Archival Crying

In 1860, Herman Melville, 40 and with all of his published novels behind him, took a trip to San Francisco.  A lifetime before a canal would be carved through Panama, and some few years before railroads would connect the continent overland, the good ship Meteor took Melville around Cape Horn and into the Pacific.  The journey lasted just over four months, from May 30 to October 12, with his younger brother Thomas Melville as captain.

One-hundred and fifty-eight years later, I, 39 and with hopefully some amount of my career as an English professor in front of me, took a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I went to read through the papers that Melville’s granddaughter had bequeathed the Houghton Rare Books Library at Harvard, one item of which was a letter that Melville wrote during his voyage in 1860.  I spent two working days at the library; my train trip took four hours each way.

Two days after the 2016 US Presidential election, Masha Gessen published “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the New York Review of Books.  She reminded us that when things aren’t normal, resistance to them has to be.  But the sixth and final point of very good advice she enumerates there felt and still feels to me a bit strained by the extreme times through which we’re living.  Gessen writes: “Remember the future.”  Nearly two years into that future, I am instead reading Melville’s papers, contemplating the past.

Connections among these three sets of events are loose at best.  Each set can, of course, simultaneously be true without bearing on the others in any meaningful way.  But it seems to me that some overwhelming connection might exist here, because while I was reading in the archive of Melville’s papers, I cried.  And though I have a lot of feelings about the things I study, the work I do, and the world in which I live, crying in archives should be added to the dispiritingly long list of things in 2018 that are not normal.

***

The Meteor was approaching Cape Horn from the Atlantic on August 9, 1860, when one of its crew, whom Melville describes in his journal only as “Ray, a Nantucketeer, about twenty-five years old, a good honest fellow (to judge from his face & demeanor during the passage)” fell from the top mast and was killed instantly upon striking the spars.  The winds were rough and the footholds were no doubt slippery, as ice and sleet belong to that part of the Southern Hemisphere in August. The world was upside down, or at least the Meteor was in the upside down part.  The next day’s entry in Melville’s journal was the last.  Crisis has a way of unsettling the progress of a narrative.

I went to the library to engage in acts of historical reconstruction, an avowedly rational set of processes practiced in Europe and its spheres of influence for more than two hundred years.  First, I would look at documents, read them and if necessary interpret them; then I’d summarize something about their general gestalt; finally I’d write up a narrative that showed the evidence on which I was basing my conclusions.  The work of establishing historical facts requires that we demonstrate connections, causes and effects. It’s not a perfect system, but those are the rules. So I guess I’m writing what you’re now reading to break the rules. At least, the rules don’t allow me fully to explain why looking through these papers in 2018 made me cry.

“Remember the future” is excellent political advice.  Nearly two years on, it’s also enviable in its moral clarity. Constant resistance turns out to be difficult. Some aspects of life are harder to interrupt than others.  Not all crisis has the dramatic dignity of a fall to the death. Shifts in the political and cultural landscape since late 2016 have been unmistakably large and also hard to pinpoint.  Where does that leave us? In transition, decidedly. But transition to what? That part feels so, so undecided.

Survival lately seems unlikely to me.  I say so not out of some nihilistic temperament, but because a number of people I love and things that matter to me have ceased to exist since 2016.  In most cases these deaths and disappearances are not any direct result of the election or the waves of xenophobic terror and malign neglect it has unleashed, though causes are also sometimes more complicated than historical narratives admit, and anyway personal drama and political despair maintain no gentleman’s agreement to appear distinct.  Mostly, I keep these feelings to myself. It’s not super helpful to the resistance to have some asshole reminding his comrades that we’re all going to die. But, in broad strokes, I doubt I’m alone in the experience of walking around for the better part of two years unsure how to square my actions and my emotions as I resist the new normal. I want us to resist, but can you blame me for doubting that “resist” means “survive”?

***

Melville’s last journal entry from the 1860 voyage is dated August 10 and in its entirety reads:

–––– Calm: blue sky, sun out, dry deck.  Calm lasting all day –––– almost pleasant enough to atone for the gales, but not for Ray’s fate, which belongs to that order of human events, which staggers those whom the Primal Philosophy hath not confirmed. –– But little sorrow to the crew –– all goes on as usual –– I, too, read & think, & walk & eat & talk, as if nothing had happened –– as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors –––– when thus happening; when thus heart-breaking to a fond mother –– the King of Terrors, not to the dying or the dead, but to the mourner –– the mother. –– Not so easily will his fate be washed out of her heart, as his blood from the deck.

How do you go about your day in a world where going about your day is an act of complicity with the world’s terrors?  It’s a far-reaching, philosophical question one might contemplate in long, lonely hours at sea. But it’s also the kind of thing that, since the end of 2016, people increasingly feel the need to chat about while walking the dog, or going to class, or making small talk, or posting on Facebook.  Melville asked this question to try to remember the future.  The present tense of his reflection is one of extremes: the philosophical fact of death weighed against the insolvency of love.  Our present tense too is one of extremes, with the added mindfuck that it’s often nearly impossible to sort out which extreme a given situation tends toward.

I’ve been reading Melville my whole adult life.  Every couple of years I teach a lecture class devoted just to his works.  My students––my wonderful students––come to appreciate Melville too. It was a collaborative project with one former student, now a writer and researcher in his own right, that compelled me to spend a few afternoons in the Melville papers in Cambridge to begin with.  It sounds like I’m teaching the next generation about the things I was taught. It sounds like I’m remembering the future. And that used to be how it felt, but not lately.

What we might do and what we might feel stand at odds, powerfully, in the face of things like death and tragedy, but also structurally in a transitional political moment like ours.  Jokes aren’t funny.  We aren’t nostalgic for the same objects.  Some of things we lean on give out.  The work of living is the work of repair, but that work is always smaller––because we are––than the enormity of the task.  How could going about my day not feel like an act of complicity? But what’s the alternative?  I’ve spent most of 2018 living uncomfortably with my remaining comforts, yet I hesitate to try and shake this feeling off or dismiss it as guilt, because, I think, such unease is a big part of what’s holding open a space for resistance, at least until the slower-moving institutions like law, electoral politics, or journalism finally catch up to the ways that the world in 2018 feels to those of us who are committed to feeling it.

***

Along the long way that was also the only way to California, Melville stopped keeping his journal but began writing letters to his children, the second youngest of whom, Elizabeth––“My Dear Bessie”—turned seven a week before her father set sail. Melville tried to write to her in printed letters, so that she might read his missive herself, but he kept slipping back into cursive, and he concluded by drawing a picture of a hill on which she and her baby sister might walk, “hand in hand.”  What Bessie could not read, it seemed, she might handle, and so her father also included the rippled, bony fin of a leaping fish that landed on deck somewhere between the antipodes and the port of San Francisco where he posted the letter.

In the same cardstock file folder at Houghton where this letter is stored, I found another little packet marked “Fragile,” marked again “Keep on Top.”  Curious, I peeled back several layers of cardstock, the bottom of which was reinforced with a piece of matt board, to find a thin layer of tissue. My reward for heeding these warnings and peeling these layers was to glimpse a disintegrating thing.  The fish fin. It was translucent but exquisitely textured, about an inch long, and fused partially to the paper in which it was stored. It had survived.

