“Your battles inspired me – Not the material battles, but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” – James Joyce
Here’s a fun fact: Every year, on 2 February, I share a birthday with James Joyce. I’m not sure why that is the one prolific shared event to shame all others in my mind. Some pretty significant events have taken place on February 2nd: New Amsterdam became an official city, later to be named New York Cit-ay (1653). Al Capone finally went to prison on charges of tax evasion (1932). The German Army surrendered at the battle of Stalingrad, thus marking the turning point in World War II (1943). Let’s just say I’d rather remember it as the day that one of the most mind-bogglingly brilliant writers and intellectual terrorists to have ever lived, meaning Joyce, was born.
No no…don’t worry. My ego has been far too deflated by recent events to even entertain the parallels to which you might think me alluding. I’m just entertained by this fact more now than ever, now that I also know that I am certifiably Irish. James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake, a book which most literary enthusiasts agree will forever remain notorious for being either a stroke of sheer genius or textbook Freudian psychobabble; either way, he is immortalized for this psychotic genius on my bookshelf…and the infinite notes that I have taken for each of the three times that I have tried to read what is most commonly referred to as the most unreadable literary work of all time.
The book itself is a 628 paged exercise in suspending the conscious patterns and decisions that we make every day to judge the progress of the human condition. What’s right, and what’s wrong. What we should do and what we shouldn’t. Who I am relative to who you are, and how I define myself through the behaviors and actions of my friends, co-workers, family…for example.
Because this is a book and not the Higgs Boson Headquarters (CERN) in Switzerland, Joyce, in order to completely devastate everything you think you know about the world in which you exist, utilizes the only tool at his disposal – language, through a method called psychography – automatic writing meant to reflect a subconscious thought stream, or as we in the realm of the living call it, dreams. If you’re never tried it yourself, you should. Just sit down at a table, with a blank piece of paper and a pen in hand and start writing for an hour or so. Don’t think. Don’t meditate. Don’t count sheep or go through that mental check-list stapled to the front of your brain. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you make spelling or grammatical errors. It doesn’t matter if it’s in English, Spanish or Elvish. It doesn’t matter if you make up new words or colloquial. It doesn’t matter if you use the American or Queen’s lexicon, or both at the same time! It doesn’t matter if your work looks like a finely edited paragraph from the NY Times (it won’t) or if it looks like a gigantic ball sac sprouted two legs and jogged madly all over your keyboard (it will). Write quickly enough to prevent you from thinking, to prevent you from reacting or feeling ridiculous about what you’re doing…write without anyone in the room to distract you by reminding you of how ridiculous you should feel for doing it. Just write.
I think most people are surprised to come face-to-face with the string of nonsensical (and sometimes overtly sexual or violent) thoughts seething just beneath the surface of our carefully crafted physical appearances. But it’s there nonetheless. Beneath the composure, political correctness and assimilated mannerisms, lies complete and total pandemonium of the brain. It makes you realize just how much effort we put into “keeping our shit together,” when we are all on the verge of losing it. But the societal construct in which we live, with its laws and acceptable norms, is the glue that keeps everything from, basically, falling apart. Monkey see, monkey do.
But always, always within us, these two natures, or brains, are constantly at war.
Now, you might just sit down and try to do this. And! You might be thinking to yourself “What’s so hard about this? It’s just me rambling about mindlessly on a piece of paper. I could do this all day long!” And then I might say that your logical brain is just trying to get you to quit while you’re ahead, because it’s doesn’t like being told to take a time-out. It’s actually extremely difficult to keep your conscious brain at bay for an entire hour. It’s easy to stop speaking, but to stop your brain from taking over while you’re writing automatically and, instead, get you play Fruit Ninja on your iPhone? Try it. TRY IT.
I’ve tried it. Hell, I’ve tried almost everything. Meditation. Boxing. Yoga. Pilates. Reiki. The only things that DO seem to work are 1) Savasana pose at the tail end of a Yoga session 2) Reading 3) Tibetan throat chanting and 4) Counting. I do this nightly, as I drift off to sleep counting from 1-10 with my hand resting on my stomach as I count. This process is infiltrated by the relentless invasion of other conscious thoughts: “Must find a new apartment. Where can I get a new fridge? I love puppies. Nutella. Richard Graham. Michael Fassbender. I’m single again. Zanzibar. Puppies. Single. ROAD TRIP!!!” Sometimes, the counting gets kind of convoluted…the numbers sometimes start doing the macarena or are covered in glitter or cowboy costume. All of this to keep the counting interesting enough so that my other conscious thoughts are kept at bay.
