Writers Are My Nepenthe
—with apologies to Ted Joans
Writers are my nepenthe. They alone saved my soul more akin to
peyote than some mundane substance. The best kind of therapy.
Workshops and journals get holy sometimes. My jones gets going.
They are sanctified stages. But other places are like certain com-
mercial hospitals (where bloods are sold). I don’t dig their evange-
lists. I be on the side of the free but don’t come cheap. Ain’t into no
slave labor. Writing is still my nepenthe. Makes me feel better
’cause I hear the messengers. From: the right reverend amiri/seer
sonia/sister sandra maria/the wizard wonder/uncle etheridge/cler-
ic rakim/minister morrison/saviour sekou/baba john/deacon diva
lisa/empress erykah/rector victor cruz/zoastrian zora hurston/trix-
ter darius/freemason mosley/fundamentalist yusef/priestess pat
landrum/heirophant hattie gossett/holy roller nona hendrix/ecu-
menical ethelbert/monkess jayne cortez/guru babs
gonzalez/preacher quincy/his funkness formerly known as/deacon
steve cannon/ and sunday teacher ted joans/they let me lay my
burden low. they are the runaway from which I go! yeah, so, writers
are my nepenthe. Writers are….
by Tracie Morris
Soft Skull Press, 1998
Patricia Craig at The Dublin Review of Books:
This is a novel about double-dealing, about honourable and dishonourable forms of duplicity, about multiple impersonations, about lies and secrets and their ultimate consequences. Juliet is soon provided with an alternative identity ‑ Iris Carter-Jenkins is her bogus name ‑ and sent to infiltrate a fascist organisation known as the Right Club. This club holds its meetings in a flat above a cafe in South Kensington called the Russian Tea Rooms, which is run by an Admiral Wolkoff and his daughter Anna. The young transcriber has been upgraded to a full-blown MI5 agent, and adopts a mettlesome personality to go with her new role. “She had already decided that Iris Carter-Jenkins was a gutsy kind of girl.” Gutsy enough to carry a small gun in her handbag, and keep her nerve in the face of imminent unmasking.
There’s a touch of high jinks about Juliet’s anti-Right-Club activities, and indeed about all her doings at this point, not excluding her romantic interest in her mentor Perry Gibbons, whom she fails to suspect of homosexual leanings, even when these are paraded under her nose. She feels at times as if she’s been caught up in “a Girls’ Own adventure” (actually, a Schoolfriend adventure would be nearer the mark; the Girls’ Own Paper was a rather staid publication); and Buchan and Erskine Childers are never far from her thoughts.
Tiana Reed at The Paris Review:
I first saw an Akomfrah film before I knew it was an Akomfrah film. I remember watching the documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) in my single dorm room at the top of a hill on McGill’s campus in Montreal. I was alone in college, surrounded by people, and had settled into a life of solemnity. My first laptop had a disc drive, and I had gotten into the habit of borrowing DVDs from the university library in a forlorn attempt to stay in at least one night on the weekends. I, like my father, had gone through a phase contemplating conversion to Islam. Converting from what, I never knew. I didn’t take it as seriously as he did (I never went to mosque), and mostly I just crushed on the hero, who I referred to in the margins of his autobiography as “Mal.” (Unlike my entrepreneurial Jamaican father, I had confused wanting to be a black Muslim with wanting to be a black Marxist.)
Whatever I wanted to be, I could dream up. Whatever I was, I did not know. In Seven Songs for Malcolm X—which features interviews with Betty Shabazz, Spike Lee, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others—the activist Yuri Kochiyama recalls the hours before Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City: “There was something in the air, I wouldn’t know how to pinpoint it, but there seemed to be a lot of anxiety.”
Clayton Dalton in Nautilus:
The story of energy metabolism—the basic engine of life at the cellular level—is one of electrons flowing much like water flows from mountains to the sea. Our cells can make use of this flow by regulating how these electrons travel, and by harvesting energy from them as they do so. The whole set-up is really not so unlike a hydroelectric dam. The sea toward which these electrons flow is oxygen, and for most of life on earth, iron is the river. (Octopuses are strange outliers here—they use copper instead of iron, which makes their blood greenish-blue rather than red). Oxygen is hungry for electrons, making it an ideal destination. The proteins that facilitate the delivery contain tiny cores of iron, which manage the handling of the electrons as they are shuttled toward oxygen.
