While in Iceland a few weeks ago, I tried to work up the nerve to try hàkarl, one of the local delicacies. It is prepared by burying chunks of Greenland shark meat in the ground for a few weeks so that it can “ferment” (the nicest word possible here), after which it is unearthed and kept in a smokehouse until extra tasty. The smell goes on for miles. One tourist compared it to “a tramp’s socks soaked in urine.” The flavor, everyone says, is not nearly as bad as the aroma, although the description alone is sufficient to tickle the gag reflex.
My suspicion was that the hàkarl tradition began with one drunken Viking daring another to eat putrid seafood. On first arriving in Reykjavik, I felt up to the challenge, if only because clogged sinuses had deprived me of smell and taste for a week. But Iceland has the world’s cleanest air, and after breathing it for a couple of days, my senses were functional, even keen … and I flinched. My wife was unable to contribute to the YouTube subgenre of “tourist eats hàkarl” videos. Clearly no Viking blood flows in these veins.
Be that as it may, I could tell, by the time we left, that the city itself had a smell -- distinctive and unpleasant, like rotting eggs perhaps. It came from the sulfurous fumes emitted by Iceland’s geothermal springs. The island sits atop (or rather, was created by) the ridge or boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As they move apart from each other, heat surges up from beneath the earth’s crust – hence the volcanoes, and frequent minor earthquakes, as well as water so hot you can boil an egg in it.
Returning to my desk a few days later, I found, atop the clutter, a book showing the glowing mouth of a volcano on its cover, with the title Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld by Salomon Kroonenberg (Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic had sounded intriguing before our trip. Now the title itself promised to keep the vacation mood alive just a little while longer.
Kroonenberg is emeritus professor of geology at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands – and Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur seems very much a professor emeritus’s book. It blurs the line between memoir (or travelogue) and a pedagogically compelling exposition of the author’s field. And the author wanders across that field guided by his own sui generis map. As far as I know, “the underworld” is not a contemporary geological concept. It leads him across an enormous and various range of ancient and modern literature concerning the world beneath our feet. The earth sciences become part of the humanities, and vice versa. The treatment is essayistic (comparisons to Stephen Jay Gould come to mind occasionally) yet the volume coheres as a whole. It is the work of someone who knows not only his subject but the history and sources of his own mind. This might be called full intellectual maturity, a ripening; the quality is rare.
Kroonenberg’s point of departure is the contrast between the crystalline transparency of the heavens above -- where we can see objects billions of miles away, weather permitting – and the opaque universe beneath our feet: “the most unknown part of our planet, despite the fact that the center of the Earth is no further away than London is from Chicago.” The deepest location most of us will occupy for very long is six feet under, and not out of curiosity. The association of the underworld with darkness and death comes naturally, and the heroes who travel in its realms (Orpheus, Anaes, Dante, etc.) usually go there because they’ve lost someone. In the case of Jesus – according to the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Nicodemus – the trip is a mission to subdue Satan and lead “Adam and all the saints out of hell.”
Following the geographical references and descriptions in these and other accounts of subterranean visits, Kroonenberg goes in search of the real-world sources of how the underworld has been depicted – the original river that becomes mythologized as Styx, for example. Kroonenberg is often pursuing suggestions left by explorers and scholars over the centuries. Their lives and writings become part of the narrative, along with the author’s own travels and his explanations of geological phenomena.
The author moves through history in a crablike fashion -- from ancient and medieval stories to recent knowledge of the earth’s structure, but never through the shortest possible route of compare-and-contrast exposition. Alongside the fictional or legendary figures, more and more historical figures appear as the chapters proceed, bringing their speculations on stage. (Leonardo da Vinci drew a reasonably good cross-section of the Earth, showing the layers beneath its crust. René Descartes “was the first to assume that the core of the Earth was hot.”)
