Posts Tagged ‘england’

Okay, so I’ve been really giving the nonfiction a serious effort, but I’ve been at the current nonfiction book for weeks and am still only a third of the way through it. This weekend, though, I arrived a few hours early at the place where my new beau and I were to meet up, and I devoured this book entire. I feel certain that I’ve mentioned how much I love Winterson, but let me say it again. I love Jeanette Winterson’s books.

This is a story narrated by several people, but the two most important are identified by a fruit preceding their narrations. The pineapple is for Jordan, who begins his story as a child of uncertain origins pulled from a river. The banana is for the Dog-Woman, who finds a boy on a riverbank and learns to be a mother. Jordan’s narrations are often surreal and dream-like, while his mother’s are usually more down to earth. He lives in an age of travel and adventure and discovery, where a man can have a famous picture painted of him bringing the king a new sort of fruit, while she lives in a more realistic seventeenth century, where no one would eat a fruit that looks like a Chinese penis. She is a large woman, so big that most people are terrified of her, and has spent her life unloved and rejected.

I fell in love once, if love be that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us they are closed for ever.

She has a few dozen dogs, which she breeds, and works hard. She is tremendously strong. As she raises Jordan, though, for the first time she finds someone who loves her as she is and doesn’t notice how different she is from other people. The child accepts the fact that his mother is a mountain of a woman and doesn’t expect her to be other than as she is. As a Royalist, she finds the Interregnum difficult, and teams up with a local brothel to dispose of all the impure Puritans. It makes me sad that the gay men in the book are evil and have to be destroyed, but the mother only understands biology in terms of breeding, so it does kind of make sense to me that she would be outraged at the sight of non-procreative sex. I think it’s important that her son, the only thing tying her to a world of love, is gone off sailing from the execution of Charles I until the restoration of Charles II. Without him in her life, she becomes murderous and destructive. He’s back for a short time, but leaves again before she pours oil on the fire in 1666.

Growing up on the fringes of society, Jordan develops a taste for the strange and a tendency to travel in his mind. I suppose you could call it daydreaming, but it’s more like astral projection into a surreal cityscape with different physics and manners. He meets a beautiful dancing girl, but she gets away, and he sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, he runs into more fantastic people and storytellers, and he does eventually find the girl, but she doesn’t believe in permanence, so there’s no happily ever after there. The quest is complete, but his journey never ends.

Along the way, we get a retelling of an old familiar story. Once upon a time there was a king with twelve daughters. I think there must have been either multiple queens or multiple births, because having an age range wide enough for one woman to produce twelve children and still retain her own health would make the rest of the story unrealistic. Anyway, the queen isn’t the significant part of the story. The princesses are. As they endure adolescence and begin to pass into adulthood, the king notices that his daughters are becoming lethargic. All twelve are chronically fatigued. Their appetites are undiminished, to the point that he’s a little embarrassed at how much his little princesses are consuming, but they don’t gain weight. If anything, they seem to dwindle as they get older. He sets men to watch over their activities, but no one sees them doing anything amiss. A prince from a neighboring kingdom joins the Princess Watch and is apparently the only one who thinks of watching them at night while everyone is sleeping. Every night the princesses fly out the window to a fairy ball, where they dance incessantly the whole night through. The prince sneaks into the ball and dances with the youngest princess, they fall in love, and the magic is broken. The king marries his twelve daughters to the prince and his eleven brothers and we are led to believe that this ends the story.

I don’t believe that anyone who has thought carefully about marriage truly believes it is an ending. It’s usually a beginning, and often a middle, but in itself it doesn’t resolve conflicts or end adventures. So Winterson tells us what happens afterward. If an unmarried woman has eleven younger sisters past the age of consent, there’s probably a reason she’s still single. Many of the princesses are lesbians, so they find ways to get rid of their husbands and love whom they choose. Many of the husbands are horrible, so it’s important they be got rid of. One princess found that her husband was really a woman after all, so she was content for rather a long time. Eventually, though, everything ends and all the princesses end up living together in a house far away from their father, who I must assume died sonless and left the kingdom to a distant male relation. The youngest princess, Fortunata, doesn’t settle down with her sisters, though, and travels throughout the world. She’s the one Jordan is after, and she does seem to care for him, but as I said, not in a permanent way.

