We saw the Decemberists last night at the Bowery Ballroom. They rock. They played “Sixteen Military Wives,” a new song, which proves that in addition to outsider-figures-in-historical-periods rock, they are masters at contemporary-political-protest rock. Are there any angry/ironic rock songs about the Iraq war one quarter as good? (Are there any other ones at all?) It’s my most fervent wish right now that they release it as a single in time for the election. (My next-most-fervent wish is that they accompany it with a B-side about Louis Napoleon, child of a famous political dynasty who spent his youth drinking and brawling and of whom little was expected, whose 1851 coup was facilitated by the deliberately created but misleading impression that he would be almost liberal or at least, well, compassionately conservative, but in fact led France into a few dozen years of imperialism.)
In a juxtaposition in the report in this morning’s New York Times of a news conference that Bush gave yesterday, was there a comment on Bush and Reagan’s legacy? The Times reported thus:
Despite the continuing tensions, Mr. Bush appeared relaxed and at times almost ebullient as he took questions for 40 minutes, ranging from reflections on Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the failure so far to find banned weapons in Iraq.
When the subject turned to the treatment of prisoners, Mr. Bush said he could not remember whether he had seen secret Pentagon and Justice Department legal opinions that concluded he had broad authority to determine what techniques could be used to interrogate unlawful combatants seized in Afghanistan.
Remembering, not remembering . . . Until this week’s snow of obituaries, I wouldn’t have associated Reagan with a line such as “Tear down this wall.” The phrase most closely linked to him in my memory was, rather, “I have no recollection of that.” Perhaps it was natural for Bush to move in conversation from recalling Reagan to not recalling the memos justifying torture.
He admits to being an attentive student of Reagan’s style. Famously, in two interviews that he granted to the Tower commission in January and February 1987, Reagan said that he “had no recollection” of telling his national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane in July 1985 to go ahead with a proposed arms-for-hostages deal in Iran. Asked whether he had approved the shipment of arms from Israel to Iran in August 1985 before or after the fact, Reagan wrote to the commission that “Try as I might, I cannot recall anything whatsoever.” Nor could he recall signing a 2 January 1986 order authorizing covert action, though he did recall signing a later version of the same order (New York Times, 28 February 1987). In February 1990, during the trial of John Poindexter, Reagan testified 124 times that he did not recall details of the Iran-contra scandal (UPI, 23 February 1990).
I stayed up past my bedtime last night, engrossed in Paul Colllins’s Not Even Wrong, which intercuts a memoir of his discovery of his son’s autism with a history of the condition. Collins is kind of a historical magpie. He puts into his book everything from the story of Peter the Wild Boy—found in the woods of Hamelin, Germany, in the eighteenth century and adopted by George I of England—to the nastiness and imposture of Bruno Bettelheim.
Some of the bright, shiny facts collected by Collins started me on a speculation. Autism comes in different levels of severity, and it seems to be heritable. In the 1943 article where he first described autism, Hans Asperger noted that “We have been able to discern related incipient traits in the parents or relatives in every single case” (p. 90). Collins inventories proto-autistic traits in himself, his wife, and their parents: enthusiastic list-making, fascination with texts and systems, attention so narrow that it causes “selective hearing.” He talks to researchers who have found a high incidence of autism in the children of engineers. When he gives a talk at Microsoft, Collins is surprised that many in the audience seem to be playing with their laptops instead of listening to him. It turns out they are listening to him but prefer to do it via the company’s internal webcast.
All this set me wondering. There’s been a lot of concern recently that the incidence of autism seems to be rising. Some have put the blame on the mercury-based preservatives in vaccines given to children, but a government panel last week found no link. (Collins hasn’t mentiioned this yet, but like I said, I’m only halfway through.) What if the cause is something else entirely? What if it’s assortative mating?