That’s a lot of hoop-jumping, just so that I don’t have to think. Don’t ya reckon?
The point of this whole exercise is that, through this self-imposed chaos, through this journey into the un-waking darkness of your subconscious, should arise a kind of new, indefatigable truth about yourself. In the pieces that I have been able to put together (and have confirmed through various essays written by Joycean scholars, like Wikipedia) I am able to determine that, in the case of Finnegan’s Wake, through the 628 pages of incoherent prose, there is actually a fairly simple plot…about a family; and a crime, sexual in nature, committed by the father against his daughter as bared witnessed to by the other members of the family. Always, in the periphery of this story is the familiar backdrop used in all of Joyce’s work: Ireland
Ireland used to be one of those places where I thought, “yeah, maybe, one day if I’m in the area or if I have a layover on the way to some place more interesting…” I mean, bad weather, dark beer and British oppression. Where do I sign up?!
But since I learned about my Irish relatives, I have to admit, I’m singing a different tune:
- Robert Smith (20 June 1760 – 19 June 1853)
- Ferguson Wilson (1 November 1767 – 19 June 1853)
- Michael Wilson & Margaret Wilson (Fergie’s parents)
- Huey Smith (1737 – 1822) Robert’s Father
- Nancy Farris (1700 – 1772) Huey’s mother
- John Smith (1690 – 1766) Huey’s father
- Richard Smith (b.1655) John’s Father
- Katherine Garland (b.?) John’s Mother
I don’t know much about any of them, except that they came over on a boat from Antrim, in modern day Belfast in the late 1700’s and settled in modern day Butts County (hehe…), Georgia.
I can see that, given both Robert and Ferguson’s shared date of death, their passing was probably of unnatural causes…although I can’t guess what since planes or cars didn’t exist at the time. Buggy perhaps? And they are all the descendants of Rosannah Smith Torbet, my great-great-great-great grandmother. Rosannah gave birth to Mary Jane. Mary Jane was raped by Walton Greer when she was 11. They had Mollie. Through all the branches of chaos that I’ve uncovered thus far, the one instance that stands out the most to me and haunts me the most while awake or sleeping, is this one; the crimes of the father, not just being committed against the woman whom (I assume) was forced to marry him later on, but against his daughter for wearing the reality of how she came to be…for the rest of her life. I think of this as a metaphor for all slavery. Not just this story, but the “plot” of Finnegan’s Wake. You take a large group of people from various parts of the world, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, America, and you put them together in random order…next to each other, on top of each other, beneath one another, inside the other, killing and raping each other…and out of all that chaos…is me!
Finnegan’s Wake , while nonsensical, random and sexually overt, is no more so than the history of slavery, which predicates my very existence.
But more than that…is it weird to say that, the more of Joyce’s work that I read, and the more that I read it, the less incoherent and random my own thoughts seem to me? And even though I have no evidence to suggest that he and I are related directly, there may be a small token, or gift, of his that I have inherited somewhere along the bloodlines?
From what I hear about Ireland, Northern Ireland in particular (editor’s note: Joyce was from Dublin) the people there have a strange affinity with African American history and culture. I have never met an Irishman who didn’t know and revere Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey or President Obama. My Australian friend Murph, from Belfast, will literally chase me around the house/club/bar/beach every time I see him to talk about his unbridled love and admiration for President Obama. Everything Obama says is brilliant. I’m lucky that he’s my president. Anyone who doesn’t like Obama is a fucking moron! Every move he makes is magical! His tears are the things made of unicorn horns and glitter! He has the eloquence of a modern day Martin Luther King, Jr.! These are all correct statements, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to hearing them come from a white guy from Belfast!
They want to talk for days about the Civil Rights movement. They want to pick my brain on the critical state of hip hop today. And when I walk by a group of them sitting outside of a bar on a warm summer’s day, I receive no less than five marriage proposals (yes, I will talk about ‘tokenism,’ but later on). And when I mention Frederick Douglass, they all…go…ape shit.