The editors of the scholarly edition of Melville’s letters go to great lengths not only to transcribe Melville’s letter to Bessie, but also to reproduce the printing and cursive, the small picture he drew for her.  And though I have read these letters carefully over many years, I was unaware that the fin survived. What else, I sat in the reading room wondering, might? The question is overdetermined. It’s melodramatic. It’s not rational––not admissible to my narrative according to the rules of history writing that I had come to the library to engage.  But I had uncovered a very small thing that was also an astonishing thing. It didn’t know what to feel and that felt, for once lately, not only overwhelming but also right.

What do you do with such a discovery in 2018?  I teared up. I took a photo. I texted it to some friends. They responded with comments like “WHOA.”  No one volunteered to interpret whether I was handling the past or remembering the future. It’s not clear what my small archival find means, if it means anything at all.  An object’s survival in an archive doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. Its survival isn’t easily classed as resistance. All I know for sure is that I didn’t used to cry in archives, overburdened by some heightened inability to distinguish between their history and ours.  All I know is, the work is to remember a future where once again I might not.

Jordan Stein: Not always the theory guy

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Archival Crying

In 1860, Herman Melville, 40 and with all of his published novels behind him, took a trip to San Francisco.  A lifetime before a canal would be carved through Panama, and some few years before railroads would connect the continent overland, the good ship Meteor took Melville around Cape Horn and into the Pacific.  The journey lasted just over four months, from May 30 to October 12, with his younger brother Thomas Melville as captain.

One-hundred and fifty-eight years later, I, 39 and with hopefully some amount of my career as an English professor in front of me, took a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I went to read through the papers that Melville’s granddaughter had bequeathed the Houghton Rare Books Library at Harvard, one item of which was a letter that Melville wrote during his voyage in 1860.  I spent two working days at the library; my train trip took four hours each way.

Two days after the 2016 US Presidential election, Masha Gessen published “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” in the New York Review of Books.  She reminded us that when things aren’t normal, resistance to them has to be.  But the sixth and final point of very good advice she enumerates there felt and still feels to me a bit strained by the extreme times through which we’re living.  Gessen writes: “Remember the future.”  Nearly two years into that future, I am instead reading Melville’s papers, contemplating the past.

Connections among these three sets of events are loose at best.  Each set can, of course, simultaneously be true without bearing on the others in any meaningful way.  But it seems to me that some overwhelming connection might exist here, because while I was reading in the archive of Melville’s papers, I cried.  And though I have a lot of feelings about the things I study, the work I do, and the world in which I live, crying in archives should be added to the dispiritingly long list of things in 2018 that are not normal.

***

The Meteor was approaching Cape Horn from the Atlantic on August 9, 1860, when one of its crew, whom Melville describes in his journal only as “Ray, a Nantucketeer, about twenty-five years old, a good honest fellow (to judge from his face & demeanor during the passage)” fell from the top mast and was killed instantly upon striking the spars.  The winds were rough and the footholds were no doubt slippery, as ice and sleet belong to that part of the Southern Hemisphere in August. The world was upside down, or at least the Meteor was in the upside down part.  The next day’s entry in Melville’s journal was the last.  Crisis has a way of unsettling the progress of a narrative.

I went to the library to engage in acts of historical reconstruction, an avowedly rational set of processes practiced in Europe and its spheres of influence for more than two hundred years.  First, I would look at documents, read them and if necessary interpret them; then I’d summarize something about their general gestalt; finally I’d write up a narrative that showed the evidence on which I was basing my conclusions.  The work of establishing historical facts requires that we demonstrate connections, causes and effects. It’s not a perfect system, but those are the rules. So I guess I’m writing what you’re now reading to break the rules. At least, the rules don’t allow me fully to explain why looking through these papers in 2018 made me cry.

“Remember the future” is excellent political advice.  Nearly two years on, it’s also enviable in its moral clarity. Constant resistance turns out to be difficult. Some aspects of life are harder to interrupt than others.  Not all crisis has the dramatic dignity of a fall to the death. Shifts in the political and cultural landscape since late 2016 have been unmistakably large and also hard to pinpoint.  Where does that leave us? In transition, decidedly. But transition to what? That part feels so, so undecided.

Survival lately seems unlikely to me.  I say so not out of some nihilistic temperament, but because a number of people I love and things that matter to me have ceased to exist since 2016.  In most cases these deaths and disappearances are not any direct result of the election or the waves of xenophobic terror and malign neglect it has unleashed, though causes are also sometimes more complicated than historical narratives admit, and anyway personal drama and political despair maintain no gentleman’s agreement to appear distinct.  Mostly, I keep these feelings to myself. It’s not super helpful to the resistance to have some asshole reminding his comrades that we’re all going to die. But, in broad strokes, I doubt I’m alone in the experience of walking around for the better part of two years unsure how to square my actions and my emotions as I resist the new normal. I want us to resist, but can you blame me for doubting that “resist” means “survive”?

***

Melville’s last journal entry from the 1860 voyage is dated August 10 and in its entirety reads:

–––– Calm: blue sky, sun out, dry deck.  Calm lasting all day –––– almost pleasant enough to atone for the gales, but not for Ray’s fate, which belongs to that order of human events, which staggers those whom the Primal Philosophy hath not confirmed. –– But little sorrow to the crew –– all goes on as usual –– I, too, read & think, & walk & eat & talk, as if nothing had happened –– as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors –––– when thus happening; when thus heart-breaking to a fond mother –– the King of Terrors, not to the dying or the dead, but to the mourner –– the mother. –– Not so easily will his fate be washed out of her heart, as his blood from the deck.

How do you go about your day in a world where going about your day is an act of complicity with the world’s terrors?  It’s a far-reaching, philosophical question one might contemplate in long, lonely hours at sea. But it’s also the kind of thing that, since the end of 2016, people increasingly feel the need to chat about while walking the dog, or going to class, or making small talk, or posting on Facebook.  Melville asked this question to try to remember the future.  The present tense of his reflection is one of extremes: the philosophical fact of death weighed against the insolvency of love.  Our present tense too is one of extremes, with the added mindfuck that it’s often nearly impossible to sort out which extreme a given situation tends toward.

I’ve been reading Melville my whole adult life.  Every couple of years I teach a lecture class devoted just to his works.  My students––my wonderful students––come to appreciate Melville too. It was a collaborative project with one former student, now a writer and researcher in his own right, that compelled me to spend a few afternoons in the Melville papers in Cambridge to begin with.  It sounds like I’m teaching the next generation about the things I was taught. It sounds like I’m remembering the future. And that used to be how it felt, but not lately.

What we might do and what we might feel stand at odds, powerfully, in the face of things like death and tragedy, but also structurally in a transitional political moment like ours.  Jokes aren’t funny.  We aren’t nostalgic for the same objects.  Some of things we lean on give out.  The work of living is the work of repair, but that work is always smaller––because we are––than the enormity of the task.  How could going about my day not feel like an act of complicity? But what’s the alternative?  I’ve spent most of 2018 living uncomfortably with my remaining comforts, yet I hesitate to try and shake this feeling off or dismiss it as guilt, because, I think, such unease is a big part of what’s holding open a space for resistance, at least until the slower-moving institutions like law, electoral politics, or journalism finally catch up to the ways that the world in 2018 feels to those of us who are committed to feeling it.