In other words, what if the premium that the information economy puts on cognitive skills and the advent of the two-career marriage has created a new situation, in which people with mild proto-autistic behaviors are more likely than ever to find each other and wed? This is a bit wacky as a hypothesis, because I’m suggesting more or less that the mind is evolving, observably, in response to extremely new conditions. But assortative mating is a powerful force. And actually, the premium on literacy (and the behaviors that enhance it, such as intense focus and comfort with solitude) has been in place for several centuries now.
College, in this light, would be a breeding ground for autism, because it encourages people who score well on standardized tests to socialize and mate with one another. So would places like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and the Greater Boston area, because the computer industry brings together people with proto-autistic traits in unprecedented concentrations.
I also wonder, sometimes, whether a high rate of depression in the modern world might be a side effect of a premium on literacy. Humans weren’t originally built to sit still for long periods of time while paying close attention to inanimate objects. They were built to pay close attention while pursuing their four-legged dinner, or while conversing with other humans. Some evolutionary psychologists think that depression was originally designed as a “shutdown” mode to detach a person from a task that looked as if it would be unsuccessful. What if it turned out to have an unforeseen second use in a literate world, because it made a person willing to sit still at length, in isolation? It could be that the genetic innovation that would isolate this boon from the other traits associated with depression (dysphoria, suicidal ideation, etc.) hasn’t yet arrived, and we’re stuck with a situation where people who like to read are also people prone to depression. Of course, it could be that the human temperament hasn’t changed at all, but that when humans are encouraged to sit still for long periods, they become prone to depression. (I think there’s a paper to be written by some enterprising experimental psychologist on the relation between webpage-loading time and perception of self-esteem. Between two people, a delay in response is usually perceived as a slight, and a human who’s browsing the internet must, at some precognitive level, perceive its responsiveness to him as a measure of his social status.)
In Meditations in Green, a novel about the Vietnam war and its aftereffects, Stephen Wright describes a loss of innocence that resonates with the news out of Abu Ghraib. In the book, PFC Claypool is a “new guy” who thinks he’s going to be working as a translator. His mind first begins to drift away from reality when he sits in on the interrogation of a Vietnamese prisoner, who is tortured with electric shocks administered by means of a field telephone.
Sergeant Mars was unraveling a pair of wires which were attached to a mechanical contraption that resembled a bicycle exerciser. Each wire ended in an alligator clip. Weren’t they going to lock the door? Claypool knew what was next. . . . He hadn’t wanted to hear such stories, to have confirmed as true what was printed in leftist magazines, shouted by hysterical war protesters. It was like learning your family dentist overcharged for extractions or drilled into healthy teeth. It meant there were cliffs where he had always assumed there were fences. . . .
“Doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks,” explained Captain Raleigh. “Think of the lives we’re saving.” (p. 106)
Today Peter brought home the galleys of Sabina Murray’s novel A Carnivore’s Inquiry, forthcoming in July and described on the back jacket as “a gripping literary psychological thriller about a young woman and a peculiar taste for flesh.” Some of you will already know where this is going. Here is a not altogether random sample, page 39. (I have put asterisks in the naughty bits, to keep my blog from getting stuck in any more decency filters than it has to.)
“How’s Moby-Dick?” asked Ann.
“I’ve finished that,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Ann wearily. Conversation was becoming difficult. “What’d you think?”
“I read an essay by this guy at Columbia, Crain, I think. Anyway, I knew that Melville was a big queen, but Crain has this theory that, at the time, sex between men was the greatest taboo, so every time someone’s about to f*** someone else…”
“What?” said Ann.
“Well, instead they eat each other. There’s some incidence of cannibalism. The cannibalism stands in for the f***ing. It’s the lesser taboo.”
“Kind of like the other white meat?”
I nodded then reconsidered. “What are you talking about?”
So you see, kids, criticism and literature are one, after all. Criticism feeds on novels, and novels feed on criticism, just like . . . oh nevermind. For the record, I didn’t quite say that 19th-century homosexuals ran around ingesting one another like so many overstimulated paramecia. Not in so many words, anyway.