I subscribe to The New Yorker, and its diverse and interesting pieces sustain me during my long and varied commutes across buses and trains in the Bronx each day.
A recent piece on explorer and all-around bad-ass Henry Worsley touched a nerve. This is by author David Grann, so it’s great writing, and he has clear admiration for Worsley. Do yourself a favor and read it.
Yet despite also admiring Worsley’s relentless drive and leadership, I ended the piece feeling upset, even angry.
He left behind a wife and two children who loved him fiercely. For what? To trudge across the vast, icy, crevassed expanse of the South Pole on his own in order to fulfil what seems to me a prurient fantasy. That speaks of either immense despair or delusion, not of heroism.
I think it is much more heroic to learn to bear inner demons quietly, while tending to the needs of your family and society.
The loss of a man as strong as Henry Worsley is all the more tragic in consideration of all the good he could still be enacting if he had decided to put his energies towards the ones around him, rather than towards a solo trek across the ice.
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.
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.”
“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