January 2012

Elizabeth Bachner



Sometimes a small thing in a book--a picture, a few words--changes everything. On page 192, there’s an ink drawing of a black cat, looming, its eyes wide, its back arched. It’s hovering over a man in a single bed, who clutches his sheets against his chin. The caption reads:

CAT: You remember. Two years ago you divided the spinal cord of a cat to produce convulsions?
VIVISECTOR: Too true—alas, I did!
CAT: I am that cat!

This 1911 cartoon, “The Vivisector’s Nightmare,” is just one of many things that twists my stomach, or makes me cry, or makes me angry in the new Joanna Bourke book, What It Means to be Human. When I was younger I read some other Joanna Bourke books -- about shell shock. About war. About how the act of killing soldiers and civilians changed when the killers stopped looking into the victim’s eyes. About rape. When I was younger than that, small and fifteen, I used to be an anti-vivisection activist, an anti-war activist, an activist in general, and I’m not quite sure what I’m doing now instead. I think I’ve been trying to do things that I can do instead of railing against everything I can’t do, but, on page 192, everything changes, because I realize that nothing has changed. I’m still upset about the suffering of vivisected cats, and the suffering of prisoners of war, and the genocides that never seem to stop. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, meh George Santayana, those who read history always seem doomed too, really doomed, when I read even great history, history like Joanna Bourke’s that illuminates the present and elevates the discipline, I get morose. This is why sometimes, also, I ignore today’s news, the litany of hopeless things that suck. I was hanging out with a friend the other night, he was shocked by all the current-events references I didn’t get. “Wow, you’re really out of it,” he said. I said, “So?” But secretly I do this, again and again, I read about Pinochet or Guantanamo, Haiti in the 19th century or Haiti in the 20th century or Haiti now, Bhopal, superfund sites, secret CIA wars, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust again. And then I get all gloomy and I stop.

“Telling stories about what makes us human can be fun, vicious, mischievous, reassuring, disheartening and fulfilling,” writes Joanna Bourke. And she’s probably right. Reading stories about what makes us human can be all of those things, too, but it can also be devastating. Somehow even with the truth, or various truths, right out there in the open, right under our noses, with people starving in the streets right now in our own glitzy cities, with privately-owned prisons filled with beaten prisoners, somehow it’s possible, it’s even easy, to look away.

Meanwhile, even if you’re a shrill activist, or some kind of sage, even if you’re fifteen years old and new and lovely and certain that hope lives around every corner, actual conscious living is completely impossible, not just hard, but impossible. We aren’t smart enough or dynamic enough or vast enough to hold the events of history, or the events of the present, in our heads and lives. Even when we’re not the conscious, active torturers, we let torture go on all the time. I do. You do. Maybe even the biology of human life, or the metaphysics of human life, is inescapably torturous, in that visceral way -- here we all are on the planet. Here we are, embodied. Some things we decide to do, other things we don’t. Some of us are good at thinking about this with brilliance (Emmanual Levinas, Joanna Bourke!) -- others, like me, panic. I handle these questions the way I handle spilling something all over the floor. I freeze, sometimes I cry, I wait for someone else -- like my news-literate friend -- to sweep in and clean things up for me, I give him a wobbly smile that I know is endearing, from so many years of getting so many people to clean up so many spills. But none of us, not the brilliant ones, not the useless ones, not the sweet ones filled with love, has ever been able to stop everything from spilling. If we read history, if we read philosophy, or we write those things, or we just take a fresh look at what’s happening on the street, sure, it gives us a more radical, a more alarming, maybe a more fascinating view of humanity (however we define “humanity”), but aren’t we still stuck? Stuck with all the mess, stuck with the undying problem of the phenomenon of spills?

I’m reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short-stories -- the wonderful Barbra Streisand-less "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," the irresistible " Two Corpses Go Dancing," and now "The Letter Writer," where a man named Herman Gombiner starts to pray for a the soul of a mouse he calls Huldah (“What do they know -- all those scholars, all those philosophers, all the leaders of the world… they have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka. And yet man demands compassion from heaven.”) -- and I’m reading Alice Walker’s small book of letters to her chickens, who cuddle on her lap and like shiny things. I’m thinking saccharine thoughts, like how compassion is something to offer and not to demand, and my saccharine thoughts don’t come from a saccharine or pious place, but from pain and from being startled to be here, and from being shocked by the spills I made and the spills I didn’t make, and from doing the best I can do, which is maybe an inescapably saccharine idea, an ickily pious idea. Or it’s worse than saccharine, and worse than pious.

In "The Letter Writer," Herman is dying. He has visitors in his dreams, but he can’t remember his dreams, he can only recall “the unearthly light that fell across the lake.” He wakes up thinking, “Well, dreams are all lost… Each day begins with amnesia.”  

He hears a “slight noise” that sounds like a child sucking. He sits up and sees Huldah, alive. "She appeared thinner, weak, and her fur looked greyer, as if she had aged." He can’t feel uncomplicatedly happy about his own life, but, for Hulda, slowly sipping milk, pausing occasionally, certain no one will take away what is rightfully hers, he’s gripped by joy. Joy like he’s almost never felt in his life.

