This is the ninth part of a series of articles on The Tyrant Baru Cormorant—part review, part meta, part commentary. For intro and links to the others, go here!
This one’s about brains. And more specifically, what it means to be a squishy, vulnerable blob of very intricate jelly.
- Mind your head
- Mature lobotomy
- ‘My worst fear in all the world’
- The ending of this book (which is so interesting)
- Many to one
- Right down the middle
- Baru, Barhu
- Nootropics: ‘ant juice’
- Drugs for use in conditioning and torture: the ‘dream-hammer’
- Just straight-up cocaine: ‘mason dust’
- Combat drugs
- So how’s this depicted?
- Putting more fun stuff in the brain: the Cancrioth
- An ending
In The Monster Baru Cormorant, Xate Yawa witnesses Iscend Comprine killing some fish.
Iscend had a particular technique to prepare her catch, which she called ikejime. I would have called it prissy and obsessive, but the fish were exquisite, and anyway if you insulted Clarified they would make a great effort to correct their wrongs, which I found exhausting.
Iscend’s net came up fat with squirming silver, and she dumped the whole load of fish into a tub of water chilled by a brick of Helbride’s precious ice, stunning them. One by one she selected her favorites and performed her ikejime. The pithing needle glittered in her fist.
It happened like this: first she grasped the fish firmly around the gills. Then she drove the needle into the brain behind the eye. If done correctly (and it always was) the fish would fan its fins and then go limp. Iscend returned the dead fish to the ice water, where its flavor would remain succulent until she was ready to cook.
As you might guess from the Japanese word, this refers to a real method of killing fish, called 活け締め or 活き締め. Just as described, it is performed by driving a sharp spike called a 手鉤 into the fish’s brain, so fast that the fish dies without going into death spasms that harm the taste:
When spiked correctly, the fish fins flare and the fish relaxes, immediately ceasing all motion. Destroying the brain and the spinal cord of the fish will prevent reflex action from happening; such muscle movements would otherwise consume adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the muscle, and as a result produce lactic acid and ammonia, making the fish sour, soggy and less tasteful. Furthermore, the blood contained in the fish flesh retracts to the gut cavity, which produces a better coloured and flavoured fillet, and prolongs shelf life.
The method was apparently developed during the Edo period, and it bears a lot of similarity to pithing, a Western method of destroying the brain or spinal column with a needle for slaughter of meat or laboratory vivisection. Of course, there is no Japanese language in the world of Baru, but this precise term is being deployed for the same reason as abstruse technical terms for parts of boats: it is likely to be unfamiliar, so using the real-world word invites us to make the connection and research further.
The metaphorical significance of this is made explicit within a paragraph, as Yawa contemplates her plan to lobotomise Baru, and send her away as a vegetable to be married by the Necessary King:
I’d threatened to pith Baru. Apparitor and I had agreed upon that step: poison her into seizure, place a medical arrest upon her(…)
A connection that will prove fertile: these books take a certain horrified fascination in the mutilation of brains. We’ve seen how the Masquerade lines up their plan of social control in the world of dreams and symbols, but of course all this is instantiated. So let’s face up the profoundly disturbing realisation that all the things that make up our experience are contained in the subtle configuration of a soft clump of flesh. And with a small cut in the right place, we would live through a terrible discontinuity in personality, memory, habits and all the things that form our identity…
Naturally we’ll be going into the terrain of some pretty hefty historical atrocities, notably the routine use of crude lobotomies as a ‘treatment’ for a wide variety of mental conditions during the 20th century. But before we get ourselves up on the lobotomy table, let’s make sure to prepare the operation site…
Mind your head
Come: we’ve evaded the great egregore Gender, and we live yet… now we must sail on, into the dangerous land known as philosophy of mind. Maybe you’d rather have Stanford rather than Wikipedia for that, actually… alas, it does not have a general overview of the whole topic, so you’ll have to go with articles like the mind/brain identity theory. Look at how long and dense these articles are! We’d better tread carefully…
On the limits of self-referential language
The English language is packed with words to describe a rather vague thing: mind, experience, thought, consciousness, subjectivity, mental state, sense, the dreaded ‘qualia’. What do they refer to? You likely have some kind of intuitive idea (‘intuitive idea’! there’s another one!), but to actually put it into words pushes up against one of the boundaries of everyday language; we ‘know’ what it’s like to ‘experience’ things because we are constantly doing it, but when we try to apply language to it, we find ourselves going in circles.
For example, ask Wiktionary what ‘mind’ means, and we get a definition that’s about as good as anyone’s:
The non-material substance or set of processes in which consciousness, perception, affectivity, judgement, thinking, and will are based.
Oxford offers us a slightly more elegant definition:
the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.
So we have a long list of related things: consciousness, perception, affectivity, judgement, thinking, will, experience, feeling. Follow any of these to their entries, and you’ll probably end up back at ‘mind’ or ‘mental’ sooner or later.
Now hold on, you might say. A dictionary only has words to define words, so you’ll always end up with something a little circular; ultimately the hope is that one of the words will catch on to your experiences and non-verbal mental models and give you some sort of foundation to flesh out the whole structure.
Ah, but that opens up the problem: when it comes to minds, the subjective experience we’re trying to use to ground this whole thing is, well, the whole category of ‘subjective experience’ itself. We will never be surprised if self-reference leads to some tricky places. (For some authors, perhaps an author whose book you might find on your dad’s shelf if you have a certain kind of computerdad, that self-reference is actually the root concept for thinking about minds altogether. But this seems to be a minority position!)
I don’t pretend to have any novel insight into these questions: it’s more that I want to acknowledge the inherent difficulty of this terrain. Faced with this already hard-to-describe ‘thing’, we face the difficulty of relating it to The Body. (The capital B is vital, to let you know that important Theory is being done here.) Perhaps language is the wrong tool altogether, and we’d get a better sense if we just found the right drugs, but if that’s true, then I sadly cannot distribute such an experience through the internet.
We have, or are, things called ‘minds’; at some point we figured out that these ‘minds’ have some very intimate connection with brains.
The idea that the mind, or soul, ‘lives in’ some specific part of the body is perhaps quite an intuitive conclusion.
In an ancient world where it is not uncommon to see dismemberment happen, you would presumably learn that humans are very resilient to some types of injury, like loss of a finger, and much more vulnerable if they suffer others. You would have a sense that your fellow humans might be ‘living’ with all evidence of having minds, or ‘dead’ and seemingly without it, as if some substance—later retroactively categorised by the word ‘soul’—has left the body. So you might argue that the parts that can be removed are dispensable and not where the mind ‘lives’.
If you were somewhere in the vicinity of North Africa and Greece, you might say it probably therefore lives in the… heart? Maybe the lungs? Oh, what if some feelings exist in the head, and others in the chest cavity?
To get to the bottom of this, you’d have to do some animal cruelty. Luckily we had Galen around to take the initiative on inventing medical science by hurting things very carefully…
So, historical tangent time.
Inevitable historical tangent
I’m going to be drawing particularly on the Wikipedia article history of neuroscience, the history section of the lobotomy article, and a few others. This is not a level of diligence that would pass muster in a university—well, we’re not in a university and I’m writing this for fun… but like, you know, if this is important to you, please check their sources and read around the subject. I hope what I can add is what Wikipedia would deem ‘original research’: connections between disparate elements, a particular spin that is not theirs.
Galen states in On Respiration and the Arteries “one must determine by dissection that the number and nature of the structures that connect the heart to the brain” and it was observed that when these nerves were cut in animals they would lose their voice and when veins were cut they would bleed, but retain their voice. Therefore, the brain does not need the heart to feel or create sensations and the heart does not need the brain to move. Galen recognized the importance of both the heart and the brain in the proper functioning of a human but saw these as two distinct systems governed separately. Therefore, there are two souls in combat, the brain representing the logical soul and driving logical being, the heart representing spirited actions of movement and impulse constantly at odds with each other and supplied by different supporting systems.
Galen was able to identify the network of nerves going throughout the body and connecting to the soft squishy mass of flesh inside the head, though he did not determine their exact function.
OK, enough of the Greeks. Over the millenia, philosophical traditions have subsequently gone on to attempt to describe the ‘soul’, or more often, multiple (translated-to) ‘souls’ with different properties, which may or may not be associated with different body parts. At some point, however, this gave way to talking about the ‘mind’, either in addition to or in replacement to the ‘soul’. Unlike the ‘soul’, the ‘mind’ has no connotation of independence or immortality.
In Europe at least, the break seems to have taken place in the early modern period. At this time, a new ‘mechanical philosophy’ was being developed by people like Descartes and Hobbes, which posited that the world resembled an enormous deterministic mechanism of tiny interlocking parts similar to a clockwork device.
A small caution: even though we might call this a step towards a modern scientific materialist worldview, it differs pretty substantially in the details; for example, the strictest mechanical philosophy would not have permitted Newton’s recognition of gravity acting at a distance!
But it was definitely a substantial step along the way, reviving ancient Greek notions of atomism which had previously been rejected by the Aristotleian cosmology (though, inevitably, the subject of historical atomisms is not simple at all! there are many subtle differences between different beliefs!) as well as a shift in perspective: now the emphasis was on describing and predicting the behaviour of the world rather than for example telling a story about its purpose.
This approach proved very successful; matters that were previously a matter of abstract philosophical debate from ‘first principles’ abruptly became empircal questions. A passion for dissection reemerged in the 16th century onwards, driven by figures like Andreas Vesalius, whose investigations started calling Galen and Aristotle into question. Inevitably this included Galen’s view of the mind. Wikipedia writes:
He believed that the brain and the nervous system are the center of the mind and emotion in contrast to the common Aristotelian belief that the heart was the center of the body. He correspondingly believed that nerves themselves do not originate from the heart, but from the brain—facts already experimentally proved by Herophilus and Erasistratus in the classical era, but suppressed after the adoption of Aristotelianism by the Catholic Church in the middle ages.
So by this point it seems that we start talking about ‘minds’ rather than ‘souls’, although how this distinction played out in the original languages I’m not sure. Not long after Vesalius, Descartes would come along and propose a new philosophy of ‘Dualism’, in which the mind was a separate ‘substance’ to the body, with its own ‘mode’ of existence, and the two would interface through the pineal gland of the brain. Moreover, ‘animal spirits’ moving within the nervous system of the body could influence the mind, along with sense data. As outlandish as this sounds, it shows that now the mind has been given a definite home; Descartes introduced the lasting metaphor of a ‘pilot in a ship’.
