I’m reading Eula Biss’s On Immunity at the same time I’m hearing about Ferguson. It’s the morning after Darren Wilson has avoided indictment and I’m in the airport, traveling from Houston to Minneapolis. I read to keep myself awake. Over my head, there’s a man on TV shouting about the riots. “The question,” a dumbed down reporter issues, “is why they would want to destroy their own.” It’s five in the morning, and I’m feeling vulnerable, unfiltered enough to swear audibly so the woman behind the desk at the gate shoots me a disapproving glare. A week later, I will recount this moment to a classroom of poetry students who have spent the majority of the semester learning to converse about the various ways in which America expertly promotes the practice of silencing and marginalizing, learning that it is the job of the poet to give voices to people who otherwise struggle to get heard. “Othering,” I will say in the classroom, “is the most effective way of shutting down a difficult and threatening discourse.”
In the airport and throughout the ensuing days, I feel lucky to have Biss’s book in my hands. I hold it on my lap on the plane, put it on the table in front of me at a café in Minneapolis, place it next to the cutting board as I make dinner for friends who have just returned from a protest where a man in a car ran into a group of people who had stormed the highway. Biss’s book makes me feel safer amidst all the anger and confusion, not because she dismisses and dissolves a larger problem, but because she struggles throughout her book to create a language and a framework to talk about the issues of communal safety in a world where the individual is problematically valued above the society that surrounds it.
Biss’s examination of vaccination comes out of her own personal course of inquiry: “we must live the questions our children raise for us,” she says, and, in that regard, she asks herself if she should or should not vaccinate her first-born son. In the book, she quickly lands on the side of yes. This project, then, is not an exercise in cataloging the pros and cons of each side; rather, it is a serious study of why we humans are so skeptical and resistant to the idea of inoculation. Biss is persistent and relentless, coming at the center of this book from what would seem like the most unlikely of places: she addresses the ways in which we view the environment, our citizenship, trust in government, and, ultimately, the book becomes a critique of how we humans, throughout time and space, from Achilles to Dracula, from variolation of smallpox to the flu shot, from the personal to the global, have been hell-bent on separating the self from the non-self.
This book works best by giving its reader enough information and then leaving space to allow her to make her own connections to, say, Ferguson or Ebola or whatever is going on in the world at the time you are reading this review. As I tell my students, the only way to get at the broader truths is to nail down the particular ones.
So what truth is Biss revealing here? It’s tricky. As she reminds us, “knowledge is, by its nature, always incomplete.” This statement, she says, is as true for science as it is for poetry. (Here, in the same, expert breath, she calls on both Feynman and Keats.) Questions only lead to more questions, if you’re doing it right, and to pin down an argument from Biss would be to miss the entire point of the book.
Because what she’s trying to promote in these pages is an entire reworking of the ways in which we think and talk about disease, immunity, politics, war, citizenship, story, personhood. “Our understanding of immunity remains remarkably dependent on metaphor,” she says, and much of these pages are packed with the unpacking of these comparisons. For instance, in a discussion of the word germ, she says, “We use the same word for something that brings illness and something that brings growth. The root of the word being, of course, seed.”
“Metaphors,” she says later, “flow in two directions—thinking about one thing in terms of another can illuminate or obscure both.” It seems to me that Biss executes an elegant and illuminating exploration of the ways in which we can use language to promote either injustice or justice. Biss, thankfully, advocates for the latter, and she does this by opening up a space instead of closing it down. She does not say “they,” or angrily run a car into a crowd of people; instead, she reveals her own inability to come to any concrete conclusion. “In the garden of the body,” she says in her concluding pages, “we look inward and find not self, but other.” She does not pretend to know exactly what this means, to pack up the statement in a tidy bow; instead, she leaves the statement on the table, unpacked, ready for the reader to pick it up and roll it around a while, to start a conversation, entirely new and exciting and voice-giving.