Written by: Vincent Mai
As beings in a material world, physical interactions facilitate a great deal of the human experience. Our senses act at filters that guide our attention towards information deemed vital by evolution for survival. These forces that once were the forefront of humanity became distractions in the eyes of many Western philosophers. Because sensations fails to capture reality in its entirety, they could not be trusted as a basis for ethics. A trend in the West emerged and persisted that favored ethical reasoning through metaphysics. In contrast, ethicists who utilize integral ecology highlight the interplay between the physical world, one’s social reality, and one’s psychic reality.
One thinker in this tradition, Cordova, argued that ethical decisions may only exist in the context of beings that live in relation to other beings (Cordova, 14). Perhaps the most influential integral ecologist of our time, Pope Francis claimed the degradation of our natural environment was indicative of a multidimensional crisis that speaks to crises in human spirituality, and society as a whole. Integral ecologists discern ethical choices through exploring the complexities of humanity through a borromean ring of interrelations.
Berriault’s “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am” explores these interactions through parallels in the dialogue between Alberto Perrera, and the unnamed homeless man. This dialogue uses irony to highlight the blatant ethical failures of the librarian in physical, metaphysical, and social spheres. The final awakening of the librarian is also representative of a social and metaphysical “Tragedy of the Commons” where all three realms of the borromean ring are doomed from the beginning of the story given the unnamed man’s reality, as he was morally perceived, and treated by his surroundings (Hardin, 30).
It should be noted that although Berriault’s story is a work of fiction. She references both real events and real places in the story. In this way, “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am” may be seen as a type of “historical” speculative fiction. By introducing layers of realism to her work, she binds her imagination to reality creating unique settings for realistic social commentary. This paper will explore these critiques by focusing on parallels between two real occurrences. (1) The murder of two people at Sacramento’s Central Library on April 19, 1993 (Ingram, 1), and (2) the series of mass sea urchin mortalities that occured along the coastline of California that led to the dispossession of the unnamed homeless man (Feehan et al. 2014).
When the librarian Alberto is introduced, his character is shaped by a unique social event; two other librarians killed in a seemingly random act of violence in a nearby city. This occurrence is first mediated by the psyche, which claimed he “granted no credibility to police profiles of dangerous persons” and rationalized that the writers he knew so well and admired were often profiled as dirty, and dangerous looking people (Berriault, 17).
However, Alberto’s socialization to fear homeless-looking people still caused him to perceive the homeless man as a potential lunatic. This situation is indicative of a conflict resulting in a dysphoria between Alberto’s self image, and his perception others. His expectations of self-conduct around a someone experiencing homelessness were defeated by a socialized distrust that originates from society’s expectations of the poor (Berriault, 18).
As the dialogue between the two continue, it becomes apparent to the reader that the homeless man is not in the library to murder librarians, but to read and inquiry about poetry. The homeless man’s reading of Darío’s poem makes a radical claim about the relationship between an author’s physical environment, and resulting psyche. This came in the form of a critique that focuses on the connection between Rubén Darío socioeconomic class and his perception of place in the natural world.
He cites where the poet laid to sleep and claimed that a man who woke up on the sidewalk would not write such a poem, for such an unforgiving material reality would never produce the line “leave responsibility to the norms” (Berriault, 18). The homeless man understands that the norms of one’s physical reality are not always righteous conditions. His place in the world due to norms is clearly on the sidewalk, yet he does not relish in thanks for his position. He understands, at least to a degree, the norms to be anthropogenic.
As the librarian and unnamed man converse, they begin to tear at the social and metaphysical barriers between them. The distance is clear as they share a thermos of coffee and continue discussing Darío’s Filosofia. The homeless man further dissects the poem by connecting environmental imagery used by Darío to real observations of his physical environment (Berriault 27). He makes a powerful declaration, that the only basis of being human that the librarian knows himself are the same engineered constructs that exclude the homeless man from celebrating his existence.
That without his computer, title, paycheck, and other materialistic cues, the librarian would not fit into context of Darío’s poem (Berriault, 27). These claims are deep cuts in a critical reading of the poem. They attack the physical and social spheres of both Alberto and Darío who facilitated a less despondent reading that lies within the technocratic paradigm.
While Alberto hears the man’s claims, he does not appear to understand the depth of his insights due to his distorted perception of the situation. The physical/environmental disposition of both individuals give rise to socio-metaphysical barriers, which ironically leads to the librarian to perceive himself as the proverbial wise man while the reader is able to see the opposite. This effect is amplified when the homeless man asks if he can spend the night in the library to which Alberto thinks to himself, “unthinkable” (Berriault, 28).
Although Alberto believes that “accommodations ought to be available for queries of every sort”, he denies the homeless man physical shelter and claims the library is as unsafe as sleeping outside due to its structual instability (Berriault, 28). The reasons the librarian provided are completely absurd in reality, which is apparent when the homeless man details the much greater dangers related to sleeping outside including; being set on fire, being stabbed, having no shelter from the rain or cold, and having personal belongings stolen by the police (Berriault, 28).