But the matter of the brain was still an open question. Up close, a dead brain looked like a mass of fibers; new staining techniques revealed the complex branching fibers of individual nerve cells inside the brain. Thomas Willis made extensive anatomical studies of the brain, and started arguing that epilepsy could be caused by mechanisms taking place there. This leads to a grimly wry comment from a Wiki editor:
In 1672 he published the earliest English work on medical psychology, Two Discourses concerning the Soul of Brutes, which is that of the Vital and Sensitive of Man. Willis could be seen as an early pioneer of the mind-brain supervenience claim prominent in present day neuropsychiatry and philosophy of mind. Unfortunately, his enlightenment did not improve his treatment of patients; in some cases, he advocated hitting the patient over the head with sticks.
So by the late 1600s we’re starting to see the idea that damage to the brain could lead to changes in behaviour.
Although these nerves were now being extensively mapped, the first evidence of their internal ‘mechanism’ came with Luigi Galvani in the 1700s. He discovered that a combination of certain chemicals could stimulate motion in a frog leg, and described it as ‘the forces of electricity in the motion of the muscle’ (de viribus electricitatis in motu musculari in the scientific Latin of the time, you can read his treatise here), presumably by analogy with an existing word for the attractive effect of amber rubbed by cloth that had become a matter of scientific discussion in the prior century.
Galvani supposed this type of electricity was an inherent property of only living beings, but before long his rival Alessandro Volta demonstrated the same electricity could appear in purely chemical cells. As such, it became possible to develop the idea that the brain would be sending out electrical signals through these nerve cells.
And now we come to the 1800s, and the most relevant part of this history.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, certain scientists were so excited by the idea of the brain being the key to character that they leapt to draw links between bumps on the skull and supposed variations or defects in character. Phrenology is now recogised as a nonsensical and frequently racist pseudoscience, but such ‘wrong turns’ were as much a part of the history of ‘science’ as the theories that remained respectable. And look what it says of the character of the time: the Church has been ousted, and now the brain is the key to self-understanding and the ‘good life’.
Better evidence came with the idea that brain injuries could be informative. The case of Phineas Gage, who had an iron rod driven through his head by a blasting accident but miraculously survived, became celebrated: neuroscientists of various schools of thought rushed to explain the changes in his behaviour, although the actual body of evidence was rather inconclusive. (Phineas Gage is actually mentioned in the afterword of Tyrant, to note his resilience and adaptation after the accident.)
And then we come to Marc Dax in 1836, and the better known Paul Broca in 1861. Both surgeons dissected hospital patients who had reported paralysis and loss of speech, discovering in each case a lesion (i.e. a hole or gap) in their frontal lobe. This prompted a rush to dissect other patients with such disabilities, hoping to discover the role of different parts of the brain. Alongside came experiments on animals, which revealed that damaging parts of their brains could remove certain capacities, such as vision.
The implications of this were heavy. Descartes had been tempted to imagine the mind floating in another realm, anchored in the pineal gland, but now it seemed far more closely woven to the physical structure of the brain. What exactly was the link between the two?
The answer to this difficulty, for academic analytic philosophers, seems to have been to become very pedantic and start invoking technical terms like supervenience. The field seems to have condensed into two frameworks—which are dualism (roughly, there are two things, the mind and the brain, which relate to each other somehow, e.g. that the mind is a property emerging from certain configurations of matter) and monism (the mind and the brain are in some sense ‘the same thing’)—each split into various nuanced schools which have martialed their various arguments over the decades. You can get a degree in it! I don’t have one!
Regardless of this philosophical question, we now knew that the state of the brain somehow determined the state of the mind, possibly by being the same thing. After many more discoveries, we now consider it to have something to do with the pattern of connections between cells called neurons, which can be ‘activated’ by others to pass electrical signals. The modern paradigm says that a thought is somehow encoded in the pattern of neurons activating each other.
From that point? It gets rather muddled.
The doldrums of data
Let’s skim forward a hundred years; the computer has been invented, first to win wars, and then discovered to have many other applications. A new metaphor is in town. Now the brain is increasingly seen as an immense, very complicated computer; instead of the simplicity of high and low charge states passing through logic gates, we have the many nuanced conditions of a neuron cell. But the basic idea of complex behaviour from simple, rule-following elements is the same. Perhaps this metaphor will eventually go out of fashion, but for now it holds a great deal of cultural sway. Such thought leads to the idea that we might one day create minds inside computers, or that if we want to find non-human minds, we should look to the collective behaviour of anthills.
Neuroscience, meanwhile, has been equipped by the initimate understanding of electromagnetism and the new computers with a great many more methods to probe the brain, from EEGs to fMRIs and CT scans. Vast amounts of data are now available on the brain in the process of all kinds of thought; the ‘functions’ of specific regions of the brain are now identified by their habit of ‘lighting up’ in association with certain activities.
Unfortunately (or not…), this abundance of data has not been accompanied with equal conceptual advances. The problem is that, much as in medicine, the experiments are filled with unavoidable confounding factors which raise all kinds of tricky questions, ontological and epistemological. To do ‘good science’ requires robust statistical methods and the ability to formulate the ‘right’ questions. But this is not selected for: such research is difficult and often unlikely to be fruitful (i.e. producing an unsurprising or inconclusive answer), while the researchers are all acutely aware that their career and prospects for a stable life in the field depend on publishing many, widely cited papers.
So you end up with a cacophony of weak, contradictory conclusions on increasingly narrow questions, and we start losing sight of what it is we’re even trying to build, since the ability to precisely model and predict the movements of a person’s mind (the way we might an electron) or read the contents of thought from an fMRI scan is just not on the cards.
(Of course, if you ask science fiction, the answer is simple: we want to build androids! We want to upload peoples’ brains into computers! Every few decades, the promise of ‘AI’ rises again with some new technique; every few decades, it proves disappointing.)
But perhaps the failure of neuroscience is a good thing. Because as soon as we discover that link in the great ‘mechanism’ between brain and mind, it raises the possibility of its deliberate manipulation. What if someone were to start a program of deliberately modifying brains of people—perhaps those who they deemed somehow socially unfit?
In our world, the practice of lobotomy (aka ‘leucotomy’ or sometimes ‘psychosurgery’) emerges from the bloody twentieth century, a companion of its close friend eugenics.
So, it’s the 17th century. We have a new worldview, not to mention new economic systems such as the workhouse, and sweeping social changes building new hierarchies such as colonialism and the enclosures. With them comes a sense of the new ideal worker-human… and this marked certain classes of behaviour, which might once have been afforded a different social role, as ‘brain diseases’ analogous to physical diseases. Not just differences of behaviour that could perhaps be taken as wisdom or harmless variation, but failures of the mind driven, logically, by failures in the brain.
The only thing to do with such ‘insane’ people was to incarcerate them in facilities like the infamous Bedlam and subject them to medical study in the hopes that the state might one day be able to eliminate such errors from existence. (In this I’m attempting to follow roughly the narrative laid out by Foucault, but I’ve not read his book, or subsequent critiques…) This corresponded to a general trend towards incarceration over the older forms of grisly execution and corporal punishment, with a growing ideology that claimed the incarcerated should be taught proper behaviour and brought back into the fold rather than simply discarded.
However, most efforts in this direction—e.g. attempts to train the incarcerated in more “moral” behaviour—were failures. The incarcerated population continued to grow, and while this incarceration had its uses, such as a means of coercion to depress wages, it failed to achieve the vision of transforming sex workers, blasphemers, vagrants etc. into productive, Christian workers in the desired industries.
Perhaps we can see how this is relevant to Baru!
Many physical problems could be addressed by surgery, so now that the mind had been tracked down to the brain, it could perhaps follow that a kind of brain surgery could be used to change the mind.
A brief history of lobotomies in our world
The first effort in this direction came in 1888, with Gottlieb Burkhardt’s experimental surgeries on six patients, crudely attempting to cut part of what he considered the ‘associative’ part of the brain, which controlled neither sensory inputs nor motor function but presumably had something to do with thought. The patients’ conditions were, in the taxonomy of the time, ‘chronic mania’, ‘primary dementia’ and ‘primary paranoid psychosis’. The results were an abject failure. Burkhardt killed one patient, and inflicted complications such as epilepsy, motor weakness and aphasia on three others. Only one patient was reported to have improved, but later killed themselves.
Though he attempted to spin his treatment as having a 50% success frate, Burkhardt’s efforts were received by his colleagues with horror and ridicule, and he soon gave up medicine altogether. Lobotomy’s day in the sun would have to wait until the 1930s, by which point in the USA hundreds of thousands of ‘mentally ill’ people were incarcerated in conditions later compared, in the immediate aftermath of WWII, to Nazi concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen. They would be ‘treated’ in a variety of ways that often sound more like methods of torture, although all were claimed to be effective: infection wtih malaria, electric shocks, and various courses of drugs, e.g. drugging a patient unconscious for days, overdosing insulin to cause comas, or overdosing them with a drug that caused seizures. Patients had very little power to resist these ‘treatments’, and doctors gradually persuaded themselves that such drastic measures were justifiable alternatives to incarcerating the patients.
The first ‘modern’ lobotomy as a psychiatric treatment was performed by António Egas Moniz, a Portugese neurologist. By this point, scientists had started zeroing in on the frontal lobes, observing first world war injuries and animal experiments to inconclusive results. Experiments in 1922 had shown that damage to the frontal lobes tended to lead to severe decline in abilities, but this opinion started to be revised in the 1930s, with American Walter Dandy removing parts of a patient’s frontal lobes and other neuroscientists commenting that the patient seemed to only show a blunting of affect but otherwise be unharmed. Other reports claimed more dramatic personality changes. In 1935, Moniz observed a presentation by another American, John Fulton, who had made two chimps more docile by cutting their frontal lobes. Three months later he started performing the procedure on humans.
