An Almost Religious Faith in "Process"
Nathan Englander’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and numerous other publications and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Englander is the author of the forthcoming collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (on-sale by Knopf 2/7), as well as the internationally bestselling story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases.
Translated into more than a dozen languages, Englander was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He’s been a fellow at the Dorothy & Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and at The American Academy of Berlin.
This year, along with the publication of his new collection, Englander's play The Twenty-Seventh Man will premiere at The Public Theater, and his translation New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) will be published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret's Suddenly A Knock at the Door forthcoming in March from Farrar Straus and Giroux.
He lives in Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
Nathan Englander: I have a very simple aesthetic—and I say it all the time and I’m happy to share it with you, it’s really clear to me—which is, your obligation is to the story as a whole. That’s it. Different parts can change. You can be working at a different desk, or decide you’re interested in different themes or ideas or you’re going to work a different way. You know, your process can change all throughout your life and, you know, I assume, does. Mine keeps changing. But the idea is, that’s the one thing that stays steady for me.
That’s what makes it doable. You just have to have some—it’s a pretty existential life. You know, I used to work all night and sleep all day. You don’t have to have a day or a night or, you know, it’s completely—I was going to say abnormal and maybe that’s the word, but—it’s not a standard lifestyle. You’re building, you know, much like a story gets built from negative space, you’re sort of building routine from infinity, framing, as I said, day or night.
I guess you have to believe in process. I think even writers get romantic about process and they talk about it as epiphany or, you know, I’m sure I’ve already said it today, but this idea that you can suddenly have the final draft? A process has to have parts to it. And that idea, you simply couldn’t sit down—it’s a draft, you couldn’t sit down and write the finished book. That’s not how it works. You’re building a universe. Like, I think all those things . . . is not to see them as wrong turns. That’s what’s built into it, is writing down one direction, writing down the other. The idea is having, like, the honesty or the bravery or the ability to step away from your own work and look back at it from a distance and recognize what the story needs. If you’re always looking to what the story needs, then you’ll hopefully take it down the right route.
And part of it, you know, I think that’s what, you know, keeps me interested. I mean, what keeps me driven, what makes me want to write all the time, I think, is that at every stage, every book, every story, each one feels like me starting. Like, now I’m ready to work. That’s what I always feel like.
And I think you don’t even have to know, that’s also part of it. In the new book, the story Sister Hills, which is set in sort of the whole history of the West Bank done in one story, you know, compressed, but I literally, I remember sending off to friends, to a couple of readers—I’d written, you know, 10 pages, 15 pages—and I literally, I didn’t want the process affected in any way. I didn’t want to know if it was good or bad or if they liked it. I simply was in so deep and so did not know what I had. I simply sent it to a couple of people and said “I want no comments. Just tell me if these words are linked in order. Like, does this make any sense? When you look at this, are there words on this page, and does it make any sense to you as a narrative in any way at all? I just want to know if this seems part of something that is comprehensible.” And they were like, “Looks like a story to me.”
That to me, it was just so emotional and so loaded and so, you know, the story where I most did not know what I was working on or what I had. You know, the night when I—I did not sleep the night that I finished it. I simply did not know what I had. And I think sometimes following a story, you know, it’s a different part of the brain. The me that’s talking to you, this is writer guy me. The part of the brain—and we can talk about that—that’s engaged when you’re writing is wholly separate from the person that you see.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
However many drafts and wrong turns it takes, says author Nathan Englander, total commitment to the writing process always results in a story the writer can live with.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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