Alice Walker brings in some new chickens, and the way the old chickens treat them disgusts her: “I was heart-sickened. I was appalled. I had only known you as gentle and cuddly, blissed out on Chardonnay grapes and kale leaves. You were vicious to your new mates. You pecked and scratched them… From your point of view, as chickens, you were doing what comes naturally to chickens: you were creating the pecking order that chickens live by. My impatience with your behavior led to a withdrawal from you. I felt disappointed and deeply saddened. This made me stay away for days (at least two). When I went back to visit, you were still at it. Mean as could be. Abusive and ugly. Yes, ugly. Mommy found this brutalizing behavior so hideous she could hardly look at you. And when you jumped into her lap, wanting a cuddle, sometimes she stood up. It was this event, when she felt she simply could not bear you in your meanness, that was probably the most serious threat to mommy’s health and heart.”

There’s that disillusionment -- about ourselves, or about our chickens, or about someone we love and treasure, or about our country, about our species, about the other species, about the universe. And we have, as a solution, activism or nihilism, the study of history or the failure to study history, mystical practices, knowledge of current events or ignorance of current events. Disillusionment, reillusionment, literature, compassion, history, philosophy, physics, amnesia. We have no solution.

History’s violent leap. I’m reading the 1944 preface to Czeslaw Milosz’s essays from occupied Poland. “History’s violent leap and the sense that there is much to be done evoke a desire to be rid of old habits and illusions. Whoever has the ambition to take an active role in change as a new, creative man must attempt to recognize and explain the phenomena that shock him. Burdened by obsolete methods of thought and style, his attempts will be in vain ten times in a row. On the eleventh try, he will achieve what he aimed for.” And then, “What number attempt these essays are, the author, obviously, does not know.” And then, in the essay “The Legend of the Monster City”: “We are face to face with the enormity of evil, but curiosity is our weapon. Heroes in snug pantaloons and dark overcoats, we hide behind cold observation, which provides the best disguise for our yearning hearts, our inflamed imagination.”

There’s that old, old proverb -- curiosity killed the cat. In older English, the word was different. It wasn’t curiosity, it was care. Care killed the cat.

In the fall of 1925 -- a good decade before his cat-paradox -- 38-year-old physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote the first ten chapters of an intimate book of his philosophy of life. He didn’t publish it at the time, according to physical chemist Walter Moore’s Schrödinger: Life and Thought, “perhaps because he was just then swept up in the onrush of creativity that led to wave mechanics, but also because this book revealed his innermost heart in a way that might seem immodest for a physicist yet to gain a place among the immortals.” Schrödinger was obsessed with Indian philosophy, with Vedanta, with Samkhya, with (always) Schopenhauer, entranced with Epicurus’s conviction that philosophy is rooted in the feeling of wonder that arises when our experience departs from the ordinary. “Our experience of the world is fraught with wonder, but what causes us to regard with wonder the particular facts of our own existence when we have known no other?”

Schrödinger asks four questions: does an "I" exist, does a "World" exist besides "me," do "I" cease to exist on bodily death, does the "World" cease to exist on "my" bodily death? And then he shows that there is no set of yes and no answers to these questions that does not lead to an endless circle. In 1960, Schrödinger completed five more chapters, and published the whole book. Walter Moore points out that Schrödinger’s philosophy seems completely uninfluenced by his own physics. He placed philosophy above physics. But to me, a non-philosopher, a non-physicist, it all seems like the same problem, Schopenhauer’s problems, the chaos and paradox of living in a liquid, dynamic universe that keeps undermining and reifying any physics or metaphysics. Whatever “living” means.  

Towards the end of the book, there’s the story of Marietta Blau -- Jewish, a woman, a brilliant physicist, exiled in 1938, but one of the few Jewish women who survived those years, one of the few who returned to Austria after the war. Schrödinger nominated her for a Nobel Prize, twice. Einstein helped her find work in Mexico. Back in Austria, she lived in poverty and was not even paid a salary for her work at the Radium Institute. She died of cancer, from radium and chain-smoking, and there was no obituary for her in any scientific publication. Marietta Blau had discovered the "stars" in photographic plates caused by massive high-energy particles in cosmic-ray showers. I had never heard of her.

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table has the Yiddish epigraph: Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseylin -- troubles overcome are good to tell. But are troubles ever overcome? Probably this is a Schrödinger paradox, a yes or no question with no yes or no answer, with no answer at all. In a 1986 interview, Anthony Rudolph asks Levi, “You had the obligation, the necessity to tell?” And Levi answers, “Yes, and the happiness, too.”

I remember one of the protest chants from when I was fifteen: “Every six seconds, an animal dies.” And I wonder how many humans die under torture per second, depending on who or what we define as human, or, not depending on that at all.

“What is always so energizing about being with you is your curiosity,” writes Alice Walker to her chickens. And then she jokes about pot brownies and toking and Alice B. Toklas/Gertrude Stein wordplays about orgasm (“no doubt entirely lost on chickens”), and then she tells her chickens about the sound of mangos falling (“They are not bombs.”), and then she tells the chickens about accidentally killing a spider. One thing I had forgotten, that I knew when I was fifteen, that came back after reading page 192 of that Joanna Bourke book, is the kind of writer Alice Walker can be.

“Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm,” she writes to her chickens. “She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand that they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvelous to the human spirit, even while doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan…What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder… Sometimes Mommy wonders: Is the human species a test? As much as she adores it, she can see it has no idea, generally speaking, where it is, or how to live here. If Mommy could bring the Mommy spider back to life she would pick her up gently, if at arm’s length, and place her outside on the grass, her and her babies. But that particular spider is gone, leaving SPIDER still here. Just as when a human dies, he or she is gone but HUMANITY remains. Which means whatever is learned can be considered, absorbed, and in the future (or the present) put to use on whatever or whoever is left behind. That is the prayer.”

Poland 1942, Czeslaw Milosz sends a letter to his friend: “A new note steals into my lamentation, my fury, my anger and pain -- a note of calm deliberation, perhaps the same as that which caused an imprisoned Chinese poet around the seventh century A.D. to write this line: ‘In the midst of the storm that knocked me down, weeping, I write gentle poems.’ Faced with the simple and elementary things in people’s lives, faced with physical suffering and death, it makes no sense to play hide-and-seek with oneself… The times are no good, no good. Perhaps no worse than other times, but in any event, we have to take this time as it is… A time (perhaps future memoirs will understand it this way) in which people prayed although heaven was empty…”

Erwin Schrödinger had the happily Vedantic belief that there is only one universal being, not a thinking being, not even really a “being” but the energy of thought itself, and we are all that being, we are all of that being, that all we can do to tell the truth is to express the unexpressable through contradictory statements: “a thing can be either A or not A, but can also be both A and not-A at the same time.” For all of Walter Moore’s qualms about Schrödinger the philosopher versus Schrödinger the physicist, it seems to a non-scientist that this belief tumbles naturally and thrillingly into the studies of particles and waves, into untying the entanglement of experimenter and experiment, into that famous cat -- poisoned, if not vivisected to make it convulse -- that is simultaneously alive and dead. Unless we try to look at it. Then it’s either one or the other. And of course he doesn’t mean to show us that this nightmare cat exists, in its open or closed box. He means to show us just the opposite.)

My mind is still a little dizzy, my heart a little sick, but I’m starting to warm to Schrödinger’s twisted sense of humor, to his impossible cat that was at once alive and blown to pieces, his confrontation between reality and fuzzy thinking. (Also, from these pictures it seems like he was kind of beautiful in a certain way, kind of a rogue, maybe -- unfortunately -- kind of my type. In autumn of 1933, the autumn when he refused to join the 960 professors led by Heidegger who signed a vow to support the Nazis, he wrote in his diary -- in French, which Moore says drily “must have seemed the appropriate language for amorous intrigue” -- “It has never happened that a woman has slept with me and did not wish, in consequence, to live with me for all her life.” Of his wife, Anny, he wrote, “I like Anny as a friend, but I detest her sexually.” Later in autumn of 1933 he got his friend’s wife pregnant on a romantic bicycling tour in the South Tirol.)

“There is a difference,” wrote Schrödinger about the cat paradox, “between a shaky or not-sharply-focused photograph and a photograph of clouds and fog banks.” When he finished My View of the World in 1960, thirty-five years after he’d started it, Erwin Schrödinger noted that maybe Sancho Panza offers a better guide for living than Arthur Schopenhauer. In the Moore book, there’s a picture of Schrödinger’s death mask. Dead and not-dead. He said his last words early in the morning of January 3, 1961 -- “Annikin, stay with me, so that I don’t crash,” and Anny did stay with him, kissing him and stroking his 73-year-old head and feeding him his last-ever glass of orange juice, and then he did crash, or maybe not. The year’s first snow fell on his grave.

Herman Gombiner, in that Isaac Bashevis Singer story, wakes up with amnesia, startled, even after years, to be in New York instead of back at home. He opens one eye first and then the other. He considers himself to be “among the select few privileged to see beyond the façade of phenomena.” He sees inanimate objects float in the air. He does everything slowly. He starts to pray to his relatives, lost and dead in their own Treblinkas. He has premonitions. He thinks, “The spirit cannot be burned, gassed, hanged, shot.” The sound of the steam in the radiator consoles him, it seems to speak, “You are not alone, you are an element of the universe.” He hears Huldah squeak, as if she’s afraid that a cat lurks nearby, and he thinks, “Can there be any greater wonder… Here stands a mouse, the daughter of a mouse, a granddaughter of mice, a product of millions, billions of mice who once lived, suffered, reproduced, and are now gone forever, but have left an heir, apparently the last of her line…” And at the end of the story, Herman, who has always been irresistible to women but never picked one, has fallen in love. And at the end of the story, the mouse lives, not general mice but that particular exact mouse. At the end of the story snow falls, the radiator hisses again, and it all has the quality of a revelation.