Friday, July 15, 2011


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone

I just picked this up randomly and while I think the intent was to elucidate and inspire thought, mostly it profoundly depressed me and made me think that not only is the end nigh, we deserve it. It inspires firstly white guilt to a very strong degree, and finally guilt for just being a human being. But, as I say, I don’t think that was the book’s intent, and occasionally there are glimpses of “those who have been overlooked by traditional histories.”

One thing the book purports to do, and does well, is link the very ancient with the modern; instead of “patterns that aren’t there” that so amused the Eighth Doctor, instead Mirrors helps to show the links between prehistoric and twenty-first century in surprising ways.

. . . The Yellow River has been called as such for about two thousand years, since the forests on its banks were felled and could no longer afford protection from avalanches of snow, mud, and garbage. Then the river, formerly jade green, lost its color and gained its name. With the passing of time, things got worse until the river became one huge sewer. In 1980, four hundred river dolphins lived there. In 2004, only one was left. It didn’t last long.

Sometimes, the controversial becomes so clear when Eduardo Galeano describes it. Regarding female circumcision: “To justify mutilation, they cite the Prophet Mohammed, who never spoke of this matter, and the Koran, which does not mention it either.” Galeano is extremely critical of religion in general, and Catholicism in searing particular. (He suggests that the reason Europeans distrusted water, and therefore declined to bathe, was because “it felt good and invited sin.”)

A group particularly well-served by Galeano is women, whose traditional silence during much of history has been lifted to let the singular voices (which must represent many who were never recorded) speak. From Dominica López of Chiapas, Mexico, to Hypatia of Alexandria 1, from Empress Theodora of Constantinople to Mohammed’s youngest wife Ayesha, from Trotula di Ruggiero of Salerno to Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, from Rosa Maria of Ouro Preto to Sophie Germain of Paris, from Ada Lovelace of London to Concepción Arenal of Madrid—

But most remarkable was the place women held among men [in Ancient Egypt]. Whether nobles or plebeians, they married freely without surrendering their names or their possessions. Education, property, work, and inheritance were theirs by right, not only for men, and women were the ones who shopped in the market while men stayed home weaving. According to Herodotus, who was not entirely trustworthy, women peed standing up and men on their knees.
. . .
A century before Hildegard, the celebrated Persian physician Avicenna included in his Canon of Medicine a more detailed description of the female orgasm . . . Since pleasure was man’s business, European translations of Avicenna’s works omitted that page.

Like Walt Whitman’s exhortation about contradictions, since Mirrors contains multitudes, it often contradicts itself. While it lauds Joan of Arc, it detests the company she kept: “Gilles de Retz . . . was accused of torturing, raping, and killing wayward children.” His indictment of Thanksgiving is surprisingly tame, given his previous criticism: “The saved then offered their saviours a Thanksgiving feast. . . . That was the first and last Thanksgiving in colonial times.” Of course, as a Uruguayan by birth, Galeano is fairly interested in the atrocities committed against native Americans, which are thoroughly detailed. However, “Without capital from the slave trade, who would have financed James Watt’s steam engine? What furnaces would have forged George Washington’s cannons?”

This, I suppose, is a central question in this book: do the ends justify the means? The founding fathers are all exposed as flawed sexists and racists 2 and possibly hypocrites, since he quotes Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in agnostic or atheist moments 3. There are some celebrations of the deeds of white men: the writers of the French Encyclopédie, for one; Mark Twain protesting the Spanish-American war, for another. Some things are just impossible to understand—for example, why Alan Turing, a brilliant man who shortened the Second World War and saved countless lives by his code-breaking, had to commit suicide after being convinced by Manchester police for being homosexual. And it all reminds me of why I can’t read Sherman Alexie without crying; it reminds me of the passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which the protagonist is making a speech at a college campus and is approached afterwards by a white girl in tears. “What can I do?” she asks. He is honest with her: “Nothing.”

1 Who, clearly, the Doctor needs to meet (if he hasn’t already)—though he would be distressed not to be able to prevent her stabbing and mutilation.
2 Except for Gouverneur Morris.
3 Though I’m being a bit facetious as I know for a fact that Jefferson believed in a clockwork God who set the world in motion and then sort of sat back and watched it go.

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