***

Along the long way that was also the only way to California, Melville stopped keeping his journal but began writing letters to his children, the second youngest of whom, Elizabeth––“My Dear Bessie”—turned seven a week before her father set sail. Melville tried to write to her in printed letters, so that she might read his missive herself, but he kept slipping back into cursive, and he concluded by drawing a picture of a hill on which she and her baby sister might walk, “hand in hand.”  What Bessie could not read, it seemed, she might handle, and so her father also included the rippled, bony fin of a leaping fish that landed on deck somewhere between the antipodes and the port of San Francisco where he posted the letter.

In the same cardstock file folder at Houghton where this letter is stored, I found another little packet marked “Fragile,” marked again “Keep on Top.”  Curious, I peeled back several layers of cardstock, the bottom of which was reinforced with a piece of matt board, to find a thin layer of tissue. My reward for heeding these warnings and peeling these layers was to glimpse a disintegrating thing.  The fish fin. It was translucent but exquisitely textured, about an inch long, and fused partially to the paper in which it was stored. It had survived.

The editors of the scholarly edition of Melville’s letters go to great lengths not only to transcribe Melville’s letter to Bessie, but also to reproduce the printing and cursive, the small picture he drew for her.  And though I have read these letters carefully over many years, I was unaware that the fin survived. What else, I sat in the reading room wondering, might? The question is overdetermined. It’s melodramatic. It’s not rational––not admissible to my narrative according to the rules of history writing that I had come to the library to engage.  But I had uncovered a very small thing that was also an astonishing thing. It didn’t know what to feel and that felt, for once lately, not only overwhelming but also right.

What do you do with such a discovery in 2018?  I teared up. I took a photo. I texted it to some friends. They responded with comments like “WHOA.”  No one volunteered to interpret whether I was handling the past or remembering the future. It’s not clear what my small archival find means, if it means anything at all.  An object’s survival in an archive doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. Its survival isn’t easily classed as resistance. All I know for sure is that I didn’t used to cry in archives, overburdened by some heightened inability to distinguish between their history and ours.  All I know is, the work is to remember a future where once again I might not.

Jordan Stein: Not always the theory guy

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How Was Your Summer?

Things To Say Other Than “I Didn’t Get Enough Writing Done” When Your Academic Colleague Asks You How Your Summer Was So You Don’t Start the Year With a Goddamned Sense of Failure and Self-Loathing

It was goddamned great.

It was goddamned monotonous.

I went to a goddamned lake.

I hung out with my goddamned dog.

I saw my goddamned sister.

I went on a goddamned road trip.

I sat in the goddamned sun.

I ate a goddamned Popsicle.

I ate another goddamned Popsicle because why not that is what Popsicles are for.

I read a goddamned book – nay, multiple goddamned books.

I had a number of goddamned conversations with Trader Joe’s cashiers.

I watched a number of quality goddamned films.

I watched a number of terrible goddamned films.

I was not constantly overcome by a goddamned sense of misery and insufficiency thrust upon me by the cocktail of horrors we refer to as the American university.

I hung out with my goddamned dog some more.

I petted my goddamned dog.

I caught up with an old goddamned friend.

I sat on my goddamned front porch.

I was goddamned bored.

I was not goddamned bored.

I went to the goddamned grocery store.

I went to goddamned Costo.

I went to goddamned Target.

I went to goddamned Target again.

I drove across some very goddamned large parking lots.

I drove from one store to another in some very goddamned large parking lots.

I wrote some goddamned pages of words, and I’m fine with the quantity of pages of words because I am not a goddamned servant to capitalist mandates about productivity.

I went to another goddamned lake.

I had some goddamned good days.

I had some goddamned less good days.

I saw a goddamned elk in a goddamned field.

I ate a goddamned cheeseburger.

I ate a goddamned hot dog.

I petted my goddamned dog again.

I did an appropriate level of work, given that my university doesn’t pay me properly for my goddamned labor.

Susan Harlan’s humor writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Awl, The Billfold, Avidly, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Hairpin, The Belladonna, Janice, and The Establishment. Her book Decorating a Room of One’s Own (Abrams, 2018) started as a column entitled “Great House Therapy” for The Toast, which won the Mark Twain House and Museum’s Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Contest in 2017. She has also published essays in venues including The Guardian US, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Roads & Kingdoms, The Common, The Morning News, Curbed, Atlas Obscura, Public Books, and Nowhere. Her book Luggage was published in the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons in March, and she teaches English literature at Wake Forest University.

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No Sanctuary for the Rooster

Alfred was an unplanned rooster and, as is often the case with roosters, a jerk. Unlike most asshole roosters, who would have had a date with the chopping block, Alfred and I ended up in the elegantly appointed waiting room of the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Animal Hospital, me handing over my credit card to cover his $276 vet bill and Alfred pecking at his poop. As I signed the paperwork, people came over to peer at my magnificent bird; Alfred ruffled his feathers and glared through the grill of the carrier.

A few days before, I had tried to euthanize Alfred – if “euthanize” is the right word for overdosing a six pound rooster with enough sedatives to kill a forty pound dog. Alfred and I sat on the side of a grassy hill in the sunshine as I waited for him to drift into a drugged slumber. A friend stood nearby with an ax and trash bag to finish the job.

I felt Alfred’s muscles unclench and his dark pink eyelid slipped up over his eye, but the testosterone coursing through his body made Alfred immune to such trivialities as a massive dose of sedatives. After the lightest of naps, my rooster awoke, ready to return to his two favorite pastimes: sex and violence.

*

A rooster attack is no small thing. And Alfred attacked anyone who looked at him or his hens: children, dogs, visiting friends, and – eventually – me. Alfred puffed up his feathers and hurled his fierce body at people, grabbing with his beak and pounding with his sharp talons. I imagine he must have felt the ancestral frisson of his fearsome dinosaur ancestry. Chickens are descended from theropods (Greek for “beast foot”) and, as such, they are the progeny of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor. When Alfred came at you, it was easy to see that, in his mind, he was going to shred you to bits and chew on your entrails.

Alfred was no dummy, though. When a pair of foxes started to pick off his hens, Alfred was occupied elsewhere. “Alfredo,” I chastened him, “when the fox comes, you’re supposed to die a hero.” My previous accidental rooster (Mr. Cecilia Fluffball) had gone down in a blaze of glory protecting his hens. Now that was a good rooster, so I knew they existed.

*

Alfred and his companion, Matilda, were, as I have said, unplanned chickens. We already had a small flock of hens at the farm where I kept my horse, and I had not intended to add any more until I found Matilda dying in a tub of three-day-old Buff Orpington chicks at the local feed store. An employee prodded the lifeless body with her finger and the chick fluttered her wings very slightly. “She’s just about dead,” the clerk said.

“Can I have her?” I asked.
“Sure.”

I cupped the little peep in my hands. After a few minutes of blowing between my fingers, she moved. In a fit of righteousness, I selected her companion from the unsexed Silver Laced Cochin chicks. Generally, chicks are sexed after birth so customers are guaranteed hens. Just about nobody wants a rooster. The male chicks become “chicken by product,” which means they are macerated in a specially designed machine that grinds them up alive. I didn’t want to vote with my dollars for an industry that kills male chicks in the hundreds of millions each year. That moral purity cost me much more than the seventy-five cent mark-up for a guaranteed female.

