Sometimes, I look at my boy’s face searching for traces of myself. I get glimmers of it in his root beer eyes, his unruly cowlicks, his quasi-swarthy skin. I see it in his skinny long legs and little skinny body. Usually, my search comes up empty. I see his mother’s lips, her round cheek bones. Mostly, I don’t see either of us. I see him.
My search is ambivalent. I want to see myself over there rather then here, expressed anew in this beautiful, lively youth, unsullied by 43 years of this all too human existence. I want a glimpse of my temporary immortality, this passing on of myself beyond my own demise and certain death. But at the same time I fear the contagion that I am, the idiocy and disease I necessarily bequest to him.
Genes are an odd, potent figure. They’re primal yet with an intelligence that exceeds us, as if divine or advanced super alien. The body, we imagine, is stupid, always needing to be told what to do by our “selves” (there are of course proponents of body knowledge but those are the minority). Well, genes are even higher up the chain than these selves! They’re extra extra super duper special real smart commanding thingies. And very secretive–hence the need to “decode” them rather than, say, interpret them? Read them? Look at them? No, genes are so special that they don’t speak a normal language; they speak in alien code.
Hundreds of billions of dollars have gone into decoding the human genome. The idea is that these things we call genes are special messages that hold our fates; if we can decode them, we will finally know our fates. We’ll be face to face with the words of our maker! Of course, the same people who proffer such promises are precisely the ones who scoff at proponents of the Bible. The word of God! Ha! How silly! But these genes, well, they’re real!
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not discounting genes; I’m just trying to understand how we understand them–and really how I understand them as both a parent and the spawn of a father I never knew, now dead. I actually love this scientific obsession with genetic “decoding.” For $99, you can send your spit to some folks and you’ll “learn valuable health and ancestry information.” It seems your genes hold the secret of where you came from and where you’re going next–or, rather, how you’re going to go. This is why Angelina did what she did: she has the BRCA gene. We call it a genetic predisposition which is a great existential, philosophical loosey-goosey figure tiptoeing around the fate-free will (false) dichotomy (it’s your fate! and not your fate!).
What I love about genetics is how bizarre and esoteric it is. To me, it’s in the same class as astrology and the reading of palms and tea leaves–practices for which I have enormous respect. After all, we are part and parcel of the cosmos. We flow along complex cosmic swirls (orbits being the most common one). We are constitutive of the great cosmic becoming, not actors on the stage of the universe. And so if you know how to read certain flows of other things, it makes sense you can discern certain things about yourself. It’s a benefit of ecology, if you know to read it. Reading palms or tea leaves or stars (or words, for that matter) is as demanding as reading any genome, if not more so. There’s no machine to plug a palm into; there’s only the reader’s eyes and experience and interpretive acumen.
None of these things–palms, stars, tea leaves, genes–are determinative. We’d like them to be a synecdoche, a part that speaks for the whole of us. That line on your palm is squiggly so you’re sexy! Or else a metaphor: the chaos of the leaves is the chaos of your life. But all of these things are neither metaphors nor synecdoches but metonymies: they are continuous with the whole without determining the whole. They are part of us but are not our essence (whatever that might be).
Still, genes carry this radiant force, a waft of the essential. In the Christopher Guest HBO series, Family Tree, Chris O’Dowd goes in search of his lineage. And with each discovery about some ancestor, he believes he’s discovered something about himself–even though each discovery turns out to be wrong or humiliating.
He learns that his grandfather was a stage performer and so imagines his lineage arty and noble. But it turns out his grandfather was the back end of a two-person horse costume vaudeville act. Later, he comes to believe that his great grandmother was Mojave Indian. “This makes such sense,” he tells the camera and his friends as he notices all the ways he clearly has Native American blood in him–he can walk very quietly and can sense vibrations in the ground. The sense of the genes carries through his sense of self. It turns out, she wasn’t Mojave but Jewish–which makes a new kind of sense, albeit less exciting. And, yes, the very DNA of racism lies in our sense of genes (which the show nails with a deadpan, devastating effect).
Our sense of our genes carries with it pride, shame, humiliation, fear, a great source of anxiety for parents. It’s an ongoing thread in The Sopranos: are AJ’s issues due to Tony’s genes? “My rotten, fuckin’ putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul. That’s my gift to my son.” Genes are not just building blocks of our bodies but a virus that infects us–and our spawn. I look at my kid all the time and wonder how I’ve infected him, what awful parts of me run through him, from his body to his demeanor. And I know my ex considers what infections I’ve given him just as I wonder how she’s infected him. He gets ear infections; that’s your fault! But he can’t do math which is your fault! There is a profound guilt that runs through our so-called genetic gift, however absurd it sounds from afar.
Genes are terrifying because they speak to the transhuman that runs through all of us. We are not individuals. We are not discrete units or autonomous creatures. The world quite literally runs through us. And genetics is one language of a great, collective, swarming transpersonality. Genes declare we are made of things that are not us, a language and intelligence that is ancient, alien, and powerful.
We are neurotic little egos while all along incredible intelligences and forces, at once infinitely vast and mysterious, surge through us, telling us all kinds of things in languages we barely grasp. It’s beautiful. And for $99, you can get a glimpse of them.