Notes from the Cave

A FEW NIGHTS AGO, I WAS VISITED BY AN EMAIL. Back before the world gasped, my brother, the doctor, hardly ever wrote me anything beyond a “dinner Friday y/n,” and yet here he was, in the breathless thick of it, attaching a file of 7,241 words. I’d thought that he was far out in the boroughs intubating the sick or putting them through dialysis—and he was—but somehow he’d also found the time and adrenalized energy to put more language down on the screen than I, the ostensible writer, had managed to eke out in weeks, even months. The instructions that came at the top of the email explained, or implied, how this was possible: This email, my brother wanted me to know, wasn’t for me, it was only for me to hold on to, and in the event of his death, I was to pass it along to his wife and children, my niece and nephew, from whom he’d been separated since he’d started treating patients infected with the novel coronavirus. His family was upstate at his wife’s mother’s condo, and he was at one or another of the hospitals in the Mount Sinai system, and this email was on my computer and all that was in my head was the hope of levity: “Do you want me to forward it to your kids or print the thing out?” I thought, and then I remembered that his kids didn’t have email yet and only one of them could read. At the time, more than two dozen medical workers (doctors, nurses, EMTs) had already died of the virus in the States, most of them in New York, and hundreds had died around the world, including (beginning with) Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist who tried to bring the virus to wider attention and was persecuted by his government for the effort. My brother, a surgeon who cuts cancer for a living, is normally unflappable. But here he was: flapped, flapping, giving an account of his life for children so young that he was afraid they’d barely remember him. I’d never known him to be afraid of anything or, for that matter, to seek my counsel: After giving me my instructions, he signed off by saying that if I had any edits, I should let him know. I had no edits. I simply archived the email, which will outlive us both, which will outlive his wife and even his children’s children’s children on clouds.

WHEN EINSTEIN DIED, IN 1955, his brain was removed during an unsanctioned autopsy at a hospital in Princeton. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, a pathologist named Thomas Stoltz Harvey sliced it up for research purposes but kept some of the slivers for himself. In 1988, Harvey—who’d since been stripped of his medical license—moved to Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, where he presented one of the slivers to local author William S. Burroughs, after whose death in 1997 it passed into the possession of . . . I’m going to stop now, because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. Let’s just say that when I was in Lawrence, teaching at KU, this was a thing that still happened, a hazing that was also an homage: You scooped the bit of Einstein’s brain out of the jar and shook off the excess formaldehyde; then, you put some salt in the crook of your thumb and licked it, after which you took down a shot of cheap room-temperature tequila and sucked on the brain-bit until your mouth went numb—until the formaldehyde paralyzed your lips and tongue and you couldn’t be understood, you couldn’t even feel yourself trying to make language.

This quarantine has brought me back to Burroughs, who claimed to believe—which means he didn’t but wanted to believe—that language was a virus. Though it’s difficult to puzzle out the exact pathology—exactness was not Burroughs’s practice—a summary might go like this: Language is a virus that crossed the species barrier from an extraterrestrial civilization. This virus infected prehistoric humanity and altered its throats, with the result that an infected person could now form sounds representing states that were previously interior (i.e., thoughts, feelings). By exteriorizing and airing these states—in other words, by performing the act that we call “speech”—primitive people were actually infecting others, colonizing individual minds with foreign bodies that were contagious and self-replicating. The people who spoke the most, or who spoke the loudest, were the most dangerous spreaders of this fluency flu, and, aware of this fact, or just aware of what viral culture would regard as their influence, they exploited it in pursuit of social control, broadcasting pandemics of mass-ideas and mass-emotions. These spreaders could make the vulnerable think what they thought and feel what they felt, about anything; they could induce them to spew fake news as if it were real and to use alien verbiage as if it were native; they could even convince them that this virus wasn’t literal but a metaphor. Meanwhile, the virus kept mutating, so that what manifested in its first season as a mouth-and-ear disease returned in subsequent seasons as an eye-and-hand disease, with language becoming writing that left its scars of glyphs and grams on cave walls, papyri, parchment, paper, and screens.

Burroughs’s “virality” theory wasn’t just a media critique, or a condemnation of the technologies, governments, and businesses that infect populations with language at scale. It was also, and ultimately, a condemnation of himself, or of theorizing and writing in general. The primary concern of his writing was that writing couldn’t be done without damaging health; to express oneself in words was to infect one’s readers and exert one’s power. He, better than anyone, understood that a diagnosis itself could be a disease: To explain the language-virus in language was to spread it. To his mind—to his language-ridden mind—the virality of language inhered in its drive to define and express a “reality” and replicate it endlessly. This “reality” would replace individuality “cell” by “cell,” or perception by perception, until humanity itself would be replaced, propagated into a new composite organism called “the audience.” According to Burroughs, the only way to fight this determinative process was to surrender to the operations of chance and put his drafts through “the cut-up method,” a venerable surrealist technique by which scissors and knives and razor blades are used to excise paragraphs, resect sentences, and chop up their syntax and grammar, the veins of semantic transmission. Though he acknowledged that the subversion of literature was bound to be nothing against mass mediated virulence, Burroughs came to regard his best-natured attempts as those slight doses of a disease that could serve as an inoculation.

