Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jose Saramago, Cain (2011)

The story of Cain in Genesis is brief: No more than 30 or so sentences over 25 verses. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, is born and he grows to become a farmer; Cain and his brother Abel, a shepherd, make an offering to God, and Cain's offering is snubbed by God while Abel's offering is not; Cain takes this badly and kills his brother; God asks Cain what happened to Abel and Cain lies to God by stating that he does not know (here Cain utters the memorable phrase, "Am I my brother's keeper?"); God knows that Cain has lied and that he has killed his brother; Cain is told by God that he will wander the earth forever as punishment (a fate worse than death); God places a mark on Cain's forehead so that no one will slay him to ensure this fate worse than death; Cain wanders to the land of Nod, where he sleeps with a woman who bears him a son named Enoch. That is it. We do not know how the woman Cain slept with came to be born, unless the woman is Eve herself, which would not be totally out of character with other incest stories of the bible. Adam and Eve had one more son named Seth, and we are not informed of any daughters. The inference is that there must be other humans out there besides Adam and Eve copulating and multiplying, but the Genesis story provides no illumination of their existence. A shortcoming in the tale of the primordial first family.

Leave it to Jose Saramago's imagination to fill in the blanks of the Cain story. And not only does Saramago fill in a few blanks of Cain's story, but the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Joshua, Noah, and Job as well. For Cain is not merely a wanderer, but he is a time traveler as well: Cain, travels back and forth in time, and, with the fortune of a Forrest Gump, Cain just happens to make an appearance on the stage of many significant biblical events recorded in Genesis and Exodus. Who knew? And the wisdom Cain arrives at at the end of his journey is that God is not only petty, but he is a bad guy, not much different than the devil. God is neither merciful nor loving, and he certainly has little empathy or compassion for man or his Chosen People. This is a world of fallen human beings (see August 28, 2011 post): humanity characterized by lust, incest, rape, murder, jealousy, deception, and real estate wars.

Saramago is careful to point out that Cain is neither Jewish nor Israeli. While standing at the walls of Jericho with Joshua's army, Cain is asked whether he is Israeli. He says he is not. Well then if you are not Israeli, what are you? Saramago explains, "When Cain was born, there was no such thing as the Israelites, but neither was he a Hittite, an Amorite, a Perizzite, a Hivite, or a Jebusite." He is a man without an identity, or as Saramago describes, a "man without definition." But in one sense --- as wanderer --- his wandering is the story of the Israelites, the Jews. And as a time traveler, he is like the "prophets" Jeremiah and Isaiah whose prophesies of the future are based on the vantage point of the biblical authors in the future who project themselves into the past.

The Lord murders innocents at Sodom and Gomorrah; orders Moses to slaughter thousands of Israelites because they turned their attention to an idol; orders Abraham to slay and sacrifice his son; tolerates the devil heaping misery upon Job; the Lord commits genocide of nearly the entire human race when he causes the flood. Cain abhors what he witnesses in the Lord's behavior. But Cain is neither Abraham, nor Noah, nor Moses, nor Job. Cain refuses to be respectful of the Lord. In the end, Cain sabotages the Lord's plan to purify the human race by designating Noah and his family to protect a select few of each species, including the human species, from the Lord's flood, and to start life anew. As Noah's ark endures the flood and they wait for the waters to subside, Cain slays Noah and his family, so when the waters have finally subsided, Cain is the only human left. How now can humans possibly multiply? Sounds like the same internal procreation riddle that plagues the Genesis story from the birth of Cain. As Cain disembarks the ark, the Lord asks where are Noah and his family? This time Cain tells the truth: they are dead. I killed them. And the Lord and Cain argue who among the two of them is more loathsome. The lingering question that remains at the close of Saramago's narrative is how all those events that Cain, our wandering time traveler, witnessed far into the future ever happened, now that he and the Lord have killed off the entire human race except for Cain? There are no women remaining for Cain to procreate with.

