Category Archives: Myth + Spirituality

American Bardo

A 19th-century stone carved angel in a cemeteryAs I read George Saun­ders’ dar­ing first nov­el Lin­coln in the Bar­do recent­ly, I was struck by its strange­ly close par­al­lels with anoth­er mem­o­rable and equal­ly risk-tak­ing debut nov­el, Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2000). Both nov­els use the Civ­il War as an entry point into crazed and orig­i­nal med­i­ta­tions on the real­i­ty of death.

In Lin­coln in the Bar­do, Saun­ders reimag­ines the Bud­dhist con­cept of the Bar­do, a thresh­old state of the soul that is thought to last a few days after death. His Amer­i­can Bar­do is a ceme­tery in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., filled with a mot­ley group of dead folks too short-sight­ed to real­ize they’re dead. At the heart of the book is a new arrival, eleven-year-old Willie Lin­coln, who’s suc­cumbed to typhoid fever, and his griev­ing father, the Pres­i­dent, who is a year into the blood­i­est war of the country’s his­to­ry. His­to­ry has left the tan­ta­liz­ing sug­ges­tion that Lin­coln vis­it­ed Willie’s crypt sev­er­al times after the boy’s funer­al.

Gob’s Grief takes place dur­ing and after the Civ­il War. The sto­ry repur­pos­es such real fig­ures as Walt Whit­man, who vol­un­teered as a nurse to injured sol­diers dur­ing the war, and the remark­able Vic­to­ria Wood­hull, a fem­i­nist, a medi­um, and the first female can­di­date for pres­i­dent, in 1872. The emo­tion­al crux of this sto­ry is the rela­tion­ship between Woodhull’s fic­tion­al twin sons, Gob and Tomo. Tomo runs off to be a bugler with the Union Army at the age of eleven, and is soon killed in bat­tle.

Gob is sick­ened by his mother’s insis­tence that his broth­er is alive and well in the Sum­mer­land, the Spir­i­tu­al­ist equiv­a­lent of Heav­en. Years lat­er, a grown-up Gob builds a mas­sive, Steam­punk-like engine meant to bring back to life not only Tomo, but all the sol­diers who died in the war. The engine com­bines “glass tubes and iron gears… bun­dles of cop­per wire,” human bones, and an array of glass neg­a­tives of fall­en sol­diers, float­ing above a set of ceme­tery gates.

Both books are wild­ly non-for­mu­la­ic and genre-bust­ing. Lin­coln in the Bar­do is told in a mul­ti-voiced cho­rus, shift­ing from the dead ceme­tery-dwellers to the living—the ceme­tery guard and the President—along with excerpt­ed his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions of Willie’s ill­ness and death. Gob’s Grief leaps around in time and inside many points of view. But it also alter­nates between nat­u­ral­is­tic depic­tions of events like the bat­tle of Chicka­mau­ga, and oth­er­world­ly hap­pen­ings and char­ac­ters includ­ing the mem­o­rably creepy child Pick­ie Beech­er, born out of Gob’s infer­nal machine. Angels appear in both books, hec­tor­ing the liv­ing and the dead.

Both nov­els are heat­ed into over­drive by the ten­sion between denial and accep­tance of death, two land­marks on the con­tin­u­um of grief. The ghosts sur­round­ing Willie Lin­coln suf­fer from major cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance as they strug­gle to explain their sit­u­a­tion, cling­ing to sad euphemisms: “sick-box” for cof­fin, and “stone home” for their tombs. Their lib­er­a­tion, and Willie’s, hinges on rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ty of their deaths in this false stage-set they’ve cre­at­ed. An unlike­ly com­mu­nion with the dead helps Willie’s griev­ing father come through a sim­i­lar emo­tion­al pas­sage.

Gob’s Grief is infused with the crazi­ness of grief. Sev­er­al main char­ac­ters, includ­ing Walt Whit­man, are each haunt­ed by a broth­er or loved one lost in the war. Gob’s death-defy­ing engine some­how feels like the believ­able response of some­one who’s ready to change the rules of real­i­ty to bring back their loved one. Adrian’s lat­er nov­els, The Children’s Hos­pi­tal and The Great Night, show a sim­i­lar will­ing­ness to dive head­long into the deep­est waters where death and life, fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty mix.