SUSAN SONTAG PUT BURROUGHS’S VIRALITY THEORY TO THE TEST with her censuring of illness-metaphors, and the results are . . . negative: It’s a metaphor. To Sontag, the very concept of “illness” was a rhetorical fallacy: To use the word “illness” was to create “the ill” and to impose a false distinction between “the ill” and “the healthy.” Further, to refer to mass-media bias, for example, or to some other historically oppressive and vile societal phenomenon as “diseased” was to imply that disease itself was oppressive and vile and that to suffer from it was somehow deviant. By redefining disease from a shameful aberration to a natural condition—to nature’s condition—by turning death (a thing) into dying (a process), Sontag hoped to restore to the sick the dignity of normalcy; to make from words a world in which sickness was not the end of life, but a part of life, a part that’s been with each of us in waves since our birth.

Sontag had a personal stake in opposing such metaphorical “malignancy”: Her first book on the subject (Illness as Metaphor, 1978) came out of her own treatment for cancer, and her second book (AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1989) came at the apex of the title epidemic, which ravaged so many of her friends. This new virus, COVID-19—a name that combines all the banality of an acronym (coronavirus disease) with all the anonymity of a number (2019)—requires a different rhetoric; the concatenated speed and breadth of its spread have rendered it literally incomparable. What is this virus like? And what is like this virus? A virus that affects indiscriminately, both symptomatically and asymptomatically, can represent nothing. It can be no symbol and bring no stigma, given that it might ultimately be inside all of us, even more pervasively than, say, the “diseases” of hunger, poverty, and racism.

Whenever an incurable disease mounts a body count, there’s a corresponding linguistic crisis that can be expressed in these Burroughsian vs. Sontagian terms: Is language a metaphoric virus or a metaphoric antibody? Is language the proliferation of falsity or the protection against it, or can it be both, and what of its function is conscious?

If the dead could speak, they might tell us.

Anthony Cudahy, Expelled, 2016, oil on canvas, 13 x 13". Courtesy the artist and 1969 Gallery
Anthony Cudahy, Expelled, 2016, oil on canvas, 13 x 13". Courtesy the artist and 1969 Gallery

“A THEORY IS . . . A METAPHOR BETWEEN A MODEL AND DATA,” wrote Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), his elucidation of “bicameralism,” or the theory of the two chambers of the pre-conscious, or pre-psychological, brain. Another insufficient summary: Jaynes proposed that in the earliest human brains, cognitive function was divided, or lateralized; one part of the brain “spoke,” and the other part “listened.” Specifically, the right hemisphere of the brain transmitted speech to the left, which experienced it as what Jaynes calls a “hallucination”: a visitation from a voice without a source, without a name or face or body. Because primitive humans, who were merely talking to “themselves,” weren’t yet conscious of having “selves,” they required a metaphor for the voices they were hearing, and so they invented the gods, along with the angels and demons and so on—all of whom, or which, predated “consciousness,” or played the role of “consciousness” in antiquity. In the bicameral mind, “volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever,” Jaynes writes, “and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language. . . . The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself.” And elsewhere: “The gods were organizations of the central nervous system and can be regarded as personae in the sense of poignant consistencies through time. . . . The gods are what we now call hallucinations.” And yet elsewhere: “At one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious. . . . [Man] would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do.”

But what precipitated these “hallucinated voices”? Or, to put it another way, under what conditions would the “executive” “god” part of an ancient human brain issue orders? Jaynes’s answer to this question is “stress”:

During the eras of the bicameral mind, we may suppose that the stress threshold for hallucinations was much, much lower than in either normal people or schizophrenics today. The only stress necessary was that which occurs when a change in behavior is necessary because of some novelty in a situation. Anything that could not be dealt with on the basis of habit, any conflict between work and fatigue, between attack and flight, any choice between whom to obey or what to do, anything that required any decision at all was sufficient to cause an auditory hallucination.

