One thing I’ve noticed over the years of bringing my students to Ireland – my homeland – is that they pay rapt attention to the little things. This heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place, does not seem to have a name. So I have given it one: allokataplixis (from the Greek allo meaning ‘other’, and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’). In Modern Greek katapliktiko and the related word katataplixie can be used to register astonishment. Admittedly, in Ancient Greek the family of words surrounding kataplêxis sometimes signified ‘terror’ and ‘panic’. It is, however, the note of pure ‘amazement’ and ‘fascination’ present in this word that I want to celebrate in my neologism.
Now, on the matter of my death in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, specifically after an alarming swim in Lava Falls—universally considered the canyon’s nastiest and most difficult rapid—I confess that I miscalculated badly. I miscalculated previous to the run and then again in the aftermath of the excitement to come.
I had been thrown out of the raft at the top of the rapid, ambushed by some bit of rogue hydraulics, and recall attempting to swim against forces entirely beyond human control. I was using reserves of energy that, as it turned out, could have been better used later. Best really to just go with the flow. But the river seemed to yank me directly down as if by the feet, and I was looking up through about 15 feet of water at what appeared to be a perfectly still round pool, colored robin’s egg blue by the cloudless Arizona sky.
They say many things about Detroit. Start with what this lanky kid says. He came bounding up to me at a bar close to the Wayne State campus, near where I was staying during a press trip organized by a privately funded cultural exchange program. He whispered: “Are you straight?” I said no. He said that was a shame because he’s only into straight guys. His breath smelled sweetly of bourbon and Coca-Cola. He was so smashed he kept falling over himself as he rounded the pool table, trying to manage the cue without tripping over it, though twice it felled him. The straight guys laughed. A friend of his told me he’s always like this. Like what? “Like he can hardly walk after midnight.” It was sometime after one in the morning. Later he said, “Will you kiss me?” but I declined again, and instead we went across the street to an apartment complex with some other guy who was “definitely not voting for Clinton” because he was “sort of a Libertarian.” I watched him and the kid smoke pot in a bathtub while college students played first-person shooter games in the darkened living room. Out of nowhere, the kid started to sob. He was lying on his back with his arms wrapped around his legs, as if he was trying to shrink himself down. When I asked what was wrong, he told me he couldn’t afford to continue with his studies and had “no future.” “That couldn’t possibly be true,” I assured him, that he had “no future.” He held up his hand: “No, it is.” His blue eyes were glassy and bloodshot from the booze and tears. I had no assurances to offer. I was just a visitor. Our host, who was doing just fine himself, understood. “It’s true,” he said, “it’s hard to make it in Detroit.”
I noticed, after a while, that the elaborate dinners were only prepared for an audience, and that when it was just the two of us, we mostly ate burritos with our hands as we watched television programmes about the bottom of the ocean. We can sense real connection, I’ve come to think, by how much being alone together feels at first like an occasion, something requiring collaboration and argument, tools and time. What he liked about me was similar to what I revered about him – how he thrived in a full room, how he catered his stories to the people in it – but that didn’t help us on those evenings with Blue Planet, where we each might as well have been on our own, greasy fingered and half asleep. It’s easy to remember him hurtling around the corner of a grocery aisle, his cart ahead of him full of the things he’d chosen, and also how young I was, how I failed to place anything in it myself.
This is the irony of the age in which we live. Technological change has made it possible for us to read anything we want, at any time. But it has coincided with an era of economic concentration not seen since the Gilded Age, and a decline of media outlets devoted to art and culture. The Man Booker Prize is not as big as it once was, yes. But that’s because the literary world itself is shrinking.
To Darwin’s dismay, many biologists rejected this theory. For one thing, Darwin’s elevation of sexual selection threatened the idea of natural selection as the one true and almighty force shaping life — a creative force powerful and concentrated enough to displace that of God. And some felt Darwin’s sexual selection gave too much power to all those females exerting choices based on beauty. As the zoologist St. George Jackson Mivart complained in an influential early review of “Descent,” “the instability of vicious feminine caprice” was too soft and slippery a force to drive something as important as evolution.
Darwin’s sexual selection theory thus failed to win the sort of victory that his theory of natural selection did. Ever since, the adaptationist, “fitness first” view of sexual selection as a subset of natural selection has dominated, driving the interpretation of most significant traits.
And so things largely remained until now. This summer, however, almost 150 years after Darwin published his sexual selection theory to mixed reception, Richard Prum, a mild-mannered ornithologist and museum curator from Yale, has published a book intended to win Darwin’s sex theory a more climactic victory.