Alfred and Matilda grew up in my home. They spent their days eating freeze-dried mealworms, blueberries, and my flowers. They chased each other between the legs of my dog and over the backs of my sleeping cats. At night, they perched on my shoulder, warbling in my ear. When they were old enough, I brought them to the farm to join the flock.

*

A few months later, the hormones hit and my sweet Alfred turned into a monster. I looked into castration, but because rooster testicles are internal, neutering a rooster involves surgery that is best described as “exploratory” and is usually fatal. I tried to exert my dominance, carrying Alfred around on my hip, his wings pinned under my arm. (According to some experts, this would tame his wild ways). “I’m the boss of you,” I told him, but when I put him down again, he fluffed his feathers and lumbered monstrously back to the hens for a little ego-reassuring sex before returning to attack me.

I locked Alfred up, but he pressed repeatedly against the fencing until his legs were raw and his comb bled. When, in a moment of sympathy, I put a hen in with him, he ejaculated all over her tail feathers. Even then, he would not stop mounting her. Unwilling to watch what increasingly looked like a rape, I rescued the hen. Alfred made a moaning sound I hope never to hear again.

*

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 “Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals” considers the following ways to kill a chicken: cervical dislocation, asphyxiation, suffocation, electrocution, cranial compression, and decapitation. I was not ok with any of those options. I’m a vegetarian. I rescue animals. Alfred was a psychopath, but he was also the peep who had warbled sweet tunes in my ears that spring. I wasn’t going to wring his neck, chop his head off, or crush his skull.

I called the humane society, but they said they only euthanized cats and dogs. Game Control told me that they only worked with indigenous species, and chickens do not count.

“Is he wild?” the man asked me.
“He’s a jerk,” I answered. “Isn’t that good enough?
“Sorry, we can’t help you,” said the man.

According to the law, I could have killed Alfred however I wanted. Chickens are not explicitly included in the Humane Slaughter Act, which means they are not even entitled to be  “rendered insensible to pain by a . . . means that is rapid and effective” before slaughter. Chickens are also not protected from religious sacrifice, even if the process is brutal — and religious sacrifice often seems to involve swinging a bleeding chicken around, which strikes me as a particularly terrifying way to die. In 1993, for example, the Supreme Court upheld the right of religious groups to slaughter chickens for religious purposes, noting that, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection” (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 1993). More recently, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Debra James decided that it was ok to swing a chicken above a person’s head before having a rabbi slit the chicken’s throat. Many of those chickens die in huge piles of feather and blood.
We don’t think of chickens as individual entities; they are measured in flocks. According to the manuals, a veterinarian should diagnose illness by dissecting one chicken and then treating the flock. In the event of disease outbreak, hundreds of chickens are drowned in foam, a process called “mass depopulation.” It can take up to an hour to immerse the flock in enough foam to kill all the birds; once exposed, a chicken will die in a span of one to seven terrible minutes. Is it no surprise that Heinrich Himmler, architect of Nazi death camps, had been a chicken farmer who was inspired by methods of mechanized slaughter?

*

About a week after my unsuccessful attempt on Alfred’s life, I heard about the new Deslorelin implant, which would reduce the testosterone coursing through Alfred’s body. Less testosterone meant less aggression and, maybe, a rooster who could live out his days ranging freely with his flock. It was this news that led me to the University of Pennsylvania veterinary hospital, where I eagerly made an appointment with Dr. La’Toya Latney, credit card in tow.

According to policy, Alfred had to have a $75 “wellness exam” before the surgery. I confessed to my attempt on his life the week before, but we weren’t on the farm anymore. We were in a premiere veterinary hospital and they needed to do a wellness exam. Fine. A pair of vet students counted Alfred’s breaths, examined him for injury (scrapes on his legs; dried blood on his comb; head still attached), checked his eyes and beak, and declared him healthy. Alfred was strangely quiet during the exam, humbled even.

Dr. Latney made a small incision and inserted the device; then, she carefully stitched his skin back into place. A chicken’s skin has the consistency of wet toilet paper, so stitches easily pull through, but Dr. Latney could have sewn together cobwebs. As she attached the bandage over his incision, she said, “Now Mom, Alfred is going to need a few days to recover and then about two weeks for the implant to work.” I agreed to let Alfred convalesce at my house.

Perhaps Dr. Latney, who is the closest thing I’ve seen to a rooster whisperer, wanted to boost Alfred’s ego when she invited him to crow for her. On cue, he belted out his mighty song and the bunny in a cage nearby ran and hid behind her giant stuffed bunny doll.

*

Alfred returned to the home of his chickhood. He spent the day loudly lording it around my deck until I got a stern warning from Animal Control. Roosters are illegal in Philadelphia. Facing a possible fine, I brought Alfred back to the farm earlier than the rooster whisperer had advised.

One evening when I was the only one there, I let Alfred out for a little time with the ladies while I went on a quick trail ride on my horse. When I got back, I discovered that Alfred had attacked another horse owner who had come by unexpectedly, and this person kicked him in self defense. I found Alfred on his favorite dirt pile by the coop, his wing dangling helplessly by his side, but still trying to mount the hens.

I sent a desperate email to Dr. Latney, who called me right back despite the late hour. She called in a prescription for painkillers to keep him comfortable until the next day, when we would decide what to do. I drove Alfred back to the vet hospital to pick up his Tramadol. I could feel my heart fumble clumsily in my chest. Despite my best efforts, we had suddenly found ourselves at the real end of our rope – there is not much anyone can do for an asshole rooster with a broken wing and internal injuries.

I crawled into bed and tried not to think about what was almost certainly going to happen when the sun came up. The next morning, Alfred barely objected when I gave him his dose of pain medicine. I packed him into my car for what I feared was our final trip.

*

At Dr. Latney’s suggestion, I brought Alfred to the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center. The manager, Rick Schubert, would be able to assess Alfred’s injuries and, if necessary, euthanize him for me. Rick examined Alfred and declared his injuries not life threatening. My rooster had miraculously escaped with just a sprained wing.

“Might you have a spot for a mean rooster with an expensive implant?” I asked.
“I was just thinking I needed a rooster,” Rick said.

And that is how my asshole rooster found sanctuary.

Rick bandaged Alfred’s wing and we brought him out to the henhouse. Alfred seemed as stunned as I was and, when he met his new flock of hens, he became suddenly tentative and shy. It was a pathetic sight, but also a small miracle.

*

Soon after Alfred’s departure, a pair of foxes killed my sweet Matilda, but not before she hatched out another accidental rooster, Edward. Oops. Happily, Edward is a good rooster who knows better than to turn on the hands that feed him. Good thing, too. Should Edward turn on the humans, he won’t be as lucky as his jerk father was.

The next time I bought chicks to add to the flock, I paid the seventy-five cent mark-up for guaranteed females. Their brothers count among the many millions of male chicks ground up alive because no one wants a rooster.