The justification, to Moniz, was a belief that these patients’ mental states were caused by ‘fixed and destructive circuits’ in the frontal lobe. So if he just went in and slashed these circuits, the patients could adapt and recover. The first treatments were performed by making a hole and squirting alcohol in to sever some long fibers; from the ninth patient onwards they used a special instrument called a leucotome, consisting of a tube with a sharp wire that could be inserted through a hole in the skull, then rotated to cut a circular disc out of the brain. This, Moniz hoped, would relieve the depression and schizophrenia of his patients. If it didn’t, well, no problem—they would make some more cuts!
Moniz and his team observed many complications, from incontinence and drooping eyelids to muscle disorders disorientation, hunger and even kleptomania. Moniz declared these were merely transitory, and announced to the world that in two thirds of treatments his random hacking at brain tissue had caused improvement in the patients’ condition and nobody was too severely harmed, as judged by a perfunctory followup appointment somewhere between one and ten weeks later. On the basis of this study of about twenty people, Moniz touted the surgery as a miracle cure.
In most of Europe, the technique caught on slowly, with only a handful of patients receiving the cuts at first in many countries prior to WWII. The Italians, however, rushed to lobotomise hundreds of patients, and realised that they could get to the brain even faster through the thin bone around the eye socket, into which they would inject alcohol to dissolve the delicate brain tissue.
It was the Americans, of course, who took it to the most absurd heights. The push was led by a man named Walter Jackson Freeman II and his buddy James W. Watts. A fanatic for the new ‘treatment’, Freeman convinced himself that the existing procedure, which required an operating theatre and general anaesthetic to drill a hole into the skull, was too elaborate; he wanted it to be done in a doctor’s office through the eye socket without need for anaesthesia. (If anaesthesia was unavailable, the patient could simply be shocked unconscious with electricity!)
To this end, he found an ice pick in a kitchen drawer and started practicing the motions which he considered to be proper for a lobotomy on grapefruit and, later, dead bodies. (Despite specifying a precise series of rotations and cuts, Freeman seems to have had no evidence whatsoever behind them.) He began applying the new technique shortly after the war ended.
Before long, Freeman and Watts were touring the country, performing lobotomies everywhere. With the new method, the American medical system went from performing hundreds of lobotomies to thousands per year, ultimately cutting the brains of about 40,000 patients. (Meanwhile, my own country, the UK, somehow managed to perform a full 17,000 in a much smaller population. The Nordic countries, infamously big fans of eugenics, pulled off another 9000. By contrast the Soviet Union balked and banned the practice as early as 1950.)
It must have rapidly become evident that the lobotomies had little ‘positive’ effect as far as the patient was concerned, and were liable to create severe personality changes and extensive lifelong disabilities (as in the infamous case of Rosemary Kennedy in 1941), but the practice continued into the 1970s. One patient was twelve-year-old child Howard Dully, diagnosed by Freeman as schizophrenic, who would spent many of the ensuing years in incarceration or homeless before finding work as a bus driver; he discovered his lobotomy in his 50s and the story was turned into first a documentary and then a memoir.
In literature and art, lobotomy was greeted largely with horror, with novels describing revulsion at a flat, doll-like affect in survivors. (I hesitate to draw too much from such external observations, because that’s also how they describe autistic people, but that is how it was broadly received by artists.) As early as 1958, a play by renowned gay playwright Tennessee Williams brought up the possibility of a lobotomy being performed to silence a rumour of homosexuality—“but after the operation who would believe her, Doctor?”
Nevertheless, the practice continued. Perhaps, after all, what many relatives of lobotomy patients wanted was a docile ‘vegetable’ who would be easier to keep ornamentally alive without any inconvenient desires or autonomy? (I can’t help but think of case of ‘Ashley X’.) But also, for patients facing a future of lifelong incarceration, or merely all the difficulties of trauma and neurodivergence without anything resembling adequate support or understanding, rolling the dice on a promised ‘cure’ might have been an understandable gamble. And of course there’s the limited capacity for information to spread: if you only had the doctor promising a lobotomy was a well-tested and helpful treatment, with nothing to contradict him, you might put aside your doubts.
Eventually, public opinion turned hard against lobotomies, and the treatment became a symbol for the most terrifying medical abuse—though a variant treatment, called a bilateral cingulotomy, continues, allegedly without the same side effects. Meanwhile, total removal of autonomy under medical incarceration has not ceased by any means. Nowadays, though, chemical treatments tend to be preferred to surgery…
In contrast to our world, the Masquerade—a heightened image of scientific medicine’s closet of atrocities—was never content to wait for chance brain injuries to learn the parts of the brain. No, it would cheerfully inflict the injuries—there is ever a supply of bodies. Xate Yawa, who has lived long enough to go even further than Baru in eager complicity, spells this out explicitly:
“It depends on what I cut. We can be very precise, these days.” How many thousands and thousands of lobotomies had been carried out, since that long-ago day when Lapetiare ordered the royal children gentled to spare them grief? I had conducted many myself, working on the minds of condemned prisoners to test the effect of certain incisions. We had, by massive repetition, charted the specific and local functions of the brain.
As such, they have few illusions about its effect, and routinely practice it as a punishment. Yawa again:
I’d lost a patient to meningitis once because I hadn’t sterilized correctly. A horrible waste: he was a barrister who serially mishandled the estates of widows in order to plunder their property. After the lobotomy I had hoped to make him suffer a while as a menial. One takes what pleasures one can in this work, in the One Trade which is the life of lies.
For the Masquerade, medical ‘treatment’, criminal punishment and eugenics are continuous: all means to bring unruly human bodies in line with the proper social order. So we can’t really categorise lobotomy as fitting just one of these roles…
“The minister of the Metademe says, ‘Give me the antidote, lest my eugenicists forbid your children from marrying and lobotomize your husband to use as a brainless stud.’
Still, lobotomy is mostly deployed with pseudo-medical justification. Yawa is at pains to justify her plan to lobotomise Baru with a reference to heir seizures and mental abnormalities that would hold up in court.
But they also use lobotomy in another way. The figurehead and nominal head of state, the Emperor, is mythologised as a person treated by a special memory-blocking drug in order to literally attain the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Of course, we learn early on that ‘It’ is in fact someone lobotomised and placed in a straitjacket.
This symbol of a lobotomised emperor—not unlike my own country’s idea of ‘The Crown’ personifying the state, but without the inconvenience of an actual monarch—recurs throughout. For example, Monster, Baru has a seizure dream:
She sits on the Throne: she posesses ultimate power.
She is lobotomized and bound: she has no power at all. She is an emblem and an instrument of hidden forces.
At first, these twin meanings seem only loosely connected. But let’s recall the overall meta-theme of inhabiting and exploiting the stories told by empire…
‘My worst fear in all the world’
Baru spends much of the book desperately trying to escape lobotomy. Among the many dangers she faces, this one in particular terrifies her.
“You know,” Barhu said, staring down at the corpse’s bulging eyes, “I think that lobotomy is my worst fear in all the world. Worse than drowning.”
Nothing Baru could imagine would be worse than the Metademe. Conditioning and endless reconditioning, mush and children’s block puzzles, and the memory of brilliance pierced by a steel lobotomy pick.
As a metaphor, it infects her nightmares:
She can feel the lobotomy pick in her brain. She can feel the ghost of its presence. It has emptied her of will, so that she might become a perfect vessel for the design of the Empire.
But we might ask, why is lobotomy considered so scary, even by comparison to other disabling injuries that someone might inflict?
There are a number of reasons we could name. One is the sense that the lobotomy would fundamentally rewrite your personality, or ‘inner law’ in Baru’s language: while if you lost a hand, you would still be ‘you’, there is a sense that under lobotomy you would essentially die, and have another person animate your body. This interpretation of the outcome is expressed by Xate Yawa in Tyrant:
By dawn I would have her dead on my lobotomy pick, and a gentled new woman cut to life in her body.
The extent to which lobotomy would really cause such a discontinuity in subjective experience is impossible to know without, well, having a lobotomy.
Another is fear of disability, particularly mental disability. No disability is afforded respect in our society, all types are met with both pity and contempt, in different ways, and stripped of autonomy. But for mental disabilities, there is perhaps a greater tendency to see the disability as a defect of character: “why can’t you just..?”
Perhaps especially for people who have been taught to see our abilities as central to our self-worth—our capacity to understand, to speak and write and create art, to participate with open eyes (ability metaphor!) in the evolution of society—then the lobotomy and other disabling injuries that interrupt those capacities are seen as a particularly marked horror. It will take away what made us special, independent. Baru’s ‘memory of brilliance’.
(By the same token, ‘inspiration porn’ about disability portrays people as ‘overcoming’ disability in order to accomplish things anyway, simultaneously upholding the hierarchy of accomplishment = worth and functioning as a rejoinder and dismissal of other disabled people.)
And oh, look at Baru, who parses everything through her status as a prodigy. She was the one selected by Farrier for greatness, the one who proved her abilities committing atrocities on an enormous scale in Aurdwynn… but also the one who is, alone, responsible for putting an end to the Masquerade, clever enough to see past their games. She can do things that other people cannot, so she’s important. (This is, she must gradually realise, an insidious illusion that grants them control over her.)
There is another facet: to be lobotomised, much like being paralysed or many other disabilities, is to place us in a state of far greater dependence. In the extreme case, we would be left with no ability to meet our own needs or act according to our own desires. And this is terrifying, because we’ve seen what happens to people who are so dependent in this world: indeed, by once being children, we have all experienced it. In the best case we are, for all the best intentions, only able to have what our caretaker is capable of giving, potentially facing a life where they mediate all our other connections; in the worst we are rendered powerless against whatever abuses someone might wish to inflict.
[Naturally this sits in a fascinating and contradictory psychic place: the other side of fear is allure. We may note that dependence can also come to represent the surety of belonging and freedom from responsibility; there is an increasing movement in fiction, I think, to explore the fascination of abuse, control, torture… or perhaps I have just gotten more interested in this after seeing it done well. When I mentioned that I was researching lobotomies for this article, some friends mentioned that it holds a certain sort of appeal!]