All the while, Kroonenberg’s personal recollections weave in and out of the text, from his childhood scientific interests to aspects his career, such a collaborating with specialists in pedology, the study of dirt, while working at an agricultural school:
“Experienced soil surveyors roll a small clump of soil into a sausage and stick it into their mouths, chew it, ponder it for a while, and then pronounce their verdict: light loam, 15 percent clay. And then it starts, as there is always more than one pedologist around the pit at any one time. They take turns to jump in, pick at the wall, and taste the soil: ‘I think it’s heavy loam, 20 percent clay.’ … There are endless discussions on the basis of qualitative, subjective observations, where the lack of statistical evidence is compensated for by years of experience in hundreds of pits. Bullshit around the pit, that’s what we call it.”
Not surprisingly, one of the author’s favorite books as a child was Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne, in which the narrator and his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, gain access to the subterranean world through a volcano in Iceland. Kroonenberg recalls that the uncle was “an irritable and conceited scholar who gave a not particularly popular course on mineralogy” and gathered knowledge “for himself and not for others.”
In the Scholastic Books edition of Verne’s novel that I read constantly as a kid, that little bit of characterization was left out. Perhaps the editors worried that it was too unflattering a picture of a teacher. In any case, Kroonenberg himself is nothing like the uncle, if his book is anything to go by. It makes me want to go back to Iceland to have a look at that volcano. Next time, I might also sample a bit of hàkarl, or, failing that, chew some dirt.
When I was young I trained as an actor and as a reader of poetry, particularly metered verse. I’m accustomed to delivering keynotes and making other kinds of presentations. I also have experience as a singer — I was in a reggae band in Britain when I was young, though perhaps this isn’t the best testament to my abilities. As soon as I left the band had two top-20 hits in a row.
I felt passionate about narrating this book because it is not only an analysis of such things as the vulnerability of the education system and the easy accessibility of guns, it is also a deeply personal account of my experience before, during, and after the rampage attack on the campus. Though I reported the English department’s concerns about Seung-Hui Cho to many units on campus, and though he did eventually seek help from campus counseling, at his hands, we still experienced the worst college shooting in history. I wrote the book because it seemed inevitable that other attacks would occur, especially if we as a nation didn’t learn from the errors and missteps of the past.
It was my responsibility to utter the words I had written. Honest, open communication is the only meaningful gift we have to give to those who lost loved ones in the attack. At the end of the book I apologize to the victims' families for not being able to prevent this horror. How could someone say these words on my behalf? It’s not the kind of responsibility you can delegate.
It wasn’t until it was confirmed I could narrate the book that I realized I didn’t know if I could do it. Although I had read excerpts from it during readings and keynotes, reading the book aloud all the way through was a different matter altogether. What would I do when I reached the part about how I learned the perpetrator was an English major with whom I had worked? How would I get through the chapter "A Boy Named Loser," ("Loser" was Cho’s own name for himself) — a chapter in which I describe Cho’s agonized, menacing silence as he sat in my office, wearing his reflective sunglasses indoors?
But there was no point in focusing on what ifs. Best take the bull by the horns, my late mother would have said, her remembered voice always a source of consolation. We would be recording for six hours a day for about a week. In readiness, I bought honey-and-lemon throat lozenges and made a strong flask of mint tea. To warm up my voice on the 10-minute drive to the studio, I sang songs from The Sound of Music: "Edelweiss," "My Favorite Things" and "I Have Confidence in Me" — which I didn’t. Nevertheless, I sang with gusto, trusting in the power of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the fact that my car was soundproof.
I must have looked more eccentric than usual as I drove along Blacksburg’s winding country roads doing an impersonation of Fraulein Maria. But it made the process less daunting — as if I were still the homely-looking Anglo-Jamaican girl who used to belt out songs like "Singin’ in the Rain" as she trudged through a downpour on the way home from convent school; as if I were still the person I was before tragedy almost felled me like a tree, and, for a time at least, robbed me of the ability to sing at all.
Originally, I was supposed to travel to Maryland or DC to do the recording — a four-and-a-half hour drive from Blacksburg. It would mean staying in a hotel far from the comforts of home. I didn’t look forward to it. But Bruce Kitovich, the producer Audible assigned me, went out of his way to find a studio here in Blacksburg. It was a thoughtful thing to do, and it allowed me to meet Earl Norris, musician, owner, and operator of Four Loud Barks studio. As it turned out, Earl’s wife and my husband knew each other from way back. As soon as I entered Earl’s studio I felt at ease.