This is why iron and oxygen are both essential for life. There is a dark side to this cellular idyll, though.
Normal energy metabolism in cells produces low levels of toxic byproducts. One of these byproducts is a derivative of oxygen called superoxide. Luckily, cells contain several enzymes that clean up most of this leaked superoxide almost immediately. They do so by converting it into another intermediary called hydrogen peroxide, which you might have in your medicine cabinet for treating nicks and scrapes. The hydrogen peroxide is then detoxified into water and oxygen. Things can go awry if either superoxide or hydrogen peroxide happen to meet some iron on the way to detoxification. What then happens is a set of chemical reactions (described by Haber-Weiss chemistry and Fenton chemistry) that produce a potent and reactive oxygen derivative known as the hydroxyl radical. This radical—also called a free radical—wreaks havoc on biological molecules everywhere. As the chemists Barry Halliwell and John Gutteridge—who wrote the book on iron biochemistry—put it, “the reactivity of the hydroxyl radicals is so great that, if they are formed in living systems, they will react immediately with whatever biological molecule is in their vicinity, producing secondary radicals of variable reactivity.”
Such is the Faustian bargain that has been struck by life on this planet. Oxygen and iron are essential for the production of energy, but may also conspire to destroy the delicate order of our cells. As the neuroscientist J.R. Connor has said, “life was designed to exist at the very interface between iron sufficiency and deficiency.”
Larry Arnhart in The New Atlantis:
In the first issue of The New Atlantis, Leon Kass suggests that if biotechnology were to transform human nature, it would do so to satisfy the human dream of physical and mental perfection — “ageless bodies, happy souls.” But how likely is that? As an indication of what he foresees, Kass says that with drugs, “we can eliminate psychic distress, we can produce states of transient euphoria, and we can engineer more permanent conditions of good cheer, optimism, and contentment.” He refers to those “powerful yet seemingly safe anti-depressant and mood brighteners like Prozac, capable in some people of utterly changing their outlook on life from that of Eeyore to that of Mary Poppins.” Similarly, psychiatrist Peter Kramer — in his best-selling book Listening to Prozac — described patients using Prozac who were not just cured of depression but so transformed in their personalities as to be “better than well.” Shy, quiet people were apparently turned into ebullient and socially engaging people. “Like Garrison Keillor’s marvelous Powdermilk biscuits,” Kramer observed, “Prozac gives these patients the courage to do what needs to be done.” This was the beginning, he concluded, of “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” by which people could use chemicals to take on whatever personality they might prefer.
But as even Kramer has conceded, this chemical transformation in personality appears to work well in only a minority of the people taking Prozac. And in recent years, there have been increasing reports of many harmful side effects. This is to be expected, because like all psychotropic drugs, Prozac disrupts the normal functioning of the brain, and the brain responds by countering the effect of the drug, which then induces harmful distortions in the neural system. Specifically, Prozac blocks the normal removal of the neurotransmitter serotonin from the space between nerve cells. This creates an overabundance of serotonin, and the brain responds either by reducing receptivity to serotonin or by reducing the production of serotonin. As a result, the brain creates an imbalance in response to the disruption of the drug and cannot function normally. There is also growing evidence that Prozac does not really cure depression. Many studies have shown that the antidepressant effects of taking Prozac are not much greater than what occurs when people take a placebo pill.
But the most fundamental problem with Prozac is one that it shares with all psychotropic drugs (including old-fashioned ones like alcohol). Emotional suffering is a capacity of human nature shaped by evolutionary history for an adaptive purpose. Emotional suffering is almost always a signal that something is wrong in our lives. It alerts us that there is some problem either in our internal lives, in our social relationships, or in our external circumstances. A psychotropic drug does not help us to understand or solve the problem. Rather, the drug deadens the emotional response of our brain without changing the problem that provoked the emotional response in the first place. When we feel bad because of a problem in our lives, taking a psychotropic drug to make us feel better is evasive and self-defeating.