Frederick Douglass, for those of you who are not familiar (or Irish), was the most influential abolition activist of the Civil War era. What? No, not Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave himself, and a by-product of a slave/slave owner relationship, he didn’t even know his own birthday. Because his nick name was “Valentine,” he just adopted 14 February as his date of birth and celebrated it hence forth. After he escaped, Douglass turned to literature to aid in his transition in becoming a freed man and, as a result, became renowned for his writing, his speeches and the newspapers that he founded and for which he became editor-in-chief. He was shockingly brilliant, educated and eloquent. Not just “for a man of the times,” and not just “for an ex-slave”…he was brilliant for any man of any time, of any color. Douglass wrote three amazing autobiographies, numerous articles and letters to and criticizing President Lincoln openly. He even wrote an open letter to his ex-owner condemning his participation in the slave trade and treatment of his mother. Then, fearing potential legal retribution that could potentially call him back to the old plantation, Douglass travelled to England and Ireland, where he gave numerous talks on the state of slaver y in America to mass critical acclaim, and raised enough money to head back to America and legally purchase his own freedom. AND…in case you STILL don’t feel like giving this man the “G” status the he so deserves, to add insult to injury, after his first wife passed away, he married a white woman twenty years younger than him. JUST so he could rub his balls in people’s faces.
Frederick Douglass…original badass.
*in my best movie trailer voice* Against all the odds, in a time of war…one man will risk is it all…to tell his violent oppressor and society at large…to suck his salty, chocolate balls.
Coming this fall.
Have you ever heard of the Stockdale Paradox? It’s based off of an experience of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who flew planes during the Vietnam War. James was captured and held as a POW for seven years, in which time he was routinely beaten and tortured. He was put in leg shackles. He slept in a cell barely the size of a toilet stall with a light above him that never turned off. His back was broken and both his shoulders had been dislocated from their sockets. In order to prevent his image from being used in propaganda to exploit the US Government, he would bash his own face in or cut his scalp. He also slit his own wrists so that he could not be tortured for confidential information. When he was freed, he filed charges against several of his fellow Naval captives for not resisting the influence of the enemy to his satisfaction. In other words, they caved in to the torture like the giant, plush pink pussies he thought them to be. The Stockdale Paradox is essentially a heightened will to survive that, contrary to what you might be tempted to think, is NOT inherent in all human beings. This has been an issue of particular interest to geneticists, who have attempted to apply this principle in the scenario of mass genocides as a kind of genetic factor. Some scientists believe, and I am tempted to concur, that a heightened sense of survival is, genetically, no different than inheriting curly hair or green eyes. After all, despite the fact that nobody should have endured the Cambodian Genocide, and that nobody should have endured the Armenian Genocide, and absolutely no one on earth should have endured the Rwandan Genocide, why did some survive while others perished? Why did certain people survive Vietnamese POW camps while others didn’t even make it a week? Why did certain people survive the Holocaust, through two, three, five years of starvation and brutal physical labor, knowing that their entire families had been killed off in gas chambers, while others wasted away in a matter of weeks?
Why did certain slaves survive the transatlantic passage, their subsequent purchase and procurement by slave owners, and endure, while others never even made it off of the boat? I know that none of us like to reduce the horrific experiences of those long past to DNA, but I think it’s important to understanding ourselves.
To me, Frederick Douglass is the textbook example of the Stockdale Paradox (or rather, Vice Admiral Stockdale has the Douglass paradox. What do ya think?). There is absolutely no way…no WAY that he was supposed to survive his circumstance. He was thrown into an environment where no one can reasonably expect another human to walk away. Slavery itself was then as it still is now, unfortunately in certain parts of the world, a death sentence. There were millions of slaves in America back then. Millions. For the near four hundred years that slavery endured in that country. And I, like many of you, am a direct descendant of the ones that managed to survive. Either they escaped or they were freed. But they made it. And when I think of the countless number of bloodlines that were cauterized at the root, murdered by transatlantic passage or cruel owners or disease and ruin and rape and heart break (which I would definitely classify as a cause of death) …I can’t help but think to myself that, perhaps there is a small part of that incredibly keen drive to, not only survive, but to succeed and to thrive, within me. With all of the descendants of slaves that are alive today. Through all of that nonsensical, arbitrary chaos, there lies an indomitable gene that never says “die.”
