Thursday, June 30, 2011

Isherwood & The Mirror of Self

Isherwood as a younger man

I've wanted for a long time to write a piece on Christopher Isherwood. That intention lay dormant for several years, until the publication of his Diaries, three volumes of which have been issued so far--

[Diaries--Volume One: 1939-1960, 1048pp]

[The Sixties. Diaries, Volume Two: 1960-1969, 756pp]

[The Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951, 388pp]

The appearance of these voluminous personal records, brimming with personal report, idle chatter and philosophical meditation, should come as no surprise to those previously familiar with Isherwood's aesthetic, which was nothing if not always self-reflective, even to an obsessive degree.

Reading his Christopher and His Kind [1976]--a memoir of Isherwood's years in Berlin (1929-1933, and his relationship with his friend and lover Heinz Neddermeyer, and Heinz's futile attempts to elude conscription into the Nazi war machine)--years ago, I was struck by his extraordinary ability to objectify his own experience, and to address himself almost as an alter-ego. Isherwood's habit of talking about himself in the third person, and his tendency to lift real autobiographical experience (including intimate friendships and love affairs), barely disguised, into fictionalized accounts, was a hallmark of his style for his whole life.

Isherwood's work and life divide fairly neatly into four distinct periods:

>1904-1929 Early upper middle-class life, prep-school, Cambridge, brief period of study in pre-med.

>1929-1939 Lives in Berlin, and other parts of Europe, travels to China with Auden (with whom he does dramatic collaborations as well as a book on China [Journey to a War, 1939]), publication of the Berlin Stories [1939-45], emigrates to America.

>1939-1952 Works as screenwriter in Hollywood, first period of commitment to Vedanta Society, mystic exploration and devotion, becoming an American citizen [1946], beginning of life relationship with Don Bachardy (30 years his junior).

>1953-1986 Final period of progressive coming-out as Gay man, and publication of openly Gay works of fiction [Down There on a Visit, 1962, A Single Man, 1964], growing fame, period of teaching at State college in Southern California.

In some respects, Isherwood may be said to have been ideally placed to be an observer of key events during the 20th Century. He derived all the benefits of a British education, while rejecting all of its trappings; spent time in Berlin of the early Thirties, said to be the most cosmopolitan place on the planet at that time; escaped to America on the eve of World War II, and ended up living in Malibu, among the art and movie colonies, working in Hollywood during the last period of the Studio System, eventually taking his rightful place as one of the progenitors of the Gay Rights movement beginning in the 1960's.

The plaque at Nollendorfstrasse 17, where Isherwood lived during his years in Berlin.

What the Diaries confirm, in telling detail, is the degree to which that self-reflexivity--so evident a tendency in all of his fiction, as well as what we know of his life--was a daily preoccupation of his consciousness, and not only that--it was also the major function of his vision of life. Obsessive diarists famously walk a narrow line between accurate report and artistic augmentation. The diaries and/or letters of the famous--literary or otherwise--constitute one of the important sub-branches of letters, or literature, and for good reason. Diaries, memoirs, journals, daybooks and so on provide windows onto specific times, and insight into the intimate lives of their authors. Boswell, Pepys, Swift, Coleridge, James Lees-Milne, Isherwood. Each has much to tell us about how it felt to be alive at a certain time, in a certain place, and each as well provides important clues to the mystery of self-consciousness, and the changing values placed upon observation, self-revelation, and the moral fabric of society. There was almost no part of Isherwood's life that he did not document or adopt into semi-biographical fiction--he used everything.

Though I have known many Gay men and women, I have never really understood what it could mean to idolize or feel sexually about another man. It's completely outside the realm of my understanding. Camaraderie I comprehend, which strikes me as asexual in its essence--the kind of mutual interest and attachment one feels for another mind, sensibility--a shared appreciation for common concerns, respect and affection--but without any passionate component. Isherwood addresses this mystery in his writing, questioning from time to time just what it is that attracts him to men, instead of women. During his young adulthood, he had physical relationships with some women, but they held no fascination for him. It was almost as if, seeing himself in the predictable role of hetero-sexual partner, he would become separated from himself, divided from himself. This division of self from self is a primary characteristic of all Isherwood's writing.