Apparently, according to Bruce, it’s not as unusual as it used to be to have authors read their own work. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is especially true for memoir. If the recording is straightforward — and it often is for nonfiction — Audible’s in-house team checks the finished recording for quality control and decides which sentences need to be re-recorded. It’s a relatively speedy and efficient process that takes a matter of weeks.
We began recording the book on Sunday January 13, a mere three weeks after the heartbreaking attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Early the next morning, my husband’s mother died. Mama Edna was a lovely woman — the kind of mother-in-law you hope you will be blessed with. I was even more concerned I wouldn’t be able to get through the recording without becoming emotional. Surprisingly, however, the process was one of the most calming experiences I have ever had.
Something strange happens when you record your own book. The relationship you have to your own words shifts and alters. You deliver a sentence in a particular way, stumble, then reread it with a completely different emphasis, one that can catch you by surprise. You hadn’t realized that was what you meant when you wrote the sentence, but it’s suddenly clear that of course that’s what you were trying to say. You are speaker and auditor, author and interpreter. You hear words anew.
I sat alone in Earl’s room-sized studio, a ribbon microphone a few inches from my mouth. I had been experiencing severe back pain for several weeks, so I sat in a chair with my elbows propped up by fat green pillows. This brought the book closer to me and meant I didn’t have to bear its physical weight while I read. Through the headphones my voice came back to me as not quite mine, as if someone else — a close relative, my mother, perhaps?— was speaking. It’s a strange sensation. Having done many radio interviews, I was accustomed to the aural intimacy of exceptionally sensitive headphones, but it was different this time. I was able to read the book out loud all the way through because it was a disembodied voice doing the reading — a projection and personification of sorts.
It occurs to me now that this process is much like the writing process we engage in as poets and novelists. When we teach creative writing, we talk about finding our voices, not simply because we want to assert our own identities, but because the voice is the guide leading us to the next place. It finds us when we’re lost and puts us back on the path towards revelation. Or at least we hope it does. Though I was in the Four Loud Barks studio on the other side of Earl’s garage while Earl was in the basement of his house several rooms away, I wasn’t alone. Not only did I have my own voice to keep me company, I had Earl’s voice, too, coming through the headphones. He listened intently to what I read and made sure it sounded O.K.
Today -- April 16, 2013 -- marks the six-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. In interviews I am often asked whether or not I have been able to move on from what happened. I try to explain that you don’t move on completely from calamities like this. What you can do with the help of friends and loved ones, however, is find a way to reconcile yourself to what has happened — or maybe, if you’re lucky, a way back to laughter again. In my case, I had to find a path toward forgiveness not only of the perpetrator but also of myself for not being able to prevent such a terrible tragedy from occurring in my beloved community. It is a long arduous journey — one I have to admit I am still on. I am grateful for the voices that accompany us, grateful that they serve to remind us of the world’s steadfast, indestructible beauty.
So henceforth we have a whole new category of eminent religious figure: Pope Emeritus. I don’t know if the expression will catch on, but at least it’s less irreverent than the meme describing the current situation as Popus interruptus. (That’s proper cod-Latin, by the way. Please don’t feel obliged to correct the grammar.)
It can’t continue this way for long. Easter falls on the last day of this month; as a Catholic friend puts it, “The show must go on.” Those of us who are neither believers nor gamblers have no real investment in the outcome, of course. But the office and its claim to authority are intriguing, even so, and I spent part of the weekend reading a couple of dialogues between Vatican dignitaries and eminent secular thinkers.
The most recently published of them, Belief or Unbelief: A Confrontation (Helios Press, 2012), is also, oddly enough, the earlier of the two. It consists of a series of open letters exchanged, in the pages of a newspaper, between Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, who at the time of his death last year was a cardinal. In his introduction to Belief or Nonbelief?, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox notes that Martini -- besides being a prominent scholar of the New Testament and the organizer of an annual standing-room-only lecture series for nonbelievers -- had been spoken of “as a possible future pontiff.”
