Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thought and language, revenge and alienation (Books - Thought and Language & The Meaning of Night)

Lev Vygotsky was an influential psychological theorist who worked from the 1920s - 1930s in Russia. I know of him only as the mentor of the great neuropsychologist A. R. Luria who wrote the amazing story The Mind of a Mnemonist. This week my advisor loaned me one of Vygotsky's books, Thought and Language, hmm I wonder why I would be interested in that. I've just been reading the introduction by Alex Kozulin which, although it is written pedantically and with an excess of jargon, is the only biography of this fascinating man I know of. Sadly, he worked only 10 years before dying, not in one of Stalin's gulag's - that was my first guess - but of tuberculosis.
A student of literature, philosophy, and esthetics, Vygotsky plunged into psychology at the age of twenty-eight, and died of tuberculosis ten years later. A prodigal reader, he felt equally at home with commentaries on Shakespeare's tragedies, the philosophy of Hegel, and clinical studies of the mentally retarded. A profound theoretician, he was also a man of practise who founded and directed a number of research laboratories, including the first Russian Institute for the Study of Handicapped Children. As Stephen Toulmin so aptly remarked, Vygotsky carried an aura of almost Mozartian giftedness. And yet he lived in times that were hardly favorable to Mozarts.

Evidently he wrote a book in 1925 called The Psychology of Art, as it is about my two intertwined fields and was written our of life in Russia in the 1920s, I have got to get my hands on a copy. Kozulin observes, and I may paraphrase:
Vygotsky never believed that psychological inquiry should be considered as a goal in itself. For him, culture and consciousness constituted the actual subject of inquiry, while psychology remained a conceptual tool, important but hardly universal.

Vygotsky was primarily interested in the development of language in its relation to thought. Language and speech occupy a special place in his s psychological system because they play a double role. On the one hand, they are a psychological tool that helps to form other mental functions; on the other hand, they are one of these functions, which means that they develop in the context of one's culture.

Vygotsky observed that preconceptual, and even mythological thinking not only is characteristic of children and the mentally ill, but also forms the basis of the everyday, normal reasoning of adults.
I need another book to read, as my mother would say, like a hole in the head, but I am finding it fascinating and can comfort myself that it is school related even while I am really just reading it to enjoy myself.

I also began The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox yesterday evening. I needed an entertaining and cozy read and Middlemarch was not going to do it. The hyperbole that grace the cover of this 2-inch-thick paperback compare Cox to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and the Brontes. Cox is a scholar, writer, and editor of literary Victoriana and burst onto the scene with this fictional work of his own a couple of years ago. It skillfully evokes his period of expertise while not falling prey to becomming an exhibit. It is little wonder so many readers have raved about The Meaning of Night if the first fifty pages are any indication.

Take the opening:

After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.

It had been surprisingly - almost laughably - easy.

And then a short while later:
For you must understand that I am not a murderer by nature, only by temporary design and necessity - a justified sinner. There was no need to repeat this experimental act of killing I proved what I had set out to prove: the capacity of my will to carry out such a deed. The blameless red-haired stranger had fulfilled his purpose, and I was ready for what now lay ahead.
The budding psychologist in me says, 'yeah, right.' And so Cox establishes the driving force of this mock-Victorian epic of revenge. What I am enjoying most are the rituals Cox has created to seduce you into the world of his tale. The story is couched as an anonymous confession, written in the 1850s but discovered in 1948. It features a 'copy' of the original title page, an 'introduction' by an academic authority on Victoriana, and the story itself is liberally footnoted. While this might break the stream of one's reading to offer contextual information on the one hand, these footnotes, whether truthful or invented, are themselves part of the fictional universe. Its a theatrical framing device - like Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect. Hard core Brechtians might claim otherwise, but I have always found that attention to the artifice is useful in drawing an audience more deeply into the universe of the fiction because, if even the interruptions are part of it, one's belief becomes more imperterbable. It is the opposite of asking the audience to suspend one's disbelief - it rather invites one's belief. "Here is a manuscript," says the author. "Here are the circumstances under which it was discovered. I am the man who found it." This is all fiction. And then, as you read, up pops the frame - "Don't forget that this is a story," say the footnotes, but in the meantime the fact that this is a novel by a contemporary writer named Michael Cox has been buried three layers beneath the artifice of the frame. It is a device I have enjoyed using in my theater and opera productions because it doesn't take the audience's faith in the fictional world for granted and also because if the creator is imaginative, these devices are fun for the audience. This reader is certainly enjoying the way Cox has invited him into the world of The Meaning of Night at any rate.

The Ragazzo and I are off to the Met this afteroon. Doctor Atomic is by contemporary American composer John Adams and is about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atom bomb. I've been looking forward to this one.


Unknown said...

Interesting post. The Meaning of the Night sounds like something I would like. I, also, need another book like I need a hole in the head.

Katherine said...

The Meaning of Night is excellent! Still one of the best novels this year, and you're right, it does have a killer opening sentence (pun intended).

Danielle said...

I really need to read The Meaning of Night, and actually have it here next the computer (it never got shifted into a bookshelf after I bought it). I love the idea that the novel has footnotes. A novel made to appear real, made to appear a novel from the way it sounds.

Anne Camille said...

Vygotsky is interesting. I read parts of Thought and Language about 20 years ago when studying/teaching comp & rhetoric. Fascinating stuff.

I saw the Live HD simulcast of Dr. Atomic yesterday. I wasn't expecting to like it. After almost walking out because the sound system was so awful (would have driven to another theatre to see remainder) the cinema fixed it. Enjoyed the rest of it. I want to see it again. I'm envious that you saw it in person. The HD performances are great for those of us who don't live close enough to get to the MET regularly, but in the 'is it live or is it Memorex?' contest, live in person wins hands down over the HD simulcast where you are at the mercy of the director & cameraman.

Ted said...

C.B. - I'm enjoying it immensely!

Katherine - I believe I learned of Cox on your site, from your post on the sequel, actually. So...thanks!

Danielle - I can see you really enjoying this one - judging from your taste in other things. Isn't it interesting how we get to 'know' each other, or at least think we do, through our reading?

Cam - I think the HD simulcast thingy is just fantastic! I'm so glad Gelb has begun it, for the future of the art form as well as the Met. You are at the mercy of the director via camera, but we are on the stage too! But they have so much flexibility and have gotten so good at doing these things for TV over the years. I'm constantly impressed. As you can see from my lengthy review, I really loved the experience of Dr. A - a beautiful and valuable piece. And it was a privilege to see it live. I count myself lucky (thanks, Mom).

Anne Camille said...

I think the HD simulcasts are terrific -- but I so wish that I could see the Met in person. We didn't renew our season tickets to the Lyric last year and I'm now in full opera withdrawal. The previous 2 seasons, the HD simulcast has been at one theater here in Indianapolis. This season, there are four theatres hosting. I am surprised by the draw. An acquaintenance of mine recently told me that she and her husband went to the HD Gala and loved it -- they'd never been to an opera before. I bet that they are not unique; this is truly a great thing for the art form.

Ted said...

Cam - Wow, you made it all the way up to the Lyric - that's devotion for you! Indianapolis doesn't have a good opera co - huh? Is Opera Theatre of St. Louis drivable? They're very good and chose interesting works. I would imagine Cincinnati might have some decent stuff too, of course it doesn't have the opulence of the Met, but that factor frequently make the Met reliant on the fancy tricks it can do rather the humanity of the works they produce. I've only ever felt so-so about the Lyric myself. This year, we have been enjoying the Met more than in any season I can remember, but boy is it expensive!