The world has no real sanctuary for the rooster, so in the event that I am reincarnated as a male chick, may someone crush me inside my shell. May I never scratch in green grass to hunt for bugs. May I never shiver dirt between my feathers on a sunny day. May I never know the joys of rooster sex. Better never to be born than to be shredded no sooner than my chick fluff dries.

By the year 2020, I might get my wish. Unilever has developed technology that can determine a chick’s sex in the first few days of gestation. Thus, male eggs can be destroyed or used for research rather than hatching only to be ground up for byproduct. If we hope to live in a world where by-product isn’t the fate of half the chicks that hatch, we should hope to live in a world almost free of unplanned roosters, one where only female chicks emerge from their shells into an uncertain world.

 

Alexine Fleck usually writes about drugs and addiction. This is her first foray into poultural studies.

 

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Surviving Summer TV

“Heroes die,” Jessica Jones says in season two of the eponymous Marvel show. Super-powered but not a superhero, Jessica brushes off the responsibilities of her genre with the shrug of a leather jacket-clad shoulder. Instead of concerning itself with the usual do-gooding antics of comic books, Jessica Jones is a dark exposition of the nature of trauma.

Television viewers in 2018 have increasingly turned an eye on women’s trauma and its fallout, from the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to the laboratories of Westworld. Jessica Jones might be singular in the superhero genre, but it signifies a broader trend across television, where series have increasingly taken an interest in representations of women’s mental health. Shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Lady Dynamite have portrayed the stigma of mental illness, presenting inpatient recovery through a uniquely comedic lens. Meanwhile The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, and even The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt explored what it meant to reckon with the aftermath of disaster — and how the most disturbing experiences can also be the most formative.

In the sophomore season, Jessica Jones continues to chronicle the super-powered private investigator as she rails against her past, drinks her weight in bourbon, and oscillates between wanting to help people and wanting to throw them through glass doors. Where the first season saw her face down a singular super villain, the second season grapples with a series of ambiguous adversaries to ask the question: If heroes die, then who survives?

As a protagonist Jessica is complex, capable of both selfishness and heroism — allowed the nuance that male protagonists with disorders, addictions and defects have always been afforded. Jessica Jones combines some of the most interesting aspects of film noir and police procedurals, keeping the viewer so busy trying to piece together mysterious clues that the PI’s disorder rarely becomes the focal point.

For decades, female characters in television and film struggling with mental health issues of any kind were flattened into their diagnoses, sorted into two archetypes: the suicidal depressive or the calculating villain. Particularly in film, a woman’s mental illness and recovery were the central narrative, whether The Snake Pit, Now, Voyager; or Girl, Interrupted. Jessica Jones is hardly a story about recovery, and by refusing to give into the usual rock bottom/rehabilitation narrative, the show instead delivers a transcendent, truthful portrait of women who struggle with PTSD.

It is a show about the cost of survival. As a teenager, a car crash leaves her an orphan (or so she thinks) with super strength. Instead of following the path of fellow orphan superhero Batman and saving Gotham City, Jessica grows up to become a beleaguered, alcoholic vigilante struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. She displays nearly all of the symptoms of the disorder before the 10-minute mark of the first episode, including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, hyper vigilance, hostility, and social isolation. Despite the drama of her symptoms early on, she is never reduced to a DSM definition.

Where Jessica Jones succeeds in surfacing the nuance of trauma (and where many other films and series have failed) is that it attempts to make the viewer feel what she’s feeling rather than create a spectacle of her suffering. In the first season when Jones experiences a flashback of her rapist, the camera takes her point of view, mimicking the disorientation of a flashback instead of cutting to a gut-wrenching shot of her sexual assault.

The series has been revolutionary in its presentation of rape and PTSD, exposing the disorder as something that affects people far outside of warzones. Statistics from the U.S. government have found that 30 percent of sexual assault victims develop long-term PTSD, and Jessica Jones gives credibility to women who suffer from the disorder, showing their experience not as an overreaction but as an adaptive response to the horrors that life (and men in particular) can inflict on women.

In season two, Jessica continues to struggle with her rage, inflicting pain even when she doesn’t intend to. She breaks chairs; she injures people to the point of hospitalization, and unlike so many male-centric TV shows (not just superhero ones), there is little glorification of her violence. She drinks to forget the things she’s done, and in more than one scene she stands over the body of someone she’s hurt with horror and not with pride. If there is a villain in season two, it’s Jessica’s mother, whom she had long presumed dead. Her mother represents a kind of warning story about what happens when the disorganized rage of trauma is allowed to run amok: she becomes “a monster,” according to her daughter, a shadow of her former self.

“Death is also what defines trauma: a near-miss ending, a close call with one’s own or a witnessing of other’s annihilation, literal death or even figurative as in rape, where one’s wholeness of identity is tragically violated, and a new fractured self emerges,” writes Jean Kim in Psychology Today of Westworld.

In this way season two of Westworld has been the perfect companion to Jessica Jones, probing both the myriad ways that humans can inflict pain and the infinite consequences that pain can exert. The hosts began to experience “reveries” in the first season, daydreams where they accessed hidden memories about their trauma, including rape, murder, and the deaths of loved ones. The reveries functioned much like a flashback: triggered by something seemingly unrelated and causing the person to relive a moment rather than just remember it. It isn’t until season two that the viewer discovers that the backstories of the hosts are built around some of these “cornerstone memories,” all of which are rooted in intense suffering. Suffering is what helped the hosts act convincingly in their roles, and it’s what lends them a sense of humanity.

Jessica Jones isn’t a perfect show, and as in Westworld, the creators sometimes play with the idea that trauma makes a character more interesting, tantalizing the viewer by revealing horrific details over time. This type of character development serves as a more sophisticated version of the classic film noir archetype, the femme fatale. Unlike Westworld or even The Handmaid’s Tale, however, Jessica Jones doesn’t veer into capitalizing on the shock value of trauma in quite the same way. Jessica always maintains a rich humanity, existing far outside the archetype of the “madwoman.”

“Madwomen are rarely depicted as beleaguered geniuses or the heroes of their own stories, but often its victims and villains,” Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture of this archetype. “It isn’t that these characters have tragic ends that is the problem — it’s that they’re rarely afforded grace and interiority.”

This complexity is what has been missing from so many female characters struggling with mental health. Their stories end in death or inpatient recovery, and there is rarely this wobbling between life and death, sickness and health. Jessica Jones embraces the unpleasant truth that for many, there is no recovery from crippling trauma: there is only survival.

Jess McHugh: Human Woman

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Half and Half Again

In the fifth-century BC, in southern Italy, there lived a philosopher called Parmenides, who believed that ontological pluralism—the belief that our existence is made up of many moments—was a misapprehension. Parmenides believed that our existence was one single, unchanging reality, in which the passing of time, space and motion, was an illusion. According to him, milk might sour, and loved ones might die, but the world was actually continuous, indivisible. We live in a world in which we are all simultaneously unborn, alive, and dead. Parmenides is with us, and we are and were with him.

