Small Demon
Mar 202011
 

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.

 Posted by at 10:04 am
Jan 292011
 

I know, I know, this is such a remnant of the culture wars & a silly remnant at that. Why return to the subject now, when all language seems drained of significance? One hardly ever encounters arguments about “political correctness” except among jejune  undergraduates, usually but not always boys & usually but not always “conservatives.” I wouldn’t bring it up except that the subject has rippled to the surface several times in conversations with students I would have thought more sophisticated. “Why do you always say ‘he or she’,” I’ve been asked. Or, a student has asserted, “I don’t go in for all that politically correct language.”  As a poet, my response is ambivalent. I want to agree with students who resent the machinery of social control telling them that they cannot call a dickhead a dickhead or a mean-spirited bitch, well, a mean-spirited, soul-killing bitch. On the other hand, if by “politically correct language” one means gender neutrality or the avoidance of racial or sexual slurs designed to wound or marginalize individuals or groups, then I am in favor of politically correct language. Context, of course, is crucial. Members of a marginalized group may turn oppressive language against the oppressor; lovers may say to each other in private what they would not say in public; one may put into a poem or story languages one would not usually use in the lecture hall or lunchroom. I conclude that my students have glommed onto the right-wing media meme about leftist educators trying to impose conformity — if they have thought about it even that much — and employed it as a shield against thinking. Thinking always involves dispensing with universals (slogans) and engaging with ambiguity & change (contexts).

 Posted by at 2:37 pm
Oct 312010
 

I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.

Jul 032010
 

1. It is gratifying that whaling regulations have not been eased at the recent meeting of the international commission that oversees the “harvest” of marine mammals, but beyond that news & its egregious metaphor, I was fascinated by some of the information about cetaceans in this NY Times article; specifically, I was struck by the way the scientists quoted were defining personhood, if that’s the right term. Dolphins (& presumably whales) are interested in seeing themselves in a mirror, checking out parts of their bodies they can’t ordinarily see. The mirror test is presumed to to demonstrate self-consciousness, fair enough. My terriers will look at themselves in a mirror, but it’s hard to tell whether they see themselves or an image of another dog. They don’t behave as if they are seeing another dog, so perhaps they recognize themselves.  Birds will peck at their own image in a mirror & the behavior seems pretty complex. How about fish? I don’t know, but I know some fish are territorial & might react as if another fish were horning in on their territory. I’m not trying to find fault with the mirror test, just noting that it is the human observer who views the animal’s interaction with a mirror & makes a determination. We know what consciousness looks like, or personhood. This is more interesting to me than whether this or that animal reacts to a mirror in a certain way, as interesting as that is.

2. The vocalizations of cetaceans is often compared to music, or song, and somewhat less often (& less directly), to speech. They have tribal dialects, apparently, which suggests language & since they can both learn & teach what they have learned, it appears that it might be something we would recognize as a real language, not just a highly elaborate system of communication. And here we get back to the issue of self-recognition. Language, too, is a mirror. I’m far from expert, but in addition to their vocal communications, don’t at least some species of cetaceans produce & repeat long “symphonic” vocalizations and then work changes on them? If so, this would suggest a sense of the aesthetic in whales & dolphins, though perhaps it is only an elaborate kind of birdsong. [Need further information.]

3. Living in the country, Carole & I take delight in seeing & naming: birds (many species, including jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, vultures, ducks, geese, several kinds of finches, bluebirds, thrushes. . .), turtles (painted, snapping), frogs & toads, beavers, skunks, porcupines, deer, and occasionally coyotes & bears. What is the source of our delight? Merely a privilege of the bourgeois, or something deeper?

4. Portrayals of damaged humans, usually children, in fact & fiction: Kasper Hauser, Victor (the Wild Child from 18 c. France; various accounts by Truffaut, T.C. Boyle, etc.), Malcolm (from Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War), Christopher (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). By looking at what these damaged humans possess, as well as what they lack, we highlight the cluster of qualities that allow a person to create & recognize a self. And connected to these accounts, there is the much more abstract set of arguments in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind that seem to suggest a special place in the universe for human consciousness. Not sure if I can accept the “fine tuning” of physical laws Robinson suggests (but does not assert), but that is not necessary to appreciate her devastating response to “parascientists” like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the other reductionists who believe that, because the brain is a physical organ, mind & consciousness are epiphenomena, easily dismissed as ontologically inferior the the various tissues and juices of the brain.

5. Mind as extension in the Cartesian sense. Richard P. Bentall’s Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature argues persuasively that “madness” is not one thing and is not separated by a bright line from other “normal” states of mind; in this vein, he sees mental complaints rather than a discrete set of mental illnesses that can be assigned a particular diagnosis. He also brings forward an impressive amount of evidence that strongly suggests mental illness is a bio-social phenomenon.

Further thoughts a couple of days later: 1. Yesterday evening I was watching Jett, our seven year old Jack Russell as he stood on the deck looking down the road toward the river. There were some kids swimming down there & the other two dogs had been barking in that direction, but Jett was focused, his mouth a little open, his nose moving to sense the air almost as a human would feel a piece of fabric to get the sense of it. The other two dogs were excited, but he was calm, completely self-possessed. I’ve watched all the dogs over the years of course & each has his/her ways of focusing on the world & at the same time being themselves. In fact those two things go together — focusing intently on the world and being an animal self. This goes beyond Santayana’s notion of “animal faith,” which is a kind of confidence that the world will be, perhaps roughly, supportive of our being. For the philosopher, “animal faith” is a common ground for animals & humans, something we humans share with animals but also then surpass in all the usually enumerated ways: reason, language, technology & so on.

2.Over the years I’ve had many encounters with animals that have gone beyond mere observation into something more profound and, I believe, reciprocal, though I don’t want to sentimentalize the notion of reciprocity– I understand that the heron I saw 25 years ago on an estuary near the Pacific “understood” our encounter in the same way I understood it, but the bird did look back at me and allowed me to come quite close & was clearly conscious of me. Wild animals are one thing & domesticated animals another. I freely admit to sentimentalizing our dogs, but I also spend a good deal of time just watching them, trying to understand something about the way they understand the world. Their sensory organs filter the world for them in a way different from mine, of course, but there is enough overlap — we’re all mammals – that we can make sense of each others’ sensory worlds. Also, we share a social world of complex personal interactions that allow us to communicate our sense of the world. And of course we observe each other in action and draw conclusions, seeing the world, in imaginative reconstruction, “through each others’ eyes.”

3.So what kind of cross-species identification does it take to get on a jet ski in the Antarctic Ocean to attack a Japanese whaling vessel & through acid at its crew?

 Posted by at 6:00 pm