Thursday, March 31, 2011

The narratives that make us (Books - Rodin's Debutante by Ward Just)

I am a fan of Ward Just's writing - reflective, masculine fiction that often spans the lives of its central figures, exploring how the larger motivating forces that comprise their characters intersect with the contexts of politics, art, and the private realm to make up their lives. Exiles in the Garden, Just's last book concerned a photo journalist who turns his professional eye to art photography - does one find more meaning in life living inside the fray or out of it, this book asked. The Translator is about adapting to change both in the historical and the personal contexts. I found Forgetfulness a particularly masterful novel about living post-loss - do we best remember by seeking violent justice or through love?

Just's latest, Rodin's Debutante, has a four-part structure and a subtlety similar to that of The Translator, but like Exiles in the Garden it looks at the life of a creative artist in the context of the personal as well as the political spheres. Lee Goodell's family leave their small Illinois town in the wake of its first violent crime, a rape, and move to the Chicago suburbs. Lee attends Ogden Hall, a private all-boys school, coming of age by leading their failing football team to victory. These events are charted in an old-world, third-person narrative voice. There are two strongly formative life events that propel Lee into his adulthood, one is a meeting with Ogden's Hall's reclusive founder who attempts to share some life lessons with Lee. Chiefly he imparts that one's successes are more valuable than one's mistakes. The second is a Rodin bust, putatively of Tommy's Ogden's wife, Marie, in the school's study hall, which influences his decision to become a sculptor.
The day before Christmas robin's-egg-blue boxes arrived by special messenger at the homes of the twenty-two members of the Ogden Hall football team. They were from Tiffany's, New York. Each box contained a three-ounce silver cup with the boy's name and jersey number and the year engraved on the inside rim. The mothers noticed the stamp on the bottom that indicated sterling silver and said in astonishment, Well! My goodness! There was no notes with the box or any indication of who sent it, befuddling the mothers who insisted that their sons write a thank-you note at once; but there was no one to send it to. Lee Goodell knew, but he believed that Tommy Ogden was owed his anonymity, if that was what he wanted. He certainly did not want the old man to be inconvenienced, forced to read twenty-two notes of appreciation, all composed by hand in schoolboy script. The benefactor thus remained unknown. Lee was delighted by the gesture and wherever he went thereafter he took the silver cup with him in his shaving kit, wrapped in its yellow chamois sleeve. When ever he had something to celebrate he filled the cup with whiskey or cognac and gave the old man a salute before he drank it off; the vessel was identical to Tommy Ogden's. At such time he remembered the final game, Hopkins's two touchdowns and his one, the missed point-after, the cheering all afternoon, long-haired Willa jumping, Mr. Svenson's tears, and Tommy Ogden's open Cadillac idling beyond the far goalpost. A beautiful day, a beautiful season, and a secret to wrap things up. Yet it was also true that the day was never anything more than itself. If there was a metaphor present Lee never discovered what it was.
We then experience the birth of Lee into his adulthood, this related in the first-person. A violent crime also occurs around this time, but to whom and in what way I won't reveal to you. I wasn't always convinced of Ward's rendering of Lee's dialogue as a young man, so self-possessed did it sound. I also found it striking that, while the text could conjure up physical pictures of what female characters looked like, I could never envision the males. Although Lee is a memorable central character, I have no idea what he physically looks like. But Just writes beautifully solid prose that is compact while covering swathes of time. He tells stories about the ideas that form us - our taste, our morals, our politics - and reveals them through plot and structure.

The events that form us are clearly this book's refrain. Or more precisely, it's not the events themselves, but the narratives we develop of them. There is a handsome and pleasing neatness to the structure of Just's novel. Two beautiful events, and two violent events, each of which find eternal life as narratives. These narratives are, on the one hand, the psychological scaffolding of Lee's character and, on the other, creative works - like those Lee (and Just) make. It is not so much the veracity of the events that are vital to their power, rather that they capture what is of essence. Actually, the truth of the narratives' surface details are not the matter at all. Lee goes on to value learning from his mistakes much more than his victories, and the bust is not of Marie. The violent acts are, in fact, failed completely by narrative. They conceal more than they reveal and yet, their force is irrefutable, strengthening in the case of Lee and crippling in the case of the young women who is raped.