It’s easier to understand Parmenides’s sense of indivisibility if you imagine Italy in summer. There, the senses are sympathetic to an unchanging reality; the days have a rhythm, the pulse of a sleeping heart. Olive trees, sunshine, water; the sound of the wind in the leaves. Insects cry out, clinging to the bark.We live within a oneness of comprehension, where everything—even the things we have not yet experienced—is still inside our horizon line of understanding. We may not be able to see this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

****

All of this is nonsense on some level, but these days, I am starting to sense a sphericity in me. Right now it is very slight. I feel it on the days I write in cafes in New York City. There will be three, ten, fifteen people there. A few have laptops. Others sit in twos, talking. Sunny dialectic; they’re telling stories to each other. One is dressed in nurse’s scrubs, and a second’s father has just died. A third wears very large hoop earrings, shaped into large hearts. Sitting at the bar, a woman has a flock of starlings tattooed on her back, which are mostly hidden by her shirt. The fan is turning and The Smiths are playing; that moaning voice, Cassandra in the body of a man. Out on the street, people walk by in the soft light, inspecting their phones. When you become hyperaware, your sense of predestination rises like sap in a plant. These people belong to me. I am newly compassionate; this is my sphere, for better or worse. It takes an infinity to walk to the bathroom.

You could call it a slowing. You could also call it an adult thing, Parmenides’s sphere, when you start to sense an inevitability to the shape of your existence. Olives, water, wine. A girl sits down and tells a boy that nobody likes a man-child. I could go to a different café, could come back here on another day and though the details—the food, customers, weather, and song—would be different, the feeling wouldn’t have changed. I am sensing a thickening tradition in my own life, a kind of hardening. The plates of my experience are fusing together. I am living within my own horizon line, and I have not departed from it for some time.

****

On March 8, 2014, Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur airport. It was supposed to land in Beijing, but less than an hour after takeoff, the communication transponder was manually turned off. Just before that, Malaysian radar picked the plane up turning abruptly left, deviating from its northerly flight path and heading out over the Gulf of Thailand.

It took less than seven hours for the media to pick up the story. Everyone assumed the plane had been hijacked, but as the hours passed, no terrorist group came forward to claim responsibility. One morning stretched into one day. None of the neighboring countries had spotted the plane on their radar systems. There were no cellphone calls from passengers. That first night stretched into two, then three, then more.

In that first week, MH370’s disappearance was the story to follow; experts in aviation, satellite, terrorism and South East Asian geo-political ambition speculated endlessly on T.V. about why and how. This talk was all anyone had, because the plane refused to materialize. It had to have landed (its fuel would have only lasted until midday of the first day) but without any contrary information, the plane kept on flying in people’s minds. The television show Lostdidn’t help. Neither did the sense that the world seemed too small to lose a giant plane. Satellite tracking is ubiquitous, our digital handshakes instinctive and incessant (I must register on a satellite hundreds of times of day), but still—227 passengers and 15 crewmembers had vanished into the blue, along with all of that steel and fabric and plastic, suitcases and food carts and pillows and blankets and toys and clothes. Matter vanished into thin, high, blue air.

At the time, I was using a gym to train; it was too cold outside to run. I grew up in New Zealand, and have never owned a television, so this was the first time I’d really encountered the phenomenon of an American 24-hour news cycle. As each day passed, even with the sound off, I found it harder and harder to watch the monitors suspended from the ceiling. The media couldn’t bear to look away. They reported on their not reporting.

There was an abstract force to the extremity of this feeling, a kind of pure aversion. On waking, my first thought was whether they had found out what had happened during the night, but I was always reluctant to turn on the radio; I knew that finding out would not be as painful as being told that, yet again, no one knew. My gait felt off. I kept on tripping on the treadmill. It wasn’t a paradox, but it felt like one: the crunching sensation of the mind as it persists in a belief that can no longer be true.

****

Parmenides’s lover was (reputedly) Zeno of Elea, another philosopher. You might recognize his name because Zeno’s paradoxes are one of the few pieces of Greek philosophy that persist in popular culture today. People remember the gist of it: a space—a football field, an arrow and target—and talk about moving from one end to the other in steps, each time dividing in half the remaining distance. You can move half of the way there, they say, and then half that, and so on and so forth. Yet because you can halve the distance an infinite number of times, it takes an infinite amount of time to reach the target. We should never get there.

Such thought experiments survive as a kind of stoner’s delight, as a story told by one college student to another, ambling along St Mark’s Place. We’re so confident in our empiricism that the scenario seems a pseudo-intellectual amusement rather than a real proposition. But Zeno was serious. That an arrow didhit its target suggested that those who thought the world was divisible were just plain wrong. Parmenides’s thought that all was indivisible might seem difficult to swallow, but to Zeno, so too was the idea that all of our actions were truly divisible. His paradoxes were thought experiments designed to defend Parmenides. What we perceive as multiplicity was really a singularity wearing the mask of many. The thought dogs humanity. It is also the basis of spiritual belief.

What seems more surprising is that we remember Zeno’s name. There is something about his thought experiments that is singular enough to name it, a quality in his stories of division and non-attainment that we still find distinct. They are analogies for a thought process we seem to have a hard time explaining any other way.

In some kind of asymptotic echo of his paradox, most people trail off before they get to the end of their retelling; they’re confident of the bit about division, hazy about the conclusion. Our fuzziness about the paradox is part of the paradox now. His is the line of a song that everybody in a bar somehow knows to chant, in unison, even if they don’t know the singer’s name. “Oh! We’re halfway there. Oh-oh!” It may be that Zeno’s paradox persists because beyond his name, there is no single word that can accommodate that delicate sense of the finite and the infinite. Like oil and vinegar, if left alone long enough, they’ll insist on separating. The paradox whisks them together.

****

Eight days after flight MH370 disappeared, I flew to Los Angeles with my boyfriend and drove to Joshua Tree National Park. I had booked a cabin in the desert for five days; I wanted to write, and run outside.

One night, as we lay in bed together, looking out through a large window onto the desert, which stretched away for miles, the rocks and yucca lit by the moon, the highway lights flickering in the far distance, my boyfriend asked me to marry him. I felt something snap or spring tight in me, as real as a pulled tendon: guilt and love.

We spent the next few days talking about what marriage meant. I had no interest in being joined to another person for legal or religious reasons, but there was that romance of extremity, of settling down, of never being technically lonely again. There was the hunger for being loved so much that someone would do such a thing. Our paths had crossed rather randomly, and now there he was, whistling as he made the coffee, or standing on the porch, stretching, looking out at the mountains. I choose you. I declare something is permanent, even though I know nothing really is. The distance between yes and no seemed a chasm a foot wide and thousands of feet deep.

So we began to divide the distance up. Talk of a ring. Talk of children. Half the distance, then half again. Summoning our nerve. I do. Impossibility and inevitability go so well together. Walking across a room used to feel like the easiest thing, but now when I moved across the cabin, bringing him wine, taking dishes to the sink, their air seemed to crackle.

Zeno wrote approximately 40 paradoxes featuring Achilles, chariot races, and tortoises (among other objects), but I’m surprised he didn’t use the trembling distance between lovers.

At Joshua Tree, I followed the news on MH370, and registered the fact that two of my countrymen were on the flight. The New Zealand Heraldpublished a profile of one of them, Pauly Weeks, an engineer who had been on his way to a new job in Mongolia. Just before boarding, he had texted his wife Danica Weeks to tell her that she and the kids were the most important things to him in the world. Since then, Danica said, she had woken every morning expecting to find Pauly lying in bed next to her. She could not shake the certainty of his weight, and so every day, she had to unlearn. All of her senses told her something that could not be true. She had started writing poetry about him, rhyming couplets, whichthe Herald published.