The title of the book comes from a short, barely-a-page section on grafting. Even though I’ve never done it and probably wouldn’t know how, I’m familiar with the concept – cut a piece off of one tree and fasten it to another. The DNA mixes and the fruit gets the advantages of different genetic strains, sort of like the controlled breeding of animals or interracial procreation. Jordan learns it from Tradescant, the king’s gardener, but his mother is sort of aghast. If you mix two trees, how do you know what gender it becomes? Personally, I don’t normally think of trees as having gender; I’m not even that great at identifying species. But logically they do, because trees reproduce sexually and if you are used to breeding animals and if you think of the value of a tree as lying solely in its fruit, then you would naturally be concerned about the sexual identity of trees. But Jordan grafted from one female tree onto another, so of course the result is female. The gerund of the title makes it seem as if the book is about this process, of determining the gender of a fruit tree (which isn’t immediately obvious to everyone and is probably none of your business), but we don’t see the process happening. We’re simply told that it took place – meaning, of course, that this book is about silences, the things we don’t see happening. It’s about the parts of the story that we don’t get told, as in Winterson’s focus in the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Are we all living like this? Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets?

Curiously, the further I have pursued my voyages the more distant they have become. For Tradescant, voyages can be completed. They occupy time comfortably. With some leeway, they are predictable. I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I’m not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can’t describe myself I can’t ask for help. We are alone in this quest, and Fortunata is right not to disguise it, though she may be wrong about love. I have met a great many pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves. Perhaps I’m missing the point – perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain. But they don’t seem to care about who they are. Some of them have told me that the very point of searching for God is to forget about oneself, to lose oneself for ever. But it is not difficult to lose oneself, or is it the ego they are talking about, the hollow, screaming cadaver that has no spirit within it?

I think that cadaver is only the ideal self run mad, and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete.

And I am brought back to my nonfiction quest for belief. I’m not looking for God in the way the theists are; I want to discover something that I believe in, and theism isn’t presenting a compelling case at the moment. Atheism isn’t either, and I suppose it’s a little inevitable that I would feel squeezed between the two halves of a binary and so run sideways into something different, but whose difference lies in a different place than the opposition that works as the fulcrum of the binary – something differently different. Perhaps all I’m really looking for is myself, a way to bring the secret life of the imagination into the visible, insane life of the ego and heal the rift between them. As Buber said, the source of evil is in dividing a person against himself.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a little narrative about two people in the twentieth century. Nicholas Jordan is in the navy, sailing the seas both literal and imaginative like his seventeenth century predecessor, and the woman is a pretty chemist who wants to destroy the fallen world of men. She imagines herself big, large enough that men notice her and not just her face, and even if people are afraid of her, at least they will take her seriously. I think the biggest disservice we do to people is to assume that they are powerless – in treating them as if they were, we create that reality for them. Then, they have to burn down London to prove their worth by destroying their oppressors. Time doesn’t really matter – people’s lives follow the same patterns, and even Artemis gets raped and has to kill the man who doesn’t think what he did was a crime. Maybe Jordan and his mother are merely the imagined selves of these two young people in the 1980s, and this whole book is a story they tell to each other. In my experience lovers are more likely to tell each other fairy stories about their future, but a shared past life could be just as meaningful.

I’m persisting with the nonfiction, but I think I really needed this diversion into narrative, especially a disjointed one like this, where we break off into other stories and weird lists about how to deal with men and ponderings of the nature of time, matter, and life.

Men are best left in groups by themselves where they will entirely wear themselves out in drunkenness and competition. While this is taking place a woman may carry on with her own life unhindered.

Maybe it is true that Winterson is one of those women who don’t have a lot of use for men – I don’t know her personally, so I can’t say, but yes, there is a strong sense of feminism and female homosexuality, and if a woman feels the weight of the patriarchy without feeling any sexual attraction to men, she may have a hard time feeling the value of a class of humans that makes her feel unvalued. But there is hope for individual men, if they are properly schooled by women, and I think that Winterson makes this clear. Women need to speak up, and men need to listen; there’s no reason people can’t be happy if we’re considerate of each other and take the time to learn each other’s needs and how best to meet them. I’m not saying it’s simple – I will probably always believe and say that people are hard and that’s why I prefer books – but it is possible.