So in fiction, the lobotomite tends to be figure who is simultaneously revolting and pitiable (since their disability is not ‘their fault’). This narrative exists in Baru’s world as well: the first mention of a lobotomised person is the ‘Emperor’ of the masquerade, as described by Farrier:
“Of course.” Cairdine Farrier snorted. “The coronation of the Emperor is simpler than that—it involves a pick through the eye socket and a great deal of drool. But the mob believes in the potion. They believe in the Mask. They think the vegetable on the Faceless Throne is one of them.”
The term ‘vegetable’ is notable, widely applied to a comatose human in our world now that the ability to sustain a living body has advanced to the point where such a state can be maintained indefinitely: to spell out the implication, it’s that, though alive, they are not only no longer human, but not even an animal anymore. The question of how such a person should be disposed of is of course conducted entirely without their input: preserved indefinitely for the benefit of the family and the probability they might one day ‘miraculously’ come alive, or killed as a ‘mercy’ (and a smaller expense).
Certainly a lobotomite could never be expected to exert agency or power. Which is why the ending of this book is so interesting!
The ending of this book (which is so interesting)
Hey, you know that thing I always say about spoilers? Yeah I’m about to just plainly spell out how this book ends with no impact. If you want to read it and haven’t yet, you might enjoy it more the original way! Then again, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably made up your mind.
To state it plainly, Baru fakes her own lobotomy. In order to accomplish this, she has Yawa carry out a lobotomy with a weakened orbitoclast designed to snap before making a cut. Iscend Comprine, the compromised Clarified agent who has slowly been flexing her agency muscles but still would find it impossible to directly lie to Hesychast, can then truthfully report that the clockwork device made the claimed series of movements, since she’s willing to lie by omission for the good of the Throne.
Baru, now with a snapped off metal needle in her brain, then plays the part of the lobotomite to the best of her acting ability. In a series of chapters over the course of Tyrant, she reports an edited version of her adventures to ‘Mister Farrier’, playing on his memory of her as a child and his desire to see her as his own prodigal daughter. She feeds him the relevant information to put her designs in motion:
In the straitjacket she can only move her head and her hands. She closes her fists over the carved eels on the armchair’s rests, and pricks her fingers with their teeth. “I had a plan, Mister Farrier, I had a glorious plan… a trade concern… I was going to set up a trade concern…”
Even moving the pieces so that Kindalana will be present at the big announcement:
“But how do we keep control of Abd?” Farrier muses. He has not a single qualm about using this man who he drove to ruin, of course. “How can we ensure he follows our playbill?”
“His divorced wife. Make it clear that Kindalana’s in your power, Mister Farrier. Make her attend the announcement. She’ll add to your credibility. And Abd won’t dare disobey you so long as you have Kindalana in your influence. You do have leverage over her, I’m sure?”
Satisfying Farrier that she is well and truly lost to the lobotomy pick, she persuades him that—as a lobotomite—she has one childish desire he can indulge.
“Listen, Baru, how would you like a place of honor in the ceremony? Just tell me.”
She raises her eyes to him. Very slowly, she smiles that old and wicked smile.
“There is one thing,” she admits, “that I’ve always dreamt of.…”
And this sets up the absolutely glorious climax of the book, in which Baru, straitjacketed as the Emperor, reveals Farrier’s crime of sleeping with royalty:
“Excuse me,” he said. “I thought I knew who was under there. Apparently I was mistaken. Who—”
“Cairdine Farrier,” the Emperor enunciated, in a voice that buzzed and ratcheted through the clockwork of a voice-changer but never, ever faltered, “by the power invested in me as Emperor of the Imperial Republic of Falcrest, I accuse you of collaboration with foreign royalty, of producing a royal heir, and of conspiring to enrich that heir by perversion of the Empire’s Incrastic work. I order your immediate arrest. As there are no civil authorities beyond the reach of your corruption, I commend you to the navy’s custody. Empire Admiral Croftare, take him away.”
As we saw in the gender article just before, to pull this off Baru relies on having won over Kindalana, who steps into the role of foreign Oriati temptress. Baru, meanwhile, is playing two roles to different audiences: in the whole theatrical production of Falcresti court, she’s playing the impartial Emperor, but she’s also been playing the other Cryptarchs who believe in their own narrative of the helpless, passive lobotomite.
This is all, of course, very deliberate. Some years ago, prior to the sequels, Seth wrote a post titled The secret design of The Traitor Baru Cormorant which presents their own reading of the first book. Perhaps we prefer not to privilege the author’s own reading over the one we construct for ourselves, but the terms of Seth’s reading become increasingly explicit in the sequels and naturally enough they do a good job of expressing the idea here. So let’s take a look:
In this story, mighty powers present young Baru Cormorant with a story about who she is and who she must become. Baru enters this story and attempts to change it from within. In the process, she risks being changed in turn.
Can Baru enact the stories she’s given without being devoured by them? Can she subvert these stories in order to defeat them?
Seth elaborates on this by talking about their experience studying anti-Black police shootings, in terms of implicit bias.
We are all infected. Down in the automatic subsystems of the brain, the evolutionary strata that support and shape our consciousness. There are ways of learning down there which we cannot access or override, and they learn from mere exposure, they feed on simple emotion, and they say: I have seen these two things together, so they are connected. I have seen these people connected to this fear, and so they are one. These systems choose how close we sit to members of other races. They alter our facial microexpressions with split-second frames of hostility and disgust. They tip the balance when we choose between two candidates for a job. All of us are infected.
This alludes to the ‘layers’ metaphor of the brain: the deep ‘lizard brain’ (akin to Freud’s id), above which our conscious mind (which we might further wish to divide Freud’s ego and its watchful ‘cop in your head’ superego, or the many schizophrenic desires of Deleuze and Guattari) sit. Perhaps, to a programmer, these faculties might live on a higher level of abstraction. Is it actually true that we can divide up the mind in this way? Perhaps that’s beside the point: the deep unknowable part of the brain is a productive image for getting a handle on unconscious impulses.
Anyway, I won’t summarise the entire essay; suffice to say this is very clearly a thematic resolution as well as a personal one. Baru and Kindalana (and her various allies) succeed (for now) by virtue of recognising and seizing control over the colonialist narratives, strategically deploying them against their source in order to (we hope) twist the imperial egregore into hurting itself.
An intervention, just like the book attempts to intervene in the grimdark fantasy subgenre…
In this sense The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a mission of infiltration. Baru must enter the archetypical dark fantasy narrative, and seize control from within.
We’ll have to come back to how well it succeeds in its mission, and where it fits into the present milieu in the final article.
As immensely satisfying as this is as a dénouement—a complex downfall of a truly hateful man that fits together like a clockwork orbitoclast, thematic consonance, a joyful release of images in the lurid Falcresti court, Baru walking through her greatest fear and finding power there, the delightfully grisly image of a ‘floating’ lobotomy pick in Baru’s brain—it does slightly sidestep the question of well, would any power be in reach if Baru had actually been lobotomised ‘for real’?
But while she did not receive Yawa’s planned prefrontal lobotomy, a lot of other things happen to brains, Baru’s in particular, over the course of these novels.
So let’s return to the subject of callosal syndrome, tulpas, and plural systems…
Many to one
From the end of Traitor onwards, Baru comprises one half of a plural system, sharing with an alter who identifies as Tain Hu.
Depending on your background this may be a very straightforward and banal statement or something that requires a lot of unpacking. I have been called a ‘great unpacker’ in an email from Seth (hope you don’t mind me quoting that one!) so let’s get unpacking.
With the ‘egregore’ of the last article, we discussed the possibility that a system comprising many interacting people (each with their mind) might be said to have its own ‘mind’ capable of acting as if it has desires and intentions—‘Russia wants to…’. Whether this is just a productive metaphor, or we can speak of the ‘consciousness of gender’, is probably a futile question. But now we face the opposite: instead of one mind spread across many bodies, can there be many minds in one body?
The idea that one body can house multiple minds or souls is hardly new; I don’t even know where it might first have been recognised, but probably in distant prehistory. In understanding the experience of plurality, however, us ‘singletons’ face the same problem as the problem of recognising ‘other minds’ in general: we only have our own experience to go on.
The extremes of other minds
Which is to say I can’t actually know for sure that you, reading this, are really an independent subjectivity—another mind. And you can’t know that for absolute certain about me! Denying the existence of other minds is called ‘solipsism’. But of course, we have plenty of strong lines of evidence: we see ourselves in a mirror and recognise we are the same type of entity as the other ‘people’ around us, who show every imaginable sign of acting like they have independent minds, so it seems pretty damn likely.
When you start digging into this, the question becomes squirlier. Few doubt that other humans have minds. And I think many of us think it’s very likely in other animals. The great apes, who physically resemble us? Surely; we are barely different from them in our DNA, after all! At some point humans started coming up with various attempts to categorise the ‘consciousness’ of animals, through observations of their behaviour in exercises like the ‘mirror test’. Philosophers of mind found the question productive as well; take for example the famous paper by Thomas Nagel called What is it like to be a bat?, which argues there are unknowable factors in the consciousness of a bat which a human can’t understand.
But since we can only observe behaviour, and never get that ‘view from the inside’, we can’t actually deny outright a much more ambitious view. Sure, chimps must have minds. What about sponges, or other forms of life like trees and mushrooms? Does my hand have a mind, separate to my brain? Does the teacup on my desk? What about an ‘entity’ composed by taking all the atoms on Earth, sorting them by distance from an arbitrary point, and picking every prime numbered atom? This extreme view is called ‘panpsychism’; much like solipsism it is a minority position. Most people therefore will have some intuitive position on the spectrum.
Often a degree is hierarchy is summoned up: we suppose the mind of a human is somehow ‘more substantial’ than the mind of a cat. A sponge might have a consciousness, but don’t worry, it’s very rudimentary. Typically when pressed, it is this basis that we kill and eat animals with a lot less anxiety. Usually the criteria is something like complexity; on this basis we imagine that if non-animal minds were to emerge, it must be in systems with complex behaviour like an anthill or the internet.
I once wrote a short story called House in which buildings have subjectivity, and one day gain the ability to communicate with humans. As far as my characterisation, houses were basically humans. It is already hard to imagine ‘what it is like to be’ an animal, but we can at least make analogies: the bat must ‘experience’ echolocation the way we somehow ‘experience’ sight, smell, proprioception etc. It’s harder to do this for a cliff face, if we suppose the cliff face is conscious. And yet, we still have only the vaguest idea of what makes the matter in a brain so special…
Faced with all that, the idea that one brain could support multiple (semi-)independent ‘points of view’ seems like a much much smaller leap.
