Tag Archives: humanity

A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

Advertisements

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)

IMG_6014

The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129

The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

IMG_5866

I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).

79dca890-10dc-4c7e-acc8-9cedab0d5cde

Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us its deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

 

Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Angel is My Watermark

Every Middle Age is good, whether in man or history. It is full sunlight and roads extend in every direction, and all roads are downhill. I would not level the road nor remove any of the bumps. Each jolt sends a fresh message to the signal tower. I have marked all the spots in passing: to retrace my thoughts I have only to retrace my journey, re-feel those bumps (37).
– 
Henry Miller, Black Spring.

IMG_2237

 

I didn’t set out to read another Miller so soon after the last, But as I was shelving a book in my Rare Book Room job my eye was caught by a lovely artists’ book – The Angel is my Watermark (by Barbara Beisinghoff).  What a title! I carefully read the book while standing in the stacks. I know some people have some sort of obsession with Angels. I am not one of them. Mine is perhaps more for watermarks. Still, there is something wonderful in it and I really can’t get it out of my head. Turns out the title comes from Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring which was written after Tropic of Cancer. Obviously, I had to read it.

What little I have learned about writing amounts to this: it is not what people think it is. It is an absolutely new thing each time with each individual. Valparaiso, for example. Valparaiso, when I say it, means something totally different from anything it ever meant before. It may mean an English cunt with all her front teeth gone and the bartender standing in the middle of the street searching for customers. It may mean an angel in a silk shirt running his lacy fingers over a black harp (27).

I will admit that about half-way through reading this book a depression descended upon me. The heaviness of the cruel epithets that populate the recounting of Miller’s early life began to crush me down. I wondered how Miller, filled with such bile and objectification, could recover- recover himself! It was at this point that I noticed a small hole in the relatively  ancient paperback version of the book that came to me through the I.L.L (inter library loan). It was a perfect circle, and it went through to the next page, and the next, and next, more appeared and it became apparent that the book had been eaten by worms. I burst out laughing. Perfect!

Sitting in the snow before the place of my birth I remember this incident vividly. Why, I don’t know, except it connects with the grotesque and the void, with the heartbreaking lonelines, the snow, the lack of color, the absence of music (194).

I suppose there are wormholes in us all. The truth is, they were quite beautiful and made me smile to think of the worms digesting Miller before me. I noticed they took it in back-to-front, so, I have that up on them at least– I know which way the pages turn. And, taken as a whole, the book is aching in its love, or maybe just longing, for humanity, even the crassness of individuals, and individual words, can not vitiate the hope.

Miller is brutal in his assault on the pathetic and degenerate only when they combine with stupidity and cruelty. But it can eat away at one. And yet, and yet… worms are the composters of the planet, what do they make but the very majestic living foundation of our existence?–dirt, nourishment, life, a lightening of the crushing dead refuse of the world. The worm is my watermark!

During the journey I wept–I couldn’t help it. When people are too good for this world they have to be put under lock and key. There’s something wrong with people who are too good (95).

The chapter which led me to the book, The Angel is My Watermark, is simply brilliant. I suppose I am a little more like the worms than I like to think- I just get a book and plunge in, it wasn’t until after I read it that I discovered this chapter is quite revered. Rightly so. It is an account of Miller creating a masterpiece, a painting, and the description of the process is an hilarious, true, poignant, brazen, chaotic splendor of the artistic process.

I am merely flipping the pages of my notebook as a warming up exercise. So I imagine. But cursorily and swiftly as I sweep over these notes something fatal is happening to me (51).

He becomes possessed with the idea of drawing and then painting a horse: mistakes lead to modifications to transformations, fire! volcanoes! bedbugs! to the sink, with a nail brush–the Muse dragging him over a bumpy messy road until at last – the masterpiece emerges!
It is a true literary delight to read.

You may say it’s just an accident, this masterpiece, and so it is! But then, so is the Twenty-third Psalm. Every birth is miraculous–and inspired.

Miller is perhaps not for everyone, but there is a fundamental goodness to his work that refuses to cease calling to me, and I refuse to cease responding. Yes, he lets the wormholes lie where they are, and it can be disturbing, but, he seems to ask: they are there–who am I to ignore them?

The angel is there like a watermark, a guarantee of your faultless vision. The angle has no goiter; it is the artist who has the goiter. The angel is there to drop a sprig of parsley in your omelette, to put a shamrock in your buttonhole. I could scrub the mythology out of the horse’s mane; I could scrub the yellow out of the Yangtsze Kiang; I could scrub the date out of the man in the gondola; I could scrub the clouds and the tissue paper in which were wrapped the bouquets with forked lightning……But the angel I can’t scrub out. The angel is my watermark (67).

