The Hope of a Suggestion: On Mary Oliver’s Latest

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This summer, a commercial was lauded for skewering a common bad habit. The ad, which promoted IKEA, opens on the drawing room of a lord apparently living around the time of King George III. As servants lay out a dinner of fruits, vegetables, and game birds, the bewigged gentleman calls in a painter and demands a still life on the spot. When the painting is done, footmen hustle it out of the manor and around town, showing it off to upper-class fops who flash thumbs-ups in response. They return home, triumphant, and, finally happy at his success, the man lets his poor family eat. Flash-forward to the present and footage of a dad delaying a family meal to snap pictures of the food on his cell phone. The closing tagline: “It’s a meal. Not a competition. Let’s relax.”

Indeed, let’s. In fact, we might go one better and forget the image entirely — nobody really needs their image on any screen, silver or TV or phone. No one really needs a relationship with corporate capitalism, conspicuous consumption, or cyberspace, either. All that is fungible, forgettable; it’s been replaced many times before.

What to do with the spare time left over by ceasing to engage? Consider reading Mary Oliver’s latest book, Upstream, and its meditations on inescapable, physical life and the world beyond any screen.

Mary Oliver is the country’s “far and away, the country’s best-selling poet,” according to a ten-year-old article in The New York Times. Famous for winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, she’s published over 30 books since 1965. Many feature famous poems or lines — and by dint of that notoriety, Oliver is easy to find in a certain kind of middle-class, left-wing American life. I’ve seen her words everywhere from Buddhist meditation sessions to Mac McClelland’s memoir Irritable Hearts (which quotes a poem about “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves”) to the co-op where I lived in college, which bore a version of her line, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” hand-painted in a girlish curlicue over a dining room doorway.

To her vaunted curriculum vitae and relative ubiquity, Oliver, aged 81, now adds Upstream. But despite Oliver’s well-demonstrated power, one of the book’s first sentiments is a disclaimer about its smallness in comparison to the world it describes: “And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind… Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”

That might be unnecessarily self-deprecating, but it’s true enough. Oliver’s power lies in words, but even more so in her power of observation. Until recently, she spent her life spent trekking through woodlands (“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field,” she writes) and half on the cusp of the sea, in formerly sleepy Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Despite being a thin volume, Upstream is a cognitively weighty book. It’s her rare volume of essays rather than pure poetry, although 16 of the 19 essays are reprints from earlier books. It offers no obvious order, and it sticks to no one particular subject. It is neither chronological nor purely topical, and it jumps from the natural world to famous literary lives (Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allen Poe) to a beloved pet dog. It discusses the life and thoughts of Oliver’s deceased lover, Molly Malone Cook, without explaining who she is (indeed, without ever including more than an initial, M). More than a book meant to make a single point, this is a book meant to allow Mary Oliver’s vivid thoughts out into the world.

The book’s finest moments are when Oliver dwells on the nature she has spent a lifetime loving. Thankfully, these are frequent. She writes of seeing caught Bluefin tuna unloaded from fishing boats, “their bodies are as big as horses;” of the live fishes she once returned to the cold sea after unexpectedly cutting them from the body of a fish who’d just ate them (“for an instant they throbbed in place, too dazed to understand that they could swim back to life — and then they uncurled, like silver leaves, and flashed away”); of the injured bird she let slowly die in a luxurious nest of towels she’d constructed near a sliding door in her home.

Among the observations of natural beauty come slow, gentle, ponderous thoughts about the nature of love, death, and life in a changing place. Oliver avoids anything self-pitying, apocalyptic, or morbid — and in fact she doesn’t even overtly mourn her partner, whose 2005 death she grieved in the 2007 photo book Our World. Nonetheless, these philosophical musings are the point of writing. “You need empathy with it rather than just reporting,” Oliver explained to Krista Tippett of On Being in 2015. “Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. That’s what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don’t go anywhere.”

This book is thought-provoking, and it does go somewhere. Where it goes is ultimately up to the reader — whose mind, after all, is the soil in which Oliver’s contemplative turns of phrase will bloom. Oliver expresses clearly that nature is our equal, if not our better, and that the nonhuman world offers a wellspring of insight to those who pay careful attention to it.

As for any IKEA commercials one might miss while out in the woods or at the shore: well, that last one went viral, I guess. But if you’ve seen it — or if you haven’t — forget it. Whatever insight it offers, remember that Mary Oliver got there first, and better, with words like these: “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion…Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive — that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.”

Putting all my money on the hope of a suggestion now, I’ll say that this, and all the rest of Upstream, comes highly recommended.