The idea of the Bar­do came to the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 14th-cen­tu­ry Tibetan Bud­dhist text writ­ten as a guide for the new­ly dead, to help them move through the illu­sions of the Bar­do toward clar­i­ty and rebirth. In fact, Bar­do can refer to any tran­si­tion­al state, even our wak­ing expe­ri­ence. Is there some­thing dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can in the intran­si­gence of Saun­ders’ ghosts, and Gob’s obses­sive quest to undo his brother’s death? Their stub­born­ness may reflect our cul­tur­al prej­u­dice toward hap­pi­ness, toward hold­ing on to a more pleas­ant ver­sion of things, whether it’s one that exist­ed in the past, or some promised future. In what­ev­er Bar­do we find our­selves, only doing the hard work of acknowl­edg­ing what we’ve lost can lib­er­ate us to move ahead.



Thinking about Gaia

Image of Earth from spaceIn this month of Earth Day and march­ing for sci­ence and cli­mate, I’m think­ing about Gaia.

A hash­tag popped up on Twit­ter last week: #ifon­lytheearth­could­speak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to con­tem­plate right now. The hash­tag elicit­ed a range of respons­es from fun­ny and snarky to thought­ful and earnest. Some tweet­ers sug­gest­ed that the earth is speak­ing, but we’re not lis­ten­ing. Would that be Gaia? The envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist James Love­lock first for­mu­lat­ed the Gaia hypoth­e­sis in the 1970s, propos­ing that the Earth could be seen as one vast liv­ing and self-reg­u­lat­ing sys­tem, and nam­ing it for Gaia, the pri­mor­dial Greek Earth god­dess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its pop­u­lar­i­ty may owe a lot to Lovelock’s nam­ing it for the Greek Moth­er Earth, thus con­nect­ing it in our minds to the much ear­li­er and long-lived human sense of the earth as a liv­ing force.

In the last week, the earth’s atmos­phere reached an omi­nous new mile­stone: atmos­pher­ic car­bon diox­ide lev­els broke past 410 parts per mil­lion, after hit­ting 400 parts per mil­lion in 2013. The last time atmos­pher­ic car­bon con­cen­tra­tions were this high was in the Mid­dle Pliocene, 3.6 mil­lion years ago. Our con­tin­u­ing to pump car­bon and oth­er green­house gas­es into the atmos­phere, com­bined with the unknown effects of cli­mate feed­back, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Cli­mate March in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in a few days, one of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple need­ing to bear wit­ness to the urgency of this moment.

But are facts enough to ral­ly peo­ple to action? You can’t see car­bon con­cen­tra­tions, and even though the earth is now expe­ri­enc­ing changes that are much faster than the nor­mal geo­log­i­cal time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to eas­i­ly take in. As author Kim Stan­ley Robin­son has said, “Fic­tion can tell us how new sit­u­a­tions will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new nov­el, New York 2140, set in a par­tial­ly sub­merged future New York, is one of sev­er­al just-pub­lished works of cli­mate fic­tion (cli-fi), the emerg­ing genre that invites us to pic­ture the human con­se­quences of cli­mate change. Robin­son offers a vision of peo­ple mud­dling along and mak­ing their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both cop­ing with the dis­as­ters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.

But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a liv­ing thing, couldn’t we also ben­e­fit from try­ing to take its perspective—as dif­fer­ent from ours as it may be? Sci­ence fic­tion has gone there already. Appar­ent­ly inspired by the Gaia hypoth­e­sis, Isaac Asi­mov includ­ed a new­ly dis­cov­ered, sen­tient plan­et named Gaia in his 1982 nov­el Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Antho­ny made “Gaea” a main character—an arche­type of the Earth, embod­ied in a mortal—in Becom­ing a Green Moth­er (1988), part of his Incar­na­tions of Immor­tal­i­ty series.