The interview was brief, but it stuck with me. I would think about her most days when I went running along the dusty roads. It felt good to run into the desert holding nothing but my iPod. There was no track, no one else about. I kept an eye on my odometer watch, on distinctive rock piles. Cacti, sand, blue sky. I felt like a different woman: an American, who drove a car, who lived near by, who was married. For the first time I felt like I was in my mid-thirties. Here was another future, knitting itself now, spooling itself out ahead of me: a red thread out or in. My skin was drier. My weight bounced off and onto my joints differently each time my foot hit the sand. There would be a time in which I would come to expect this man’s weight in my bed too, when my sense memory might grow stronger than reason.

Ironically, neither Parmenides nor Zeno wanted us to develop a taste for such speed, such transformation. Zeno wanted to divide and divide simply in order to show the absurdity of the motion. But what seems to have lasted is not just the impossibility, but also the pleasure that comes from division. How exponential the function of dividing by two is! How quickly we seem to move away from our beginning! There is a charm and terror to the sheer rate of change, to the ever-diminishing room in which we have to move, and how we can continue to move in it. One step, two step, three—and the sky is suddenly darker, the cliff a different kind of stone. I could return to New York with a rock on my hand.

Regardless of what Zeno intended, this is part of the pleasure of the paradox now; it leans both ways, towards completion, towards dissolution. The closer you get, the more aware you are of the edges between things. That awareness is a pleasure, an acquired taste. It sets you on your tiptoes, gives you balance in any high wire act of fatalism.

****

I can’t remember when the disappearance of MH370 became bearable. I flew back to New York and continued teaching. The first day it was warm enough to run outside, I pulled my left piriformis, which is a small muscle deep within your ass, partially veiled by your glutes. It attaches to multiple muscle groups, including the ilia-sacral nerve. It turned out to be very painful. For weeks I couldn’t balance my body weight on my left leg, which meant that every second step down, every time the femur pushed up into the hip socket, I felt a jolt of pain.

Online, I watched many dissection videos of left back legs, part of a flourishing sub-genre of online medical dissections. I was always looking out for the piriformis. Faceless men narrated the names of the muscles and tendons, pushing them this way and that with a silver pointer. Whenever they reached the piriformis, I felt a rush of feeling. There it was! It was like the face of a relative who doesn’t recognize you on the street. Sitting at the computer, I’d raise my left cheek up off the seat and prod at the glutes, trying to part them, my fingers digging. That’s what it looked like inside I’d tell myself: redder, twitchier, but just as blind, just as instinctive.

Through spring and summer, I sat in bars facing my boyfriend drinking wine, talking through the early evening. I so wished him to know how I felt, swaying with happiness; how it felt to sweat, or exhale, to feel my tongue at the roof of my mouth, how the ring he gave me felt on my finger: gold, with a diamond that had a smear of orange at the center. I wanted him to know what the pain felt like in my ass, and how it slowly ebbed. But how could I? The impossibility of knowing another, from the inside out, from the blood and gastric juices and neural pathways, is the despair of love and the excitement of the world.

****

On a mathematical level, Zeno’s paradoxes have been solved, and rather easily. Zeno didn’t understand that we could move through an infinite set of points in a finite amount of time. He failed to separate the finite number of real things a runner has to accomplish from the infinite series of numbers we can use to describe what the runner does. Zeno was dealing with what looks infinite rather than the actual mathematical infinite.

I barely know how to treat infinity; the word mostly lingers as a trace of my eight year-old self, discovering swearing brinkmanship. You’re infinitely worse.You’re infinitely worse plus one. But as Bertrand Russell has pointed out, we can’t understand the infinite if we have “habits of mind derived from the consideration of finite numbers.” Nothing is gained if “we pass its [the infinite’s] terms in review one by one.”

One fall day, when I read this sentence, I stopped, and took a big breath. A thought came to me, and I could not unthink it. Zeno’s arrow, its clumsy impossibility, was also an analogy for a finite love that is trying to be infinite.

When knowledge arrives whole, it has a singular flash to it. For an instant, a scene is illuminated. The English philosopher Alfred C. Whitehead argued that Zeno’s paradox was an attempt to isolate precisely this experience. Wesley C. Salmon summarized his point this way:

Whitehead maintained that the physical world is an extended          spatiotemporal continuum, but he believed that it came into existence in chunks; these pieces came into being as whole entities or not at all. In retrospect they can be conceptually subdivided into parts—even infinitely many parts—but the parts do not represent entities that can come to be by themselves. An act of becoming is an indivisible unit; if you subdivide in any way the resulting parts are not smaller acts of becoming.

What I suddenly understood was that my love for this man was a divisible unit. In my relationship, there was no mathematical infinite. No matter how many steps I took, I still wouldn’t reach him; even if I said, “I do,” the arrow of my heart would keep on flying.

A future spooled back, retracted like the cord on a salad spinner. I returned the ring. I felt sick about it. I still feel sick. But the thought had the inevitability of a cake; I had made this thing, and here it was, rising in me.

The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky thought art a way to comprehend the infinite, writing, “An artistic discovery occurs each time as…a hieroglyphic of absolute truth. It appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively and at a stroke all the laws of this world—its beauty and ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and its limitations.” His emphasis on the instant is in line with Whitehead’s. It is an insight that cuts through rather than points at. To me, poetry does this particularly well. It crystallizes emergent thought, aims at that sensation of endless becoming. There is nothing—and then there is suddenly something, a thought, like a piece of space rock. It is no surprise to me that Danica Weeks began to write poetry as she began to mourn her lost husband. She was mourning an absoluteness.

Rather than thinking of the infinite in terms of addition, we might understand an infinite set of numbers by its characteristics; how that set of numbers operates rather than how big it is. One way to imagine this multiplicity might be to think about uncountable forms in nature like a flight of birds, a beach’s worth of sand; groups of which it makes no sense to think about what happens when you add one more of that thing. The salient feature is how that group of infinity moves: how they tumble, how they separate. My problem was that I could not think or imagine how my love for this man moved.

****

More than a year later, I read this out loud for the first time to a group of people. It was in the evening, and we had just finished dinner. Olives, water, wine. The light was soft and warm, and I could hear my voice in their ears. As I read, I realized that all of this had become a thought experiment, a paradox to tell other people; an analogy for something else they might feel altogether. The reality of what had actually happened had begun to drift away from me. The thought had completed itself; the cake had stopped rising. They had found a piece of MH 370 washed up on a beach on Réunion in the Indian Ocean. The details of the crash were still fuzzy, but the end was absolute. The arrow had hit the target.

The next morning, over breakfast, one of these people who had listened asked me if I thought all love was finite. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Even if I never thought about it this way before, I can imagine my feelings for others as infinite sets.”

She nodded, and disagreed. “I think all love is finite,” she said. But I did not ask her if she sensed Parmenides’s sphericity in her own life, if there was a quality to her consciousness that persisted, which could not be divided. I suspect there is. She has that quality to her; like a statue that may have eroded over time, the acuity of her lines still springs forth; that brow, that eye. She said she was looking for a paradigm shift. She had given up her apartment, was going to stay in a different place every two months or so for the next year. She had seen a bird in her dream that she had never seen before, and having looked it up on Google, she knew which country to visit. She was departing, moving, swiftly traveling into the dusk.

