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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mutant Message Down Under

When approached with the idea of doing an all school read of the Mutant Message, I agreed. I was under the impression that it was a slightly fictionalized version of actual events. I also believed that it had been written by a journalist, though I now realize that was entirely a construction of my assumptions and bias. I thought that, like A Million Little Pieces, Mutant Message Down Under may embellish a few facts or even completely fabricate characters and events, but the quality of writing and core truth of the story would more than make up for a few flourishes of falsehood. What I found instead was a tome loaded with sentences barely recognizable as English, enhanced by a "gravy" (185) of convoluted figurative language and constructed on a foundation of 17th century "noble savage" racism cemented into a grotesque argument for new age philosophies, pseudoscience, and quackery.

Marlo Morgan, author of this book, must have been the grand inquisitor's understudy in 15th century Spain and water-boarded with the best in Guantanamo in order to so effectively torture sentences into submission. The mangled beauty of her diction and fractured complexity of usage combine to create a macabre masterpiece. I am not a peevish matron concerned with a linguistic status quo, but the sentences in this book border on incomprehensible. While fragment sentences can be used by authors to prove a point, Morgan seems to use them out of desperation. She says to herself, I have words. They must be important if I thought them. Therefore they must be written.

In a conversation with one of the Aborigines about a grave they stumble across in the Outback her guide says, "There's nothing left here, you see, not even bones! But my nation respects your nation"(75). My guess is that the speaker is trying to say that his actions are based on respect for her nation and not for any remains that are in the grave, but that is a deep meaning buried under more sand than the six feet that covers the corpse.

Dig here to find meaning

Her word choice is frequently bizarre and awkward. When referring to telepathy she calls it "head-to-head talk"(63) Her cleavage is "nature's pocket"(14). Her diction sabotages any attempt by the reader to immerse themselves in the narrative. At one point I was reading the litany of things that she had left behind when I was blind-sided by a "grand elderly matron"(21) that was her landlady. Hopefully, Morgan will be able to return to her "employment position"(16) because her career as a wordsmith is limited. Balki Bartokomous has a firmer grasp on American idioms than Morgan displays here.

Probably the most jarring aspect of Morgan's style is her insistence on layering thick gelatinous globs of figurative language like a salve onto the bruised and bloody corpses of her sentences. When describing the expanse of desert she was about to cross she said that "like the Energizer battery, it seemed to go on and on and on"(15). So, when presented with the vastness of the Australian outback the mental image she finds most helpful is a giant pink rabbit beating a drum. This is still infinitely better than the phantom image we are given when she is talking about a drinking vessel and refers to it as "nonpottery" (21). Really, because all I can think of now is a pottery vessel. It's nonpottery? Sorry. Dang, I'm seeing pottery again. My bad.

What I'm not suppose to see.

Phantom images are still better than the phantom characters that populate the book. I understand that like Law & Order names must be changed to protect the innocent, but to eliminate names entirely and just refer to the character as a "large, expensively dressed female" (33) reduces her from character on L & O to a random corpse on CSI. In fact Morgan goes on to meet this female who was a guide at an unnamed science museum at an unnamed restaurant located in the center of an unnamed town. The lack of specificity is bordering on criminal. If Morgan was the key witness in a murder trial prosecutors would be forced to hide her for fear that her lack of details would necessitate reasonable doubt.

A pivotal character.

It was this doubt that led me to question the book from the very first sentences of the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Mutant Message. In it she details the profound impact her book has had on the lives of the rest of the mutants. The closest she comes to naming any of these people is Lyle W. who was a "keynote speaker for a graduation exercise" (xiv) in a nameless federal prison.

These testimonials were also my first hint that this was not going to be a factual account of Morgan's journey. This was a self-help book designed to push the message of alternative and holistic medicine. Though I had suspected it of being filled with hokum and balderdash I was willing to go along for a while. I have tendency to believe in scientific theory, and just so we are clear theory means thoroughly tested and accepted by 99.9% of scientists. We are talking gravity level acceptance. However, out of courtesy and polite civility I would suspend my high standards for a sense of community during this all school read.

My career in politics lasted exactly thirty-two pages at which point Morgan mentions her "special microscope"(32).