Imagination is a wonderful human attribute, and it is certainly one important characteristic that distinguishes our species from its closest relatives. Paul Bloom has contemplated why imagination has survival value. It triggers emotional responses, and it creates pleasure, both of which have survival value. "Imagination is Reality Lite," writes Bloom, "a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky, or too much work." I have a difficult time, however, succumbing to a conclusion that fantasy has significant survival value. Fantasy is at best an exaptation, just as V.S. Ramachandran concludes that our ability for abstraction is an exaptation (see October 25, 2011 post).

Imagination is what we use when we plan for the future, and that capability has significant survival value. (See May 22, 2011 post, indeed another post revolving around a novelist who took liberties with biblical stories.) Being able to view the past in different ways, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the ways our predecessors carried out their lives, and even fictionalizing the past so as to provide an angle on the past that our predecessors could not see, is part of the art of imagination and planning for the future.

As I wrote previously in this blog, I also believe storytelling evolved in part to preserve our memories of things past. (See August 15, 2011 post). And storytelling, whether historical or fictional or both, enables the construction of both personal and social/group identity. The biblical stories served exactly that purpose as they were merged, edited, and redacted ultimately to serve the national goals of the Jewish kingdom.

I don't think Saramago is out to preserve our memory with his imaginative retelling of the Cain story. And while Saramago is whimsical in his treatment of the Lord in Cain, he is not satisfying a desire for pleasure from fantasy either. But I do think he is out to remind us that our memories are fragile, capable of being rewritten in ways that make us look at things differently, perhaps in a revolutionary way, causing us to pause to plan our future in a different way than we have been carrying on all these millenia. What Saramago's imagination has succeeded in doing, however, is to show that the biblical stories are no more than products of a fertile imagination, just as Saramago's Cain is the product of a fertile imagination. The God of the Bible and the God of Cain simply cannot be real. If God made man in his image, which is the biblical telling of our creation, we are rotten murderers, mass murderers to the core. If man imagined God in our image, then God cannot be perfect. The God of the Bible and the God of Cain dovetail in these respects: God is a fallen character. But I submit there is a third perspective: that (1) man imagined God as an unseen agent, who is not defective and is all-powerful, to explain what we are unable to explain about the world and universe around us, and, (2) as social structures among homo sapiens developed, leaders among men claimed special powers to communicate with God to either justify or sustain their relationship of power (authority) over other men. And it is the leaders among men who choose to make God what they want to make of him (or her): at one-time loving and empathetic, at another time a warrior and mass murderer, and at other times utterly indifferent. This third perspective is more consistent with the history of God in the Abrahamic religions. By this third perspective, God is wholly imaginary as well, a work of fiction.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reports about a significant development in medical research that occurred during the 1950s and continues to provide benefits for both research and therapy for decades thereafter. If that was the tag line about this book, it might never had ended up on the best-seller lists. Add to that tag line that the book confronts a thorny question of medical ethics --- what sorts of disclosures must be made by medical researchers who take body tissue (in this case, cancer cells from a dying patient), and the fact that those in the medical research supply chain subsequently earn millions of dollars from that body tissue, and perhaps some in the public begin to pay attention. And add to that stew the fact that the donor was a poor African-American woman whose heirs never benefited from her donation; whose descendants suffered anxiety and some level of anger because of misinformation and ignorance when their mother's name and contribution to medical science became public knowledge two decades after she died; whose descendants never sought financial compensation or benefits, only recognition for their mother's contribution to medical science, and you have a best-selling page-turner. While there are several protagonists in this story --- including the author --- the primary protagonist are the so-called "HeLa" cells taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks by a doctor at Johns Hopkins University. The HeLa cells were the first "immortal" human cells ever grown in culture --- cells that reproduced themselves prolifically. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine, as well as other scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The significance of these cells is that because they created a virtual pipeline of human cells that could be replicated in the billions, they enabled medical research to be undertaken on actual human cells, rather than on humans themselves or some other animal.