More here. (Note: From the Summer 2003 issue)
Lane Greene in Aeon:
Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying The Economist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.
Scotty Hendricks in Big Think:
The concept of human capital has only been around since the ’50s but it’s become an increasingly popular way of looking at the economic potential of countries. Typically defined as “the attributes of a population that, along with physical capital such as buildings, equipment, and other tangible assets, contribute to economic productivity” it includes things such as education levels, skill sets, and other intangible items that foster economic growth.
While we already know that a countries’ average education level is associated with its economic growth, a recent study looking into the growth of human capital around the world over the last 26 years has included healthcare outcomes to the mix. While it was created to help motivate lower and middle income countries to increase their human capital investment, it offers a harsh look at the progress the United States has made over the previous 20; if any.
Amy Zegart and Kevin Childs in The Atlantic:
A silent divide is weakening America’s national security, and it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump or party polarization. It’s the growing gulf between the tech community in Silicon Valley and the policy-making community in Washington.
Beyond all the acrimonious headlines, Democrats and Republicans share a growing alarm over the return of great-power conflict. China and Russia are challenging American interests, alliances, and values—through territorial aggression; strong-arm tactics and unfair practices in global trade; cyber theft and information warfare; and massive military buildups in new weapons systems such as Russia’s “Satan 2” nuclear long-range missile, China’s autonomous weapons, and satellite-killing capabilities to destroy our communications and imagery systems in space. Since Trump took office, huge bipartisan majorities in Congress have passed tough sanctions against Russia, sweeping reforms to scrutinize and block Chinese investments in sensitive American technology industries, and record defense-budget increases. You know something’s big when senators like the liberal Ron Wyden and the conservative John Cornyn start agreeing.
In Washington, alarm bells are ringing. Here in Silicon Valley, not so much.
Michael Zhang in Peta Pixel:
Check out these rather ordinary looking portraits. They’re all fake. Not in the sense that they were Photoshopped, but rather they were completely generated by artificial intelligence. That’s right: none of these people actually exist.
Ian Marcus Corbin at The New Atlantis:
It goes without saying — everyone knows it now, even if they can’t say why — that things like social media are bad for us, that many of us are clinically addicted to our phones, that life online brings out the worst in many, and probably in most of us. Twitter has damaged our national discourse, infecting it with a hair-triggered, toxic factionalism. The news is familiar enough — someone says something, Twitter erupts with outrage; details to follow. This is news. We treat all this with a knowing grimace, and write wry little tweets about how Twitter is toxic. We admire the founders of websites and apps that make us miserable, and if we are ambitious entrepreneurial types, aspire to be like them.
Fine, the zeitgeist moves at its glacial pace, until it decides it’s time to move quickly. Humans are weak and will sate their thirst with the nearest liquid, at least for a time. There is reason to think, though, that this digital world will die, or at least radically morph, as its ill effects come further into view. Technology, and especially social media use — this gigantic monument of our collective creation — will begin to be treated as a public health issue within a decade, I predict. The studies are piling up, no moral argument today is so dispositive.
B. Alexandra Szerlip at The Believer:
Hypnopaedia aka Sleep Learning had been thrust upon the public in 1921, courtesy of a Science and Invention Magazine cover story. Echoing Poe, Hugo Gernsback informed his readers that sleep “is only another form of death,” but our subconscious “is always on the alert.” If we could “superimpose” learning on our sleeping senses, would it not be “an inestimable boon to humanity?” Would it not “lift the entire human race to a truly unimaginable extent?”
Gernsback proposed that talking machines, operating on the Poulsen Telegraphone Principle (magnetic recordings on steel wires) be installed in people’s bedrooms. The recordings library would be housed in a large central exchange; subscribers could place their orders by radiophone. Then, between midnight and 6 a.m., requests would be “flashed out,” over those same radiophones, onto reels, each with enough wire to last for an hour of continuous service. Eight reels would give the sleeper enough material for a whole nights’ work!