The medical-scientific establishment became interested in this idea during the 20th century—typically in a psyciatric context, where a ‘patient’ will ‘present’ with ‘multiple personalities’. The current story printed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 5 (DSM-5), the handbook of madness currently preferred by power (once memorably reviewed as a work of dystopian fiction in itself), calls the development of multiple personality states due to intense trauma ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’. If you look at the Wikipedia article, you’ll find a piece of writing at war with itself, trying to hedge its bets around the various definitions of the disorder. There is a vocal current demanding to dismiss the whole thing as a cultural fad of clinical roleplaying (that it is ‘iatrogenic’).
The opposite medical stance, which at least seems to better describe many peoples’ experience, sees it as primarily a result of extreme trauma, in common with other ‘dissociative disorders’, and certainly trauma (e.g. childhood abuse especially by a caregiver) seems to be the major route towards its manifestation. Still, we can perhaps feel the frustration of the editor who writes:
Dissociation, the term that underlies dissociative disorders including DID, lacks a precise, empirical, and generally agreed upon definition.
However, even here, the possibility that plural systems might speak for themselves, either as individual members or collectively, is barely acknowledged until the very end of the article in a brief aside about advocacy organisations. This is the worldview of medicine, anxiously hoarding epistemic authority.
We are (thankfully) not writing on Wikipedia. I have not had the experience of encountering or developing another person inside my head, but I am by whatever quirk of fate friends with quite a lot of people who are members of plural systems (seemingly the most neutral and generally accepted term although language is highly contested).
Some share a body with only one or two others, some with considerably more. Some see new alters (other minds) forming and disappearing, in response to their traumatic circumstances. Some people find themselves fronting (controlling the body) almost all the time with, with an alter who comes out only rarely in emergencies, others routinely share time between several primary fronts. When an alter is not fronting, they may still be active in the ‘back of the mind’ somewhere, able to communicate, or may be dormant and only aware when they are fronting. Some people I’ve met will find themselves switching out unpredictably; some can deliberately draw out a particular person to front with e.g. music. For some people, alters resemble themselves at a younger age; for some, alters have wildly divergent interests; for others, I’ve met alters with a kind of ‘competent adult’ stance who intervene when it is too painful for the usual front to continue.
It may be apparent from this brief summary (of just stuff I’ve personally seen!) that, although there has been established some (still somewhat controversial) shared language (alters, headmates, systems, fronting) we’re talking about an incredibly varied range of mental phenomena here. Moreover, the simple existence of plural systems is further connected to a broader constellation of subcultural movements, with many individual bubbles having their own language, narratives and norms. Infrastructure, such as the ubiquitous Discord bot pluralkit, has evolved to support the growing plural ‘movement’, but it is something that is still very actively defining itself. It is not uncommon for people to identify one of their alters as a nonhuman animal or even a fictional character, with various ontologies that support this—not just in modern online communities but as long as Western medicine has attempted to describe the phenomenon, and equally internationally in a cuturally mediated way which may use ideas such as possession.
Does this current prevalance mean that there is some social force ‘driving’ the creation of new plural systems at the moment? Many people discover they are plural after encountering other plural systems—does this mean that plurality is something you might actively if unconsciously cultivate, rather than always developing ‘by accident’, such as by trauma? (c.f. tulpas, mentioned a while ago.) Or is it simply that in the recent past, people have not had the narrative tools to recognise other people they may be sharing a body with and were unable to recognise the source of experiences like gaps in memory or hearing voices, or else lacked the ability to share their experiences with the wider world?
Hell, do most brains actually contain several minds, which mostly goes unrecognised? This is the view of psychiatric schools like the Internal Family Systems Model, which views every mind as being made of various subpersonalities. But even without commitment to one particular model, I have no way to prove there isn’t another consciousness emerging from the same brain tissue.
So, I think all of these things may be true to some degree! (That plurality can be at least semi-actively cultivated seems undeniable, although I don’t know the ‘recipe’; however the vast majority of cases recognised under the framework of DID are not considered voluntary and relate to extreme childhood trauma.) Brains are absolutely ridiculous entities and there is very little I would put past them. Certainly to me there is no prima facie reason to think that a ‘mind’ which emerges in some inscrutable way from a pattern rippling around a network of neurons could not easily split into two or more distinct ‘threads’, like a pattern diverging into two separate parts in a cellular automaton.
That brings us to Baru, and her split brain…
Right down the middle
One of the interesting curiosities about the brain’s structure is that it isn’t homogeneous, but takes a kind of bifurcated shape, with a gap separating the left and right halves (known as ‘hemispheres).
The differences between these halves (brain lateralisation) are often exaggerated. Brain imaging studies found an association between ‘linear reasoning’ such as grammar and word formation with the left side, and ‘holistic reasoning’ such as emphasis and intonation on the right; this became a story of a ‘left brain’ that its rational and logical and a ‘right brain’ that is creative and carefree, and this gets turned into a claim that some people are more or less ‘left-‘ or ‘right-brained’. There is a small kernel of truth there, but most processes are distributed across the whole brain and many claims of lateralisation are controversial. Not that this stops pop-psychology running a mile with the idea.
The main difference between left and right hemispheres is actually just the handling of sensory data. By and large each hemisphere handles sense data and motor control from the opposite side of the body. As ever, it’s more complicated the more you dig into it: vision for example has complex wiring where different quadrants of the visual field are piped to different segments of the brain, although they still mostly process the opposite eye.
Because the two hemispheres are separated by a ‘fissure’, it’s not possible for nerve signals to cross the gap in most places. The exception is a bundle of nerve fibers connecting them called the corpus callosum, which we might loosely analogise to the data bus in a computer connecting components like CPU, GPU and memory. By this means, the brain ‘synchronises’ the processes in the two hemispheres and makes sure each one is up to date on the common memory and identity.
In certain lobotomy patients, instead of the usual prefrontal lobotomy, the corpus callosum was cut, causing the two hemispheres of the brain to drift ‘out of sync’. This process, called corpus callosotomy, was primarily performed to treat epilepsy, which is characterised by a wave of disruptive activity spreading across the brain; the idea was that this way, seizures could be reduced. The resulting effects became known as split-brain or ‘callosal syndrome’.
The side effect of this was essentially a physical way to ‘force’ the development of a plural system in a brain, by literally cutting it in half and letting the two sides diverge over time. Because the two sides are connected to separate parts of motor control and sensation, this may lead to a person taking contradictory actions, or being unable to connect recognition of an object to speech.
As we discussed way back in Monster, Baru suffers a head injury near the end of Traitor, which presumably interrupts the communication between her two hemispheres. This causes a very very rapid splitting into a plural system. As we’ve covered, one side retains an identity as ‘Baru’, and maintains her ambition to rise to the top of the Masquerade power structure and save Taranoke; the other assumes the identity of Tain Hu and her more straightforward interpersonal ethics. Throughout the novels we occasionally hear about the Tain Hu side of Baru’s brain acting independently, such as on the Llosydanes, and it’s clear that our POV Baru is an unreliable narrator even when it comes to ‘her’ own actions.
Seth is upfront that the depiction of ‘split brain’ in the book is only loosely based on split brain in real people, instead more of a narrative device. Still, given plurality is going to be important in the novel, what is the significance of making it happen this way? It underlines the recurring connection between brain and mind; while ‘soul of dead person, typically a lover, persists through magical or technological means in the body of a survivor’ is a device that a few books have used in recent years (notably Ninefox Gambit, A Memory Called Empire and Harrow the Ninth in this particularly literary movement), the approach taken here connects it to our other aesthetic and thematic devices: lobotomies and ‘scientific’ apprehension of the brain, and any ‘magic’ (whether the tulpa constitutes Tain Hu’s ‘soul’) is ambiguous, etc.
This approach opens up a number of useful elements for scenes later and a very effective element of narration—the ‘void’ of the right side of Baru’s body which her POV mind is unable to perceive, so Baru can turn aside from what she doesn’t want to see. It even adds a nice little formal device where the intervention of alter!Tain Hu in the narration can be indicated by right-aligned text. It creates some pivotal scenes: Baru placed in a helmet in Monster that splits her perception and allows other characters to discover the tulpa; the first lobotomy scene in Tyrant where the tulpa betrays Baru’s secret intentions and creates the possibility of alliance with Xate Yawa.
There are several moments of seizure where the connection is suddenly restored, typically in fever dreams, portrayed as Baru in a dream world talking to Tain Hu. So over the course of Tyrant, Baru gradually attains ‘integration’ with her alter; first she adopts a name referring to the system as a whole (‘Barhu’) and, in the final chapter, we see the tulpa essentially dissolve itself and I presume we won’t see her again in book 4.
But her swat found empty air. Hu had dropped to one knee and bowed her head. “My lady, I am yours in life and in death. But I must ask your leave.”
“My leave? Hu, where are you going?”
“To carry out my last duty, Your Highness, my queen.” Hu kissed her hand. “You cannot be obsessed with me forever. I’ve brought you to a place of some safety. Now you must go on without me.”
“You promised you’d always be with me,” Baru whispered.
“I will.” Hu looked up, fierce and dark and golden, perfect. “Always and forever in your heart. You don’t need this… mental trick to keep me alive. There are other women: oh, don’t look that way, as if I’m the only one suited for your oh-so-particular tastes. (…)”
Although this is presented as split-brain in the book, and attributed to a head injury, it seems more likely (and has far more narrative significance) that this split can be understood as a result of Baru’s extensive trauma, trying to reconcile the atrocities she’s seen and committed and the mask she’s performing as an ambitious young protege of the Masquerade, against her secret belief that she’s doing it all in service of the liberation of Taranoke.
But so far in this discussion we’ve taken for granted that we can talk about a ‘person’—a ‘thread of subjective experience’ perhaps. In law, this distinction is made straightforwardly: legally a person is a single body, separated from others at the boundary of skin. What is it exactly that maintains this thread? We can speak of continuity of experience, but this is flawed, since it is interrupted every time we sleep.