Isherwood's father, a soldier, was killed in WWI. One of the classic clichés from the psychology of the Gay personality is the loss of a father figure early in life. And in fact, Isherwood's first two novels, All the Conspirators [1928] and The Memorial [1932], address the issue of the archetypical conflict between mother and son. I have no doubt that psychological interpretations of this trope have already been made of both these works, if not of Isherwood's whole oeuvre. But with a man of Isherwood's insight and self-awareness, there is no claim of self-deception that would tend to validate a diagnosis of "Unconscious" motivation.

One thing becomes perfectly clear when reading Isherwood's work: He could be ruthlessly honest about his own feelings and failings, he understood precisely how his own behavior could be judged from multiple perspectives, at all times. It's a powerful anxiety in his nature that drives his curiosity and determination to comprehend human motivation. It occurred to me first, when reading Christopher and His Kind that some form of alienation might be possible as an explanation for Isherwood's homosexuality. Most homosexuals first become aware of their tendency to focus on other men in early adolescence. But by this point in his life, Isherwood had already developed not only a genius for understanding his own motivations and weaknesses, but for seeing through those of others as well. This reflexive quality is one of the classic tenets of Western philosophy: Know thyself. In Isherwood's case, the knowledge that he possessed strong homosexual tendencies did not result in a self-flagelation or self-immolation, because of an equally powerful streak of rebelliousness. He tended to regard English society and habit as constricting milieus, within which his growing sense of his own sexual difference--and his sense of himself as an artistic observer, outside the normal limits of social involvement and responsibility--of himself as, in effect, the outsider--led him further into that division of personality which was both a curse (in the sense of exclusion), and an opportunity (in the ability to make telling analyses and tapestries of the world, which appeared in stark relief to his own enforced separateness and isolation).

This division is nowhere more graphically evident than in Isherwood's acknowledged personality split during the 1950's and '60's, when his nearly total commitment to Vedanta--a spiritual quest for peace and understanding--takes place in the midst of his indulgent life-style of carousing, drinking, and extra-relationship affairs. Isherwood's ability to hold two mutually exclusive and contradictory positions--a monkish devoutness versus a sybaritic dionysian free-for-all--at the same time, is characteristically post-Modern, and the perfect demonstration of his ability to see himself with complete clarity and lack of guilt or embarrassment. The reserved Englishness of his outward manner, pleasant and accommodating, concealed the secret self beneath the settled exterior.

Isherwood and Bachardy in later years

Was this studied division of personality ultimately a form of self-delusion, or was it simply a tool to enable him to create narratives of interaction? It's probably impossible for anyone to be completely self-conscious, because to be so would make life impossible. To live in the present is not the same thing as thinking about one's actions and thoughts through language. Language may be a simulacra of our consciousness, but it is not the conscious self. Is taking full moral responsibility for one's actions nothing more than accepting the contradictions or shortcomings of one's behavior? Does full self-consciousness constitute the ultimate forgiveness of all sins? Is to understand all, to forgive all? Does the division of consciousness permit one to conduct an endless dialectic between the disconnected selves of an eternally un-integrated personality?

By early adulthood, Isherwood had become confirmed and committed to a homosexual identity, even if, at that juncture, he wouldn't have had official permission to have declared that fact publicly. His coming-out would have to wait another three decades, at least. The British class system would have guaranteed Isherwood's familiar subversive existence as a surreptitiously naughty boy--had he not deliberately chosen to live abroad, and eventually in permanent exile in the liberated world of surfer-boys and free-living luxury. But Isherwood was never a fully liberated personality, as these Diaries show. He maintained a double existence, by day (and night), spinning out a parallel existence, the solitary soul conducting its own conversation with itself, himself his own best audience, the witness and judge of the outward man.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mimimalism XIII: The Vicarious Objectification of Language - Grenier's VOLUME

A book is a volume. A volume of content.

A volume is a mass. Or a void of specific extent.


Volume. late 14c., "roll of parchment containing writing, large book," from O.Fr. volume, from L. volumen (gen. voluminis) "roll (as of a manuscript), coil, wreath," from volvere "to turn around, roll" (see vulva). Meaning "book forming part of a set" (1520s) is from a sense in French. Generalized sense of "bulk, mass, quantity" (1620s) developed from that of "bulk or size of a book" (1520s), again following the sense evolution in the French version of the word.

Vol at turning.

V is a voiced labiodental fricative.