*drawing by J. Ryan 2014.

 

 

Insecta. Hominis. Peregrinator.

IMG_1719I like the idea that we have been underestimating insects, but I think we are on very shaky ground extrapolating our own feelings to beings so different from us (72). – Marlene Zuc, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love & Language From the Insect World

In addition to my other summer job, I am currently interning at an artists’ book publishing house, Granary Books in New York City. It is fascinating and stimulating on many levels, not least of which, strangely enough, is the commute.

Scientists therefore simply rely on the outward behaviour of an animal, often under controlled experimental circumstances, to tell them something about its personality (72).

I split the commute up into equal driving and equal mass transit parts so that I can have time to do what I love – read (as well as craftily avoid the fifth circle of hell – parking in NYC). Hauling The Name of Rose back and forth to NY last week was a testament to my admiration for Umberto Eco, but when I was convinced the other night by my youngest son to take him to a book signing of an author that he loves, I was suddenly in very dangerous territory – a bookstore.

Zuc’s book,  Sex on Six Legs had several irresistible attributes: the title was intriguing, I had just spent a day admiring  rare books of early scientific naturalist studies with beautifully rendered images of insects, at just over 200 pages it was a slim volume, and it was on sale.

While riding on the train has a ‘drone worker’ feel to it, and it is difficult to resist analogies between the strange soulless drudgery of a rush hour commute with insect life, but on the other hand, so far I don’t mind the time reading and observing of the human species in the altered social state of ‘commuter,’ it’s actually fascinating. Just the etiquette of where to put my bag….I want it on the seat, but I don’t want to make another person have to ask me to move it, nor do I want to too openly invite someone to sit down- and how does one decide to sit down (so closely) next to whom? Fashion, cell phones, other books, and stifled or open sleep – the other day a man fell right off his seat in a deep slumber – splat on the floor.

Regardless of its social baggage, however, another problem with calling the ants slave makers is that, as with the army ants, it gives an entirely incorrect view of what the ants themselves are doing (188).

And this is precisely the point that Zuc returns to over and over again in her book: while in ages past, insects, like all of nature which has tended to be inappropriately  anthropomorphised, the compelling thing about insects is that – yes, they are not human, but given that, indeed because of that, what we can learn about ourselves through these creatures that exhibit intelligence, maternal and even paternal urges, murderous tendencies, the ability to learn and communicate, and most important of course – how to attract a mate, is quite compelling.

Insects, in terms of population, dominate the planet. As genetically remote as we are to any six-legged creature, there are so many different insects that within the same genus they can be many times more genetically removed from one another than we are from them. But it is their creepy similarity to us that is at once so mesmerizing and disturbing.

In other words, once we find that ants do something like teaching, we should not redefine teaching so only humans can be said to do it (34).

My attitude has always been live and let live. Many years ago I stepped into a shower and as I was in mid-lather was rudely alerted to the presence of another New Yorker beside me: a very large cockroach, stilled on the tile across from my position under the spout. I looked at her (most of the bugs we see are female, after all) she stared back, blankly, at me. Overcoming my terror of the blank stare, I reasoned with her: “You stay there, and I’ll be here, okay?” I finished my shower, got out with forced calm, and never saw her or any of her sisters again. Understanding is key.

In addition to being excellent subjects for examining cannibalism, insects are perfect for exploring another stark reality of family-life: parent offspring conflict (166).

Zuc manages to make subjects such as matricide, fratricide, suicide, post-coital homicide and all sorts of other human-society frowned upon activities seems almost reasonable in the insect world. Clearly humans have something that insects do not: some call it emotions, some call it a soul…but Zuc warns against even making those assumptions. The thing that really sets us  apart is in fact quite difficult to name, and clearly difficult to understand. As the Bee’s communicative dance and the dance of the commuter show, the line of distinction is fine.

The doors of the train opens in Grand Central Station and we all move as a hive, focused on the day’s work ahead. As much as we are individually concerned, our collective movement affects the progress of each other. Of course, as humans, whether or not we share a smile or nod of human recognition is up to each one of us.  One needn’t deride an insect’s way of doing things to appreciate that our unique capacity to be human, whatever that is, is the only thing that really matters to us. There is something glorious in life and in the way it is experienced in all forms. But I, I have only my way, and if you sit next to me on the train, I will move my bag, smile to you and acknowledge our shared humanity.

*Image of fly by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary/Bestiario: A poem by Pablo Neruda translated by Elsa Neuberger with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi