I originally cringed at the idea of calling my book a memoir. Hadn’t that always been the musty old grandfather’s shipping trunk of a genre, the woeful, and usually withering, genre of former heads of states, octogenarian politicians, ambassadors, admirals and assorted OBEs? It brought to mind the ramblings of adventurers and movie stars, capturing the last refracted gleanings of a long, distinguished, or occasionally notorious, life.
My book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, began as an attempt to solve the mystery of my Mexican grandfather’s death, which had long remained a secret in our family’s past. I had never known him. On a foggy January morning in 1939, his body had been found floating in the San Antonio River, in a downtown park not too far from the Alamo. Was it a suicide? Was it a murder? What I found was that the deeper I delved into his story, the more the entire saga of the Mexican past that he connected our family to came forth, from tales of the gods that had once been worshiped in Mexico, to the arrival of the Spaniards and the conquest that vanquished civilizations and birthed a nation.
The book recounts my travels in Mexico and south Texas in search of these sources to my grandfather’s life, where many mysteries are difficult to dispel, the boundaries between lives hard to draw. I didn’t see the book as being about me, and only partly about memory and remembering, memory and forgetting. Mainly, it was stories about the old Mexicans of the borderlands where I grew up.
Just a few years later now, as if some floodgates of memory had been thrown open in eternity, we are awash in memoirs. So what turned the memoir into a lightning rod of literary fashion and what does it say, if anything, about our culture and society? One widely rehearsed theory, my least favorite, is that the memoir fad represents the creeping sensationalization of everything American. All of our metabolizing of Jerry Springer, Oprah and other tabloid talk show prophets going back to Morton Downey Jr. was bound to lead to a confessional genre where we could be titillated and appalled, albeit in more rarefied literary ways, with tales of child abuse, sexual libertinism, Olympian drinking and drugging, and usually, perhaps disappointingly, redemption.
It is as if everyone has been called to remember something – their lives, their loves, their ancestors, their origins. It is as if the past had suddenly been opened up to us, as endless and storied as intergalactic space. The memoirs of the recent past are our early explorations and surveys of the deep sky of our histories. But I didn’t always see things this way.
Somewhere along the way of writing the book, I came to that clammy moment of impasse when no new winds are blowing. I spent days watching from my window as hawks hunted pigeons in the skies over Central Park. Family tales of San Antonio and Coahuila, as if on a tired antique carousel, were creakily spinning around again and again – the same faces perpetually flashing by. At that point, so deep into my stories, I wasn’t sure what they amounted to or whether they weren’t mere distractions from some deeper, truer tale. Was there another story, a greater story hidden inside of these stories?
In short, I needed a break.
Around that time, to fill this unwelcome pause, I read three books, back to back: Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe, Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life and Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods. A good way to clear my head, I figured. Cosmology, genetics and esoteric Egyptology – three themes well off from my familiar wheel of old Mexican stories, or so I thought.
Kauffman’s seminal book on complexity theory and biology explores the way in which order arises spontaneously in the universe. Unsatisfied with the theory of natural selection as an explanation of the order we find around us, Kauffman seeks a more comprehensive account of evolution. As he writes, echoing God’s speech in the Book of Job, “the snowflake’s delicate sixfold symmetry tells us that order can arise without the benefit of natural selection.”
Graham Hancock argues that ancient Egyptians used their pyramids and monuments as a means of etching indelible riddles directly upon the earth. According to Hancock, the Egyptian’s profound messages about their civilization’s origins were to be read and puzzled over by all ages to come. Finally, Robert Pollack’s book on the semiotics of genetics envisions a not-too-distant future when we will be able to read our DNA as the sacred text of our most remote human origins – an infinite recall of our ancestry to the very first millisecond of life on this planet.
All three books invite the reader to ask where we came from and to think about time’s vastness in ways that have become uncommon in our age. After all, this is the epoch of the accelerating instant, when our experience of the present is increasingly blurred by the speed of travel, telecommunications and computing. Periods and cycles of time have been collapsed in this era, punctuated by shortening television seasons, the patter of championship sporting events and endlessly repeating CNN news reports.
“Give us 20 minutes, and we’ll give you the world!” one New York AM radio news station announces relentlessly. In the fast-paced regime of American timekeeping, the four-year presidential term has become one of our lengthier public cycles, even as campaigns are starting earlier and earlier.
Kauffman’s, Hancock’s and Pollack’s books hearken their readers to the context of deep time, the oceanic immensity of time stretching unbelievably far into the past and future, the span in which the world we know was created and life has evolved, at least to the point where we can survey the whole vista and wonder why. There, we once again confront philosophy’s holy of holies: the question of why anything evolved in the first place. How did life emerge from nonlife?
Kauffman’s solution lies in the idea of “order for free,” the mysterious, if not mystical, presence of a shaping energy in this universe. Given time and the right circumstance, this shaping energy will serendipitously produce an ordering of matter, a system of autonomous reactions and relations, and ultimately, life. Scientist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and cultural historian Thomas Berry incorporate similar ideas of “cosmogenesis” in their work, as a way of answering the question of where everything came from. Now, such scientists as Kauffman are asking the same questions.
In Signs of Life, Pollack invites us to understand the emerging science of genetics as a window onto humanity’s epic journey through time as an evolving species, transcending superficial differences of racial, ethnic and national origins. He writes, “We are all the children of ancestral peoples who walked the earth hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of years ago. Each living person’s DNA is rich in specific passages derived from a particular genealogy.” Going further, Pollack imagines DNA as a text, “constructed by natural selection and written in an invisible chemical medium.”
Our entire history has been recorded and preserved there, he explains, a history we are preparing to read now. “Yet,” he adds, “we can be sure that the texts we find will all refer to the same past, a past of branching descent. We must begin to see the texts of an individual and the texts common to members of a species as a form of literature, to approach them as one would approach a library of precious, deep, important books.”
Specifically, the recent development of the analysis of mitochondrial DNA has resulted in amazing advances in the use of genetic information to reconstruct the history of our species. Perhaps not surprisingly, mitochondrial DNA is purely maternal, a copy of the DNA we receive from our mothers. As the American writer William Saroyan once observed, “Sons come and go, Mothers go on forever.” Based on mtDNA, not only can lineages of descent and migration be drawn, they can be dated, on the basis of regular rates of mutations through time.
Through a genetic lens, it seems we will soon be able to gaze further into the past than our current sense of autobiography can fathom. Making this connection, Pollack writes, “The notion of DNA as a text makes it possible to imagine natural selection as an author in deep time, writing at the rate of perhaps a letter every few centuries to produce the instructions for all the living things we are among today.” If Pollack is right, how will we read this history and what will we make of it? How can we bring what we find there into our families, our hearts, our selves and our societies?
And every living thing contains DNA, from bacteria to us. Much was made recently of the disappointing number of genes identified in the human genome. Expected to be an imperial 100,000, towering over the rest of creation, a mere 30,000-40,000 were reported, only double the number of genes of a mosquito. Our DNA carries the human story, but it constitutes only a part of a still larger genetic story of all creation.
For an already conflicted memoirist, the implications were clear. In essence, according to Pollack, as the Hubble telescope is to deep space and the universe’s past, so is DNA to the history of the human heart. How will we express the story that we are beginning to see there, for the first time?
Through DNA, we may yet be able to recover the lost archives of our common ancestral past. What will we make of our differences then? If we can see a history of ourselves reaching back to our most remote origins in time, what will become of those stories of our families that encompass only the last several decades, centuries and millennia? What does it mean to call myself Mexican if that describes only the last 500 years of my family past? Where did we come from before that? And before that, and on and on before that, ad infinitum? What, if anything, does that have to do with who we are today?
And paleoanthropology keeps pushing the clock of human ancestry further and further back in time. Recently discovered bone shards in Ethiopia may be an ancestor of ours from 5.8 million years ago. Where will that ancestor fit into our genetic genealogy?
This practice of using genetic science to begin reconstructing the genealogy of our species has received relatively little coverage in the media, eclipsed by last summer’s completion of the genome project, DNA’s promising medical applications and science fiction scenarios of animal and human cloning. But in a January cover story on DNA and genealogy, U.S. News and World Report asked “Where Did We Come From?” accompanied by portraits of people of diverse races. And in May 2000, Nicholas Wade of The New York Times wrote on “The Human Family Tree: 10 Adams and 18 Eves,” reporting on a host of scientific efforts under way to create what we might call the emerging genetic memoir.
More recently, in the March 26 issue of The New Yorker, John Seabrook wrote of his efforts to use genetic analysis to reconstruct his family history. And Bryan Sykes’s new book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, offers a genetic history of Europe, beginning with seven ur-mothers whose DNA all Europeans share.
The genome project itself turns out to be partly an autobiographical quest. Craig Venter, chief scientist for Celera Genomics, the private company that clocked a photo-finish draw in finishing the blueprint of the genome with a federally funded team, recently admitted in a PBS documentary that his own DNA was part of the sample batch that was analyzed. This puts Venter among a very select group of biologists who are able to read their own infinite archive of the species’ past.
First advanced by Italian-born Stanford biologist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, this “genealogical genetics” could yet emerge as the possible foundation for new human identities. In his article in the Times, Wade cites biologist Edward O. Wilson musing about how genetics could spawn new spiritual values based on a deeper understanding of human origins. “We need to create a new epic based on the origins of humanity,” he reports Wilson saying. “Homo Sapiens have had one hell of a history! And I am speaking both of deep history – evolutionary, genetic history – and then, added on to that and interacting with it, the cultural history that recorded the past 10,000 years ago.”
It is a prospect that can bring a little vertigo. No tidy little tale, the genetic memoir is a millennial epic, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself written in the bottomless well of time. But what indeed will this nascent human heritage make of our treasured cultural, national and racial identities? These musings helped stir me out of my writer’s block, making of my book a kind of contradictory memoir, where the further back in time I traveled the greater the mysteries became.
Now, new questions beckon. In the midst of DNA’s record of our evolutionary path, what will it tell us about how apes came to imagine the divine and the afterlife? What can we say about the genetic content of those humans believed to be divine? How many of our myriad ancestors in deep time are we willing or able to embrace? As we prepare now to read the annals of our blood, how will we compare the story we find there with the stories about ourselves that we have searched hard for, discovered and held true inside our families and cultures?
Our genetic legacy testifies to our ineffable emergence out of the distant past, our universal history of migration and intermixture, and our development of cultures that gave us a sense of belonging to the lines of real or imagined ancestors. Where is our furthest, first home? Where are we heading? As the new sciences limn an ever-vaster universe of the large and small, our stories of ourselves will surely follow in the wake, reshaping how we think of who we are. Don’t expect revelations, blueprints or master plans, though. The mysteries are likely to proliferate and deepen.
Not too long ago, well after finishing the book and watching its publication, I had a dream that I visited a beautiful antique villa, which seemed to be in the hot southwestern territories of my homelands in Texas or northern Mexico. The architecture was in a Spanish colonial style, decorated in colorful Poblano tile, decked with royal blues, mustard yellow and magenta flowers. A spacious courtyard garden of bougainvillea, honeysuckle and white oleander surrounded a tranquil pool that looked inviting in the heat of a late afternoon.
As I walked through a door that opened into the courtyard, I entered a room full of people who, though strangers, seemed familiar to me. There were the Mexican Americans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, distinguished, noble in their posture, the well-dressed men in pressed shirts and suits, the ladies in simple, dignified dresses and elegant shoes.
They were milling about talking among themselves, sipping from tiny cups of chocolate, tea and coffees that some had perilously perched on their knees. On tables covered in lace manteles, there were trays of pan dulce, leche quemada candies and tiny marzipan fruits. The room smelled of cinnamon, pomade and Old Spice men’s cologne.
It occurred to me that I had come to a place of my ancestors, a villa somewhere in eternity. One lady who looked like my great aunt Pepa welcomed me with a warm smile and an abrazo, and when she announced me to the rest of the gathered folks, they nodded and ahhed and gently applauded. An old man in a tattered brown wool suit stood up and spoke about the nobility of book learning and how we must always remember the ancestors. One of the little old ladies placed a tray before me that was set with stuffed chiles, cheeses and small florettes of pickled cactus.
And just as I was feeling as if this were a place where I might dwell forever, the lady who looked like my aunt Pepa rang a tiny silver bell and everyone grew quiet. She reminded me of how I must be setting out and that I should leave before it grew dark.
“Where am I going?” I remember thinking to myself.
“Time is short,” I remember a voice replying.
John Phillip Santos’ memoir was a 1999 National Book Award finalist. The Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker is a program officer at the Ford Foundation.