Features of the voiced labiodental fricative:

Its manner of articulation is fricative, which means it is produced by constricting air flow through a narrow channel at the place of articulation, causing turbulence.
Its place of articulation is labiodental, which means it is articulated with the lower lips and the upper teeth.
Its phonation is voiced, which means the vocal cords vibrate during the articulation.
It is an oral consonant, which means air is allowed to escape through the mouth only.
Because the sound is not produced with airflow over the tongue, the central–lateral dichotomy does not apply.
The airstream mechanism is pulmonic, which means it is articulated by pushing air solely with the lungs and diaphragm, as in most sounds.


The "vvvvvvvvvv" sound, vibrating between the lower lip and the upper front teeth. Followed by the deep hum of "uuuuuuuummmmmmmmme".

Grenier's habit of proposing the existence of a word as an object, an independent phenomenon [Gr.], asks that we separate the sound, the appearance and the (referential) meaning--as constituent parts of the structure of a linguistic unit (word)--from each other, and treat them as discrete aspects. Our focus on this has a vicarious quality, as if looking at single words, nakedly exposed, detached from the inherent connectivity of syntax and denotation/connotation, would yield up underlying modes of content, habitually ignored or suppressed in the inertia of reading.

For Grenier, the ultimate reification occurs in two possible places:

>The visual figure - ' marks in space ' - as a design of letters which we inherit from the tradition of accepted structured clichés.

>The aural figure - self-sounded oral performance which the syllables so/set enable.

The word VOLUME in Roman capitals. We see it and we hear it simultaneously. What qualities of apprehension occur in this process?

Personally, I experience the word as an echoing enclosure, deeply sounded, as of the inside of a distillation still, or enormous barrel, silo, empty warehouse space. Since the word volume means an extent of anything--filled or empty--the lack of a specific material reference suggests emptiness (an empty contain-ment/er). The heavy "ume" phoneme sweeps through this vacancy like a sheet of numinous oscillation. The V and Ume sounds are among the most vivid in the English language. Think of Poe's Ulalume. Williams's oo-la-loo-la-loooooom.

The sound of a jet overhead creates a "rooooooommmm!" sound--the feeling of being under such a considerable mass. Think of being under a vehicle as it "roarrrrrss" over you--"voooooommmmmm!" We are beneath powers, as under storms, thunder, things falling out of the sky, thunder. There's a scientific purity to the word which resists ambiguity--a fitting limit to its elaboration. Compare it, for instance, to a word like pinochle--which is almost like a rare jungle bird. VOLUME has all the chirrupy suggestiveness of a steel nail.

How do words work? Or, rather, what are the connections between the meanings assigned to certain sounds, and our apprehension of their underlying suggestiveness as independent segments of language? Music is organized sound, but language is organized music and defined meaning conjoined. The attachment of connotative triggers suggests that there is a whole universe of reference echoing within a given population of speakers. The vacuum of mind sucks up the stray usages and expressions, saved within unconscious memory, in the vastness of the world-bank-trust. Welcome to the party.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rosamond Purcell's Bookworm

Some years ago, I recall seeing mention of photographer Rosamund Purcell teaching a Zone VI workshop. Zone VI was the brand name for a view camera equipment marketing outfit--the brainchild of a photographer named Fred Picker--which sold cameras and tripods and other accessories, mostly by mail order, in the 1980's and '90's. Some of the equipment was good, but not everyone was satisfied with the merchandise. Picker was a big promoter of his own photographic work and his product line. With the decline and impending demise of straight silver process photography, Picker's business fell on hard times. He died in 2002 after a long battle with kidney disease.

But Picker isn't the subject of this blog.
Rosamond Purcell [1942- ] has become widely known through her publications, including among others Illuminations [1986, a collaboration with the late Stephen Jay Gould]; and Owl's Head [2004], and most recently, Bookworm.

Purcell's work has focused primarily on the artifacts of natural history, as a starting point, and over the last several years, on the vivid and immediate visual properties of organic decay. Preservation and disintegration, as metaphors for meaning in photographic imagery. Purcell isn't the only one exploring this kind of imagery, but she's done as much of it, and with more penetration, than anyone else I can think of. Her work has obvious affinities with--for instance--the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Her photographic images often seem like dense arrangements of rotting matter, odd paraphernalia, curios, keepsakes, found objects,--the detritus of gratuitous potlatch--in various states of unkempt decay or breakdown into constituent components through oxidation, consumption by pests, degradation by fire, dampness, pressure, the ravages of time and flux.