 

When I was at university, my best friend liked to ask generic conversation-generators when the talking flagged. One of them was, “If you had to lose four of your five senses and could only retain one, which would you keep?” I thought about it for a minute. When I say a minute, I’m exaggerating. People sometimes miss the fact that I’m thinking through a question instead of responding instinctively because I do it quickly, but I did run through a few scenarios, of seeing without hearing or feeling, or hearing without tasting or seeing, and I answered, “Touch.” Even at that time of my life, as extra-virgin as your olive oil and seldom touched by anyone, I understood the emotional significance of physical contact, and I knew how lonely my life was without handshakes, hugs, or even more casual touch. The other things I would miss a lot but I can deal without, seeing sunsets and paintings, hearing music or voices, tasting my food or smelling flowers, but the tactile sense is the essential.

touch

Linden’s book is about this tactile sense, as is obvious from the title, but it’s not much about what I just mentioned. It’s about physiology, primarily about nerve endings and brains and skin. I’m not used to this type of discourse, so while I tried to read it all at a go during the vacation, I got through a couple of chapters and had to take a break. My mind got full. The next day I read the entire rest of the book, and it went quickly and easily because of the background I got in Chapter 2. This experience started me thinking about how I learn. I was never much for studying actively, never very good at reviewing my notes or preparing for examinations. I tried a few times, with friends who were Honors students, but they never invited me back to their sessions. My brain works like this: I read it once, and then I have to move along and do something else, like watching television or reading fiction. The processing goes on subconsciously while my attention is elsewhere. But when I go back to that knowledge, it’s there where I need it to be. It doesn’t disappear the way that it seems to do for other people. The repetition of building on previous knowledge helps, and the spider web metaphor for learning is true for me as well as it is for others, but the sort of rote repetition for the purpose of passing a test is unhelpful, unnecessary, and hard to focus on.

What’s that spider web thing, Occ Man? Spider webs gain their strength by intersecting and making connections. A single strand is easily avoided or broken, but a web of several concentric circles with numerous radial strands is effective at trapping all sorts of prey. Likewise, facts that are unconnected to previous knowledge or our own experience, what theorists call inert knowledge, are weak and easily forgotten. Teachings that connect to a student’s experience or to previously acquired information are stronger and easier to retain. The more connections a student makes, the more likely she is to remember. Which I suppose is why I couldn’t study with the Honors students – they were repeating the same information in the same way divorced from context, not making connections to anything. It worked in the short term and gave them the grades they needed for scholarships and awards and things, but it wasn’t the same as loving knowledge for its own sake or learning the material effectively. If they ever needed that information again, it wasn’t waiting for them.

As previously implied, Chapter 2 is about the basic mechanisms of tactile sensation, how we recognize items by touch and perceive motion. It gives the necessary information about the types of nerves we have in our skin, the types of skin we have on our bodies, and where in our brains we analyze and sort this information. Chapter 3 is about the different ways we perceive being touched by other people and the emotional content of physical interactions, which leads into Chapter 4, about sex. Chapter 5 is about our perceptions of temperature, Chapter 6 is about pain, and Chapter 7 is about itching. Add an introduction (about social touch) and a conclusion (about tactile illusions) and you’ve got two hundred pages of physiology. The notes are sort of interesting, a range from the overly technical:

For you hard-core anatomy mavens: Neurons that carry information from the mechanoreceptors have axons that ascend in the region of the spinal cord called lamina IV of the dorsal horn. Mechanoreceptor axons from the lower body, below the seventh thoracic vertebra, contact neurons in the gracile nucleus of the brain stem, while those of the upper body form synapses on neurons in the adjacent cuneate nucleus. The gracile and cuneate neurons send their axons to a particular subdivision of the thalamus called the ventroposterolateral region through a midline-crossing pathway called the medial lemniscus. These thalamic cells then project to the primary somatosensory cortex. In later chapters, we’ll discuss skin sensors for erotic touch, pain, itch, and temperature, which take a different path in both the spinal cord and the brain.

To the extremely casual:

And don’t imagine that it’s only gay or bisexual men who like stimulation of the anus, rectum, and prostate. My old pal C., who runs an Internet sex-toy shop, says, “You’ll never go broke selling devices for straight guys to put in their butts.”

Which makes me wonder if I ought to give up on education and devote my life to selling vibrators.

So. Things that were new and useful in conversation. Itching and pain are actually quite different, and this fact is actually relatively new knowledge. In 1999 I was told that itching is just a very mild pain, and that acetaminophen would help with mosquito bites, but we now know that the truth is different. Itching and pain are perceived by different cells and processed in the brain differently, and there are actually different types of itching. Histamine is an obvious culprit and there are numerous antihistamine creams, but it’s not the only cause. There are itches that antihistamines and acetaminophen don’t help with because they’re caused by other chemicals in the body. (Just to review, the British name for acetaminophen is paracetamol, because the generic name for the compound is para-acetylaminophenol and we shortened it differently.)