Right now I can imagine her waking in the morning, and watching the world, seeing the way people swarm and separate, rise and fall. She will notice how she isn’t surprised, even when she ought to be. The shift may come, but it was already part of her. It is silly that I see in the infinite in someone who believes in the finite, and the finite in someone who so badly wants the infinite: as silly as a racing tortoise, or a chariot that never arrives. The clumsiness turns out to be vestigial, a tail I cannot shake. The sphericity, a hidden muscle, a hidden intuition, hardens and grows.

–Jenni Quilter teaches at NYU. Her most recent book is New York School Painters and Poets (Rizzoli)

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Catching Fire (The Hunger Games)

     
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Can’t Talk Now…I’m Hydrating

Oh boy. I don’t know about you, but I listen to doctors. Take this antibiotic, Barb. Okee dokee, antibiotic it is. Take this heart medicine. I like being alive, so absolutely oh favorite cardiologist of mine, I will take it … Continue reading
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Oh, I’m Sorry Thief

I was raised to be polite. To have social skills. Etiquette was a requirement, not an option. Yes ma’am. Yes sir. Excuse me. Curtsying. A month or so ago my husband and I were in New York City. We have … Continue reading
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The Vulnerable Academic Body

In 1518, John and Alice Phipes were brought before the church court in the diocese of Lincoln, England, on suspicion of idolatry. They had not been worshipping a graven idol in the sense we might expect; instead, they kept a cradle near their bed and ‘it is used as if there were an infant in it’. Had the Phipeses lost a baby, or had they never had one? Did they rock the cradle at night for comfort, the back-and-forth motion a substitute for a body that could no longer be held by a pair of arms? Or was the cradle a talisman, a charm to conjure a wish into crying, cooing life? The spare court record tells us nothing of how John and Alice used the cradle, or what they thought it meant; but that they were indicted for it suggests that they had disturbed somebody enough that they had reported them to the authorities, that they had breached the socially acceptable boundaries of grief or desire.

I read this court record on a cold day in November 2017, my right arm aching from a bruise left by a pre-operative blood test, a week before a surgeon removed the lining of my womb. My veins have always been difficult to find, which seems funny for someone who has been told she wears her heart too much on her sleeve. I looked at the purpling mark on the skin of my inner arm and thought about what I was about to give up – any possibility of having another child – and what I hoped to gain, which was the chance for a healthier life. My bruised arm remembered holding the weight of my newborn daughter’s head, and I felt a tenderness close to pain: thinking of her, and of Alice and John five hundred years ago, with their empty arms and empty cradle.

William Beckwith McInnes , “The Empty Cradle,” 1908

This kind of empathetic identification with people in the past can be discouraged as an unprofessional response for a professional historian, as if our vulnerable bodies are not a powerful means of connecting with a past that exists otherwise only in archives, in libraries, on paper; or on parchment, skin stripped of its vulnerability, flesh smoothed out of imperfect hairy life into something flat, ready to be written on by someone else’s hand. Undergraduate students come to me preoccupied with the need to be ‘objective’ in their study of history, and in their early essays diligently replicate the schoolroom expectation that there is no space for I in academic work. They are taught to obliterate their own narrative voice; they believe excising themselves from their texts, like scraping a skin into parchment, is a step toward becoming a serious historian. You are not a tabula rasa, I tell them.

****

But still, like all teachers, I have a hard time learning the lessons I try to convey to my students. On another grey afternoon, this time in June of last year, I was lying in bed in the major casualties ward of the Accident and Emergency department of my local hospital. Hooked up to a monitor, I used my iPhone to send apologetic emails to the history faculty at my university, saying it was likely I would not be able to fulfil my examiner’s duties. After my transfer to the Acute Medical Unit I made calmly reassuring phone calls to family members, saying there was probably nothing to worry about – but I might have a blood clot in my lung.

It turned out I actually had three. Once an overachiever, always an overachiever. This, I had the sense, was probably a big deal; but all the same, I felt guilty for dumping extra work on my colleagues at a busy time of year. And as an early career researcher with the hourglass of my research fellowship ticking down toward zero, I felt I needed to go back to work as soon as possible. A few days after my hospital trip I presented at a major conference, afterwards spitting red into the sink of my hotel room as my body adjusted to the various side effects of blood thinners. I could do this, I told myself; no lousy pulmonary embolism was going to beat me. Keeping up this pace of work, however, proved untenable, and a while later I was signed off work for several weeks. It did feel like a defeat, a personal failing. After all, there wasn’t anything that wrong with me, right? Just three specks of darkness where there should be none in my left lung.

In my attempt to be a responsible professional, I gave myself very little breathing room: not for the first time, and nor, I fear, the last. Maintaining a ‘professional’ appearance and demeanour while also working the lengthy hours, with multiple outputs, that the modern academy demands is a privilege that relies on being able to make choices to centre one’s career without the distractions of having a disabled body, or caring responsibilities, or the nagging worry about making rent. Trying to be a ‘serious academic’ in these circumstances can feel a little like having a blood clot in your lung. It’s not always fatal, or at least not at once: but it’s exhausting, draining, as day by day it becomes harder to breathe.

Academia is supposedly interested only in what our minds produce, which should make the playing field utterly equitable. But instead it can not only ignore its employees’ lived – embodied – realities, but even worse, make us feel we need to apologise for them. When we ask universities to accommodate our human needs rather than incorporating them, we are accepting an ableist understanding of the academic landscape, where we apologise for our human frailties instead of embracing them as part of what makes us the thinkers, writers and teachers that we are. If historians accept a model of professionalism that expects us to excise our bodily vulnerabilities and our affective ties, we also lose a fundamental means of connecting with our historical subjects. By incorporating our embodied experience into our lives as scholars, we not only make a radical claim for our value to the academy as complete people –  we also gain the skills to draw lovingly out of fragmentary evidence what it might have meant to be a person in the past.

A few months after my pulmonary embolism I made that decision to have an endometrial ablation. No longer able to take hormonal birth control, my periods had once again become an exhausting, messy burden. I was already sure I only wanted one child, and it surprised me what a painful thing it was to eliminate the possibility of carrying another baby. I wondered if other historians had read the Phipes case and felt a sympathetic pang over their empty cradle; if they have, it is not written anywhere that I can find. I might be accused of reading too much into two scant sentences, of mapping my own history onto people of the past. Yet no one comes to the business of writing history as a blank slate; our own stories are written all through us, changing the way we see the past, and how we feelit. These days I tell my students that to write history that matters we must embrace the ways in which our own pasts and presents have brought us to a place where we can be truly intimate with our subjects. An intimacy of the daily grind, punctuated by everyday joys and grief; of an empty cradle rocked in the dark of night, for comfort or in hope.

Rachel Moss is a lecturer in medieval history who tweets @menysnoweballes and blogs at rachelemoss.com

Lead image: James LePalmer, Omne Bonum (Absolucio-Circumcisio), c. 1360-c. 1375, Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(lericus) of a group of clerics and a group of concubines pointing to an infant in a cradle, British Library

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