I have managed to identify two factors that may have contributed to this:
- Market Domination – My mother is one of twelve. My father is one of five…or six. I don’t really know. Richard Graham, my Great X 3 grandfather was one of twelve. His son also had twelve children. Fergie Wilson listed above? Ten children. Darwinian Theory dictates that my ancestors procreated extensively due to the harsh reality that only a fraction of their offspring would live long enough to reproduce themselves. Fisherman call it “casting out a wide net,” in the hopes that their returns will at least be adequate enough to survive. You could call it survival of the fittest, but either way, there was a method to their madness . My grandmother had twelve children who made it to adulthood and went on to have children of their own…but she actually had 18 children (that we know of). Six did not live through infancy. At least two of these were still-born.
- Market Integration – Have you ever heard the stereotype that all black people look alike? How the hell can that be when we are all result of multiple continents getting together and playing seven minutes in heaven? It isn’t. We don’t. Spanish, English, French, Asian, Native American…African; Nigeria, Liberia, Mauritania, Ghana…like the Pan-Indian identity, we have survived because we have integrated with many other colors of the rainbow, whether by force (as we know) or by choice (like me). And let’s face it. With the internet and rapid globalization, one day in the not so distant future, we’re all going to be an almond-eye shaped variety of beige. That is really the best way to ensure survival.
Douglass got onto this early, with two marriages to women of different races. Douglass wrote about his time in Ireland like it was a revelation. In My Bondage, My Freedom, he said that, when boarding a ride or entering a beautiful cathedral, he was afforded the same respect and consideration as any white person. He very romantically extended a warm welcome to their struggles and developed many long-lasting relationships with activists and government personnel, including Daniel O’Connell, a noted Irish Nationalist.
Now, of all the white people in Europe, it is my impression that the Irish, specifically the Northern Irish, are the most resilient, the most obstinate and the most oppressed. I think of them as the Negroes of the North. Within a forced British occupation, Northern Ireland actively participated in open guerrilla style warfare with the British government for thirty years (known as “The Troubles”) resulting in over three thousands deaths. There was even a Civil Rights-style inspired resistance meant to end anti-Catholic discrimination! Go ahead, and tell me that’s a coincidence! I remember hearing about it on the news when I was a little girl. I remember hearing about Bobby Sands and his hunger strike, whispered between my parents many years after his death (which was before I was born). My mother never really showed emotion about many ethno-political struggles. But I remember her, very specifically, shedding tears when I asked her about Bobby Sands when I was about 8 years old. She told me that he died for a cause for which he could no longer fight in life. I had no idea what she was talking about then. I wouldn’t for many more years to come…
I know that this chapter may be less of an account of my own experiences, as it may be a small history lesson. And I know that it looks like I’m trying to jimmy my way into a category of historical giants to which I have absolutely no right to compare myself. You’re right, I don’t. They are so beyond me…so completely above and beyond even the stars and the galaxies of the dimension in which I exist, I couldn’t even jokingly compare. But this whole exercise, the mapping, the DNA, the utopian dream trip to Africa all wrapped up in my hopes and dreams this year…I really only want to understand myself a little bit better. I wish that Richard Graham had written a book using psychography. I wish that Rosannah S. Torbet or Alexander Torrey Purcell had written three autobiographies each, or hell, between them! I wish that they were able to share with me a small piece of who they were, instead of the relentless guess work and research that I have to do in order to even learn their names. I wish that my mother would talk to me about her family without breaking down into tears and, 24 hours later, clawing her way out of despondency to not speak to anyone for a week. I wish, I wish, I wish.
But I know, as sure the sun is to rise in the East as it is to set in the West, that these people…with their names, their US Census records and their incredibly accurate hand-sketched likenesses, will always be less familiar to me than James Joyce or Frederick Douglass. Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far in this process is that, no matter how much it frustrates me, there are some questions to which there can never be answers. That is my own battle, waged daily behind my forehead. And I hate it. There are some people that I will never know. In a way, it provides me with the creative license I need to fill in the gaps with my own studies, my own experiences and my own historical heroes. I don’t think Richard Graham would mind. I don’t think his mother, Sara would either. I think, if they knew me at all, they would know that I do so out of love…and gratitude…and a searing need to understand. I hope that, if there is some parallel universe from which they can observe my ridiculous quest, it makes them proud to know that I now know their names and that, should the day ever come, my children will too.
As Frederick Douglass, original badass, chose to define his birthday, and to re-define himself after slavery…like James Joyce chose to subvert his conscious brain with the arbitrary pulse of his subconscious, I think that I too will have to choose what this all means to me. But now, there will be something that I can leave behind for someone else to discover. I hope you’re listening. I’m doing this for you as much as I’m doing it for me. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Don’t forget me.