The most practical piece of information and advice is this: Birds don’t have capsaicin receptors, which means that they don’t notice the hot and spicy quality of chili pepper seeds the way that humans and squirrels do, so if you’re having problems with small mammals eating out of your birdfeeders, mix some chili peppers into the feed. The squirrels will hate it – humans are the only mammals who eat peppers on purpose.

People with smaller fingertips are able to perceive finer distinctions because we have the same number of nerves in our fingers, so the smaller fingertips have those nerves in a denser configuration. No matter how sensitive someone might think the sexual organs to be, they don’t have that density of nerve fibers of fingers or lips, which means that if a blind man loses both arms, he’ll be more able to read Braille with his tongue than with his penis. But how many armless blind men are there in the world? A lot of the stories are similarly at the extremes, dealing with odd cases that may only happen once or twice in a lifetime.

With an entire chapter on sex, you might think that there’s some useful and practical tips, but not really. I think it’s interesting that the clitoris actually reaches down and wraps around the vagina (it has wings inside a woman’s body like a butterfly poking its head out), so that even shoving a penis in there can stimulate the right organ, but that’s not going to help me much. I don’t know how many women there are who differentiate between orgasms from touching the clitoris and orgasms from touching the vagina, or how many of them share that Freudian idea that direct clitoral stimulation is less mature or less worthwhile than vaginal intercourse, but Linden explains scientifically why that’s rubbish. An orgasm is pretty great, no matter what part of the body it comes from, so don’t shit on other people’s jouissance.

In a study of pairs of people touching in public, Latin Americans and the French touch dramatically more often than Americans or the British. You can stare at couples in an English coffee shop for an hour without seeing anyone physically touch anyone else. Americans are only marginally better – if you want to see some social touching, head to the Mediterranean (and other places with a strong Mediterranean influence). Similarly, if you want to experience social touch in public, don’t marry an Englishman; find a Latin lover instead.

Imagine that we were vampire bats, and we were close nest mates, either very close friends or family or lovers. One night, I go out hunting and come back full. A meal can last one of us a few days, so I’m ready to hunker down for a long nap. You weren’t in the mood to go out tonight, and now you’re hungry. You might start licking my body, and if I didn’t protest or push you away, you’d move up toward my lips. We’d kiss for a little, and then I’d vomit blood down your throat, because that’s how it works for vampire bats. Tomorrow night, we’ll both go out. Maybe we can share an animal – you can bite it first and lap up the blood that flows out, because we don’t suck it out of the wound, and then I can carry on lapping it up before it clots.

Did you know that vampire bats have infrared temperature sensors that allow them to find blood vessels more easily? Did you know that certain hospitals have similar vein-finding technology, so the phlebotomist can flash a light on your arm and see plainly where all the veins are, to facilitate injections and blood withdrawals? Rattlesnakes also have infrared sensors, but they work at a distance of several feet, much farther than the bats’, and they combine with messages from the eyes to give a more complete picture of the world than we humans can see. Because animals are amazing.

People are amazing too. We sometimes perceive touch when nothing is stimulating the nerves, based on memories and expectations and stimuli that we don’t consciously perceive. It’s nice to know that phantom cell phone vibration is normal (for doctors, which I am not); it’s good to know that sleep paralysis is not an isolated phenomenon, but seeing the actual numbers, it’s not as normal or as common as some other reports have led me to believe. It’s also good to know that no matter how effective machinery can be at stimulating certain parts of the body, it can never fully replace another human’s touch.

I appreciate Linden’s style and approach. He’s writing for a general audience, so the information is kept at a level that someone like me with no specialized training can understand fairly easily. The subject is also discussed in a general way, as an overview of current research that doesn’t go too deep. One of the things that I learned in graduate school is that you can have either breadth or depth, but seldom both. Linden’s breadth on the subject made me think that he might not actually be an expert, and reading the Acknowledgments section, he’s not. He’s a brain researcher, yes, but not a touch specialist. That doesn’t discredit or devalue the book: the research is still good, it’s just that he had a lot of help with that part of it.

I also appreciate the fact that he recognizes where the research runs out – there are several places in the text where he recommends further research and greater experimentation, even where he explains the precise sort of experiments that could be done to test our current theories. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about how touch works and why we perceive things as we do, which means that there’s a lot of work for medical researchers and other scientists to do in this area.

This book is recommended for general readers who are interested in understanding brain function and touch mechanisms, but for medical or nursing students, I’d point you to the notes section and encourage you to go directly to the source materials. You need more practice in reading that sort of text instead of popular nonfiction. I will also say that I am dramatically more interested in the sociology of touch than the physiology, so this wasn’t the best fit for me, but it was good nonetheless.