The Book of Joan, an ambi­tious nov­el by Lidia Yuk­nav­itch, just out this month, offers a char­ac­ter who is empath­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed with the Earth. Liv­ing only a few decades into the future, the vision­ary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebel­lion among the sur­vivors of an envi­ron­men­tal­ly rav­aged earth who are now liv­ing on an orbit­ing space-sta­tion sanc­tu­ary ruled by a bil­lion­aire dic­ta­tor. This Joan of Arc for a night­mare future can man­i­fest vol­canic eruptions—her sym­bio­sis with the plan­et allows it a form of expres­sion that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky nov­el, also tak­ing on issues of gen­der, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.

These and oth­er cli-fi nov­els do a great ser­vice by bring­ing the human con­se­quences of cli­mate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reck­on with. If they tend to be dystopi­an, that is the kind of future that seems to be star­ing us in the face, giv­en the forces we have already set in motion.

The Earth is speak­ing to us now, in her own lan­guage, not just through beau­ti­ful sun­sets, but through ris­ing sea lev­els, droughts, and strange weath­er pat­terns. Of course we need to be able to imag­ine the human costs of cli­mate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promis­ing way toward changes in pol­i­cy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means fac­ing erup­tions of trau­mat­ic scale and strength. What may be dystopi­an for us, may just be a cloudy after­noon for our long-lived plan­et. We des­per­ate­ly need to de-objec­ti­fy the earth, and to try to reen­gage in some­thing more like an “I–Thou” rela­tion­ship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and won­der. I hope more writ­ers will take up the chal­lenge of imag­in­ing what she is say­ing, and might be say­ing in the future.




The radical leaps of A Wrinkle in Time

The witches of A Wrinkle in TimeI was in sixth grade when I was swept up in the world of A Wrin­kle in Time, part of the first gen­er­a­tion of girls to dis­cov­er it. Madeleine L’Engle’s nov­el imprint­ed itself on my imag­i­na­tion and gave me a sense of what spec­u­la­tive fic­tion could be, before I had read much sci­ence fic­tion. Its tin­gling sense of pos­si­bil­i­ty, and its fear­less leap­ing into deep ter­ri­to­ry stayed with me, as I lat­er found and read oth­er pio­neer­ing authors like Ursu­la LeGuin and Octavia But­ler.

What makes A Wrin­kle in Time such a touch­stone, a kind of pole star that has helped many read­ers, and par­tic­u­lar­ly girls and young women begin nav­i­gat­ing their sense of them­selves in the cos­mos? Many peo­ple have writ­ten about the pow­er of encoun­ter­ing the anti-cheer­leader Meg—a twelve-year-old girl who excels at math and science—not to men­tion Meg’s moth­er, Mrs. Mur­ry, who is both a work­ing sci­en­tist and a lov­ing, under­stand­ing par­ent.

But it’s not just these two strong female char­ac­ters that made this book dif­fer­ent. L’Engle pulled off some­thing wild­ly, rad­i­cal­ly orig­i­nal, mark­ing her own path into a field that is still male-dom­i­nat­ed. The title sly­ly announces its dif­fer­ence: it’s a “wrin­kle” in time, not some grand, adven­tur­ous noun (Trek, any­one?), but a hum­ble, domes­tic thing that nor­mal­ly reminds us of fabric—the tan­gi­ble women’s work of sewing and iron­ing. Yet this image ani­mates the Tesser­act con­cept that allows Meg and oth­ers to leapfrog through space and time on their quest to find her sci­en­tist father. Like­wise, the sto­ry roots itself in the creaky details of Meg’s shab­by but wel­com­ing old house before launch­ing into its play­ful explo­ration of dif­fer­ent plan­ets and ways of being, all with­out recourse to any of the shiny, tech-heavy details that char­ac­ter­ize hard sci­ence fic­tion.

That’s not all. L’Engle, who knew her world mytholo­gies, offers three char­ac­ters who are intro­duced as witches—one of them is even named Mrs Which. But these witch­es are thor­ough­ly de-demo­nized. No shrill Queens of the Night or inter­change­able Weird Sis­ters here; these are three old-lady pals who gen­uine­ly like each oth­er, each with her own dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ty. They are in fact men­tors and helpers to Meg and her com­pan­ions, and even as they shape-shift, shed­ding their gen­der to reveal more cos­mic iden­ti­ties, they retain their pro­found­ly good inten­tions.

