David Schramm, astrophysicist
In 1980 I was in a writing class that consisted of four uppity women taught by Richard Stern -- conservative, courtly, curious. One of the women, teleiophilic (loves older ones) like me, married David Schramm, the astrophysicist -- a rambunctious daredevil, quite unlike the quiet astronomers we’re used to. Through direct reports from the household we learned about dark matter and how Schramm came down to breakfast one day ecstatic that he had finally found a mathematical proof that it existed, which resolved a major Big Bang problem. For most of us, such a concern is not so much a part of our daily life. It mean, it’s there, but we don’t think about it.
But the pattern sticks in our minds, the phrase that journalists love because of our culture’s association of “dark” with danger, foreign, maybe even evil which we consider seductive. There are two ways the phrase is being used in the genetic realm. On the sub-micro level, it is the 95% of the genome that doesn’t seem active. People referred to it as “junk” DNA but we’ve learned to be a bit cautious. Now one theory is that it is precursor or initiator for RNA, the template for proteins that affect the function of the DNA.
The macro-level of gene code, possibly planetary, is simply undetected code shared and netted everywhere but almost totally unstudied. Now we’re at risk for an ebola pandemic, possibly followed by lassa fever, both of which are hemorrhagic viruses once sequestered in remote African forests. Nathan Wolfe, another vigorous scientist like David Schramm, has gone into those primal territories to study bush meat, the main vector of dark viruses (which have DNA) and prions (which have no DNA but are still somehow infectious).
Taking blood samples and nose swabs everywhere, from locals, prey, and any other source he can think of, he is not only amassing an enormous amount of data -- we could not have handled it before computers -- but also beginning to get a sense of the galaxies in which our flesh is embedded. The TED talk video in which he is seen meeting hunters on a trail and collecting their sample papers is deeply moving. He is not just being the guy in the white coat from some fancy lab -- he is a human among humans, sharing. These are ebony men.
And that’s the real subject of this post, dark SOCIAL matter. The dark matter just now being perceived by the machinery of neuro-research is one thing, terrifying and hopeful at once for those of us who struggle with what is unknown within us. I don’t mean the psychoanalytic introspection categories of well-paid shrinks. I mean the much more sinister deep dynamics of the body itself, left over from when we ourselves were bush meat. The individual sources of unaccountable murder, cannibalism, and atrocities unimaginable and unpredictable. Once we were all black as night.
One anthropologist, studying extreme rituals, suggested that the source of violence and embracing of pain was in our need to belong, either as groups bent on destruction and domination like street gangs, terrorists, or in common war -- or as groups united by ecstatic exultation, lifted up in joy, blissed out. This triggered a bitter comment: “It suggests that cohesion cannot exist without conflict and otherism, and that growth of sociability, or any semblace of decency cannot exist without torture, destruction, or sadomasochism. As well to abandon empathy and just get on with Cthulhu’s orgy of destruction.”
Cthulhu, for those who don’t know sci-fi figures, is the modern equivalent of the Devil. A winged monster with a face full of tentacles but a massive humanoid body, it inhabits all three levels: air, sea, land. It stands for overwhelming ghastly destruction, encompassing not just human destruction, but also the eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, meteor strikes, famines, droughts, and pandemics that sweep the planet without motive, bargaining or mitigation. Eventually it will destroy our species. Eventually it will destroy the planet itself. Souls have nothing to do with it.
So now, to speak symbolically, Nathan Wolfe is after the DNA of Cthulhu. Or lack thereof, because it appears that the biogenerated mineral dust that I touched on a few days ago has become a fertile slime of near-atomic particles (which are made of particle/energy) which is the substrate of ordinary existence, rippling and buckling and baffling us even as it constitutes us. BECAUSE it constitutes us. We live in tension between awareness and a null void. We’re not tightrope walkers -- we’re walking on nothing.
Okay. Got that. Great concept for a video. So?
Must human society be the constant striving of one group against another? Is the only happiness belonging to a congregation of some sort? Maybe.
In the meantime, there seem to be “reservoirs” of disintegration and suffering everywhere. Some of us join the network of people trying to understand how to get to them, how to help them. What will draw them into care and give us more insight into their lives? The issue is pressing enough in the medical context that it’s beginning to be seen as forming a new “third force” of healing. Why do one-third of all people with chronic conditions that can be pretty much ameliorated by meds, therapies, exercise and so on, simply fail to include them in their routines? (I’m in this category.) Why do the one-fifth who are addicted to substances reject all attempts to “help” them? Why do families, which are supposed to be an arrangement that faithfully sustains all members, turn into grinding machines that spit out the most vulnerable?
Cthulhu is a personification, deifying xenophobia on a cosmic level. He’s outside everything, pushing us all into defensive gangs. In the world of Lovecraft, the seminal writer, “this was first established in "The Call of Cthulhu", in which the minds of the human characters deteriorated when afforded a glimpse of what exists outside their perceived reality. Lovecraft emphasized the point by stating in the opening sentence of the story that "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
We’re back to Jack: we can’t handle the truth. Stop peering into the dark. You’ll go out of your mind. This is Biblical stuff, all about God the omni-everything and how most of it is none of our business. But Jack goes up the beanstalk to see what’s up there anyway, even if it’s a giant called “Cthulhu” with a beard impossible to barber. He throws back down a harp and a hen.
The real social dark is not a person but rather the state of despair. As our instruments grow more powerful, our social structures seem less able to cope with what we know. A hundred thousand refugees pour from one country to another. Homeless people sleep in rows against buildings. And death from ebola mounts up and up while drunk drivers kill far more people in even more gruesome and prolonged ways, including the drunk.
The answer is not scientific, but rather in the human felt knowledge of the arts: ritual, if you like. Experience that opens instead of closes. Not just meta-thinking, but also meta-feeling -- so the guy who gave us the cthulhu is named “love” and “craft.” Empathy and communication. The cthulhu doesn’t have any of either. He doesn’t even exist. We do.
Martin Marty in his “Sightings” post this week lifts up the phrase “resident alien,” which is not from sci-fi, but rather from religion. (Not very different.) The idea is that a person can and probably ought to be one who dwells within a community with gratitude and fidelity, but can think about what’s outside anything known. We call it “outside the box.” Fancy theologians call it, “outside the theological circle.” Out there in the un-named.