Really Bad People: On Sebastian Junger’s ‘Tribe’

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“I do miss something from the war,” Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic tells Sebastian Junger halfway through his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Ahmetasevic is talking about the wartime closeness she shared with friends in a basement bomb shelter in besieged Sarajevo. “The love that we shared was enormous,” Ahmetasevic says. “I missed being close to people, I missed being loved in that way.”

The sentiment lies at the heart of Tribe, a book offering a surprising thesis about the ways humans have traded communal belonging for excessive safety.

Junger gets a considerable amount done in a quick 133 pages: Tribe posits a reason why white settlers found life among Native American tribes appealing, theorizes about false PTSD claims among returned U.S. veterans, and conveys the author’s equality-minded view of how heroic behavior varies between genders — all in addition to remarks on hitchhiking, attachment parenting, Junger’s dad’s opinion of military service, and more. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover in such a short book, and it’s inevitable that Tribe would either feel inchoate and sketched or else aggravatingly dense. Because Junger is an adventurous storyteller (rather than, say, an academic theoretician), he opts for the former.

It’s not necessarily a good thing. The book’s lightness makes it accessible, an easy entry point to weighty subject matter. But its concision can make Tribe feel breezy even as it discusses life and death — if not outright incomprehensible.

Tribe is essentially a critique of modern civilization, beginning with Junger’s observation of the inexorable appeal of Native American lifeways to early settlers (“The intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessary compete with”). It proceeds through an examination of how disastrous or violent circumstances can create similar human closeness, and includes a discussion of how our society’s distancing itself from such harsh conditions has inadvertently sharpened those events’ capacity to traumatize the people who endure them.

All of these points have been covered in other, heavier books. Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday examines traditional tribal lifestyles’ usefulness in the present day. The entanglement of war with human closeness and purpose is the focus of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (Both Hedges and Junger include the same anecdote, in fact, about a teenage couple in besieged Sarajevo, that dies, sniper-shot, on the banks of the Miljacka River.) Junger also briefly mentions the work of seminal disaster researcher Charles Fritz, noting that Fritz could find almost no examples of mass panic during large-scale disasters. This plays into his overarching point that difficult experiences can be unifying rather than shattering. The exact same studies by Fritz and fellow researchers — and that exact same, crucial point — are detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant A Paradise Built in Hell.

Junger uses these insights towards another point. “Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer these things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate,” he writes. “This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” This is an important observation. It, too, resonates quite closely with previous work — in this case Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s seminal book Trauma and Recovery, which remarks that “to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.”

What Junger achieves, then, is to assemble parts of all those books into one slim volume. So much the better for the busy reader. Unfortunately, Junger’s quick look at violence, trauma, and modern anomie also omits important information from other books, and as a result ends up on shaky ground, failing to consider counterpoints or bring its own arguments to a close.

Part of the takeaway from this book is that regarding military service as a source of permanent psychiatric disability is incorrect for most soldiers. Junger includes a lengthy discussion of how the U.S. Veterans Administration mishandles former soldiers’ mental health issues, and how America’s cultural misunderstanding of war plays into that deleterious milieu. The information isn’t wrong per se, but what it has to do with the rest of the romanticizing of foregone tribal lifeways, etc., or why that necessitates anything more than the 2015 Vanity Fair article from which the book sprung is never quite made clear. Worse, Junger says that the low rate of combat engagement among U.S. soldiers means their diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder often aren’t real — but he fails to consider that some soldiers develop PTSD from military sexual trauma, or from other adverse experiences outside of combat or before their enlistment.

Worse, he seems to misunderstand the diagnosis entirely. Here, as in the Vanity Fair article, Junger describes his own bout with what he calls “classic short-term PTSD,” departing from this insight to further dissect trauma and the ways modern society misunderstands it. The problem is, there really is no such thing as “short-term PTSD.” It sounds like what Junger had was post-traumatic stress, a weeks- or months-long psychological adaptation to adverse events (in his case, exposure to war) that typically resolves on its own. Although psychological care can sometimes be relevant, most mental health professionals don’t regard this as an illness. (Tellingly, Junger’s approach to his diagnosis involved little more than an acquaintance’s ad hoc comment at “a family picnic.”) Post-traumatic stress disorder is only diagnosable after three to six months, does not often go away on its own, and can endure for a lifetime if untreated. The implication that Junger’s case is typical PTSD is misleading — and to some extent, calls his conclusions into question.