So that is the story. But there is a subliminal story that leads me back to the subject of the previous post --- the subject of identity, specifically group identity. Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, does not explore the subject of cultural identity or racial identity, but she does explore, at least superficially through her narrative, group identity in the context of a family and the family members' genetic links to their past. Genetic identity is linked to various other forms of group or social identity: political identity (the heritability of power), ethnic identity, religious identity, family identity, racial identity, and caste. But as an article in the British Medical Journal notes, "These identities overlap in various ways, and genetic evidence will not affect them all equally . . . confusion looms when genetic markers conflict with other kinds of markers of group membership such as shared culture or historical narrative." This was a point I was making in the previous post, when I pointed out that Jews do not appear to define Jewish identity strictly in terms of a genetic link to the past. It may be, as genetic research on some Jewish communities suggests, that within some ethnic/religious groups genetic identity is stronger than other groups, but is this an attribute that anyone, Jewish or not, seriously wants to promote about what it really means to be part of a human subgroup? It smacks of Nazism.

As I read Skloot's story of Henrietta Lacks and her family and thought further about The Finkler Question, I was reminded of a Hebrew word, mizpah, which means an emotional bond between people who are separated (either physically or by death). The word might have application, for example, to Jews physically separated from one another by virtue of the diaspora and their mutual recognition of a shared Jewish identity. But it would also have application to Henrietta Lacks and her children and even the grandchildren that she never knew. This bond is a type of identity, and at its core is human emotion. Several books that have been discussed in this blog have highlighted the importance of emotion in building social relations. (See April 11, 2011 post, discussing David Hume and Antonio Damasio) As Dacher Keltner writes, "Emotions are involuntary commitment devices that bind us to one another in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships." (See July 16, 2010 post). In the human context, certainly emotional bonding among the persons is an attribute of group identity, although the strength of this attribute may vary among the persons. As Frans DeWaal observes, however, this same emotional bonding may exist in some other species as well (see November 9, 2010 post).

Genetic identity is, of course, nearly definitive in the discussion of group identity at the species level, but within a species, different groups become influenced by nurture and culture and social constructs are developed. And while genes may be at the foundation of our physical design that triggers various emotions and behaviors that make us more or less social, nurture and culture are at the foundation of reinforcing and making some emotional social bonds stronger than others leading to the formation of social groups and their identity.

The tug of genetic identity is felt by Henrietta Lacks' daughter, Deborah, whose anxiety grows after she learns that her mother's cells have become famous. One of her fears is that the cancer that killed her mother might take her life as well, a fear which is quelled only when she learns that her mother's cervical cancer was caused not by a genetic disease or predisposition, but the human papillomavirus. Research indicates that individuals struggle with their genetic identity, but for reasons that appear to be related to the difficulty of many in understanding just what it is about genes that is important enough to focus upon in terms of identity. More significantly, it is an emotional bond that establishes this family identity, a bond developed during the early years' of nurturing Henrietta's children, and a shared historical narrative that ties mother and children together --- a narrative that Rebecca Skloot has told well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)

While I am not uninformed or without experience on the subject of this book --- Jewish identity --- I am probably not qualified to address it, at least competently. This small vignette from the novel explains my sentiment. One of the novel's characters, Hephzibah, who is the curator of a museum-in-the-making on Anglo-Jewish Culture, asks her non-Jewish lover, Julian Treslove, to take a break from his role as "assistant curator" because he would not have much to contribute until the museum was open. Almost immediately after making the request, she regrets it, because she realizes she has effectively said that a non-Jew is not competent to organize a museum about Jewish culture. "It wasn't fair to him. Jews might have been possessed of a crowded almanac of Jewish events, a Jewish Who's Who extending back to the first man and woman, but Treslove couldn't be expected to know in every instance Who Was and Who Was Not, Who Had Changed His Name, Who Had Married In or Out. What is more he would have no instinct for it. Somethings you cannot acquire. You have to be born and brought up a Jew to see the hand of Jews in everything. That or be born and brought up a Nazi." I don't have the instinct to address Jewish identity. Except for the last sentence of this quote, Hephzibah is probably correct, but I ask, does it have to be that way?

At a certain level, it is possible to generalize the subject of identity so that what is true for the Jewish identity is true of the Russian identity, the German identity, the Muslim identity, the atheist identity, the WASP identity, the African America identity. But reducing human cultural identity to its lowest common denominators deprives us the richness of the stories that define the culture and ethnicity of different humans.

