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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


The weather is hot and summery. I just got a little bump of excitement at finding a book, wrapped in cardboard and brown paper, lying on my porch: the mailman had left it there since it would not fit in the steel mailbox attached to the lattice below the porch rail. I knew what it would be: Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson. I came across a reference to it in Us and Them by David Berreby, and got that familiar visceral tug that told me I wanted to read this book. Since I read with a highlighter, that means I had to buy this book. So I did, via Abebooks.com, as usual. The somber, black-covered trade paperback has a photographic negative image of one hand tugging a rope connected to two bound hands. The book was formerly the property of a John C. Hubbard, MD, of Orchard Park, New York.

Slavery of course is an ancient institution, and far from dead. There are no doubt millions of people living in slavery in the world today. Since I am writing about the ancient world, I want to familiarize myself with the forms of slavery practiced back then. But for some years now I have been interested in slavery in general, possibly a reflection of my being of the sign Aquarius, the most egalitarian of signs and the one most associated with emancipation.

I was struck by something I read in The History of Technology last year (at least, I think it was there): that slavery is essentially indistinguishable from the domestication of animals, it being simply the same process but applied to one's own species. Interestingly, animal domestication is much older than human society, since many animal species practice it. Some ants, for instance, farm aphids; and some species of ants domesticate other, different-species ants. These are technically forms of the zoological phenomenon known as symbiosis. As the author of this chapter of the history, F. E. Zeuner, points out, in very few instances of symbiosis do the participants benefit equally from the arrangement.

For many years Kimmie has believed that I was a slave in a previous life. Her evidence? Certain fears that I have, such as being near her when she's wielding a knife! But also a number of faint scars across my back that look like whip-welts, that I have no memory of receiving in this life.

So maybe my connection with slavery is even closer than I realize, and my interest in human emancipation is motivated from my own experience. But even apart from that, slavery is a powerful image and metaphor, for we are all slaves, are we not?

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