The homeless man continues to defend himself by explaining his situation as the result of an environmental catastrophe rather than addiction, or other cause often viewed as personal failure. We learn that he was harvesting sea urchins somewhere along the northern California coastline, an area experiencing mass sea urchin mortalities due to disease outbreaks (Workman 1999). Given the knowledge of the general region affect, and that they were an economically valuable species, it is reasonable to assume he is referring to Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, known commonly as the purple sea urchin.
A species characterized by a relatively long lifespan (greater than 50 years), patchy population distribution, slow and variable growth rates, and density dependent spawning success (Allee effect). These factors make the purple sea urchin populations susceptible to collapse due to overexploitation (Workman et al. 1999). A study examining the epizootics in Strongylocentrotus positively linked frequency of these outbreaks to the overfishing of urchin predators, and climate change; two factors that mostly exist outside of the homeless man’s individual control (Feehan et al. 2014). In short, the environmental succession that destroyed his seasonal work situation are facilitated by the same systems of profit that leave him without shelter when his career failed to provide for him.
In cycles known as ecosystem phase shifts, the ocean floor becomes dominated by different species due to changes in keystone species population. When disease outbreaks occur in densely populated patches of sea urchins, the drastic population decline allows kelp beds to regrow and dominate the area (Feehan et al. 2014). This in turn creates ideal habitat for the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus), a highly economically valuable species. The historical overexploitation sea otters due to the European maritime fur trade in 1741 significantly increased the population density of the purple sea urchin, leading to large scale de-kelping of the ocean floor, decreasing lobster populations (Estes et al. 2016).
It should be mentioned that the homeless man’s awakening after the degradation of sea urchin population could have potentially been avoided if the man simply transitioned to harvesting lobsters, the more favorable species in the ecosystem’s phase shift. In Pope Francis’s prescriptive solutions to the technocratic paradigm, a retreat from consumerism for reflection is presented as a necessary stage (P. Francis, 83). Using this new paradigm, the homeless man’s exodus from the sea urchin trade was the first part of his awakening to humanity’s crisis, for purely materialistic changes in industry would only temporarily alleviate the economic harm caused by a multidimensional crisis (Hardin, 13). As proposed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, and Garrett Hardin in the famous “Tragedy of the Commons”, the solution to the environmental, and therefore human crisis, must come from true changes in human morality and conduct, not simply technocratic improvements to technology. (Hardin, 1; P. Francis, 83).
When viewed in terms of capital, the cyclic return to a highly kelped ocean, with greater populations of lobsters may be viewed as a more desirable equilibrium. Similarly, the dancing bear in Darío’s poem was not dancing in celebration of its place on Earth, but a grand result of many human decisions. In a material sense, a bear that dances is more valuable than a bear that does not. This in turn is engrained metaphysically within the human mind and socially in human culture. For this reason the insights made by the homeless man were valued less and viewed in a distorted light by the librarian.
When viewed through a technocratic lens, intentionally reducing sea urchin populations through overexploitation may be viewed as engineering a more economically productive ocean. In this way, the degradation is not apparent in a purely physical sense. Rather it permeates the metaphysical and social spheres by displacing people who rely on the sea urchin for livelihood. When viewed through an ecological lens, they also threaten the overall biotic resilience of the ocean, an outcome predicted by Garrett Hardin his “Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, 29).
Following these predictions, although the ocean may be more profitable in the short term, the high rate of extinction and loss of biodiversity degrades the stability of a shared ocean ecosystem. This makes the homeless man’s ability to discern the natural places of the animals in the poem from culturally relevant expectations indicative of an awakened psyche that is freed from the metaphysical bounds of the technocratic paradigm (P. Francis, 76). Following this psychic liberation, the homeless man is still strongly bound to the physical, and social constraints.
In some ways, the homeless man is only freed when physical and social stressors kill the homeless man. His initial disappearance from the story, and eventual death represent an important shift in how Perrera viewed the man. For the first time in the entire story, Perrera was no longer concerned with being swindled or murdered by the man, and instead was able to begin examining the homeless man’s ideas in a true light. From the moment Perrera had found man’s dead body outside the library, he felt the consequence of the world he lived in.
Though no one blames the homeless man’s death on Perrera, he feels immense guilt as he stares at the unnamed man’s body and thinks “humans speaking were unbearable to hear and abominable to see, himself among the rest” (Berriault, 32). To reconcile with this, Perera “spreads the scraps [of paper] out before him as heedfully as his shaking hands allowed” suggesting a revelation of the librarian (Berriault, 33). This awakening to the failure of his own self-centered ethical reasoning manifests itself in the material realm of existence as he studies the man’s scraps of paper, learning from the unnamed man he once treated as inferior when he was alive.
In this way, the manner of Perera’s awakening represents a metaphysical tragedy of the commons. A bleak message that ties directly to Pope Francis’s focus on environmental degradation as a much larger crisis. While the librarian was fixated on the purely physical realm of existence; spending his resources and energy in securing a safe material retirement, the deep environmental inequalities blinded the librarian to the unnamed man’s metaphysical/social/physical crisis. Although the story did appear to hint to changes in Perera’s perception of his experiences, in the end the compounded physical and psychosocial degradation overwhelmed the sick man and left him to die a martyr for the librarian’s awakening, still unwanted by the public when left at the stairwell of a public library.
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