The subject of identity, in this case Jewish identity, has to be approached in two ways: personal identity, what does it mean to be Jewish?; and cultural or group identity, what does Jewish mean? Howard Jacobson zigs and zags between both, as he should, because it is impossible to separate the two. Personal identity owes its existence to group identity: we humans are social animals. The title of Jacobson's novel, The Finkler Question, reveals the inseparability of the two. Finkler is Sam Finkler, Julian Treslove's lifelong friend, and a man with his own personal identity issues. For Treslove, his friend Sam Finkler is emblematic of all Jews. Privately, Treslove refers to Jews as "Finklers." "It took away the stigma, [Treslove] thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say or the Finkler conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself." Substitute Finkler for Jewish and one of the themes in this book is immediately revealed by it title: the Jewish Question.

The phrase the "Jewish Question" first appears in 18th century England as part of a debate over the rights of Jews in England --- voting rights, property rights. I did not dwell on it in my discussion of David Liss' The Paper Conspiracy (see November 16, 2011 post), but Liss fairly describes and frequently mentions the legal status of Jews in early 18th century England and their lack of property rights and voting rights. But while it began as a neutral phrase, the "Jewish question" evolved and took on an anti-semitic tone by the 19th century. A discussion of the "Jewish question" ultimately could not avoid a discussion of a "solution" --- whether it be assimilation, deportation and resettlement --- and by 20th century Nazi Germany, the solution became wedded with malice in the so-called "final solution," extermination. The phrase the "Jewish question" is a little bit like Treslove substituting Finkler for Jewish in his lexicon. Here the word "question," particularly in its anti-semitic context, really means "problem." Problems are in need of solutions.

The origins of the "Jewish question" begin long before 18th century England. They begin with the demonization of the Jews by Christians as early as the founding of the Catholic church, as former Catholic priest, James Carroll, has so thoroughly documented in Constantine's Sword. Regrettably, oppressors --- in this case, both Christians and Christian institutions --- almost never confess to their own problems and look at themselves in the same way that they look at others, and so we do not hear simultaneously from them about the "christian question." But there is in this history of demonization a "christian question," just like in other times and places there is a "muslim question," a "hindu question," a "communist question," or a "Hutu question." Jacobson at least implicitly, if not expressly, recognizes this through Finkler, who turns the tables on the "jewish question" by drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians in Israel and Gaza at the hands of their Zionist/Israeli oppressors through his involvement with a group of Anglo Jewish intellectuals known as "ASHamed Jews." Samuel Finkler, a man who is so thoroughly cloaked with a Jewish identity, has the capacity to assess critically his own cultural identity in the same way he assesses the identity of others. The "Finkler question" is as much about a Jewish assessment of the Jewish identity as it is about a non-Jew's assessment of the Jewish identity or a Jew's assessment of the non-Jewish identity.

Turning to the question of cultural identity, what does "Jewish" mean? Is the term's meaning found in the story told by Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of the Jews: the first people to provide humanity with a narrative history of near linear progress and hope that tomorrow will be better than today, which is better than the day before, in contrast to the "circle of life and death" narrative common to other cultures, such as the Mesopotamians or Hindus before the common era? Is the term's meaning found in the first people to embrace monotheism? After all, the first four of the Ten Commandments, purportedly given by god to Moses and the Jews, are about the unity and singularity of one God who is the source of all life. Is the term's meaning found in the covenant story of chapter 17 of Genesis, a story of a real estate bargain for a narrow swath of land east of the Mediterranean, south of Assyria, and north of Egypt, cleaved and sealed with a promise that all of Abraham's male descendants would thereafter be circumcised? A significant part of The Finkler Question's conversation, as well as Treslove's ruminations, are about circumcision and land. The ASHamed Jews' diatribe about Zionists and Israel is as much a diatribe about the illegal occupation of land as it is about the contradictions of Jews who "throw their weight around and then tell you they believe in a compassionate God." Is it found in the larger story read and re-read every year, along with the laws, rules, customs of the Torah, beginning with Abraham, continuing through to the story of Moses and those who wandered out of Egypt with Moses, found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and perhaps the oral tradition as well? Or is the meaning of Jewish found in the diaspora story, a wandering tribe in exile, yet seemingly able to assimilate in the communities of others until someone comes along and says we need to purify our community?