There is another notable theme in Rodin's Debutante, namely how mens' successes in our society are so often built on a foundation of cruelty toward women. Rodin's bust was, initially to have been of Ogden's wife Marie. But in an impotent gesture of revenge, Ogden denies his wife the money, building a private school instead. A young woman of lower class is raped, the precise events of the crime are not covered in the newspaper - as the illusion of stability and safety its middle-class residents survive on is more important to the men in power than the well-being of the crime's victim. Just writes of a world governed by men who careen between what they see as irresolvable choices: intellectuality and violence, brawn and kindness, pragmatic wheeling-dealing and reclusiveness, and remembering victories or losses. Lee learns the value of confronting both sides of his nature and tries to make something both honest and lasting out of that knowledge. His medium, as it is free of words, sometimes lies less, but as marble has less explanatory power it reveals less too and Lee seems content with that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The tragedy of substituting convention for deep and independent thought (Books - Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy)

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a tragedy, heavy with the inevitability of the great Greek plays. Jude Fawley is a poor man whose learns the trade of stone mason, but who is widely read, having passionately studied for years to fulfill his dream of studying at a university at Christminster (Hardy's fictionalized Oxford).
It was not till now, when he found himself actually on the spot of his enthusiasm, that Jude perceived how far away from the object of his enthusiasm he really was. Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shard a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall - but what a wall!
But the learned dons won't have a poor man. Jude also falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, herself a brilliant, self-taught scholar. Both break away from loveless marriages to live with each other, but don't marry as they would rather love each other freely than out of obligation. However, Victorian society is not ready for such iconoclasm, preferring the contractual arrangement they recognize, however abusive or loveless, to a self-made household built on love and mutual respect. Jude and Sue are persecuted mercilessly for their choice.

Hardy's writing is richly descriptive and the ideas that pulse through this novel are strikingly modern. He is a master at scenes that externalize his character's conflicts, creating for the reader a visceral experience which doubles as a potent symbol. This one, a symbol of Jude's youthful ambition and impulsivity:
In the dusk of that evening Jude walked away from his old aunt's as if to go home. But as soon as he reached the open down he struck out upon it till he came to a large round pond. The frost continued, though it was not particularly sharp, and the larger stars overhead came out slow and flickering. Jude put one foot on the edge of the ice, and then the other: it cracked under his weight; but this did not deter him. He ploughed his way inward to the centre, the ice making sharp noises as he went. When just about the middle he looked around him and gave a jump. The cracking repeated itself; but he did not go down. He jumped again, but the cracking had ceased. Jude went back to the edge, and stepped upon the ground.

It was curious, he thought. What was he reserved for?
Later in the book, as Jude and Sue's dreams are repeatedly crushed by society's rules and their opportunities ever diminished (though neither of them are out of their 20s), Hardy's concentration moves from their dreams to their suffering:
At some time near two o'clock, when he was beginning to sleep more soundly, he was aroused by a shrill squeak that had been familiar enough to him when he lived regularly at Marygreen. It was the cry of a rabbit caught in a gin. As was the little creature's habit, it did not soon repeat its cry; and probably would not do so more than once or twice; but would remain bearing its torture till the morrow, when the trapper would come and knock it on the head.

He who in his childhood had saved the lives of the earthworms now began to picture the agonies of the rabbit from its lacerated leg. It it were a "bad catch" by the hind leg, the animal would tug during the ensuing six hours till the iron teeth of the trap had stripped the leg-bone of its flesh, when, should a weak springed instrument enable it to escape it would die in the fields from the mortification of the limb. If it were a "good catch," namely, by the fore-leg, the bone would be broken, and the limb nearly torn in two in attempts at an impossible escape.

Almost half-an-hour passed, and the rabbit repeated its cry. Jude could rest no longer till he had put it out of its pain...
The vividness of this scene made me literally cringe as I read it. It reminds me strongly of another great scene of an animal's suffering used as a symbol in a novel - the beating of the horse in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I usually think of these literary devices as dated yet, they make for bold experiential writing, not just intellectual exercise, and, as such, are tremendously effective.

Hardy's last and greatest novel (I think) tells us that people beg for conventions to resolve paradoxes inherent to human nature. They substitute them for deep and independent thinking because they find it so hard to live in the presence of more than one truth. Hardy is not just talking about the uneducated worker, but also of scholars and clergy - the learned men of his time. And when a few enlightened souls discover that they can have richer, happier lives by refusing to substitute convention for lives of courageous independence, those who crave the comforts of convention make sure that they're miserable for trying to do so. I was particularly struck by the modernity of this message re-reading the novel on the eve of my own marriage to the Ragazzo, whom many of you have read about here. It will be on our 10th anniversary.

Loving, adults who choose to create a family and share a celebration of their relationships are, of course, free to do so. And those who happen to be gay can also obtain a civil marriage license in five of the United States and D.C., and this is certainly progress of a sort. However, our federal government doles out more than 1,100 rights and privileges, some very substantial, based on the possession of that state-issued license if you are straight, but not if you are gay. This is the same document. We pay the same fee, and have the same ceremony and the same responsibilities, yet our federal government can treat us differently. This is legal inequity with personal, legal and financial consequences, not to mention emotional ones - here's one example. This is American law? I'm not talking about a religious rite. Those are determined by religious institutions, which are separate from the state under our constitution, and can opt to marry or not marry whom they choose.