That ordinary objects may hold the evidence of all this energetic use, on the one hand, or of their abandonment and neglect, on the other, is one of the truisms of her art. Bookworm [2006] is devoted to an exploration of the minutely recorded evidence of the decay of written or recorded matter--or books--or other related surfaces which exhibit the fragmented or riddled traces of their original form. The bookworm becomes a philosophical key to the 125 color images in the book--bookworms literally eat their way through books, putting holes in them, like cheese. But of course, there are many forms of decay. Our culture's latest disregard for the inherent values of the material text, at the dawn of the Age of Information (or Computer Age), is reason enough to be interested in the preservation of books as repositories of knowledge and information. But preservation in this general sense is not Purcell's subject. She's not simply writing an elegy to the book as cultural artifact; she's exploring the visual field of that disintegration for clues and qualities which can transcend the mere concern for its loss--as, literally, unsuspected aesthetic values, finding meaning in the entropic slump of matter, oppressed by the weight of our desire and frustration and neglect, the material consequence of the inertia of intent which our civilization has built up, over centuries.

Caches of such detritus are everywhere, one has only to look beyond the shopping centers and freeway overpasses to discover the neglected, rejected, strewn, cast-off, forgotten, abandoned, lost, hidden, used-up, thrown-away, scattered, buried, stashed, saved, deconstructed and appraised stuff--lying everywhere about us on this grizzled, ancient planet we call home. Purcell is a collector, and the more complex, dense and churned the things she finds are, the more she is fascinated and drawn to them.

The spaces we inhabit in our imaginations--in our dreams, or our speculations about the structure of memory, or of our thought and sensation--may be expressed by the piecemeal disintegration of physical matter, the valence of which follows predictable and inevitable laws of process. Our familiar tendency in the presence of the weight and strata of decay is to experience fear, revulsion, dismissal. But we know that decay, oxidation, compression, dispersal are in fact the harbingers of renewal, of the process of the restoration of stasis, fertile ground for the cycles of re-use, the eternal plant.

Decay, invasive corruption and consumption penetrate and eat away at the edges of intention, desire, feeding a hunger that has no name. There is a beauty in the implosions of matter, the vivid transformation, chemical, fragmented, delicate screens of digest(ion), riddled, organic, bitter and sweet, obdurate and fragile.

The disintegrating vestiges of surface-meaning challenge our notions of use, cause our conceptions of the value of such surfaces to undergo a relentless intellectual composting. Purcell notices that photography, the momentary and impulsive fixing of such surfaces through the poised, controlled exposure, can preserve moments of this process. In the campaign of her documentation, richly grained and evocative, the foamy churning of digested matter becomes lush, hypnotic and weird.

Is sour the desire of sugar? Do we salvage to sing? Sacrifice excess lots to crunch skeletons of structure? The material text burned onto tablets of sand, glass lens interpolating distortions of the known. As we lose these masses, flickers of light illuminate the pyramid of resistance, what endures in the circus of chaotic species. Climax decay.

The deconstruction of disabled formal artifacts suggests abstraction. Meaning gathers around nodes of familiar keys, echoes, clues. But these are all familiar fragments. Within the span of cultural memory, we're on solid ground. But nothing could be less confirming.

The orgasm of progress stockpiles products of excess labor. The mind window-shops for stuffed mannikins of abandoned weaves, plastic body parts. Connoisseurs of industrial detritus. Symbiotic companions contract out parasitic eyeless wormlike hoards jiggling through the logarithm of rising fizz.

In my earlier posts on Irving Penn and Frederick Sommer, I explored the metaphorical implications of the use of light-sensitive surfaces to bear the self-reflexive relationship between viewer and object, eye and subject. Light is a medium, but it is also a component of matter itself--perhaps, as physicists now believe, the very stuff of matter itself. Light is not only the transmitter of data (of meaning), but also--in its other manifestation as "arrested light" the sensitive surface itself--matter talking to itself. And that is a conversation we sometimes may seem to be overhearing. Some such sense of the overheard seems to be taking place in Purcell's elegant color prints. Carpe diem. In seizing the momentary evidence of the degraded artifacts of our ambitious culture of production, Purcell is holding time to account, demanding of our impatient circumambient distraction, that we pay heed.

