Interview with the Neanderthal

Jindřich Štyrský, The Cave, 1926, oil on canvas.

THE NEANDERTHAL

I’m already uncomfortable with this.

INTERVIEWER

Why? Are you worried people are going to misunderstand, or … ?

THE NEANDERTHAL

The whole thing is misleading. I’m not even a Neanderthal.

INTERVIEWER

Listen, there’s nothing to worry about. We can start the interview right there on that note. Go ahead and explain the situation.

THE NEANDERTHAL

It’s … I don’t even know where to begin. 

INTERVIEWER

Just tell everybody what you told me. How you started “listening down into yourself,” your Neanderthal DNA and all that.

THE NEANDERTHAL

All right. My belief—and I fully admit I can’t prove any of this—is that the whole thing got started because I was working hard at getting a grip on the differences between nearly identical feelings. My intuition was that there’s a subtle but palpable distinction between, for example, the feeling of being rightly accused and the feeling of being wrongly accused. The two feelings seemed identical for most of my life, which caused a lot of problems. But then I started to see—

INTERVIEWER

But you have to explain the process …

THE NEANDERTHAL

Yes, but I don’t know how to explain it. The words I use to explain it to myself are fatally vague. I just “listen down deep.” I know that expression is useless …

INTERVIEWER

Fine, then get to the Neanderthal stuff.

THE NEANDERTHAL

All right. Well, years upon years of this “listening down deep” eventually paid off in a surprising way. I taught myself how to reproduce complex situations, simply working backward from feelings. It turns out there’s just a lot more information in a feeling than people think. You know how a wine expert will take a little sip and all this great swarm of facts about weather and particular hills and families will flood into the expert’s mind? Feelings are like that, too, only way more so, if you have the training.

INTERVIEWER

Come to the Neanderthal stuff.

THE NEANDERTHAL

Yes. Again, I can’t prove anything, but … I started to perceive that some of my feelings aren’t connected up to anything that happened to me personally. There are feelings in there, not even in my mind but in the tissue of every one of my cells, that correspond to things that happened to my DNA—essentially, things that happened to my ancestors, not to me personally.

INTERVIEWER

And some of your ancestors were Neanderthals.

THE NEANDERTHAL

Yes, but that’s nothing special. Some of everyone’s ancestors were Neanderthals. Every living human being has the DNA, the question is how much. My hypothesis is that I have more than most, because … how else am I able to do this?

INTERVIEWER

But let’s not get distracted. You’re essentially saying you can access memories from past lives. Is that correct?

THE NEANDERTHAL

Yes. I mean, that’s misleading to put it that way, because these “past lives” were not me. It’s not like my personality existed forty thousand years ago. But I can access, I’m convinced, personalities and events that occurred at the time when the Neanderthal species—as a distinct thing—ceased to exist.

INTERVIEWER

Okay, tell people what you told me. About the meeting with the Chief.

THE NEANDERTHAL

[Sigh.] Yes, that. I believe that many people would be able to remember this, if they did the listening down deep thing, because it’s a momentous memory, one ramjam with intense feelings. And heaven knows, plenty of us were present …

What happened was the Chief called a meeting. He didn’t say anything—we couldn’t talk—but he announced his desires just the same. Body language, facial expression—it was perfectly clear he wanted a meeting, and it was pretty clear what it was he was going to convey to us. Here’s where things get deep.

You gotta understand. Our kind was under threat from the Cro-Magnons, down the pike. From time out of mind, they had been harmless, but they had recently started to turn what had always been their biggest disadvantages to good account. Two key things I’ll mention. There was language, which constantly misled them and kept them in a muddle; and single-mindedness, which made them easy to manipulate. But, see, all of a sudden, what had been perpetual bungling on their part transformed almost overnight into a kind of low cunning, very efficient and pernicious. Their numbers multiplied, they ate everything, they were willing to break heads—the works. Anybody could see we … were not gonna win this one. So the Chief called a meeting. We could see how sad and disgusted he was. With his face he said, “As distasteful as it is, we’re going to have to intermingle with them. It’s the only way to have the DNA line continue. There’s no use trying to persuade them of anything. They only listen to words and arguments. Our feelings—and even their own—don’t mean shit to them, unless those feelings can be made to cooperate with their nasty little desires … ”

INTERVIEWER

But the Chief thought that interbreeding would save the Neanderthal way of life?

THE NEANDERTHAL

No, no. He thought we were cooked. See, it would have been one thing if there were a million of us and a thousand of them. But it was the other way around. So, we all left that meeting with our heads full of very somber colors. And we didn’t have any faith in the blend effect at all. We thought it was going to be like putting a drop of ink into a swimming pool. Do it, don’t do it—same result.

INTERVIEWER

But it didn’t work out that way.

THE NEANDERTHAL

No! It’s nice. A lot of stuff we invented simply emerged intact in the next generation. And even the blend stuff wasn’t all bad.

INTERVIEWER

Give examples.

THE NEANDERTHAL

Okay, well obviously we invented music. Cro-Magnons never would have come up with that. But the kids we had with the Cro-Magnons picked up on it, no problem. Kids, grandkids, it was fine. And then of course everything that depends on music, poetry and especially epic poetry—that stuff arose from the blend. It’s what happens when you mix their chatter with our music.

Here’s another thing we had that they didn’t. They couldn’t hold a thought. Holding a thought is pure Neanderthal. Chasing after every little puff of wind, that’s Cro-Magnon. On the other hand, enterprise is much more Cro-Magnon. Generally speaking, we Neanderthals were content with little. Put it this way. Both Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals had clothes, but fashion is pure Cro-Magnon. Palaces—Cro-Magnon. Money—Cro-Magnon.

It’s not really a merit, by the way, that Neanderthals were so much more interested in persuasion. Persuasion would have appealed to Cro-Magnons, too, if they had observed it working to their advantage. We Neanderthals were much more devoted to it, because it worked for us. Remember, we had the advantage of dealing directly with each other’s feelings. Cro-Magnons always had language between them, getting in the way. Half the time, trying to get through to their feelings was like trying to see a person waving on the other side of a mountain range. The difference being that Cro-Magnons put the mountain range there, thinking this would help you see ’em better.

Among the moderns, Homer and Tolstoy, you can tell, had a lot of Neanderthal DNA. It’s the objectivity that’s the giveaway. Objectivity was our strong suit. And peace. You might think the author of the Iliad cannot have been a peacenik, but that’s ’cuz you’re thinking like a Cro-Magnon. Cro-Magnon thinks, War is bad because look at all these crying persons! One of ’em could be you! or your daughter! In other words, it’s against one’s self-interest. Neanderthal thinks, War is many things, including fun and glory for some of the people doing it. But you also have to look at the cost in terms of tastelessness, self-deceit, waste of resources. And anyhow aren’t there other activities that could yield just as much fun and glory without all the throwing up and bandages and blighted futures? Neanderthals always try to look at the whole picture. We think, When a person is persuaded by “one key point,” the person is a Cro-Magnon and moreover will reverse him- or herself in a heartbeat.

INTERVIEWER

We have to stop this, but I wonder, Do you ever think you can tell who has a lot of Neanderthal DNA by their appearance?

THE NEANDERTHAL

Ha. I used to think having a really pronounced eyebrow ridge had to mean something—after all, as you can see, I have this trait myself. But see, that just goes to show I’m not a true throwback. It would have never occurred to any of the people at the big meeting I was describing to hang a bunch of significance on some outward trait like that. More “key fact” mongering. Pure Cro-Magnon.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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