The full development of ‘plurality’ seems to have continuity with various other experiences that most people have. I think of the simpler cases of ‘dissociation’, where I do not feel like I’m actively controlling my body, or find myself lost in the past in an emotional flashback. I also think of the conversations I sometimes hold in my head between different viewpoints (though, I’ve been told this feels quite different from full dissociation in the DID sense for someone who has experienced both), and the perception that my stream of consciousness, when turned on itself, is split into many threads; it seems like I can only observe a past completed thought from an active ‘thread’ which I can’t observe in the moment.
So instead, we can speak of memory recall, but different memories may be more or less salient in difference circumstances. Still, one of the major markers of the ‘DID’ form of plurality is gaps in memory, with different memories being accessible to different alters. Recalling a memory you did not experience has been described to me as reading a summary as opposed to watching a TV show; you can perhaps reach the information but it does not feel like ‘your memory’. This difference in access to memory helps to define the different identities and how they approach the world…
In any case, the other thing that may differ is ‘personality’. We saw this brought up earlier: Baru’s tulpa might ‘be’ Tain Hu insofar as it conforms to Tain Hu’s ‘inner law’:
“Don’t look that way,” Yawa said, “you asked. To us a soul is not a great ineffable mystery. People are, after all, not very mysterious. A soul is simply the text of a person’s inner law, and a mind is the act of reading that law into the world. Through study and meditation you can read another soul’s law and copy it into yourself until it comes alive, so that you now have two books of law, two selves, two souls. Himu, Devena, and Wydd all studied and practiced their virtues so completely that they became those virtues. That’s why we emulate them.”
“But I haven’t studied the ykari. I haven’t meditated on a virtue… I just swear by them, very often, I take their names in vain.…”
“No, child. Your obsession was with a woman. Through study and obsession you have built inside yourself the soul of Tain Hu.”
In this case we might think say Tain Hu is not literally a copy of Tain Hu, who surely had many facets to her personality beyond those that Baru saw, but a model of her, a ‘split’ constructed by a suppressed section of Barhu’s dissociating mind, already used to separating her dedication to her home and her performance to the empire. This type of alter, based on the impression of a real person, is referred to as an ‘introject’.
In this reading, the localisation of it to the left and right brain is just a narrative flourish, but beyond those details, as a narrative it may not be so different here from the condition we now call DID, including gaps in memory (forgetting things the tulpa did). The main difference is that almost all cases of DID begin with traumatic experiences in childhood, such that this is part of the definition of the ‘disorder’.
But is it so far off? Certainly as far as the explicit narrative is concerned Baru’s identity remained more or less integrated until the end of Traitor, but her childhood experiences could certainly be argued to begin the pattern of dissociation that remained unrecognised until the end of Traitor. Still, rather than trying to force Baru into a DSM category, I’ll stick with the language of ‘tulpa’ used in the book. My suspicion is that in many cases there is a factor of trauma driving people towards ‘tulpamancy’, and thus many of these experiences are part of a spectrum of similar ways a brain can develop; I am skeptical towards any one narrative that says ‘this never happens’.
The device of meeting the alter in a dream (typically during seizures) is the main tool used to develop Baru’s relationship with her tulpa, and it leads to some of the books’ many striking setpiece sequences where the themes are laid out most explicitly. I have not surveyed many people, but strikes me as probably more of a useful device to have characters have a conversation (one of the core elements of storytelling) than a real way that people might communicate with their alters. For real systems, I suspect interaction with alters in dreams may be rather more abstract, and might not even ‘actually’ involve that alter, the same way we can dream of strange reflections of people in our lives. (But I don’t think this is a problem; ‘realistic’ dreams are often quite incoherent or even boring, they should be loaded with narrative salience!)
Anyway, to link this back up with the lobotomy theme above, although Baru isn’t ‘properly’ lobotomised, in a sense she evidently does have some traits of a certain kind of lobotomy survivor. Although this causes her many difficulties, rather than disabling her from realising her well-defined ambitions, it actually makes it possible for her to break from her self-destructive path. In this way, she is, in a perhaps rather strained sense, diverging from a narrative of power by refusing to be written out.
I don’t have much more to say here beyond making this link. However, it is worth noting that ‘DID’, like many traumagenic ‘disorders’, can also be recognised as one of the defence mechanisms for surviving an untenable situation, and it creates the possibility for another path through life. We’ll talk more about this thought at the end.
There is another way that the characters in Baru (and also in the real world!) frequently modify their minds by adjusting the physical qualities of the brain. That is putting external chemicals into the soup of neurotransmitters and chemical cycles that flow amidst all those neurons; in short, to take ‘drugs’.
Drugs (psycoactive substances) have been a part of human society just about forever, whether incorporated into spirituality or just taken for fun. Their prohibition by states has also formed a major part of human history. Wikipedia credits the first attempt to suppress psychoactive drugs to 7th-century Sharia law, which drew an exception for hashish. However, that seems rather late; I can also find discussions of Roman law mildly prohibiting the distribution of certain drugs. Limitation on alcohol trade (but not outright banning) can also be found all the way back in the Code of Hammurabi.
As for which drugs? Some rarely see use today, but opium, alcohol and cannabis to have been among the earliest drugs to see major trade, and remain some of the major categories of drug that see use today…
Of course, ancient states had nothing like sufficient control of their subjects lives to ban drugs. Once they got the opportunity, however, states soon started building up massive apparatuses of terror built ostensibly around protecting people from the harmful effects of drugs—I’ll brush over the details bc this isn’t really the focus here!
In some cases, exercising control over drug trade was instead a contest of power between states; the Opium Wars saw the Qing attempting to push the British out of the highly profitable colonial wealth extraction that was their sale of opium. The British responded by starting a series of wars, in which they seized Hong Kong and made it a colony and forced the Qing to humilitating terms.
In modern Britain, the culture where I currently write this, two major drugs are considered broadly socially acceptable with only limited restriction (mostly concerning sale to children), alcohol and nicotine. But people routinely take other drugs. In the long echo of the United States and its ‘War on Drugs’, the state attempts to terrify children out of using substances; later it enforces laws against ownership and sale of drugs somewhat selectively as a means to maintain the hierarchies of race and class.
So we learn a curious relation to drugs: first introduced as an overwhelming threat, then gradually perhaps learning to see a more grounded view of the risks and benefits that drug-taking gives. There is a blurry line between medical and ‘recreational’ drug use; certainly many drugs are used illicitly to treat pain but we can also think of them as helping to manage trauma, and people can use them in safe and controlled ways or develop dependence like just about any intense experience. Unfortunately, prohibition and social atomisation makes everything about this much worse; people rarely have the support to learn to use drugs safely, and the threat of legal sanction introduces many extra ways for people to turn drug use into a source of power and control.
In the Baru series, drugs are taken willingly with more or less wisdom, forcibly administered, and generally just exist. They hardly seem to be prohibited at all in the Masquerade. Many are fictional drugs, but they can be identified as resembling real ones…
Nootropics: ‘ant juice’
A nootropic is a drug that ostensibly makes you smarter. As early as the second chapter of Traitor we see the use of nootropic drugs by the Falcresti:
Cairdine Farrier slipped her a flask of clear spring water, mixed with some invisible drug which he assured her would help her focus—“All the polymaths in Falcrest use it!” She left it in her bed and sat down to take the exam with her mind clear, all worry and fear pressed into clean geometric lines, everything focused on this day and the day after.
Later one is named as ‘ant juice’, although I’m not able to identify this as a real drug; regardless of any cognitive enhancement it seems to result in disinhibition and perhaps even aggression when overdosed. Here’s how it’s described:
It’s not alcohol and it’s not mason dust. In the Faculties they called it Ant Juice, because its discovery involved the mushed corpses of millions of ants. It tastes acrid and it burns hard. If you put it in water and drink it, you feel as if you could recite the whole number line from zero to forever and still have time for brandy before bed.
It sounds like a stimulant similar to amphetamines, though I’m not sure of any stimulants that come from the body of crushed ants. There are news reports about teenagers crushing ants to get high, often migrant labourers, in the United Arab Emirates, written with stern warnings about the risks of formic acid.
However, I am advised by fellow readers that it is possible to get phosphorus from ants, and this can be used in the synthesis of meth. But it might also just be ‘a mixture of ant venom and formic acid’.
Regardless, this is definitely a striking introduction to the view of drugs in Falcrest. The drugs are taken to compete harder and get ahead, in pursuit of the esteem of a savant and polymath…
Drugs for use in conditioning and torture: the ‘dream-hammer’
We don’t get most of the details, but we see early on that drugs are administered during the Falcresti ‘conditioning’ process:
In another conditioning cell, a man sat in a drugged stupor, manacled to a chair, moaning in chemical bliss, while a functionary in a bone-white mask stared into his eyes and recited: “Falcrest. Mask. Hygiene. Incrastic. Loyalty. Compliance.”
The same tools are used on the Clarified. In Monster some of these drugs get named: Xate Yawa uses something called the ‘Dream-Hammer’:
Dziransi had been on drugs since he came to Moem, of course. Execarne kept all his guests on a low dose of cannabis and opiate to secure their calm and trust. But the dream-hammer, now, that was a drug to change the shape of a man’s soul. In old Belthyc myth the first caterpillars ate the dream-hammer before they went into their cocoons, and from their feverish metamorphosis emerged the nightmare race of man.
I’d used it on myself once. On the night of my brother’s marriage. When I resolved to change the shape of my soul, to peel it away from the shape of his.
Tonight I used it on Dziransi. And the dream-hammer made me Dziransi’s god.
What is the dream-hammer? Yawa speaks about it mostly in religious terms, but the effect mostly seems to be to create a state of suggestibility, which has a long-lasting effect afterwards. She calls it an ‘entheogenic drug’, referring to a class of drugs used in ritual including, to borrow a list from that article, salvia, Ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and morning glories in the Americas; then in Europe and Asia people may have used ergot, opium, datura and fly agaric. These drugs vary significantly in their effects, but the major commonality seems to be that many are hallucinogens.
In the afterword for Tyrant, Seth mentions two drugs:
(Nor have I gone to the lengths of actually taking drugs like vidhara and datura—by all accounts datura is to be strictly avoided.)
