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.
One of the nice things about being an academic with tenure is that I have big blocks of time that I can use however I want, but that’s — for me, anyway — also a problem. I tend to fritter away time when I don’t have structures and deadlines. I get the most done when I am busiest. I’m trying to figure out how to structure my days more effectively. The need to do this has come into focus as my Zen practice has “deepened,” as they say. (It’s a bit of religion-speak I find a bit off-putting.) Basically, what this means is that doing meditation morning and evening creates a certain structure around which other things can be organized, so that creates a starting point.
I’ve always tended to work to deadlines and to write in spurts and dashes of energy separated by wide deserts of non-writing. I’ve heard all the advice and rules about establishing a regular time and just keeping at it, but I’ve never done that with writing, but now I am finding it pretty easy to sit on a regular schedule, so why not sit and write the same way? I have to weave this around my teaching and other academic duties, but in that respect I have it very easy. so that’s what I’m going to do over the coming weeks heading into summer and I’m going to keep up some kind of daily writing even when I travel. It has taken a long time to come to this, but increasingly I have the sense that not-writing, like not-sitting, is not an option for me.
And it’s not an ego-thing anymore, this writing and even publishing poems. When I was a boy I wanted to be famous, but I quit being a boy — at least that kind of boy – at about age 52. (Not that long ago, true.) I just want to make sense of things and language — poetic language — is the way I’ve always done that, even when I was a boy. Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on silence and even sometimes overtly relegates language to a secondary status, not more than a practical instrument, necessary but deeply flawed. At the same time, Buddhism has produced its share of great poets. The genius of language lies, as the old Zen hermit-poets understood, lies in its impurity and imperfection.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.
The last week in September in the US is designated National Banned Book Week by the National Library Association. It ought to be every writer’s ambition to write a book considered subversive enough to be banned. This week the Word A Day folks are devoting their space to words having to do with censorship.
More on banned books. And Ellen Hopkins response to being banned in Oklahoma.
And not in a good way. It’s a shame to obscure the work of Edward Hopper with a haze of purple prose.