And then there are the inhab­i­tants of the plan­et Ixchel, where Meg is tak­en to recov­er from the near-death trau­ma of Tesser­ing through the Black Thing. These huge furred crea­tures under­stand the world com­plete­ly through sen­si­tive ten­ta­cles, and com­mu­ni­cate with­out words. Instead of night­mar­ish, Alien-like insec­toids like those encoun­tered in Star­ship Troop­ers and Ender’s Game, we’re giv­en many-limbed beings with the envelop­ing tac­tile and emo­tion­al ambi­ence of the moth­er-infant bond, as Meg is regressed and re-raised by an indi­vid­ual she names “Aunt Beast.”

No won­der pub­lish­ers didn’t know what to do with L’Engle’s man­u­script at first. The human char­ac­ters (Meg and her mom) and the super­nat­ur­al char­ac­ters broke the gen­der bar­ri­ers of their time. Two arche­typ­al extremes are embod­ied as female: the celes­tial, sky-fly­ing, far-see­ing witch­es, and the feel­ing­ful, earth-con­nect­ed species of Ixchel (the plan­et was named for the Mayan god­dess of heal­ing and child­birth). And there are no man-eat­ing mon­sters among them. If A Wrin­kle in Time has giv­en boys some­thing new to chew on in these recast arche­types, that’s great. On behalf of stargaz­ing girls every­where, I’m grate­ful to Madeleine L’Engle for let­ting her imag­i­na­tion fly.


An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Ele­gy for Tes­la, instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambi­tious Ele­gy for Tes­la is a high-tech, dream­like and heart­felt med­i­ta­tion on Niko­la Tes­la, the leg­endary sci­en­tist and inven­tor. Jaffe’s mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion fills the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D print­ed mod­els of his icon­ic inven­tions, and ani­ma­tron­ic, motion-acti­vat­ed fig­ures of Tes­la that move and, in some cas­es speak.

Tes­la stands as an avatar of mas­sive cre­ativ­i­ty, with his hun­dreds of patents, and basic break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent, radio, robot­ics, and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. Jaffe pays homage to his achieve­ments, while embed­ding them in the medi­um of a life that had strange­ly myth­ic ele­ments. She’s par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the poignan­cy of the old­er Tes­la, the eccen­tric lon­er who fed and cared for pigeons, whose lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion had run up against the lim­its of the public’s recep­tion of his work.

This aspect of Tes­la is part of what drew me to work with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son on Vio­let Fire, an opera that tried to cap­ture the inner life of Tes­la in all its strange­ness through music, move­ment and video. So I was delight­ed to be asked to write the cat­a­logue essay for this exhib­it. One part of the Tes­la mythos is the white pigeon he befriend­ed, and who trig­gered in him a vision of blind­ing light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds her­self, sur­rounds Tes­la with a flock of ten­der­ly mod­eled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as car­ri­ers of his ongo­ing inspi­ra­tion, and mark­ers of his intense, intu­itive con­nec­tion with the nat­ur­al world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Ele­gy for Tes­la, gallery view

But Tes­la, in the form of his motion-acti­vat­ed dop­pel­gangers, steals this show. Cura­tor Mary Sal­vante coor­di­nat­ed an NEA-fund­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion between Jaffe and stu­dents and fac­ul­ty in Rowan’s Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment to cre­ate the sys­tems that ani­mate her sculp­tures. They stand, and move, in a per­fect salute to Tes­la as “magi­cian” of wire­less elec­tric­i­ty.

I’ll be at the recep­tion on Thurs­day – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through Jan­u­ary 30.

Ele­gy for Tes­la, an instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery/West, Glass­boro, NJ, through Jan­u­ary 30, 2016

Recep­tion Thurs­day, Octo­ber 8, 5–8 pm, start­ing with artist pre­sen­ta­tion and pan­el dis­cus­sion at 5 pm.