So while it may not be a specific drug, it does have two clear real world bases. Here is another descriptions from Yawa:
Like river rapids the dream-hammer sucked him under. Like a sluiceway the drug flowed beneath the dam of his discipline. The dream-hammer gets into the fork of the mind that divides the roads of truth and falsehood, and it turns all the signs toward truth.
In Tyrant, Yawa considers using the dream-hammer on Baru, but decides against it:
As an Incrastic surgeon, I of course had a duty to inspect this abnormality. My first thought was to use the dream-hammer, the entheogenic drug I’d used to implant commands in Dziransi, to open Baru’s mind like the belly of a cow. But the point of the lobotomy was to render her docile, while a dose of dream-hammer might fix her forever in this moment of fear and pain.
In general Yawa is not overly concerned with the side effects of these treatments.
In this case we see a drug that, though dangerous, has been used in our world in a relatively ‘positive’ spiritual context (at least prior to European colonisation, where it became romanticised to tourists instead), now turned to a tool of control.
Just straight-up cocaine: ‘mason dust’
Although I titled one of these essays ‘Mason dust in the wound’, I didn’t actually say very much to describe ‘mason dust’. But it’s basically cocaine: a white powder taken nasally which creates a sense of overwhelming confidence and antsiness. Baru spends a couple of chapters on mason dust, and it changes the tone of the narration significantly.
Here’s how mason dust is introduced:
“Mason dust.” Some curiosity stirred in her. It was a powerful stimulant, made in Aurdwynn from the treated extract of the Stakhieczi mason leaf. The government chemists sold it at a premium, often illegally, because there was no other source: the process to make it was an Incrastic secret.
Notably Falcrest does not prohibit the drug, but actually sells it, hoarding the secret of production for the sake of profit. Shao Lune cites the use of mason dust among the Cancrioth as evidence of Falcresti superiority.
Once she’s taken it, Baru immediately starts getting overconfident delusions, and her thoughts rattle on in long run-on sentences and tangents:
Baru thought they must be sailing badly undercrewed, and she was confident in her assessment. Shao Lune’s marvelous mason dust had her feeling like the old days again, like bright autumn mornings in Treatymont, waking up to a draft under the door and a saber-blade of sunlight through the window, Muire Lo setting out coffee on her desk downstairs. Snorting mason dust was better than drinking coffee for the first time! Yawa must have known all along that it was a treatment for Baru’s dark moods—but Yawa wanted her weak.
She’s immediately ready to compromise her morals while high on cocaine:
Baru leaned against the corridor wall to get her breath. Her heart was hungry, and she kept coming up short on air. Doubtless her mind was sucking it all down. “Would Abdumasi Abd be as valuable to her as he was to the Eye?”
The Womb looked at her sharply. “You’re ready to offer him, now?”
“Of course.” If it made Tau sad, well, they could take some mason dust and feel better.
As she reaches the comedown just as the Brain makes her offer of getting infected with brain cancer, Baru panics and comes running away, seeking more to cover it. Fortunately, she gets few opportunities to actually develop a coke habit!
It is a long way back now, but we occasionally hear use of combat drugs, primarily in Aurdwynn, over the course of Traitor.
Tain Hu and her Coyote-men sprang through the gap. Bolted across the road, firing as they went, and got into the woods behind Nayauru’s line. With them came another column, naked of shield, painted in red, trembling at their leash. Lyxaxu’s Student-Berserkers.
Tain Hu gave them their word.
They screamed axioms of nihilist self-negation as the drugs in their blood peeled their eyeballs open. When they got in among the unarmored Nayauru bowmen the sound and spray that rose was abominable.
Later, during the final battle:
They stood their ground, blood pounding, terrified and exhilarated and urine-soaked and drug-crazed each to their own degrees, stirred by the drums, by Pinjagata’s relayed words, by the longbowmen still firing over their heads even as hwacha fire closed in return.
I don’t think we see these getting taken by Falcresti marines—no doubt they are not conducive to control.
So how’s this depicted?
These books are not shy about the negative effects of drugs. But they are also not prissy about the reasons why people may still nevertheless take them—or force them on others.
The mind in Baru Cormorant is an unruly thing, and throughout the story we see characters struggling with the gap between their ambitions and their ability to push themselves on into greater compromise and trauma. We saw Baru sinking into depression through most of Monster and more or less having a psychotic break at the beginning of Tyrant, but she is not the only one who is slowly driven crazy by this world.
Thus, faced with the impossibility of living up to the Incrastic ideal of personhood, people turn to drugs to try to force the own unruly flesh into line—often their own.
This ideology is spelled out explicitly when Tau takes a bunch of hallucinogens on the distant advice of Cosgrad Torrinde:
“Oh, I’ve done what Cosgrad told me to do.” They curled up on their side and smiled at the moon. “Cosgrad told me that if I ever lost all hope, I should use his ideas, and change my flesh to change my thoughts. Drugs, he said, entheogenic drugs, ergot and psilocin mushrooms”—the Womb groaned loudly at that—“they are all known to relieve the Oriati Emotional Disease, to transform the wounded personality. ‘Don’t be arrogant, Tau,’ he told me, ‘you’re wise enough to know you need help in every other part of your life, so don’t pretend you can force yourself back to sanity all alone.’
The ‘Oriati Emotional Disease’ is a Falcresti term seemingly analogous to depression, but very overtly racialised and narrativised as being a uniquely Oriati response to social isolation. (Aminata intervenes so Tau is treated, as in real drug overdoses, using activated charcoal to absorb the active drug molecules and emetics to flush the stomach.)
Anyway, there it is: ‘change your flesh to change your thoughts’! Isn’t that just the statement of this article’s whole theme?
As with all efforts towards Falcresti conditioning, it is much less effective than they imagine; a relationship to drugs characterised by arrogance, callousness and delusion. ‘Ant juice’ does not make its recipient smarter, though its stimulant effects and false clarity are clearly addicting. What Tau needs—and gets, thankfully!—is social support and understanding in a moment of crisis, not a last ditch desperate attempt to hammer their psyche back into shape.
But, for all their misguided use of drugs, the story easily avoids the standard narrative of the dangers of drugs we receive: the inevitable spiral into addiction (equivalent to unpersonhood) and death. Drugs are simply a part of life here: taken for many different purposes, and dangerous, certainly, but what really matters is the social relationships around them.
I have taken very few drugs in my life out of a great sense of fear at how irrationally I might behave under the influence of something (as if I was so rational without them!)—really only trying weed and alcohol in the last few months in very mild doses, under the guidance of trusted friends. I know other people who have gotten very into overusing drugs, usually in periods of abandonment and isolation; I also know far too many people for whom drugs are the only available support for getting on with life in the midst of chronic pain and severe trauma. And I know how my society draws a line around ‘addicts’, and blames them for their own isolation which makes heavy drug use so tempting. I have seen people—all young Black men—stopped by police around me and taken away to an unknown incarceration in the ‘justice’ system for the sake of a tiny quantity of weed, one of the least harmful drugs to exist.
So although the books treat drugs with a certain wariness, it is mostly with a view of pragmatism. We are a world of billions of people who are, to varying degrees traumatised, atomised, and put into survival mode between little islands of connection and fulfilment, taunted with narratives of success and power and the games of the great egregores that run through our heads. We barely know what our brains are capable of, what strange experiences this flesh is capable of witnessing; using drugs and not using them carries no real moral value. Many of those people use drugs for what society deems ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reasons; this is just part of the general evolving behaviour of organisms, not some special abberation. So it is in Baru’s world, so it is here.
Putting more fun stuff in the brain: the Cancrioth
We have discussed so far mostly a variety of things happening to brains that are firmly rooted in the real world, but now let us move to the slightly stranger end. I discussed the Cancrioth before, in article 3. As mentioned, they believe memories can be carried by transmissible cancers, and as such a life may persist through different bodies.
On the face of it, this is a mistaken belief. We presently understand memories as being somehow encoded into the structure of neural connections in the brain, referred to as an engram. I thought this was better-understood than it seems to be, and this was understood as changes of the strength of the link between neurons, but this seems less evident than I thought. Still, the concept has been used in computer system designs to create ‘neural networks’, where a behaviour is encoded by the strength of links between nodes in a graph, essentially creating a very complicated multivariable polynomial function.
The idea that memories could be stored outside the brain is currently viewed with great skepticism, especially after iatrogenic ‘body memory’ was invoked in the late 20th century as a way to supposedly reveal repressed memories of satanic child abuse cults. There is some sympathy now towards the view of ‘extended cognition’ which may include tools like reminders we use to keep information to hand, but this tends to be treated mostly as a philosophical exercise I think.
The Cancrioth, scientists as they may be, do not favour this account of memory. They believe memories may also be passed down the ‘immortata’, immortal cell lines which are passed down a ‘line’ of receptive individuals. These tumours prefer various parts of the body, such as the stalks of the ‘Eye’, or the Womb’s womb, but the one we’re going to look at now is of course the Brain.
The Brain kills herself at the end of the book, but not before passing her cancer on, as part of an ambition to incite a massive war against Falcrest. To receive her cancer, she has been trepanned, which Baru sees as an exquisitely dangerous procedure. (Trepanation is a fascinating topic beyond the scope of this article, but maybe I’ll talk about it if I ever write about the manga Homunculus…)
Let’s get to know her! The Brain has an unusual perception of time, which she attributes to being an immortal being:
“Who we are. A question that causes fierce argument, lately.”
“Excuse me.” Baru couldn’t help but ask. “Do you… your verb tenses, they’re not quite what I’m used to in Aphalone. Is it regional…?”
“No. I cannot tell past from present in the ordinary way. Now I am fleeing south into Sukha Pan, now I am slipping into Uro’s tent, now I am whispering to Akhena as she drives her husbands like cattle, all at once. It is an effect of who I am. But I sort things by observing which causes precede which effects. My memories are not clouded, Baru. They are as clear as life. Sometimes I get lost in them if I don’t keep my hands and my mouth busy.” The Brain pushed the saw. They were deep into the abdomen now, where the intestines had been. Baru had pig’s blood on her cassock. “So. Where do I begin?”