In other words, in 1921 he anticipated the first spoken word LPs (Caedmon Records, est. 1952), Books of Tape (est. 1975) and the first digitally downloaded audio books (mid-1990s).
Lucy Jakub at the NYRB:
Looking at the paintings of Walton Ford in a book, you might mistake them for the watercolors of a nineteenth-century naturalist: they are annotated in longhand script, and yellowed at the edges as if stained by time and voyage. Something’s always outrageously off, though: the gorilla is holding a human skull; a couple of parrots are mating on the shaft of an elephant’s penis. In his early riffs on Audubon prints, Ford painted birds mid-slaughter: his American Flamingo (1992) flails head over heels after being shot with a rifle, and an eagle with its foot in a trap billows smoke from its beak (Audubon, in search of a painless method of execution, tried unsuccessfully to asphyxiate an eagle with sulfurous gas).
Ford is never interested merely in the natural world, but in the way humans have documented, exploited, and repurposed it, and how these species have been mythologized, even as most of them have disappeared from the wild. Walton Ford makes paintings of paintings of animals.
……….. —for claudia
i usta wonder who I’d be
when i was a little girl in Indianapolis
sitting on doctors porches with post-dawn pre-debs
(wondering would my aunt drag me to church Sunday)
i was meaningless
and I wondered if life
would give me a chance to mean
i found a new life in the withdrawal from all things
not like my image
when I was a teenager I usta sit
on front steps conversing
the gym teachers son with embryonic eyes
about the essential essence of the universe
(and other bullshit stuff)
recognizing the basic powerlessness of me
but then i went to college where I learned
that just because everything I was was unreal
that i could be real and not just real through withdrawal
into emotional crosshairs or colored bourgeoisie intellectual pretentions
but from involvement with things approaching reality
i could possible have a life
so catatonic emotions and time wasting sex games
were replaced with functioning commitments to logic and
necessity and the gray area was slowly darkened into
a black thing
for a while progress was being made along with a certain degree
of happiness cause I wrote a book and found a love
and organized a theater and even gave some lectures on
and began to believe all good people could get
together and win without bloodshed
Read more »
Lena H. Sun in The Washington Post:
By day, some of the most dangerous animals in the world lurk deep inside this cave. Come night, the tiny fruit bats whoosh out, tens of thousands of them at a time, filling the air with their high-pitched chirping before disappearing into the black sky. The bats carry the deadly Marburg virus, as fearsome and mysterious as its cousin Ebola. Scientists know that the virus starts in these animals, and they know that when it spreads to humans it is lethal — Marburg kills up to 9 in 10 of its victims, sometimes within a week. But they don’t know much about what happens in between. That’s where the bats come Prevention traveled here to track their movements in the hopes that spying on their nightly escapades could help prevent the spread of one of the world’s most dreaded diseases. Because there is a close relationship between Marburg and Ebola, the scientists are also hopeful that progress on one virus could help solve the puzzle of the other.
Their task is to glue tiny GPS trackers on the backs of 20 bats so they can follow their movements.
…Well before you see the bats — about 50,000 live in the cave — you hear their squeaks and chatter and smell the ammonia from their guano, which also covers the cave’s rocky floor. One false step can lead to a fall into a stream underneath. Another could land the scientists on one of the African rock pythons or forest cobras that slither along the ground.
Emma McAllister in Quillette:
Since I first read Plato’s Symposium, I have been fond of Aristophanes’ account of the origin of love. The tale goes something like this. Human beings used to be spherical creatures with four legs, four arms, and two faces divided evenly between each side. We also used to come in three distinct varieties. Men were those composed of two male halves, women were those composed of two female halves, and the androgynous were those composed of both a male and a female half.
Everything was going swell for us, you might say, until the gods meddled, as they were wont to do. Fearing the power of humanity, Zeus sliced every human into two and had Apollo sew up the opening, with our belly buttons serving as a reminder not to test the power of the gods. Everyone found themselves feeling empty and longing for their other half, be it the woman you were attached to or the man you were attached to. Love was born out of the search to be whole.