Two thousand or so years before Christ, a human might not have required a god to tell them which cave was their home-cave, but if that human found themselves far from their home-cave and having to choose a route that would bring them back, they might have experienced such stress that a god had to speak up and decide for them. The next time this human would find themselves in the same situation, however, faced with the same route-choice, the memory of the previous decision would be conscious: They would remember, they would know, whether the route they’d taken previously had been successful. The knowledge of which route to take would have attained to the status of home-cave-knowledge—it would have become conscious knowledge—and in this manner, consciousness evolved, out of increased encounters with novel conditions. Fundamental to the evolution of this consciousness was an improvement in the ability of humans to recognize the damage caused by their default submission to commands that resulted in unsuccessful outcomes, which, in turn, bred a growing willingness to interrogate and even resist not just those but all “inner voices.”

Two thousand or so years after Christ, we’re receiving different commands, from sources with names and faces and bodies that our consciousness must judge. When we leave our home-caves, should we wear a mask? When we touch our caves’ doorknobs, should we wear gloves? And what about visiting our friends’ caves? Which friends and how to get there? Per Jaynes, these are our “stressors.” My friend who invited me over to their cave has no symptoms of the virus. But also they have not been tested. Or the tests they took were conflicting. Or inconclusive. Or were the wrong tests. Still, they have stayed inside their cave for weeks, for months. Leaving only to go food-shopping. But they wore a mask and gloves in the store and disinfected all their food. But they didn’t disinfect their bags. Or they threw out their bags and threw their clothes in the laundry and removed their mask before their gloves or their gloves before their mask and used soap or sanitizer to wash their hands but the wrong brand of soap and the wrong brand of sanitizer and though they took off their shoes, their feet touched the mat where their shoes were, soaking up the virus. My friend is getting impatient. They don’t want me to come anymore; they want to invite someone else, someone less scared, or just less indecisive. Or someone who has a car and doesn’t have to take the trains and buses. Are you OK with me taking a taxi? If you’re not OK, can you pick me up? And bring me back? Or can I just move in with you? And while we’re at it, does having a certain blood type make me immune? And why does “SARS-COV-2,” as it’s sometimes called, unlike “SARS-COV-1,” attack the whole entire immune system? What is a T cell? Is a protein a gene and where, or when, or who is a thymus? I wish a god would swoop in and issue orders, telling me what’s correct, what’s incorrect, telling me what to do. Thou shalt visit the cave of thy friend. Thou shalt not. Thou may, but only in groups of four or fewer. Unfortunately, however, the only gods arriving at my cave-door lately—besides the delivery-folks—are “experts,” some of them well-meaning and some of them not, but all of them bearing “facts” that I don’t remember ordering, facts that are ambiguous when they’re not contradictory, or vice versa, and subject to change.

JAYNES ON PROPHECY: “The speech of possessed prophets is not an hallucination proper, not something heard by a conscious, semi-conscious, or even nonconscious man as in the bicameral mind proper. It is articulated externally and heard by others. It occurs only in normally conscious men and is coincident with a loss of that consciousness. What justification then do we have for saying that the two phenomena, the hallucinations of the bicameral mind and the speech of the possessed, are related?” Ask and it shall be given you (say Matthew and Luke): “I do not have a truly robust answer,” Jaynes writes. This is how a late-last-century psychological seeker who was still more academia than counterculture disavows with wit his own status as prophet.

Take, for a moment, the word “possession”; pop it in your mouth, chew it (three bites, pos-ses-sion), swallow. This is how prophecy once happened: Isaiah’s mouth (like Moses’s mouth) was burnt by hot coal from an altar; God forced Ezekiel to eat a scroll and reached out a finger to move the lips of Jeremiah. A prophet is someone overtaken, usurped, vesselized, spoken through. A prophet is a human too conscious to be unaware of being possessed and yet too unconscious to regard their possessor as anything less than a divinity. A prophet’s introductory utterance—“I am telling you that God speaks through me in the voice you’re hearing”—is traditionally followed by an exhortation delivered not in the prophet’s first-person singular presence or God’s third-person authorial absence but in some strange binding of the two, in the second-person plural: the “you” without exception; the “you” that, by including even the speaker, asserts its mystery. This is the pronoun I’ve been hoping to hear, while talking to myself in my quarantine. But instead all I hear is: “We’re all in this together.”

AFTER READING YOUR EMAIL, my brother, I went to sleep, which is the brother of death, and had a dream. People in masks and gloves were waiting in an endless line to enter a pearly-gated facility that wasn’t equipped to handle so many of them showing up all at once. It was chaos. People were crying, having fits. Inside, angels wearing scrubs over their wings were rushing around taking temperatures and trying to find empty beds, and every once in a while in utter frustration they stuck their haloed heads out the window and yelled down in their nonlanguage at the round, turning earth: “Stay home . . . stay safe . . . stop the spread . . . flatten the curve.”

Joshua Cohen is home.