The problems in his argument go even deeper. “In Bosnia — as it is now — we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people,” Ahmetasevic tells Junger. “We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you.” Junger’s thesis is that other cultures (the “Stone-Age tribes” white settlers once joined) did learn that lesson. But he assumes that violence is innate to humans and necessary for human closeness, never parsing evidence that it is not. And he doesn’t examine what this Bosnian journalist means by “really bad,” and how becoming so after the war might have arisen directly from the painful, long-lasting effects of the severe trauma Junger doesn’t quite seem to believe in.

He does argue that collective dissatisfaction with our “society that is basically at war with itself” should lead to a large-scale rearrangement of our lives and lifestyles. (“I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace that we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war,” Ahmetasevic offers.) In a time of impending ecological disaster, that’s worth considering. Junger’s point about encouraging stronger communities and more human closeness is a good one. But this half-baked, too-brief book, so scattershot that its message is hard to ascertain, won’t get us there.

Ethical Vertigo and the Human Genome: On Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene’


“Six things you can’t live without,” the online dating site commanded to me to include in my new profile. The blank spot below the prompt begged for something more than a tepid, “addicted to my iPhone/I love my mother” answer, but I felt stumped. What to say? After a moment’s hesitation, I went full geek. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I wrote. I also like cappuccino.

It’s true: like all living things, I’d be nothing without the components of my DNA. (I could not exist at all, in fact.) But the nitrogenous base pairs I’d listed were clearly unfamiliar to plenty of prospective online suitors — which is also true for a large percentage of the American public. For them — for all of us — a trip through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History offers startling clarity.

The Gene is a follow-up to Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning medical history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. “The archetypal genomic disease is cancer,” Mukherjee explains in The Gene, connecting that book to this one (he later calls The Gene a “prequel” to The Emperor). While it’s fair enough to say that genes influence the development of cancer — and while Mukherjee spends a fair number of words to describe how that can happen — The Gene extends far beyond that relatively niche topic. Rather, Mukherjee tackles the entire history of genetics, from its origins as a passion project of a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel to Charles Darwin’s journeys to Galapagos to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues. After rehashing that relatively well-known history, he traverses more recent, obscure, and often contentious topics, including eugenics, gene therapy, and the daunting ethical challenges of the future. In short, the work serves as a kind of primer on the whole of the topic, an unsurprising repackaging of a few major sections of an undergrad biology degree.

That said, it’s more appealing than any other molecular biology text I can recall. “Excuse my big yawn, but I just came from my own lecture,” a genetics professor tells a student halfway through the book. The comment is as an apt reminder of the Spockian science-nerd stereotype (perhaps the reason I’m still single?) and it almost comes across as Mukherjee’s admonishment to himself. He needn’t have worried. The book is defined best not by a crack about boredom but rather by a remark Mukherjee co-opts from the French impressionist Paul Cézanne, who once said about his friend Claude Monet: “Monet is but an eye, but, God, what an eye.”

“DNA, by that same logic, is but a chemical,” Mukherjee writes. “But, God, what a chemical.”

Humans depend on DNA, but not only. All life makes use of the exact same unique double helix of base pairs, sugar, phosphate, and water molecules. “A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity,” Mukherjee notes. Elsewhere, he constructs a list of DNA’s features in evocative, quasi-anthropomorphic language: “it is fiercely inventive…encrusted with history…[and] poised to evolve.”

Of course, our genes are also tightly tied to our daily existence — although that, too, Mukherjee describes as “surprisingly beautiful:” “On a vast stretch of [human] chromosome eleven, for instance, there is a causeway dedicated entirely to the sensation of smell. Here, a cluster of 155 closely related genes,” encodes “professional smell sensors…[for] spearmint, lemon, caraway, jasmine, vanilla, ginger, pepper.” The author’s enthusiasm for his simultaneously transcendent and mundane subject can make the dense text feel light.

Some readers have found the book a little too light. This month an excerpt printed in The New Yorker prompted controversy: a group of epigenetics researchers took issue with Mukherjee’s approach, alleging it misrepresents epigenetics (the process by which environmental factors can modify the structure and function of genes). “Their main criticism was that Mukherjee’s article put too much emphasis on histone modification and DNA methylation, which they say are relatively minor contributors to gene regulation,” an article in the science magazine Nature summarized. “They and other critics argued that Mukherjee ignored [other] well-established mechanisms of gene regulation.” In a statement published on a website (but since removed), Mukherjee prefaced a point-by-point rebuttal with a frank statement that he thought he had described epigenetics accurately. He also acknowledged errors.