I’m fond of this narrative for its simple beauty. But it is sadly incomplete. As progressives are quick to note, sexual attraction is more complicated than the pairings of men and women. People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And some categories of human are so peculiar that they can confound the very notion of healthy sexual attraction. In such cases, we sometimes use the term “fetish” to suggest that there is something odd, or even unwholesome, at play.
Steven Klein in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The relationship between the humanities and the sciences, including some quarters of the social sciences, has become strained, to put it mildly. Developments in cognitive neuroscience and other fields — from sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to increasingly detailed knowledge of human genetics — promise to revolutionize our knowledge of human behavior. And these changes have propelled a new, more hard-edged round in the science wars. In 2002, Steven Pinker, in his best-selling The Blank Slate, chastised the humanities for presenting culture as a malleable product of human will. While the first science wars, fought in the 1990s, focused on broad questions regarding the basis of scientific knowledge, today science warriors accuse the humanities of ignoring human nature, and especially natural human differences.
These controversies could potentially illuminate core moral and political questions about the nature of scholarship, humanistic and otherwise. Yet, as with so many dysfunctional relationships, partisans of each side think they are having a conversation without really talking to each other at all. Take the dust-up that began when Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, wrote about the historical connection between race and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Bouie was responding to recent critics of the humanities, most notably Pinker, whose Enlightenment Now provides a rousing call for us to use science to improve the human condition. Against Pinker’s idea of the Enlightenment as a model for rational problem-solving today, Bouie pointed out that many Enlightenment thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, helped forge modern notions of racial classification and hierarchy. It’s not so simple a task, then, to just draw on the Enlightenment ideal of rational progress. We must also, Bouie argued, confront Enlightenment ideals’ continued entanglement with racism and European imperial ideology.
Maximillian Alvarez in Current Affairs:
I regret never really getting to know my dad until after the world broke him. And it’s not like I didn’t know him well before—I did. But not in the way I know him now. I wish I had known him better before everything went to hell, before the Recession hit, before we lost just about everything, so that he didn’t have to go through it all feeling like I didn’t, and couldn’t, know what he was going through. To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t think he really knew either.
Pops was never that much of a chatterbox. So, we all had to learn how to mine his brief words for hidden meaning. My siblings and I could decipher in a quick, throwaway suggestion that we watch a certain movie with him sometime a clear message that he really wanted to watch it with us now. We could discern many fine layers of disappointment in the way he said “Mmm …” We could read his laughs like practiced fortune-tellers reading tea-leaves. And then there were his silences: The angry silence was obvious and terrifying; the smirking silence usually meant that he was still laughing inside at his own joke; the pensive silences when certain songs were playing usually corresponded to memories we had heard about enough times that we could practically see them playing out in his head.
But then, around Christmas, something changes. I see my dad sitting like a shadow. The familiar emotional cues I had once known how to read now seem lost in static, shershing and flashing on a channel we don’t get, faint, ghostly shapes swimming somewhere under the surface. Suddenly, my dad has become illegible.
It’s clear that Christmas that my parents are hiding something from us.
Joanna Biggs at the LRB:
Plath grows up in Cold War America, deceived by a God who let her father die, wanting more than anything to be a writer and to marry a man who would make her feel like she had a vodka sword in her stomach, always. And she gets it when she arrives in Cambridge in 1956, meets her black marauder and marries him ‘in mother’s gift of a pink knit dress’ three and a half months later. (When I got married at 28 to the man I met at Oxford at 19, I married in pink partly under the influence of Ted and Sylvia, partly because my mother had also married, though not knowing or caring about Plath, in a pink knitted dress in 1977. I liked the resonances, then.) But the world, even when it gives her what she wants, also doesn’t. Literary success is baseless, fleeting; the marriage dissolves in betrayal, arguments, abandonment. The hard work has come to ash. Awake at 4 a.m. when the sleeping pills wear off, she finds a voice and writes the poems of her life, ones that will make her a myth like Lazarus, like Lorelei. But now she knows that her conception of her life, psychological and otherwise, is no longer tenable, and never was. Now what? ‘I love you for listening,’ Plath, abandoned and alone, tells her analyst Ruth Beuscher in a letter late in 1962. The rest of us are listening at last.