"I had a special microscope that could be used with whole blood, not altered or separated. By viewing a drop of whole blood, it is possible to see many aspects of patients' chemistry graphically in movement. We connected the microscope to a video camera and monitor screen. Sitting next to the physician, patients could see their white cells, red cells, bacteria, or fat in the background. . . Physicians can use it for many conditions, such as showing patients the level of fat in the blood or a sluggish immune response. . . However, in the United States, our insurance companies won't cover costs for preventive measures, so patients have to pay out of pocket"(32).

Pictured here: Special

If at this moment Morgan had decided to view my blood in her special microscope I have no doubt that she would have seen absolutely nothing except the venom I was about to spew. Since Morgan was trying to dumb-down the procedure so that her apparently ignorant readers could understand what she was talking about, I had to rely on my Google-fu to find out that the procedure she was describing is called Live Blood Analysis which calls "high-tech hokum." LBA has not met CLIA requirements meaning that it is not recognized by our government as being a valid test. Morgan basically stipulates that when she says U.S. insurance companies won't cover it. She has hopes that "the Australian system would be more receptive"(33). I can imagine her profound sadness when an Australian naturopath was convicted and fined for false advertising when he claimed he could diagnose illness using LBA.

These claims made by homeo- naturo-, psycho- pathic practitioners constitute a grave threat to the health of all people. The most obvious example of gross negligence and downright fraud is the study that linked autism to childhood immunization. Because of this study and the ravings of Jenny McCarthy many people decide to forgo immunization. The problem with this is not just that now the un-immunized are at risk for the disease, but they also endanger the lives of everyone else because of herd immunity. No vaccine is 100% effective so immunity relies on the fact that others are not carrying the disease. Even if you have received the shot you may still be at risk because you belong to the small percentage of people for whom the vaccine did not work. The perpetuation of this alchemical hooey is dangerous and threatens to give a new lease on life for viruses that have not graced our sputum in centuries. This is just downright bubonic.

Later in the book she refers to physician's "bag of tricks"(90) and is "certain there has never been a doctor anywhere, at any time, in any country, at any period in history who ever healed anything"(90). The aborigines of course are aware of this and use their inside healer to cure themselves; even mending compound fractures in less than 24 hours. Apparently physical illness is caused by dis-ease in the soul, and our ailments force the body to slow down so that we can heal "wounded relationships, gaping holes in our belief system, walled-up tumors of fear, eroding faith in our Creator, hardened emotions of unforgiveness, and so on"(90). Later today I plan a trip to the intensive care unit of Barnes hospital to let all of the patients know that there medical problems are just manifestations of a faulty spirit. Chin up cancer patients, if you just forgive your cheating wife or stop blaming immigrants for taking your job you will be able to walk out of here tomorrow.

"That one over there is suffering from 'hardened emotions of unforgiveness', and the kid in the back has a 'walled up tumor of fear.' I'm going to leave this with you because I am coming down with a case of 'eroding faith in our Creator.'"

Of course, with that logic I am surprised that Morgan is not wasting away in a nursing home considering the latent racism housed in her maternalistic reliance on the "noble savage" to spread her message. In his essay about Cinethetic Racism Matthew W. Hughey describes the noble savage as the belief by eighteenth century Europeans that, "Africans and indigenous 'new world' peoples were said to have noble qualities: harmony with nature, generosity, child-like simplicity, a disdain of materialistic luxury, moral courage, natural happiness even under duress, and a natural or innate morality." Readers of Mutant Message will immediately recognize this description as the Real People tribe encountered by Morgan.

Many who believe in the noble savage, or its modern offspring the Magical Negro, view themselves as enlightened. I'm sure Morgan does not see herself as racist. She only portrays the Real People tribe in the most positive light. In her mind they are superior to us. Her logic fails on a couple of points. First of all the concept of the noble savage is a two-hundred-year-old, over-simplification of rich and varied non-european cultures that diminishes its subject to a philosophical concept rather than understand them as flesh and blood human beings. Secondly her idea of positive light involves enough radioactive libel to cause these "real people" to actually become mutants so simple that they are incapable of finding any other way of sending their message to the world other than abducting a nice white lady.