The occasional reference in their dialogue suggests that it originally took place circa 2000 as part of what Florian Schuller, the director of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, calls “a very intensive, open, and committed discussion” under way in Italy “between intellectual representatives of the credenti (‘believers’) and the laici (‘secular persons’).” The colloquy between Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger making up The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (Ignatius, 2006) was held at the Academy in early 2004, about 15 months before the cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI.
From Schuller’s introduction to The Dialectics of Secularization, it’s clear that the exchange between the philosopher and the pontiff-to-be was arranged with the example of the Italian discussions in mind. Schuller sounds an almost diffident note. “We in Germany,” he writes, “seem to lack a common philosophical dialogue on the basis of different positions that are interested in each other (as in Italy) or structures that permit a plurality of world views to engage in a societally institutionalized yet completely free conversation on a high level of reflection (as in France).”
On the other hand, Habermas can engage in a public dialogue on religion and secularity without anyone expecting him to clarify whether or not he believes that Adam and Eve shared Eden with the dinosaurs (as in America). No doubt Schuller’s chagrin is heartfelt, but from this side of the water it can be difficult to credit.
Max Weber once referred to himself as “religiously unmusical” – not hostile to religion, that is, but temperamentally unable to respond to whatever it is that inspires or motivates faith. To judge by his writings on religion over the past decade or so, Habermas is a religiously unmusical person trying very, very hard to feel the rhythm. By contrast, Eco can actually carry a tune (he cites Thomas Aquinas with an evident passion for nuance and implication) even if he says he lost his faith in his early 20s and addresses Cardinal Martini from the standpoint of a nonbeliever.
In his exchange with Ratzinger, as elsewhere, Habermas maintains that (1) the modern, democratic, constitutional state does not require metaphysical legitimation, but (2) religious traditions, which do involve large claims about the nature and meaning of the universe, provide something crucial to making society livable, since they transmit and sustain values that otherwise would be pretty scarce.
All citizens may be equal in the eyes of the law, at least in principle. But recognizing formal equality is one thing, and respecting the dignity of others, or feeling an imperative to reduce their suffering, is quite another. It is, in short, a careful if rather vigorless effort by an adherent of “methodological atheism” (as Habermas describes himself elsewhere) to acknowledge that religious faith is not just the un-integrated remnant of pre-modern culture.
Nothing in Eco’s open letters to Martini is incompatible with what Habermas has to say, but they strain less to make room for the idea that believers and non-believers might be sharing a world together, rather than just putting up with each other. He begins with the point that even the most secular-minded people may find something fascinating about the biblical notion of an apocalyptic end of the world. And in the book’s closing pages he writes, “I’m not in favor of instituting a clear-cut opposition between believers in a transcendental God and those who don’t believe in any notion of a superior being.”
Eco and Habermas, then, are Unitarian Universalists, in the sense of the old joke that UUs believe in one God at the most. And their opposite numbers from the Vatican are as patient and indulgent of them as possible. It is the appropriate response to dealing with thinkers who are stumbling in the general direction of absolute Truth. (Lest my Catholic mother-in-law read this and take it the wrong way, let me make clear that it’s Martini and Ratzinger who regard the church as possessing absolute Truth. Indeed, they both spell it with the capital T.)
The worldly philosophers struggle valiantly to make some accommodation between the pious and the profane. The cardinals respond in kind. But in the end, each poses what is essentially the same question to their interlocutors. “It’s difficult for me to see,” Martini admits, “how an existence inspired by” the standards of “altruism, sincerity, justice, solidarity, [and] forgiveness” can be upheld universally “when their absolute value is not founded on metaphysical principles or a personal God.” Ratzinger warns of “the hubris of reason that is no less dangerous” than blind faith. The atomic bomb is preeminently the product of human intelligence exercising itself. And what guidance will keep us from succumbing to that hubris? It can only come from Whoever created reason in the first place.