She has a philosophical attitude, talking to Baru about the challenge of true knowledge, the inevitable flaws in each person’s thinking, as they butcher a pig:
“Everything we are, everything we know of the world, is in this flesh. We cannot see truth, we cannot smell it, we cannot read it from a book. We can only get at the symbols our brains make. Even our sight is a mirage: I have visions enough to know that. But visions never make my sight more true. I can delude my sight with dreams, I can move it further from the truth. But I know no way to do the opposite. I cannot clear my eyes of the veils they were born with. (…)”
The Brain is actually very interested in the physical structure of, well, the brain, with her methods much like the Falcresti:
THE Brain finally got what she was digging for. The front lobe of the pig’s brain came free in her fist.
“This is the best tool we have,” she said, turning the gray fat to show Baru, “to understand our own brains. Apes’ brains are more like ours. But they’re dangerous to work with, and sacred to many of our neighbors. We prefer pigs. There’s something in pig flesh that’s … kin to us.
“We poison the pigs. We starve and strangle them. We drive nails into them, we trepan them, we cut pieces out of them. And by studying what they lose when we take a piece of them away, we discover what that piece does. Do you know what we’ve found, Baru?”
“The brain survives. I see men shot through and through the head live long enough to die of fever. I see children with nothing but water in their skulls grow up to be mathematicians. I see brains pierced by arrows, fishing hooks, mine shrapnel: all of them healed in time. I meet you, Baru, struck in the head but perfectly clever. Poison the brain, and sometimes you just… change it. Does destroying Falcrest really destroy its empire?”
She is absolutely right about the resilience and plasticity of brains (a point underlined in the book’s afterword). They are incredibly adaptable to damage, given the chance to survive. I have mentioned ‘split brain’, but some patients have had an entire half of their brain removed, and still managed to adapt to the loss: the remaining parts of the brain adopting the functions of the missing parts. This plasticity is not infinite, but it is remarkable.
Baru refuses to take a malignant cancer into her own brain, and escapes the ship. For a while, we don’t see much more of the Brain. Though we do hear she is probably not the only Brain out there, given a comment of Iraji:
“There are more of her,” Iraji told her, “all over the world. Part of the same Line. She doesn’t see herself as someone who can die. She’s like a memory, Aminata. If one person who remembers her dies, the memory will go on in the others. It’s the same for all the lines. Even Undionash, the line I’m meant for.…” He had wavered for a moment. “But Undionash is precious. There are very few hosts left.”
So, before we see what becomes of her, what do we think? It would be easy to ‘explain’ the Brain’s behaviours: she has been schooled by the Cancrioth in her ‘past’, and between the effects of the tumour in her brain, drugs, and ‘simple’ psychosis borne of the traumatic life she must have lived, she could easily come to believe she is an immortal sorceror.
But more interesting would be the question of, can we justify the Cancrioth’s beliefs?
Memory recall is actually surprisingly unreliable—it is easy to confabulate details, and I have often heard (though I do not know the source) that each time you recall a memory it carries a risk of subtly modifying it as it is essentially rewritten. So actually our sense of a broadly reliable chain of memory informing us is rather hollow; we often rely on external sources to ‘jog our memory’ and fill in gaps or make up for an inability to reach a memory we know ‘should be there’.
So, while the cancer itself may not physically encode the memory, being born anew each time it is implanted with no space for memory recall, we are not dealing with just the medical implantation but an entire social practice which might well be able to carry information. It is not just the Brain who remembers being an immortal wizard, but all of her attendants who help train her in assuming the role of ‘the Brain’.
The teaching is very important. At one point, after discovery of her theorem, Kimbune discusses exactly what is considered to be inherited with Baru:
“You’re satisfied that your husband’s soul survives in Abdumasi Abd because… he doesn’t believe your proof?”
“Stubbornly, irrationally, against the clearest mathematical evidence! If he were just the merchant Abdumasi, wouldn’t he be simply baffled? But he argued every word of it! It must be him!”
Barhu couldn’t resist prodding at her faith. The possibility of immortality was just too intriguing to leave untested. “Did you ask him to tell you something that Abdumasi couldn’t possibly have known?”
“It’s not like that. Abdumasi was never taught to reach my husband’s memories, so of course he can’t remember me. What he’s got is my husband’s soul.”
“Yes! His way of being! His stupid, stupid inability to see that I’m right about this!”
This returns to the idea of a soul as a principle or ‘inner law’. Given everything we’ve said about cultivating new minds like tulpas… assimilating a personality that is actively being offered (and bearing in mind the tumour recipients are generally deeply committed believers) seems like a pretty small step! It’s not so different from historical monarchs being taught to assume ostensibly divine authority.
Of course, Abdumasi may not have gotten very far in assuming this identity; he may have some personal similarities to Kindalana’s dead husband but the line would probably undergo a change here. But this can be seen in the same way we might see a head injury, like Baru’s, disrupting the continuity of memory and personality…
So: I argue the Cancrioth, these scientist-wizards, can be said to hardly be delusional at all on this front. They probably have a pretty thorough understanding, given all the pig experiments and no doubt many failed tumour implantations, of how memories relate to the brain; they just have a notably different conception of the boundaries of personal identity driven by an intense religious faith. It is probably not a view of personal identity we share, but it is not actually less arbitrary than a view that draws continuity through the line of sleep, and isolates personhood within the body. You need something to create a basis for interaction…
Let us return to the Brain! At the end of the book she makes a symbolic sacrifice: she has her tumour removed to go to a new host, the space where it was is filled with gold, and her body is cast in a bronze disc (foreshadowed earlier when the visitors to the Eternal observe the casting equipment) which is then released at an Oriati religious festival. This, she intends, will become a symbol to incite the Oriati to war, and it seems to be paying off:
“There was a riot. Princes fought over what to do with the effigy. A vote was taken, and it was agreed to cast it in concrete and sink it in the deep ocean. But one of the Segu Princes stole it first; a Queen-Aunt from the yeniSegu tribe. She’s carrying it along the Segu coast in a procession, telling her people that the Old Power has returned to lead them to war. And there’s a sorcerer with her, people say. A sorcerer who says she’s the same soul in a new body.”
I look forward to seeing how the new Brain will act in book 4…
At the end of the book, Baru has survived meningitis, incomplete lobotomy, many strong drug trips, not to mention an endless parade of traumatic experiences and her head injury in book 1. But despite everything, she’s doing better than she ever did since the Masquerade came to Taranoke: surrounded by genuine friends and allies (they even celebrate her birthday), she’s made a breakthrough on how she feels about sexuality, she’s got her abuser under her thumb in prison ready to dismantle his life, and she’s about to embark on what she imagines will be her masterstroke, to subvert one of the worst empires her world has seen and rewrite the entire future.
A brain injury, a lobotomy, are supposed to be completely disabling. We can recover from them in many cases, but they are supposed to ruin your life; this is a major narrative. Yet for Baru they are all vital steps in shaking her out of her terribly misguided path.
This is strangely consonant to me. When I attempted to do a physics degree, I pursued it with essentially religious zeal. I attempted to assimilate into the rich-people hazing engine of Cambridge University, my head rattling with cultic beliefs about Rationality and Social Justice. Like Baru, I couldn’t let myself see how wrong I was, and so I spiralled into depression and spent years living with my parents doing very little; without that support I might well have died instead.
Despite that, there is an odd sense where I see those years as part of a necessary ‘break’ from the socially mandated path. Perhaps objectively I am an isolated transsexual with unpredictable ability to get out of bed and no confidence I’ll have enough rent beyond the next month, let alone help my friends and partners with what troubles them… but at least I’m not what I had tried to become! Through my disability I became, however painfully, a much more full human now than I ever was back then. So I tell myself, anyway.
I think often about this ‘break’ from the machinery of replication. Is there another possibility, where I had a little more support at university, enough to stay the course? Is there a life where I didn’t transition and found myself working on physics, never knowing what it’s like to actually feel anything? I could imagine it, and I think I would be very unhappy and never know why. But I chose a certain course and that led me to interact with the world in a certain way, which pushed me further. The old ‘self-exciting instability’. Honestly, the trans part, and the break it represents, is much more important than the woman part to me.
Many people rack themselves over anxiety over whether they are ‘really’ what they think they could be—especially us trans girls. We feel that we must have a license to act on our shameful desires, a decisive proof of who we ‘really’ are. “Well, doctor in my head, I was playing with dolls when I was six, you see. Well, TERF in my head, I was abused in this way as a child, you see. I’m Valid!”
However, I think we have an incredible ability to become different things. The physical side of it is called neuroplasticity. Like any biological system, such as bones or muscles, this adaptation depends on the continual interaction with the environment; a gradual process of reshaping to applied stimulus. I may have chosen to pursue transition, but everything that happened since I started acting on that has surely shaped my brain into a “trans woman”.
And yet, once these divergences take hold, they are as resilient as life itself. If I tried to detransition, as I have seen others attempt, I have seen how it would be intensely traumatic, and not even spare me harassment. My friend who became connected to a plural community may have chosen to start playing with the idea of whether her psychosis experiences fit the bill of plurality, but she surely defined a new mind in there that might have only been vague before, and her effort to suppress it proved incredibly destructive to her life.
At this point we are really hardly talking about Baru anymore, are we? And yet we’re still sitting in the themes of these books… assimilating their stories them into structures somewhere deep inside the mysterious brain.
We have now pored over The Tyrant Baru Cormorant from beginning to end; there may yet be stones unturned but these are all the ones I’m turning. This effort began in September 2020, and it is now finally approaching completion in March 2022. In that time I have found a new passion in art and animation, moved house, ended and started relationships, seen some of the happiest and saddest months of my life, and still not received any medication for ADHD. And being into Baru Cormorant has evidently become a significant part of my identity… if you’ve been following this series all along I can’t thank you enough haha. Hope it’s been worth it.
What is it that makes these books so compelling to me? Can I replicate it? That will be the subject of our last article. None of these other enquiries are finished, of course; I will still be trying to understand gender and minds and states and all the other facets of this grand and terrible world I live in, struggling to express whatever truth I can find in art until the day I die. But maybe this is a milestone. Or it will be, when I wrap this up.
Thanks guys. See you in an unknown number of months at the end, when we talk about the state of science fiction and fantasy in the 2020s, and try to situate this book itself in a historical moment, and the artistic process that can open when we confront the world with this level of vulnerability and passion…