There's a lush permission about these images in Bookworm, as if we had tunneled into the Pharaoh's tomb, and held the brittle papyrus scroll in our quivering fingers. Our fortunes may be read from just such fleeting formulae. We are shadows and ghosts. The evidence of our having existed, pales in significance to the grander panorama of geologic time.

The overwhelming materiality of the quotidian masquerades as random thought, but animation may simply be a projection of a mindless consumption. Form is used up in a circle drawn by the fixed idea. The orbit of anxiety is constantly decaying. Language might decompose at the same rate as attention. We race entropy to the finish line.

Rosamund Purcell

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Sheltered Fifties

The Sheltered Fifties

In the 1950’s, our teacher told us to dive
Under our desks

As a dry run
For the Atomic War bomb drill.

The initial blast would blow out
The windows

Followed by superheated
Streams of searing

Gas. Those whose flesh
Wasn’t initially

Stripped from their bones
Would suffocate,

While those further from
Ground zero would be sprayed

With dense radioactive fallout--
Fatal scars and cancers.

Hiroshima had taught us

Mercy wouldn’t spare anyone from

God’s little children
Would burn like the rest,

But at least we could practice
Our bomb drills

Once a month,
Showing how cooperative and

Obedient we could be
In the face of overwhelming odds.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guillevic / Justice - The Man Closing Up

Eugene Guillevic

In 1973, the Stone Wall Press, in Iowa City, Iowa, published L'Homme Quie se Ferme, or The Man Closing Up, a bi-lingual edition of a poem by the French poet Eugene Guillevic (by that title), in addition to an "improvisation" of the original by the translator Donald Justice.

Justice is a poet I've discussed several times previously on this blog. A former teacher of mine, and a major American poet by anyone's estimation, he collaborated on a small anthology of French poetry with Alexander Aspel, Contemporary French Poetry [1965]. Though not fluent in French, Justice had a poet's sensitivity to poems even when he did not know the original language. Coincident with this publication, he explains in the brief Note to this book, he undertook in 1964 to make a kind of "adapted" reinterpretation of the Guillevic poem--what is commonly referred to in the trade as "after" the original model (or author).

That poem, which was included in his collection Night Light [Wesleyan University press, 1967], is among Justice's most admired works. I was introduced to it by Robert Grenier, in the poetry class he taught at Berkeley in 1968. It was also probably my first introduction to the work of Eugene Guillevic, though the French poem was not the subject of the poem we read in Robert's class. Later, I read Guillevic's work in a volume translated by Denise Levertov. Later, when I attended Iowa, I worked on translations of Reverdy under the direction of Professor Frederic Will, then of the Translation Workshop.

Guillevic's work is deceptively simple-seeming, employing short lines. Its brevity is one of its attractions, though it is by no means simple in its connotations, and probably is deeply idiomatic, and quite resistant to faithful renderings into English. You might think you have it, in English, but to a French reader, the ambiguities are almost certainly lost.

Donald Justice [1970]

The photo above was taken in 1970, a year before I met Justice. It makes him look oddly much younger than I remember him. Perhaps it is the bright direct sunlight which hides his wrinkles and darkens his hair. Or, maybe, I'm so much older now that he looks younger than I imagined him being in my youth?

It was only two years later than this that K.K. Merker, the printer/publisher of the Stone Wall Press, published the Guillevic pamphlet, though Justice, as I note, had made the translation and written his adaptation a full 9 years before.

The Guillevic poem runs to 21 sections, 171 (short) lines. Rather than re-print it here, in the original French, I think I'll just mention that it's much longer than Justice's adaptation, and that it's a much more ambitious poem (in its way) than Justice's. However, in my opinion, Justice's poem is much more intriguing, by being a distillation of the ideas Guillevic employs, consisting, as it does, of only five sections, and 69 lines. And, like the Guillevic, Justice's poem is written exclusively in two and three lines stanzas.

Here is Justice's Note reprinted in full:

Sitting in a cafeteria one afternoon in the spring of 1964, I made a first draft of the translation. About a year later, in another city, late one night, I happened to recall Guillevic's poem and, having neither the French text nor my version of it at hand to consult, began to improvise off fragments recollected from the original, almost as if I were remembering a tune, or tunes. The city was Miami, and a certain desolate stretch of the bay there and a memory of an old lighthouse on Key Biscayne entered into this new poem, which was finished in an hour or two, the quickest writing I have ever done. Over the years, many more hours went toward improving the translation, in which I was helped by those who knew French better than I. But these friends--Jacqui Rogers, Dori Katz, John Locke, and Linda Orr, all of whom saw the translation at various stages--are not, of course, responsible for my errors as a translator nor for the the reading of the poem as a whole adopted therein. I am aware that at least one other reading is as plausible as this highly personal one.