But to argue too much about the fine points of The Gene seems to misunderstand its purpose. The book doesn’t serve only to attempt a summary of the technical points of a field that — as Mukherjee accurately reports — often advances through contentious debates. Rather, it serves to make the generalities of the topic accessible to the 90-odd percent of Americans who do not hold degrees in genetics or molecular biology. And here — amid odes to smells, plus lyrics to a Sanskrit folk tune and a stray quote from Snoop Dogg — Mukherjee delivers.

The debate also obscures this book’s other compelling accomplishments. First, Mukherjee takes on the ethically heavy topic of willful modifications to the human genome. “The most remarkable fact about human genomic engineering today is not how far out of reach it is, but how perilously, tantalizingly near,” he writes. These alterations have been proposed as ways to cure or prevent genetic illnesses. But because the genome (the sum total of genes in a given living being) is highly complex, willfully altering it carries the potential for unintended, potentially disastrous consequences. His solution? “We need a manifesto — or at least a hitchhiker’s guide — for a post-genomic world,” he writes. He doesn’t offer it himself, acknowledging in several places that geneticists are collectively grappling with their field’s ethical issues. Instead, he adds what he calls “an opening salvo,” which functions to distill the issue for readers. He ends with an appeal to skepticism at the value of genomic engineering, and adds, “Perhaps the compassion that such skepticism enables is also encoded indelibly in the human genome.”

The author is a good example of this compassion. Mukherjee interweaves the text with the story of his own family, particularly two uncles and a cousin with serious mental illnesses. (This, too, has been partially excerpted in The New Yorker.) Another chapter, “The Miseries of My Father,” documents a genetic brain disease Mukherjee’s dad is currently experiencing.

To oversharing-prone Americans, these disclosures might seem small. But they are not. What Mukherjee calls “ethical vertigo” with genomic engineering was what prompted me to leave biology and go into public health. Partly on the strength of a recommendation from a genetics professor (who, like Mukherjee, is a Bengali raised in Delhi), I won a Fulbright in the Bengal region to conduct research on mental health.

The topic was so intensely neglected I could not find an appropriate mentor for my work. (What ad hoc assistance I got was unsafe and often plain loony: one university administrator told me to manage people in psychiatric crisis by phoning an anthropologist in Germany. “Don’t call me,” that anthropologist later said, and I agreed.) Mental health was taboo enough to prompt flat rejections — and occasionally open anger — from my colleagues in health research.

In that context, Mukherjee’s forthright discussion of his own Bengali family’s psychiatric health is rare and courageous. It’s also worthwhile. If ethical issues in genetics are to be solved (or even communicated effectively to the public), we’ll need not only skepticism and compassion, but also a clear understanding of the humans our choices affect.

If I were joining that dating site today, I might alter my answer a bit. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I would write. I also enjoyed The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Die a Million People: On ‘The Colonel Who Would Not Repent’

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The lyrics to “Song of Bangladesh” must have sounded mournful when Joan Baez first crooned them in Madison Square Garden in August 1971: “When the sun sinks in the west, die a million people of the Bangladesh / The story of Bangladesh is an ancient one again made fresh.”

The occasion was as solemn as the words: along with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan, Baez was headlining the first-ever star-studded humanitarian benefit. The Concert for Bangla Desh aimed to support a soon-to-be-independent nation, then enduring a vicious armed conflict. However heartfelt that event, though, Bangladesh’s plight soon lapsed into obscurity in the West. Today, those describing the events of 1971 to Western audiences must often resort to comparisons to another, similarly scaled but much later event: the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

South Asia, by contrast, views Bangladesh’s founding as central to its present-day politics — and now, through Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy, the story is again made fresh. Tripathi’s book revisits Bangladesh’s founding in comprehensive detail. Poignantly, its publication comes at a moment when the nation seems on the verge of its next existential crisis — one that includes now-frequent slayings that the author himself is speaking up against.

The basic facts of Tripathi’s story are well-established. Bangladesh is a country the size of Iowa, surrounded on three sides by India and on the fourth by the Bay of Bengal. It’s long been defined by its language, which boasts the first-ever Asian Nobel laureate for literature, and by its blend of secular, Hindu, and Muslim customs. The area became a province of Pakistan during India’s 1947 Partition; its western masters severely subjugated it. (“Colonialism was not the word for it,” journalist Anthony Mascarenhas said of Pakistan’s abuse of Bengalis in his 1971 book The Rape of Bangla Desh. “A thousand statistical tables would not reflect this Bengali frustration.”) By 1970, two decades of political organizing culminated in Bengalis sweeping Pakistan’s national election. The government reacted to the new Bengali prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his party’s parliamentary supermajority with desultory negotiations, and then, on March 25, 1971, a military attack. The conflict would last until Bangladesh’s victory that December 16, 1971; in the 267 days between, Baez’s “die a million people” arguably became a literal, perhaps even modest, tally of civilian casualties.

