Black Box – Michigan Quarterly Review

Black Box

“Black Box” is from MQR’s Fall 2021 Issue. You can purchase the issue here.

Black Box

  1. Aviation: a small machine that records information about an aircraft during flight, used to discover the cause of an accident. (1)
  2. Military science: also known as the “nuclear football,” “the button,” “the emergency satchel,” a black leather briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes. (2)
  3. Political science: a theory of national and international politics where the actions and relations of states and other groups are studied by looking at “input” pressures and actions and “output” policies rather than internal responses and calculations, including ideological or pragmatic considerations. (3)
  4. Psychology: in behaviorism, the view that mental processes are not legitimate objects of study, a perspective later hardened by the radical behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who excluded both inner experiential and physiological processes to focus only on external and observable behaviors, a practice largely rejected during the 1960s “cognitive revolution.”(4) According to cognitive science, we can crack open the black box of the mind, even the mind of the radical behaviorist himself.
  1. Merriam Webster Dictionary
  2. Adapted from Wikimedia Commons and various popular news sources
  3. Adapted from the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought
  4. Adapted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford
    Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A two-story wooden house in a railroad town by the river. On a hill overlooking the valley, the subject dreams of flight. He attempts to build a glider, stands on a Fairback beam and tries to make it tilt, practices levitation to see if faith can really move mountains. With his brother, he feeds the pigeons in the garden overgrown with currant bushes and watches them take flight. Susquehanna is the City of Stairs, the smallest big city in America, a series of grandly named streets traversing hills several miles from the southern border of New York. Even as the hills rise toward the heavens, the valley’s image sears his eyelids. He cannot unsee the coal-blackened shirts flapping on clotheslines or the charred wooden houses, the carefully clipped news articles testifying to his mother’s unrealized musical ambitions or the handwritten law diploma his country-born father stores in a drawer and refuses to frame. He cannot forget the chilled winter mornings huddling over the vent for warmth or his mother reminding him not to step on the gravestones in the neighboring cemetery. His parents care greatly about social conventions and are always admonishing him. Do not do this, do not do that. He is never praised for doing the correct thing, for walking along the footpath in the forest, holding his younger brother Ebbie’s sweaty palm and guiding them both home.

A cardboard packing box. As a child, the subject builds himself a private reading room with a curtained entrance and a shelf for books, pencils, and small candles. He reads Verne, Swift, and Defoe away from his parents’ prying eyes. He types stories and poems on his father’s typewriter and dreams of becoming a writer. Since his faith was insufficient to move mountains, he imagines the movement instead and renders it on the page. Stone by stone. A better, more heavenly world. If he can render the miracle on the page, maybe he can make it true. He can fly, he can lift off the mountain and reach heaven.

An old heating stove. One day, the subject’s limping grandmother throws open the door so he can feel the dry heat and learn that hell is just around the corner. “This is what happens to bad little boys who misbehave,” she says. Do not do this, do not do that. He is ten years old. The war in Europe has just begun. His heart pounds mechanically like the chimes of a grandfather clock, like the Erie’s shrill whistle waking him each morning. For months after feeding his brother’s pigeons alcohol-soaked corn and lying about it, he cannot sleep, so much does he fear hell’s eternal flames. He tosses and turns in his little bed while his brother sleeps soundly across the room, small hands folded across his chest. Ebbie has also told lies but about far more innocent matters. Not completing his homework. Stealing a chocolate bar from the store. Would a just god really burn a little boy forever for telling such harmless lies? The subject wants to live in a world where god rewards the good but does not punish the wicked because he does not believe any person truly is wicked, only that people sometimes behave wickedly. Can humans build such a world? A world where no one behaves wickedly because good behavior is rewarded?

A small shack the subject builds from red fence boards abandoned at the cemetery. There is nothing sacred about the cemetery now that he has stopped believing in god, now that he’s decided people must build heaven themselves. “What will others think?” his parents ask, but he doesn’t care what others will think or how it must look. As the war in Europe rages on, the war for a better world rages in his heart. From the blacksmith shop behind his house, he salvages car parts and oil-soaked oak planks to construct splintery slides and merry-go-rounds, creaky seesaws and steerable wagons. Improvising his inventions on the fly, he makes do with what he finds. A discarded water boiler converts into a potato and carrot-shooting steam cannon. A cigar-box transforms into a violin, a comb a kazoo, a roller skate a scooter. He fashions a water pistol from bamboo and cooks jelly from sour green apples.

A modest brick schoolhouse on Laurel Street. The subject reads Bacon and Virgil, argues with teachers, plays saxophone. When he questions intelligent design and the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, his classmates are shocked; he doesn’t care. Unlike his more popular and easygoing younger brother, he is determined to think for himself no matter the social punishments, a trait that does not endear him to faculty or students.

He must question everything. He must imagine a better world and work toward achieving it, just like President Wilson with his League of Nations. On graduation morning he is adjusting his tassel in a hall mirror when the principal, a man of rigid social conventions like his parents, pulls him aside and surprises him with a warning: “You were born to be a leader of men. But never forget the value of human life.” Later, he crosses the high school gymnasium stage and accepts a diploma from the same man. They shake hands firmly and lock eyes for a moment too long. The subject feels the principal drilling deep into him, turning over the parts of himself he can never see. How does the principal know him better than he knows himself?

To read the remainder of “Black Box” you can purchase the issue here.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M