Our Savior

When the only English speaking member of the tribe expresses sympathy for her narrow nose holes and laments that she does not have "a big koala nose" (68) as they have, it is obvious that she is exalting the superior evolution of these animal nosed people. Or as some might see it she is comparing them to the Australian version of a chimpanzee which as we all know is a perfectly acceptable thing for a white lady to say about a person of color. Later, in case we may have forgotten about "these people" and their "broad expansive nose and large nasal passages," she reminds us of the "nasal shape of the koala bear"(131) that makes them so perfectly adapted to this desert environment.

I seriously can't tell the difference. I'm going with adorable stuffed Aborigine

Unlike African Americans who purportedly have extra muscles in their legs to help them run and jump faster and higher than their white counterparts, the Aborigines have "a sort of animal hoof"(22) that allows them to perambulate about the Outback will little regard to protective foot gear. Of course this is not a genetic trait as is the nose, but an acquired trait that Morgan aspires too. Hopefully, the Aborigines can teach her how to walk-about just like generations of African Americans have taught white kids how to dance. (In a nice twist Morgan later teaches the Real People how to square and line dance.)

Lest you think her maternalistic sense of awe and amazement is limited to the physical traits of the "Real People," Morgan points out that this tribe of "so-called uncivilized humans" have "virgin minds"(94). Amazingly in the same sentence that she tries to defend the Aborigines against claims of savagery, she infantilizes their brains and is grateful for being allowed into this unused, virginal space, a veritable blank slate.

Perhaps I am being unfair. It is not like she is saying that they don't use their brains. She would never say that they didn't use any of her "so-called important educational concepts" like "logic, judgment, reading, writing, math, (or) cause and effect"(133). Seriously? She just claimed that they have no need for the left brain because they live in a right brain reality in which they only need to be masters of "using creativity, imagination, intuition, and spiritual concepts"(134). With such pronounced hemispheric asymetry, I am surprised that the Real People are not falling over in the desert from epileptic seizures.

Ironically, the Real People vocabulary manages to work despite this left brain deficit. While our right brain society can only logically come up with one word for sand the Aborigines "have over twenty different words, which describe textures, types and descriptions of soil in the Outback." (84) This is merely an extension of the linguistic myth that Eskimos have anywhere from 20 to 100 words for snow. In an attempt to give credence to her belief that the Aborigines are more in tune with the earth, Morgan simultaneously perpetuates and extends an urban legend, and undermines her own "scientific"(20)(51)(97) musings concerning hemispheric dominance. (Added bonus logic failure: If you follow the parallel structure in the quote you will notice that Morgan says the Aborigines have words to "describe descriptions")

Aborigine IQ test: "Uh, sand. Seriously all I can think of is 'sand.'"

Considering the paternalistic racism, pseudo-scientific devotion to nature, and the clunky dialogue the closest literary comp for Mutant Message is James Cameron's Avatar. Though Cameron clearly made a work of fiction (the Na'vi were blue for Christ's sake) he was still accused of have a simplistic view of Native Americans and other people of color. Considering that every actor playing one of the Na'vi was a person of color and they were saved by a square-jawed, white Marine, it is understandable. Morgan may not have a squared jaw, but we are led to believe that she is the chosen one sent with this mutant message from the Real People. This has offended real Aborigines to the extent that they sent a group of elders to confront her and ask her to stop promoting the book and using their culture to push her hodge-podge of eastern mysticism, pseudo-science, and new-age spirituality. She has never offered a public apology.

Morgan's work is easily compared to a Hollywood science fiction movie, her diction indicates that she had a bout of childhood deafness, and her flourishes of figurative language are an effective argument that 100 monkeys with 100 typewriters could indeed produce a publishable work, albeit a work that is morally reprehensible, scientifically irresponsible, and grammatically incomprehensible. If you or anyone you know is considering purchasing this book don't. I suggest that you take up residence in the self-help (science fiction, malarkey, hokum, bunkum, hogwash, rot, drivel) section of your local Borders and harangue customers until they drop the book in fear. Then, even though Morgan says she has "saved you a trip to the public library"(xvii), I suggest that you go there and read about real Aboriginal culture.


Anonymous said...

To use the word female instead of woman is awkward. The two are not interchangeable. If this were on the ACT, female would be a adjective, not a noun.

Anonymous said...
Wash U totally agrees with questioning/the Socratic method. Here's a sneak preview:
How do you think that this issue is viewed by those with whom you disagree?
How does that concept apply to this new problem?