In recent years, authors have begun to revisit Bangladesh’s history. Gary Bass’s 2013 The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide retraces U.S. complicity in the atrocities. Yasmin Saikia’s 2011 Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh focuses on Pakistan’s rapes of over 200,000 women in just nine months, and, unusually, includes Pakistani sepoys’ apologies for their part in the violence. What remains less well-known is the territory where Tripathi, thankfully, spends most of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: the experience of ordinary Bengalis. In large part, the book functions best to fill in history’s rough outline with vivid depictions of wartime conditions; stories of common courage; and rare, specific recognition of innocents who died.

The best scenes come during accounts like this one, from the survivor of a massacre in a town called Chuknagar:
As Ershad Ali ran through the town…he saw Sundari. She was a child, barely six months old, clinging to her mother’s breast. Her mother lay beside her, and there was blood all over her body. The mother was beautiful, and she had a sindoor in her hair, indicating she was married and a Hindu. Her eyes were wide open; she was dead. She had been feeding her daughter when the bullet got her. ‘I carried the girl in my arms,’ Ershad said…

He ran through the market, seeing many more dead bodies, including many Hindus he had grown up with — Kalachand, who played the drum at Hindu weddings; Bhogirath, who worked as a butcher; Digambar, who was a farmer; and Babunath Biswas, the grocer — all while he kept hearing more and more gunshots. There were many Muslims, too, among the dead –Saifuddin, the butcher; Murshid Ali, the shopkeeper who sold coal; his five children; and Inayat, the mentally disabled man with the mind of a toddler. They were all dead.

Ershad crouched low and passed the maidan and went to the home of Mandar Das, a Hindu man he knew. ‘My father has just been killed,’ he told Mandar. ‘I am going to get the cloth to bury him. On my way I saw this girl…Her mother is a Hindu. Can you look after her?’
Mandar Das and his wife decide to adopt the girl, naming her Sundari. (“I knew she was a Hindu, that’s why I had taken her to a Hindu family. I did not want her stolen from her people,” Ershad Ali concludes.)

Tripathi counterbalances heart-breaking scenes like these with judicious attention to the facts of the genocide. Importantly, he acknowledges that precise counts of those killed are impossible, whether in Chuknagar (which was “a transit point,” a crossroads) or countrywide. Saying as much is controversial in Bangladesh; Tripathi correctly states that many Bangladeshis irrationally insist that three million people died, and “feel that raising such a doubt undermines their suffering and belittles their identity.” Yet he offers a coolheaded overview of the debate, straightforwardly concluding “We simply don’t know.” Just as evenhandedly, he gives credit to Pakistanis — a group who Bangladeshi protest movements have recently made the target of insults like “filthy dogs” — for a recent acknowledgment of national wrongdoing via the 2012 anthology We Owe an Apology to Bangladesh. “It was a brave thing to do,” Tripathi says, “and it was commendable.”

For all its careful balance of emotion and logic, The Colonel isn’t entirely successful. Tripathi’s decision to largely forgo a chronological structure leaves him recounting critical movements in Bangladeshi history at fairly random intervals, often jumping from before the war to after and back again. The disorganization robs the text of power. (By the time a middle-aged Sundari reunites with Ershad Ali in the final pages, the occasion feels more perfunctory than uplifting.) His often tangled management of characters and locations also make the book most comprehensible to readers already aware of Bangladesh’s historical events and prominent figures. Less informed, non-South Asian readers — those for whom the story of Bangladesh truly is both ancient and fresh — will likely have a far tougher time grasping the significance of the book’s more prominent people, places, and dates.

What is far more tragic is that the story is effectively neither ancient nor fresh in Bangladesh itself. Rather, it is the antecedent to the horrors unfolding now. Tripathi’s book extends to the present day, and includes frank discussion of the violent riots, dysfunctional politics, and climate change vulnerability that have afflicted Bangladesh recently. The Colonel Who Would Not Repent serves, then, as a primer to the current crisis — including the extremists’ slaying of foreigners, non-Muslims, and writers that has begun since the book’s completion. Now pressing for international response to the slayings, Tripathi is once again working to protect the same people he champions in these pages.