The Man Closing Up


Like a deserted beach,
The man closing up.

Broken glass on the rocks,
And seaweed coming in
To hang up on the rocks.

Walk with care,
It's slippery here.

Old pilings, rotted, broken like teeth,
Where a pier was,

A mouth,
And the tide coming in.

The man closing up
Is like this.


He has no hunger
For anything,
The man closing up.

He would even try stones,
If they were offered.

But he has no hunger
For stones.


He would make his bed,
If he could sleep on it.

He would make his bed with white sheets
And disappear into the white,

Like a man diving,
If he could be certain

That the light
Would not keep him awake.

The light that reaches
To the bottom.


The man closing up
Tries the doors.

But first
He closes the windows.

And before that even
He had looked out the windows.

There was no storm coming
That he could see.

There was no one out walking
At that hour.

He closes the windows
And tries the doors.

He knows about storms
And about people

And about hours
Like that one.


There is a word for it,
A simple word,
And the word goes around.

It curves like a staircase,
And it goes up like a staircase,
And it is a staircase,

An iron staircase
On the side of a lighthouse.
All in his head.

And it makes no sound at all
In his head.
Unless he says it.

Then the keeper
Steps on the rung,
The bottom rung,

And the ascent begins.
Rung after rung.

He wants to keep the light going,
If he can.

But the man closing up
Does not say the word.

Aside from the very basic symbology of the setting--seaside, rocks, tidepools, rotting pier, lighthouse with its metal staircase encircling a tower--the poem is a metaphor for the referentiality of language, how poems--speaking, literally, as the evocation of analogies for experience in the imagination--can create a template that is self-defining, constructive and expedient to efficient use. The words are used up in the time of the poem's enactment, and become synonymous with the meanings they convey. The existence of the stair case, the sound of our climbing the iron rungs, do not exist "unless he says it." The sense of human isolation, which seems the real subject of the poem, as a performance, is achieved through denial, the ticking off of objects, one by one, which are subtracted from consciousness. Literally, a man "closing up"--as an act of incremental sacrifice, of a relinquishing of Platonic objects. Naming, and descriptive enumeration, as a passage into non-being, reductive perfection, emptiness.

There's something profoundly ritualistic about the recital: Desertion. Satiety. Darkness. Muteness. All conditions of closure, effacement, absence. The beautiful metaphor of the shore rocks as teeth, then the refusal even, of the stones, as what poems consume, the negation of self, sustenance, and the hunger for nothingness (non-being), as in diving into a bottomless sleep, as into water, the obsessive checking of the doors, the windows, as if these were preparations for a permanent departure, and finally the ascent, on the steel staircase, each rung "rung" as a clangorous step as it's uttered, the spoken (creative) power of the single word--the word that goes around--like a chant, or magic incantation, or nursery rhyme, round and round and round, in a continuous ascent. In a very real sense, the ascent to the tower is something the keeper of the light must do. The light is his function, his watch, his duty--really, his only duty. To warn the sea-born craft from the presence of rocks, the extent of land into the sea.

One could imagine a fine ballad composed on just this theme. Certainly Yeats or Masefield or E.A. Robinson could have written one. But Justice was inspired by the hard, dry French Modernist style of Guillevic--the lines broken up into tangent phrases, measured, deliberate, filled with self-denial, taciturn, restrained, controlled. Out of it he makes an existentialist figure, nearly empty of personality, a diagram of refusal which is nevertheless simultaneously an acceptance of necessity. It's a work of genius, and a brilliant instance of inspiration across languages, occasions.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What About Circumcision ?

There's a local angle, here, which provides a tag-line for this post: On May 18, 2011, The City of San Francisco Elections officials confirmed that an Initiative that would ban the circumcision of males younger than 18 had received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The practice would become a misdemeanor.

This is apparently the first instance of a local or state jurisdiction putting the question of the legality of circumcision to the voters.

