 17th century as a kind of dark ages of leeches and blood-letters. Isn’t it obvious that science will expand its knowledge base just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, in the centuries to come? Won’t they look back at us with the same amusement, as a people nobly gathering knowledge but remarkably primitive in what we had gathered?

This telescopic view from the future should give us pause before we leap. Just a few decades ago, “science” was telling us that it could produce a baby formula more nutritious than mother’s milk. For every “well-tested” drug on the market, there’s a class action lawsuit addressing unintended consequences of that drug. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe that there is a vast (evolved) intelligence at work in the human body and in nature, and that science has only mapped a few percentage points of what is really going on in these systems. Don’t get me wrong – a few percentage points is better than no percentage points, and I’m all for science expanding its knowledge base. But when it comes to applying that knowledge, I take a humbler approach than some more eager proponents of science. The pro-implementation argument I most hear is that the things to be deployed have been tested exhaustively in study after study. Although this may be true, it is limited by context. If scientific understanding of its subject area (in this case the human body and the natural world) has leaped from 1% to 5% in the past few hundred years, it has still mapped just the tip of the iceberg, and still leaves enormous territory unexplored. So when you test exhaustively for results and side-effects, you are only really testing within the zone you understand. There are so many collateral aspects of human and natural ecological systems that are undiscovered that it is sheer arrogance to say that we’ve tested by 2015 standards and thus pronounce such-and-such safer and more effective than Mother Nature.

How does this translate to policy? If you have a serious illness, by all means draw upon that scientific knowledge base and try a scientific cure. If you have a less serious illness, you may be better off trusting to the body’s natural healing mechanisms, insofar science has only scratched the surface on how these mechanisms work, and tampering with biochemical processes may do more harm than good. I and everyone will have to judge this case by case, but by no means am I willing to conclude that science understands every aspect of how the body works and has therefore tested and measured every collateral effect for a particular drug or procedure.

On a tricky subject such as GMO foods, I am not as rabidly anti- as some of my hippie-ish brethren, but not as naively optimistic as some of my scientist friends. I like the idea of scientists building a knowledge base on this topic. But when it comes to implementation, I tend to keep one foot on the brakes, especially since radical changes can now be implemented globally and with much greater speed than in centuries past. I’m not at all convinced that science in its current state understands all the collateral processes of nature well enough to make the “exhaustively tested” claim. Or, to go back to our telescope of time, isn’t it possible that scientists 200 years from now will look back and shake their heads in amusement at our “exhaustively tested” claims?

And I haven’t even gotten to the corruptive influence of money and big corporations when it comes to what substantive areas of scientific inquiry will be funded and how results will be implemented. There may be something like a “fallacy of scientific purity” embedded here.

The fallacy of epistemological scope

Here, I use epistemology broadly as the quest for knowledge – almost, one could say, the quest for self-actualization that drives human reality, if not every aspect of reality. British Romantic poets will be my outside reference point here. The Romantics saw the development of self-knowledge, or self-actualization, in three stages. In Blake, these correspond to an Age of Innocence, Age of Experience, and an Age of Redeemed Imagination. In the Age of Innocence, we access knowledge through the fantastic mechanism of imagination, which keeps us in a state of wonder but leaves us naïve about the world and easily exploited. In the Age of Experience, we begin to access knowledge through reason and science, gaining factual knowledge that makes us less naïve and more worldly, but with that worldliness comes a cynicism, a sense of world-weariness, a sense of loss, of fallenness. Indeed, the Romantic world view at times seems to equate the world of Experience, the world of objective facts, with the world in its deadened aspect. The trick in Blake is to find the turn into a third stage, wherein the power of imagination re-engages at a mature level, re-animates the dry world of abstract facts, and saves us from the cynicism of Experience. In a word, we can put the scientific-type knowledge of Experience into perspective. We can still see its value but without being constrained by it in our quest for self-actualization. In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” this plays out as the innocence of “boyish days” (73), experience “‘mid the din / Of towns and cities” (25-26), and the “tranquil restoration” of the mature poet (30). In the third stage, the sensory raptures of youth and the worldly knowledge of experience have both lost their traction. Specifically, the poet has lost the pleasure of immediacy but has gained the power of inward reflection. The “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96) is reserved for the third stage, and indeed is specifically used as a counterpoint to the sensory appreciation and worldly knowledge of earlier phases.

These 3 stages can easily be projected beyond the individual onto the cultural or even the cosmic screen. Blake, with his Jungian vision of the archetypal sources of consciousness, readily applies it to the cosmic level. I’ll apply it to the level of cultural history by saying that the Age of Science fits the second stage very well. Science emerged as the dominant epistemology around the late 17th century, putting to bed some childish theories and introducing us to a more worldly-wise engagement with the physical world. Who knows when this Age of Science will end, but when it does, perhaps then we will enter the Age of Aquarius I’ve promoted only half tongue-in-cheek. And perhaps then we will look back at the Age of Science as Blake or Wordsworth look back at their middle stage – as an epistemological period that starts out liberating but eventually binds our imaginations, makes us a little cynical about the possibilities of self-actualization, chains us to what Plato calls “the prison-house” of materialism. So the fallacy of epistemological scope is the fallacy of myopically seeing only that force of knowledge that is present in the middle period, whereas true wisdom may be broader than that. It may be that the innocent child and the mature poet can grasp things about reality that are inaccessible to the purely scientific mind.

The watchdog sleeps

So those are my fallacy sketches for my scientific friends. Now pause and ponder.

rachael art - bad day

 And if in your pondering, you find yourself viewing me with the gaze of the character above (provided by the talented Rachael Gautier), remember: When my watchdog shift ends, I’m more on your side than you think. At least you can take comfort that in the next U.S. election I will be voting for the party that takes science seriously and not the party that seems perpetually at war with science. Meanwhile, I’m happy to revise, especially if a particular Ukrainian physicist I know will home-brew another batch of Russian Imperial Stout to facilitate the review process.