I did not ask whether the meaning of Jewish is found in connections among people to some mitochondrial DNA that links a genealogical family of people across generations. The phrase l'dor v'dor suggests that what Jewish means is connected through the traditions that are passed along between generations. The Nazis certainly thought in terms of a blood connection. But the Jewish treatment of the Marranos who converted to Christianity in order to avoid persecution in the times of Inquisition indicates that those who failed to continue to practice Judaism, even privately, were no longer full Jews. Likewise conversion to Judaism by a non-Jew brings about full membership in the Jewish community. Blood lineage is not an essential element of what Jewish means. Jacobson does not seem to think so either. Finkler is married to a woman, Tyler Gallagher, who converts to Judaism after they marry, and the story contains enough information that could lead one to conclude that Tyler is "more Jewish" than Finkler.

As for the novel's main character, Julian Treslove, unsure of his own identity, explores creating a Jewish identity. Treslove cannot maintain a relationship with any woman more than an evening, a day or a week. As the novel opens he seems to adore every woman who walks by him. He is the father of two children conceived during what appears to be little more than a one-night stand. In the novel's central act, Treslove is walking home after a dinner with Finkler and their mutual friend, an older Jewish man, Libor. He is assaulted by a woman, injured, and robbed, and she curses at him. At first he thinks he hears his assailant say, "Your jewels." He thinks again, maybe she said, "You're Jules." And the more he thinks about, he thinks she said "You Jules, you." No, it was more succinct: "You Ju." Treslove concludes that his assailant has mistaken him for Finkler. She thinks Treslove is a Jew. He rejects the idea that mistaken identity is one of mistaken appearance: he is the wrong size, the wrong temperature, the wrong speed to be perceived as Jew. It must be something else, he tells Finkler: it is a matter of spirit and essence. Spiritually I am like the Jews. He is reminded that Finkler once told him, "Ours is not a club you can join." And then he meets Hephzibah --- at a seder-in-November meal hosted by Libor. He begins a year long relationship based on mutual love and appears to be on the cusp of trying to establish a Jewish identity. Once again, however, he cannot consummate a relationship after a year of trying. Treslove cannot establish his personal identity.

As far as individual identity is concerned, there is no monolithic Jewish personal identity in Jacobson's novel. There are Jews who regularly go to synagogue and read the Torah every year; there are Jews who do not go to synagogue or rarely go to synagogue and do not read the Torah every year. There are Jews who are ardent Zionists and defenders of the modern Jewish state of Israel, and there are Jews who believe that the Zionists and the State of Israel have lost their way. There are Jews who will only marry another Jew. There are Jews who marry non-Jews, and sometimes they raise their children as Jews and sometimes they do not. There are Jews who are converted Jews. There are Jews who will only have marital affairs with non-Jews. There are Jews who consider themselves Orthodox, there are Jews who consider themselves "conservative," and there are Jews who consider themselves "reform." There are European Jews and there are Sephardic Jews.

Personal identity is a matter of autobiographical memory. This is our autobiographical self (see April 8, 2011 post). But our autobiographical memories are shared, and this facilitates social bonding and the building of relationships. It also influences our story-telling and the stories we tell each other, whether represented as fact or fiction. Cultures are built on the sharing of autobiographical memory, yet at the same time personal identity is strongly influenced by the culture that one personally experiences. While at the outset I said that personal identity owes its existence to cultural or group identity, the reverse is true as well as cultural identity ultimately owes its existence to the sharing of many personal identities. Autobiographical memories are merged and revised into a collective memory. But as we have seen in prior posts, memory is fluid, constantly changing and redeveloping in marginal ways. (See November 6, 2011 post). What is meant by "Jewish" for one era, is, and is likely to have a slightly different meaning in another era. What it means to "be Jewish" in one era, is likely to have a slightly different meaning in another era.