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Bootstrapping

Last week we posted a series of articles by Philip Davis, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life. Today is the final piece in the installation. To see the previous posts click here. This post originally appeared on Moreover.

In the beginning dogs, it is written, were the first creatures domesticated by human beings. And when the humans saw the difference between themselves and the dogs, they knew more about what being human meant. (This is the true Gospel of Otherness.) Then the humans, being more than their dogs, began to domesticate other animals, to lie amongst them. And so in time what became pastoral agriculture was born.

By the end, then, it was Dog, not God, that had created mankind; the scribe wrote it out all wrong. But the animals themselves (their silent eyes still inquiring the meaning) do not seem conscious of their achievement, even to this day.

This is a Just So story for modern times. Let us praise bootstrapping.

In “The Wisdom of Bones”, Alan Walker describes Kamoya Kameu’s discovery in Kenya in 1984 of Nariokotome Boy: the nearly complete skeleton of a hominid boy, African homo erectus, who died 1.5 millions years ago. Over all the years since the team under Richard Leakey first excavated the bones, writes Walker:

I had thought I was growing to know the boy, to understand him, to speak his language, metaphorically. I grew fond of his form; his face took on the familiarity of a member of the family or an old friend. I could almost see him moving around the harshly beautiful Turkana landscape, at a distance looking enough like the Turkana people to be mistaken for human. He did this, I would think, he knelt there to scoop up water or crouched behind a bush like this one to stalk an antelope. But then, as I approached him closely, preparing mentally to hail him and at last make his acquaintance in person, it was as if he turned and looked at me. In his eyes was not the expectant reserve of a stranger but that deadly unknowing I have seen in a lion’s blank yellow eyes. He may have been our ancestor, but there was no human consciousness within that human body. He was not one of us.

This 9780199270095.jpgis a poem. I heard two more poems this week. One was a woman soberly and loyally describing how she was struggling to help her husband with his long-standing depression. Another was a girl giving a quiet account of nursing her father through his final bad days.

Neither felt pride so much as pain, as these women turned round and looked at themselves. But at such moments, there always seem to be almost two people there at once: the person they are talking about, in her predicament, and the person who manages to do the talking. They are, and yet are not quite, the same person. But the one who can do the talking, self-reflecting, is of course where the artists come from. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

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