Erica X Eisen

From the Editors: Bitter Water


Yuri by Ravi Zupa.

In the Book of Revelation of John the Divine it is recorded that after the Lamb has opened the Seventh Seal, after the seven angels have gathered before God with their trumpets ready to sound, a great star shall fall from heaven into the waters of the earth, killing anyone who drinks from them as if in vengeance for its own extinguishment. John mentions many stars in Revelation, but this is the only one he gives us the name of, and the name of this star is Wormwood, after a flowering shrub whose terrible bitterness lends it a symbolic association with tribulation. The leaves of Artemisia vulgaris, wild wormwood, are said to ease digestion, soothe menstrual cramps, and invoke lucid dreams if smoked or prepared as a tea and drunk before sleeping. It is this plant, for unclear reasons, that was chosen as the namesake of a town in northern Ukraine, some 100 km from Kiev and a stone’s throw from the Belarussian border. I’m sure you know this place. It is Chernobyl.

* * *

On the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear station’s near-meltdown, members of Belarus’s political opposition marched through the streets of Minsk carrying a massive Russian Orthodox icon depicting the Virgin bathed in an eerie atomic glow, a radiation symbol peeking out from behind her halo like an ersatz sun. Police attacked the procession, trying to wrest control of the Virgin and splattering her cloak with demonstrators’ blood as they did so. Mother of God of the Victims of Chernobyl, as the work is known, is far from the only icon to commemorate the disaster. In The Savior of Chernobyl, copies of which adorn churches from Moscow to Novosibirsk, Christ floats above a crowd of so-called “liquidators” as the star called Wormwood streaks across the sky above the power station, leaving a sickly trail in its wake. Though these icons have received official status from the Church, they are nevertheless rejected outright by many worshippers. As the anthropologist Elena Romashko has observed, “The depiction of the nuclear reactor and uniforms…was often interpreted by interviewees as intolerable.”

Why do these images provoke such strong reactions—because they point backwards in time or forwards? Is it just that they are painful reminders of the traumas of history—or is it also that they force the viewer to contemplate those apocalypses still to come? The jumbling of past and future is a persistent theme in the interviews that comprise Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the disaster. Alexievich’s interlocutors compare Chernobyl to 1937, to the war—or else it is like nothing else at all, or like a strange and disturbing omen whose meaning they do not understand. “Something from the future is peeking out and it’s just too big for our minds,” says one respondent. Chernobyl is a herald not so much of the end times but the end of time as they know it—no more neat march from before to after but rather a fearful new reality in which the past is both inaccessible and omnipresent, in which the future bends back to meet the present even as there is no future. “The past can’t protect me any more,” laments a man identified as Pyotr S. “It can’t comfort me, can’t offer me any answers. It used to have answers.” Even Alexievich herself succumbs to this temporal confusion: “When we talk about the past or the future, we read our ideas about time into those words; but Chernobyl is, above all, a catastrophe of time,” she writes at one point. In the process of creating this book, “it sometimes felt to me as if I was recording the future.”

* * *

Media comparisons between Chernobyl and our current situation abound. Coronavirus is China’s Chernobyl, or Iran’s Chernobyl, or America’s Chernobyl, or poor Belarus’s double dose. Chernobyl can teach us about science denialism, about battling invisible enemies. Chernobyl can show us the triumph of the American spirit!!! Nature is healing; we are the caesium-137 isotope.

Far more interesting to me is the way in which Chernobyl victims’ accounts of broken time accord with the experience of our own simultaneous catastrophes. As Elon Musk plots his sci-fi escape to Mars, we Earthlings are left to contend with a new Great Depression. The photographs of the wildfires blazing on the American West Coast seemed more like intimations of the apocalypse than snapshots of the present. Our many simultaneous disasters are making clearer than ever the fact that the future, to paraphrase William Gibson, is unevenly distributed—starting with who is allowed to have a future in the first place. For those who exist in unbearable precarity, the passage of time itself seems to stand on the side of the oppressor. A piece of graffiti from this summer’s uprisings: “NO COPS NO JAILS NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME.”

* * *

Time is out of joint; let us therefore prophesize.

This issue of Hypocrite Reader brings together essays on visions, revelations, predictions. Josh Reaves details how the prophecies of Vodou ritual were realized in the Haitian Revolution. New Harmony, Indiana native Bailey Trela traces the history of utopian socialism in the American Midwest. Victoria Giang combines the tales of Chinese folk deity Lu Dongbin with the fMRI research of Japanese neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani to explore the irresistible pull of dreams as a site of prophetic knowledge. Editor Cat Pierro imagines the future of poetry, and Leah Gallant investigates the Amazon review as a new literary form. And featured artist Ravi Amar Zupa combines the visual languages of Soviet posters, Japanese prints, and Flemish painting to create works that often conjure up a sense of otherworldly eeriness.

Other contributors turn their attention to the subject of false prophecies. Hannah Sparwasser Soroka writes about 17th-century claims that America’s Indigenous peoples were members of the lost tribes of Israel—and how Europeans used this theory to justify their colonial aims—while editor Erica X Eisen looks at how a small group of Japanese ultra-nationalists were convinced that the key to winning WWII was converting their country to Islam.

Two of our authors turn their attention towards environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Abraham Younes revisits interviews he conducted with Beiruti fishermen at the height of Lebanon’s garbage crisis and considers the future of the sea and the state. And Ethan Linck takes up the theme of extinctions that hide between the branches of phylogenetic trees.

A number of the pieces in this issue examine the future as inscribed on the body. Fen Inman considers how the senses of sight and touch offer two competing avenues to the world and its future. Both Katy Burnett and SER consider how incest warps the psyche—Katy in an analysis of David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me in light of Benjamin and Winnicott, and SER in a personal essay about healing through ayahuasca visions and working to transform the gendered power relations at an ashram.

Reader, we present to you these tea leaves. Divine their portent as you will.

Yours in hypocrisy,

Erica, Cat, Piper, Kit, Sandy, Lenna, Nastya, & James

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