My Father’s Intellectual Curiosity

I had a thought about this just now, as I quickly googled “insula” to find out more about this region in the brain where nuance-banishing anger is said to reside.  My father took quickly to the computer, but he was over seventy when he ordered one for his den, and the verb “google” had not yet been coined.  He could, conceivably, have known about Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and other earlier, more primitive search engines that were around at the dawn of Google, learned how to do boolean or real language searches, and done a bit of on-line research.  Somehow, I don’t think he did much, but it makes me wonder about his intellectual curiosity.  If an accurate and effortless to use search engine like Google had been up and running in his day, how much would he have typed into it?

I know that he read a number of periodicals and dailies on the computer screen every day.   I know he got a perverse kick out of listening to Rush Limbaugh bend the facts to whatever explosive drug-addled theory he was bloviating about on any given day.  My father was engaged with ideas and politics and saw events in a historical perspective.  He was an avid, and blazingly fast, reader of books.  I truly don’t know what he would make of this:

In each hemisphere of the mammalian brain the insular cortex (often called insula, insulary cortex or insular lobe) is a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within the lateral sulcus (the fissure separating the temporal lobe from the parietal and frontal lobes).

Probably not much, since he wasn’t that interested in science as a subject.  In fact, there is little of interest in the above, really, except that the cerebral cortex seems to be where much of the higher consciousness action in the human brain takes place.  

“And, of course, the frontal lobe is the one that’s poked at and destroyed during a good old pre-frontal lobotomy,” said the skeleton.  “Although, as you rightly suspect, it’s hard for me to work up much passion about the lateral sulcus.”    

Correct me if I’m wrong, but your curiosity was more about events and personalities than anything else.  

“Well, read this entire wikipedia about the insula.  And, just as it starts getting interesting you get to the debate among neuroscientists about the role the insula plays in addiction, for example.  And you see what vain assholes these scientists are, how intractably proprietary about their highly specialized areas of jealously funded expertise they are.  I get disgusted pretty quickly when I come to that kind of discussion.  So, yeah, I prefer to read about events, and mobs, and the people who whip up mobs, and the way the movement of the pendulum of history is influenced by increasingly sophisticated hucksters.”  

Fair enough, but I also remember you being fascinated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.  You found that fascinating.  

“Well, because it’s so true.  I mean, you can feel yourself going through the stages when a loved one is slipping away.  You’re in denial, then you’re angry, then you start trying to make deals, somehow, and then you feel defeated and depressed, Death is going to win and there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it, and the cold shadow of your own inevitable death passes over you, too.  And, in the end, acceptance, because there’s nothing else you can do, you have to go on living.  It’s profoundly human, and it’s elegantly simple.”  

True.  But it’s funny that you were not fascinated by or receptive to other things, equally profound and as elementally simple.  

“OK, look, I see where you’re going with this.  All roads lead to this, don’t they?  Your father was a very bright man, interested in many things, with deeply held humanistic beliefs but with a blind spot for what was most important in life.  This blind spot made him a monster, on some fundamental level.”  

Is that not a fair summary?  

“Oh, yes, it’s fair.  But I mean, don’t you get a little embarrassed to be pushing this one theory for your whole life?  Isn’t everybody on some level a monster?”  

Uh, no, I don’t think everybody is on some level a monster.  Everybody on some level might be a little near-sighted, prejudiced toward their own needs and conclusions, hampered or disabled in some way, but a monster?  No, not everybody is a monster on some level.  

“Fine,” said the skeleton breezily, “I’m just wondering about how you’re proceeding here.  Why would anybody want to read a book about a monster?”  

Well, if this was a book about a monster, I wouldn’t be wasting my time.  Although, obviously, there’s a big market for monsters.  A good chunk of the entertainment dollar is spent indulging our fascination with monsters.  Think of the most hideous thing you can, an ex-Nazi surgeon who did research on Siamese twins, years after the war, becomes obsessed with creating human centipedes, stitching together lines of humans, ass to mouth, one long digestive system.  Three movies in the Human Centipede franchise, everybody got paid, millions saw the hideous movies, loved them.  Human motivation?  The monster scientist was a Nazi, ’nuff said, let’s get on with the monstrousness.  

“OK, so you’re giving the human side to the monster here?” asked the skeleton, with a pang.

No, your story is a tragedy, straight up.  A man of great intellectual gifts dies believing he was somehow the dumbest Jewish kid in his little town.  A man of almost limitless compassion to animals believes his infant children want to do him harm.  It wearies me to add to this list, but you get the idea.  

“A tragedy, certainly.  I can go with that.  Do you remember that little girlfriend you once had, the artist?  She wrote and illustrated that little book you must still have somewhere: The Man with the Tragic Flaw.  It was about you,” said the skeleton.  

Like father, like son, as they say.  I was just wondering, if the research had been available to you about the damage to the actual physical brain done to children who survive abuse, how interested you’d have been in it.  A kid exposed to violence as a baby has her actual DNA changed by the trauma.  You can hear this doctor describe it.  As intuitive as Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.   Dr. Nadine Burke Harris:

“Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

(her fascinating talk is here)

“Yes, look, of course this is fascinating, and also self-evident.  I just don’t see the connection to…” the skeleton paused, “of course I see the connection.  But, I mean, aren’t you embarrassed to be playing this one note samba for all these years?”  

You know, dad, it’s a funny thing about this one note samba.  I didn’t make up the melody, of course, I learned it.  It’s ingenious, the way this one note plays against all these different harmonies.  I never tire of it, because as I learn one part another one comes up to present new challenges.  Embarrassing?  No.  I don’t have to apologize for the song that plays in my head much of the time.  Particularly since it explains so much about the world and how it really works.  

“What did Samuel Beckett say about men being bloody stupid apes?  Is that what you’re talking about?” asked the skeleton.  

Insight, man, it can take decades to gather enough of it to light a fart on fire.  Play this one note samba long enough, dad, and certain deeper truths are bound to emerge, if you remain open to them.  I had nothing to do with your conclusion, based on the laughing grunts of a pediatric quack, that you were right to believe your ten week old baby hated you and was enraged for absolutely no reason.  I just got the benefit of it, so to speak.  Had I known then, at ten weeks, that your DNA had been deformed by repeated whippings in your baby face, I’d have been less implacable, I suppose.  Even an angry baby can understand something as simple as that, you know.  

“Fine, I get what you’re saying.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, Elie, this dirt is calling me irresistibly for my mid-day nap.”



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