Not a new thesis, by any means. It's one of the oldest strategems of Christian apologetics: You value compassion, charity, forgiveness, etc. Those values must have a basis, or else they are arbitrary. And if you don't think they are arbitrary (if you don't think that the difference between empathy and viciousness is simply one of taste), then you implicitly believe they have a source, hence a creator, hence God. The merits of the argument have been debated in dormitories for ages, and in the Vatican for even longer. But Eco insists on a reality that can't be reasoned away:
"It seems evident to me that someone who has never experienced transcendence, or who has lost it, can make sense of his own life and death, can be comforted simply by his live for others, by his attempt to guarantee someone else a livable life even after he himself has disappeared. Certainly, there are those nonbelievers who are not at all worried about giving meaning to their own death. There are also those who claim to be faithful but would be willing to rip the heart from a living baby in order to preserve their own lives. The power of an ethical system is judged by the behavior of the saints, not by the benighted cuius deus venter est [whose god is the belly]."
Eco is suggesting, then, that there are unbelieving saints, just as there are pious psychopaths. I have no idea how they would get canonized, but it's an uplifting idea.
Given its history of losing faculty members in bizarre and distressing ways – amidst circumstances only whispered about in dread and confusion, the details never to be gleaned from the public affairs office’s laconic press releases -- Miskatonic University has never been a magnet for outside research funding. Observers have long wondered how the institution keeps its Arkham, Mass., campus open, much less populated.
The answer may be found, as it happens, as close as the shelves of any bookstore dedicated to marketing wares to the undiscriminating reader. More than 30 years ago, in a transaction conducted with its usual aversion for publicity, the Miskatonic administration contracted with a New York publisher to issue a mass-market edition of the jewel of its library’s rare-books collection. This was the sole known copy of the Necronomicon, a grimoire compiled in the 8th century C.E. by Abdul Alhazred and translated by the polymath John Dee, official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.
The book’s reputation with nonspecialist readers has come primarily from a handful of references by the American speculative fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, in short stories concerning the ancient beings who lurk beneath the sea and in higher dimensions, waiting to reclaim Earth and to continue their pursuit of cosmic ends that are incomprehensible to the blinkered human intellect, though no doubt unspeakably horrific.
One may well doubt the wisdom of Miskatonic’s licensing arrangement. To publish a guide to the blasphemous necromancy that would summon creatures both pestilen and cyclopean to manifest themselves on the plane of an all-too-fragile reality would be a questionable decision even if the text were only available in an Elsevier journal, rendering access too expensive for most of mankind. How much more irresponsible, then, for it to be released in paperback edition readily shoplifted by teenage Satanists who perform the rituals after huffing paint thinner. (They account for roughly 67 percent of The Necronomicon’s current readership.)
But given Miskatonic’s difficulty in attracting donations from alumni – or, in many cases, even finding them – the Necronomicon royalties have been a godsend, if that is the word one wants. Certainly the venture has gone better than the institution’s recent experiment in distance learning, a mere hinting reference to which, it is said, drives survivors into a fury of shrieking madness.
Now, only a little of the above is, strictly speaking true. Miskatonic University does not actually exist. (It does have a website, however.) John Dee was indeed a formidable man of learning and Her Majesty’s sometime astrologer, but he did not translate the Necronomicon in the 16th century for the very good reason that Lovecraft only made it up in the 20th. That a paperback edition of what purports to be the cursed book has been published is true, though not the statistic about two-thirds of its enthusiasts being inhalant abusers. There, I’m just guessing.
The significant thing about the Necronomicon isn’t just that a nonexistent book can generate so much fascination that someone decides to write it; that’s just the sign of a publisher savvy enough to follow up a good tip. No, the interesting thing is to trace the subsequent history of the manifestly bogus paperback. Enough people have convinced themselves is an authentic work of occult knowledge that there is now a milieu dedicated to practicing its rituals, and to defending its integrity as an ancient document. Lovecraft only thought he was writing fiction, you see, because the Old Gods were using him as a mouthpiece. Prove they weren’t!
