About the Cover
Our cover design by Nanette Black features work by artist Gregory Colbert from his “Ashes and Snow” exhibition. The exhibition’s mixed-media photographic works (approximately 5′ x 8′ each) marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. Colbert, who calls animals “nature’s living masterpieces,” captures extraordinary moments of contact between man and animal. The Canadian-born Colbert began his career in Paris making documentary films about social issues. “Ashes and Snow” is his fourteen-year-long personal and artistic odyssey. To date, Colbert has completed more than thirty extensive international expeditions to places as diverse as India, Egypt, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Tonga, the Azores, Antarctica, and Borneo. “Ashes and Snow,” which debuted in Venice in 2002, opens January 14, 2006, in Santa Monica. For more information, visit the exhibition’s Web site at www.ashesandsnow.com.
Writing in Code: Literature and the Genome
From start to finish, collecting material for an issue on the human genome project has been something of a race to discovery, and a fascinating one. (I have never before leaped into developing a special issue of The Kenyon Review so uncertain of what it might yield as this.) The metaphor of a race here is appropriate, because the bitter contest of mapping the exact sequence of the human genetic code was itself so dramatic, as if the players were hurling themselves toward a new North Pole. But the stakes at risk were far higher than planting a flag in the ice cap, no matter the courage and sacrifice and fame.
On one side in this ferocious drama we witnessed the tradition of public science, sponsored largely by universities, governmental agencies, and foundations—a tradition in which data are published and shared among collegial researchers across the globe, striving for individual glory, perhaps, but all in pursuit of a common goal, a common good. Pitted against these efforts were arrayed the resources of private enterprise, whose researchers jealously cloistered their data as the gold of investors’ dreams.
This struggle figured as more than a modern version of John Henry’s brawn vs. the steam hammer, more than a matter of individual pride or economic innovation. For the contest also brought into play new areas of law and social policy. Should the private efforts have prevailed, the victors promised to invoke the increasingly contentious rights of “intellectual property.” The basic data of what constitutes the human body might well, then, have been available to future generations only for a fee.
It is a fascinating philosophical assertion, and ultimately a political one as well, that the discovery through research of a preexisting reality can be equated with the creation of something entirely new—a therapy or vaccine, for example—thereby enabling the claim of ownership.
In denouement the story verged well nigh on melodrama, for last-minute compromise yielded hugs and kisses. Struggle and competition, haste and fear, were transformed into collaboration between the former rivals. The marvelous genetic cypher, first glimpsed half a century ago, was finally translated and offered up to the continuing efforts of fathoming the human and of healing humankind’s maladies. Whew.
What seemed the end of the plot, however, was soon revealed as merely a significant stage in the ongoing drama, as so often turns out to be the case in real life as opposed to literature. Far from disappearing, the stakes have only grown higher as scientists have begun to chart a few of the galaxies that genetic research may open for exploration. (Our imaginations are woefully limited by the universe of what we already know.)
Rather than a single struggle between competing teams, mapping the human genome—and genetic research more generally—has spawned innumerable races, often invisible to the larger world. One obvious arena has been in the practical development of drugs and therapies, with researchers and pharmaceutical companies spending billions and competing for new patents. With a rapidly aging population, with medical and nutritional challenges facing much of the world, the potential benefits of manipulating the genome appear boundless. New treatments will surely emerge for the very particular anguish of AIDS, of dementias, of cancer. But how soon? Who will be saved and who not?
Increasingly, of course, we will be forced to grapple with the ethical dimension as well. Who, for example, deserves the expensive medicines that research makes possible? Only those who can pay?
And there is a more abstract, and even more deeply troubling, question: What are the practical as well as the moral consequences of manipulating the genome—the building blocks of the human? Is manipulating the same as tampering? As desecrating? As betraying? What, when it comes down to it, does it mean to be “human” in these terms?
On all of these counts we find ourselves crossing the threshold of the scientific, the financial, and the political and into literature’s proper realm. The borderland is rich, provocative, compelling. As you will see in these pages of The Kenyon Review, the immediate dramas of individual experience, as well as the poetic intuitions and inspirations, bring the genome into fuller realization.
The genetic code is, like language itself, a symbolic attempt to penetrate and communicate human identity. It challenges—and illuminates—our abiding concerns with family, with race, with ethnic characteristics. It bears precisely on what makes us individual at the same time we are inextricably bound to others and to our past. It may even give us a lens through which to glimpse various futures.
I am deeply grateful to Dr. Stephen Chanock, a pediatric oncologist and senior investigator with the National Institutes of Health, for stimulating and provoking me through early discussions into taking on this project and for collaborating and guiding along the way.
—David H. Lynn