Survival Poem: Bukowski’s ‘Tough Motherfucker’

The History of One Tough Motherfucker
by Charles Bukowski
 he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and
terrorized
a white cross-eyed tailless cat
I took him in and fed him and he stayed
grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway
and ran him over
I took what was left to a vet who said,”not much
chance…give him these pills…his backbone
is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow
mended, if he lives he’ll never walk, look at
these x-rays, he’s been shot, look here, the pellets
are still there…also, he once had a tail, somebody
cut it off…”
I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the
hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom
floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn’t eat, he
wouldn’t touch the water, I dipped my finger into it
and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn’t go any-
where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to
him and gently touched him and he looked back at
me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went
by he made his first move
dragging himself forward by his front legs
(the rear ones wouldn’t work)
he made it to the litter box
crawled over and in,
it was like the trumpet of possible victory
blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I
related to that cat-I’d had it bad, not that
bad but bad enough
one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and
just looked at me.
“you can make it,” I said to him.
he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally
he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the
rear legs just didn’t want to do it and he fell again, rested,
then got up.
you know the rest: now he’s better than ever, cross-eyed
almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in
his eyes never left…
and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
graphed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.

(austenreveries.wordpress.com)

Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violent Deaths

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be a more upbeat book than most people can accept. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining for several thousand years. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful. Humans, as David Hume observed, tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker:

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

Violent deaths declined in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate among the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. Then in 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” reduced the frequency of forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence of death stories in the modern media is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect war deaths from famine and disease are included. In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

What has caused this steady reduction? In a word, government. Even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the lives of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The Better Angels of Our Nature has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have noted the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced; the modern world still seems very dangerous and the bad news never stops.

One reason for the skepticism is demographic. Until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people; it reached 2.5 billion only around 1950 and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of violent death numbers. Ranked by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million. But today, despite the global billions, even a handful of deaths rate as “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. By implication he suggests that we need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. At a time when ideologies and technologies seem beyond the control of government and decency alike, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.

Oliver Sacks and the Comforts of Metal

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings (brainpickings.org)

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of the film Awakenings
(brainpickings.org)

I was first aware of Oliver Sacks with the publication in 1985 of his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The descriptions of his mentally ill patients were as intriguing as the title. A few years later, Robin Williams played Sacks in Awakenings, the story of the kind and idealistic doctor who finds a drug that revives his catatonic patients at a hospital in the Bronx.

Sacks died of cancer in 2015. He had been writing for a few months for the New York Times about his struggle. One of these wrenching and beautiful pieces is “My Periodic Table.” In it, Sacks describes three aspects of nature in which he sees different sides of himself.

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.” With death approaching, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” These include element 81, Thalium, a souvenir of last year’s 81st birthday; Lead, 82, for the birthday just celebrated; and Bismuth, 83. “I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ‘83’ around.”

(Reading this touched off my own memory of how, as a boy, I tried with my father’s help to collect all 92 natural elements. In a display case on the wall over my bed I placed some sulfur and carbon from my chemistry set, small bottles of hydrogen, nitrogen and other gases that I had made, and bits of lead, iron, and other metals. Bringing together in my room the building blocks of nature felt like a commanding achievement, though the final display came to only about 20 items.)

While Sacks finds consolation in the basic metals, he responds differently to the stars. About viewing the starry sky one night, he writes that “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.”

Lastly, when he “wanted to have a little fun” before beginning immunotherapy, he visited the lemur research center in North Carolina. “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

A lively ancestor, mortality among the stars, deathless birthday metals—a sacred trinity of sorts, Sacks’ selection of holy companions. We select from nature according to our joys and fears. The chemical elements mean little to me now and I don’t have thoughts one way or the other about metals and their durability. But I share sometimes Sacks’ sense of feeling belittled by the stars; they do inspire awe, but in contemplating my life and death, I’m in need of something friendlier. For me, Sacks’ lemurs are on a better track. I find consolation by including myself among the mass of organisms of all kinds—not just humans—living and dying now, the wave of rising and falling life as the current of beings sweeps on, out of its billion-year past.