Full disclosure: I was circumcised at birth, and have never had any reason to regret that this was done. There are, however, serious scientific studies which have been conducted to try to determine whether this very painful, and unnatural, procedure--which has been practiced for millennia, in many different cultures--may cause deep psychological scars for those subjected to it as infants, or somewhat later in life--as children, teenagers, or adults.

Not being a medical expert, I read a little bit about the history of circumcision, to familiarize myself with the issues it raises, and what my own position might be with respect to the potential outcome of the San Francisco initiative.

Statistically, circumcision in America, as a "medically advisable procedure" grew in popularity between 1920 and 1965, at which point, it seems to have begun a slow decline, as a percentage of males subjected to it as infants.

When I was growing up, the idea was that it was a traditional, customary thing, practiced primarily for hygienic reasons, to prevent infections and sanitary inconveniences as a result of the enclosure of the penis in uncircumcised foreskin. No one seemed to question its efficacy, or whether its possible negative side-effects might outweigh its supposed advantages. Birth certificates routinely report a 1-2% silver nitrate aqueous solution administered to infants' eyes, along with the administered circumcision.

The question of circumcision is a complex one, with long historical roots, and it remains a hot topic. Medical science is a relatively new discipline, having grown up over the last 500 years, accelerating to our present highly health-conscious world of today. Procedures such as circumcision, then, were introduced and codified as desirable or routine, long before there had been any empirical studies done to determine whether they served any useful purpose. Wikipedia's long article details the religious, ethical, legal, and health issues which surround it, and how different societies have employed it, and why; so I won't go into all that here, except to note that there is no overwhelming scientific evidence, other than anecdotal, to support the notion that circumcision is "necessary" for the health of boys or men. Studies conducted to determine whether circumcised men suffer fewer infections, or are more prone to complications such as venereal disease, or even AIDS, are generally neutral. As with most other primitive prejudices and superstitions, good hygiene and sensible behavior usually neutralize any statistical evidence of the "risks" of not being circumcised. In "primitive" cultures, where poor hygiene is common or prevalent, circumcision may indeed constitute an effective "prophylactic" against genital problems, including serious infections and disease transmission, but again, those test samples founder on the anomaly of cultural context.

Historically, many of the reasons for circumcision in fact had nothing whatever to do with health or hygiene, but were practiced as superstitious rites of esteem, passage, and so on. Our inheritance of customs like these says more about our tendency to be guided by presumption and conformity, than our desire to consider rationally, practices and beliefs originating in pre-historic times, or before any science had been applied to them, or because some institution--such as the church--had incorporated them into its body of ritual and prescription.

Why, then, if there were no demonstrable benefits to being circumcised, would some people require or demand a barbaric surgery upon their infant children? The reasons, again, are historical and religious, for the most part. Both Jews and Muslims--including those who follow in their footsteps but may not be "devout"--practice circumcision, and it is among these groups, most noticeably, that loud and strident objections are now being heard against the San Francisco initiative. Cries of religious persecution, even anti-Semitism, have been heard. Exaggerated applications of the "rights of the individual" are perceived as being pitted against all other considerations--the rights of parents, of the family, of ethnic groups. In Judaism, it's regarded as a holy commandment (the bris), literally a covenant.

One man's covenant is another man's superstition. In America, where we value the freedoms which protect our independent way of life, it's not easy to separate the rights and welfare of the individual, from the rights and demands of religious doctrine. Is allowing parents to circumcise their children--to perform a barbaric, medically unnecessary procedure--an irresponsible, uncivilized position?

We once in this country, routinely removed the tonsils of pre-pubescent children, believing that these glands were the potential site of infection. We once encouraged people of all colors and skins to get lots of sun, because of the presumed benefits of vitamin D etc. We once told people that butter was bad, and margarine was good. In our public schools, recalcitrant children are now routinely given powerful psycho-active drugs to quiet them down and make them tractable. Dentists once routinely filled cavities with mercury alloy, which was cheaper than gold, and "just as good."

We know, though, that these practices turned out to be wrong. Well-meaning people accepted bad advice, based on no or inadequate science, and put themselves at risk. The "experts" turned out to be mistaken.

Who are the experts today? What do they tell us about circumcision? That it's medically unnecessary, and as such, a cruel example of religious superstition--of hocus-pocus. Were I to have any male children in future, would I choose to have them circumcised? Probably not. In much of Europe, Canada, and Australasia, circumcision has already been, or is being, phased out.

How much longer will we cling to this hoary old custom?