A paper appearing in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies covers the phenomenon in sufficient detail for most readers, though it looks like the tip of the iceberg next to The Necronomicon Files, a study of the whole murky saga that debunks the cultists’ claims and rationalizations with great thoroughness. Which won’t make much difference, of course: the will to believe is a hardy vine, with deep roots. But The Necronomicon Files is a more serious work of scholarly detective work than might have seemed possible, given the topic, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up in this column since discovering the book.
Shorter and less outré, but tackling another case of imagination and reality getting tangled up, is Georges Minois’s The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, published in France three years ago and now available in translation from the University of Chicago Press. In broad outline, the stories look analogous. The condensed version has it that in the course of a 13th-century test of strength between sacred and secular authority, Pope Gregory IX claimed that, among countless other sins and blasphemies, Frederick II had either written or caused to be written a work called De tribus impostoribus -- “On the Three Imposters” -- referring to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Something to offend everyone, in every place the Crusades had reached, as if that hadn't been enough.
The title was so appalling that church authorities naturally wanted to make sure it was destroyed, once they’d read it themselves, just to see how great a danger it posed to others who might be lead astray. And they surely would have held quite a bonfire, had anyone actually published the work -- or, indeed, written it. The fact that the book did not exist made it difficult to find, of course, while also firing the imagination in transgressive ways.
“Repeatedly,” Minois writes, “people would think they were on the point of uncovering it, of knowing who was the author, and each time it was only an illusion. It was an effective scarecrow, because its title alone created fear…. [yet] people were curious to know the contents: what revelation would it contain? what arguments might it develop? The church tracked it to destroy it, while heretics and atheists chased after it to read and make use of it, and still others sought it out of simple curiosity. Every time hope was dashed, curiosity grew.”
Something like a prototype of the Necronomicon phenomenon, then -- if more historically consequential, and altogether less silly. (I love Lovecraft, but the thought of living within a belief system extracted from his fiction is ghastlier than anything in it, and he almost certainly would have agreed.)
Once established in the public's imagination, Imposters became a reality. It took longer -- centuries rather than decades -- but a couple of books purporting to be the unholy treatise were eventually published. The one that appeared in France in 1768 was, for a while, in as much demand as a couple of pornographic novels of the day. (The titles of the novels were fair advertisement of the contents, and would set off every web blocker ever invented.)
Success, of a kind, then, but fleeting. By the 18th century the arguments for agnosticism or atheism were well-established (as were the responses from the faithful, and the replies of the doubters) and it’s not surprising to learn that the fascination wore off after that. But for more than five hundred years, The Three Imposters menaced the faithful and inspired the skeptics, and earned its modest place in history. We should all be lucky enough to write a nonexistent book with so long a shelf life.
Addressing his professional colleagues in the preface to the first edition of his Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, the sober and unflinching Richard von Krafft-Ebing assured them he understood his duty to ward off the idly curious public. “A scientific title has been chosen,” he wrote, “and technical terms are used throughout the book in order to exclude the lay reader. For the same reason certain portions are written in Latin.” The translator of its 12th edition did not heed this due diligence. The case histories are all in English, and the “technical terms” Krafft-Ebing coined, such as “masochism,” would soon come into common usage.
Or perhaps they already were: it’s not clear when the translation appeared, though the scanned copy available at the Internet Archive looks like something printed in the 1920s or ‘30s. The paperback copy of Psychopathia that I found at a garage sale as a teenager (back in the pre-online, Betamax-era dawn of civilization) was a cruddy reprint of that edition, likely pirated in the early 1960s by somebody cashing in on the loosening of obscenity standards.
Krafft-Ebing would have been aghast to think of a wide-eyed adolescent reading his evidence that the limits of the human libido reach all the way to the limits of the human imagination -- if anything, a little beyond them. Kids these days have probably witnessed everything the Victorian-era sexologist describes on video by the age of 13, but the book sure did boggle my mind.
Time jades you. Sitting down to read John A. Long’s popular science book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex (University of Chicago), I felt immune to the kind of astonishment that Krafft-Ebing elicited in me ages ago. The cover – which should win a prize, by the way -- shows two fossilized dinosaurs in flagrante delicto, with a black censorship bar to keep things within the bounds of decency. Part of the humor, of course, is that the mentality that would be shocked by the scene is practically as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves.
