A Nation that Produces an Immensity of Pain

“The immensity of the pain that Roof has inflicted upon Charleston is not contained by geography. It conforms perfectly to the contours of the nation that produced him.”

—Jelani Cobb, “Prodigy of Hate” in The New Yorker

Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.


Do we know our own history?

King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

While I was talking to Durham, a family of Norwegian tourists stopped by. In the summer months, the park gets a lot of business from Europeans, who relish extreme heat of a kind they may never have encountered. (To New Yorkers, the park feels not unlike the lower level of the West Fourth Street subway station on a hundred-degree day.) After the Norwegians left, Durham said, “The Europeans romanticize us. They’ve seen all kinds of versions of us on TV. But they tend to know more about Native American history than the average U.S. citizen.”

–Alex Ross, “Desert Bloom” in The New Yorker

Consumerism Meets Ayahuasca

By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.”

—Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice in the Age of Kale

The Illusion of Self

“The study of haptic intelligence leads to even deeper questions about the somatic self. Our skin is us because it draws a line around our existence: we experience the world as ourself. We can separate ourself from our eyes and ears, recognize the information they give us as information, but our tactile and proprioceptive halos supply us with the sense that we are constant selves.

“There are rare conditions in which you come to believe that while, say, the right half of your body is you being yourself, the left half of your body is someone else’s—some uncomfortably close-talking, peering stranger you would like to get away from. Out-of-body experiences are related to these illusions, and they are probably key both to religious experience and to tales of alien abductions. The possibility of such illusions suggests that their opposite—our agreed-on coherent sense of a continuous self—may be a convenient fiction, an organized cognitive heuristic that we impose on experience to let us go on having it.” (bold added)

—Adam Gopnik, “Feel Me: What the Science of Touch Says About Us” in The New Yorker