It’s an astonishing book, even so. And in a couple of ways.
The author -- who serves as vice-president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- devotes roughly a third of the space to recounting how he and his colleagues at the Melbourne Museum identified the earliest known fossilized embryos of a vertebrate – discovered, complete with umbilical cord, in fish from 380 million years ago. Besides its age, the fossil revealed that the mother had been carrying her fertilized eggs, rather than just depositing them in a safe place.
The team announced its findings in a paper that ran in the journal Nature in 2008. It so happened that this roughly coincided with Queen Elizabeth's visit for the opening of its Royal Institution of Australia (described on its website as a “national science hub” for research and education). A computer-animated clip showing the prehistoric mother and child ran during the festivities, and Long spent a couple of sleep-deprived days answering questions from reporters around the world. Someone later calculated that the discovery netted “around $2 million worth of media coverage,” and within a week of announcing the fish’s scientific name, Materpiscis, a Google search found it appearing on almost 50,000 sites around the world.
The media frenzy sounds grueling, but it’s much less interesting to read about than Long’s account of subdued excitement in the laboratory, as the researchers figured out what they were seeing under the microscope. It was, Long explains, “the first known case for fishes, our distant ancestors, that involved the male copulating with the female rather than spawning in water like almost all fishes today do.” Long suggests that this intimate moment occurred on the ocean floor; and, given structure of the partners’ genitalia, the female was probably on her back as the male mounted her. (The missionary position has never seemed as old-fashioned as it does just now.)
Another paper in Nature from 1998 by a different group of Australian scientists determined that the earliest evidence of sexual reproduction of any sort can now be dated to somewhere between 1.68 and 1.78 billion years ago. Mind-bending as the temporal scale here may be, Long’s survey of the evolutionary history of sex is accessible and absorbing, and could be adapted for the screen easily enough. Which, given the rise of creationist museums, would probably be a good idea
But if it were, much of the audience would be shocked. Nothing prepares you for learning just how polymorphously perverse nature really is. Despite the enormous differences between Long’s book and Psychopathia Sexualis, they are both catalogs of behavior at its most extreme.
That doesn't mean gay penguins, either. A few years back, the heteronormative propaganda of March of the Penguins was undermined by news that Silo and Roy, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo, were raising a chick together – with similar arrangements emerging at other zoos around the world. This is not shocking. Same-sex erotic activity has been reported in about 450 species.
No, what we're talking about here is animal behavior that wouldn’t be appropriate to mention in a diversity training video: Female porcupines seen using a stick as a dildo, masses of grunions (a kind of fish) having regular orgies on the beach in California, and male bedbugs that impregnate by stabbing the female’s abdomen and ejaculating in the wound.
Once the glans of their partner’s penis has been inserted, female Chinese fruit bats perform the impressive feat of bending down to lick the exposed portions of his genitalia. This is the first known case of a non-human mammal “practicing [fellatio] as part of the stimulation leading to mating,” notes Long, “more or less as foreplay.” The Chinese scientists who reported the behavior indicate that “mating pairs spent significantly more time in copulation” when the female performed this acrobatic maneuver, as one may well believe.
The pages on necrophilia in Psychopathia Sexualis were, as I recall, particularly disturbing. Long points out that snakes and tortoises have been known to commit it – presumably as a result of confusion, rather than by preference. And there’s a kind of spider the very name of which recalls one of the technical terms Krafft-Ebing introduced: the Harpactea sadistica. The male has “needle-like structures” used “to stab the female and deposit his sperm directly into her ovary, eliminating the need for any courtship niceties.”
Well, all sorts of bizarre stuff is bound to emerge in the course of 1.7 billion years. Every kink its own genome. But the really strange thought is that most of this behavior must have proven its worth in the struggle to survive. Not the necrophilia, let’s hope. But who knows? After reading The Dawn of the Deed, it’s hard to think of anything as an unnatural act.