The number of times we as a country have used the law to take away from one set of human beings what another has have been thankfully few, as they have always been mistaken. Our constitution declared black men and women to be 3/5 of a white person in order to justify the outrage of slavery. That was thankfully repealed, though the legacy of the institutionalization of such treatment continues. Women were denied the right to vote and run for public office in most states until under 100 years ago, and the legacy of their second class citizenship also persists. Our track record in abusing law to take away the privileges of a class of human beings is an ugly one. Repeating it would be foolish and yet many individuals not only possess such beliefs, but they run for public office on platforms which include legalization of them.

Some people use the argument of "tradition" against gay adults being allowed a civil marriage license. Which tradition are you talking about? The one where the contract gives the man ownership of the woman and her property? The one existing in many states until only forty years ago forbidding the marriage of two adults if they are of different races? Perhaps the one in multiple U.S. states that declares if two people live together for a significant period of time, declare and intend themselves to be married, referring to each other as such, that they are considered married in common-law (the exact requirements are different state to state). This status provides the legal benefits of a civil marriage and its dissolution actually entails a legal divorce. Yet the state of Kansas (for example) will honor that tradition and yet refuse to grant me a civil marriage license.

I love the fact that some people choose to criticize gay people's lack of stability and yet refuse us the very bricks and mortar that our society uses to build it. Hardy's Jude the Obscure has reminded me that conventions do not substitute for individual actions. It is our actions and feelings toward each other that have and will continue to be the meat of our relationship. Despite a soon to be filled-in license, we will face judgment from limited individuals and unequal treatment by our own government. The results of such narrow-mindedness and abuse are frequently tragic, as was true for Jude and Sue, but they shouldn't be. No person's happiness or freedom relies on the limits of another person's. As a supposedly free society we still have a lot of work to do.

I hope if you are happy for us, you will inform yourselves and others of the facts around legal marriage and consider its equitable application under United States law, whatever your religious proclivities:

Lambda Legal
Marriage Equality USA
Marriage Equality New York
Human Rights Campaign

In fact, I will be presenting my home State of New York with my bills for having to travel to Connecticut, where I can obtain a license, an expense not incurred by my straight fellow citizens. In addition, I will include a full report of the income the State of Connecticut and its businesses received from our time celebrating there. I am not expecting reimbursement.

These may sound like dour associations when most people are thinking of bells, fancy dress, dancing, and acquiring housewares, but I am jazzed by making the legal observation of our already established relationship an occasion for increased political awareness and hopeful progress. I hope you will join us in that celebration.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mystery as Cure (Books - Memory Book by Howard Engel)

Memory Book by Howard Engel, in which detective Benny Cooperman awakens in a rehabilitation hospital unable to read but not to write (alexia sine agraphia) and unable to remember anything about the hit on the head that put him there, finished relatively grippingly. I had felt that the initial stages of the mystery were held back by the fact that the writing of the book was an exercise that author Howard Engel used to help in his adjustment to life with alexia sine agraphia (see my first post on this book). But having given over to this conceit, I ended up enjoying detective Cooperman and his cast of characters. Engel managed in the book's second half to ramp up both the pace and the suspense, and even to conclude with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek drawing room scene in which the detective assembles his suspects and reveals the answer to the mystery.

There were a few moments during which the hybrid nature of the novel ended up getting too cute, as for example, which Benny learns of the nature of his illness from his brother Sam, a physician, and replies
Sounds like a case for that American doctor, the one who wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
As Engel was a patient of Oliver Sacks, the author of that book, and indeed wrote the afterword for this one, I found the joke a little sophomoric. I was most taken with the writing, some of it quite eloquent, about this experience of being a patient with alexia and amnesia.
There are all kinds of sleep - refreshing all-nighters, fender-bending nightmares, catnaps, and deep oblivion - but for a sleep that gathers you up, seduces you, and turns off your lights there is nothing quite like hospital sleep. Sleep, the seductress of my waking hours, watched me closely, knew my weaknesses, held out lurid promises...


Then there were voices, far away, against an echoing background. I can't reproduce the words, not the exact words, one never can in a dream, but there were two voices talking about drugs and their cost. One voice, an English-accented voice, was telling the other not to be daft, that she shouldn't play at knowing what she was doing without measuring the cost. "Ecstasy," she said. "Have you lost your tiny mind?" The other voice was younger, guarding her ignorance with bluster.

"What's the harm?" Where had I heard such talk? Were they nurses talking near my bed? Right now, as I slept? Or were they seeds from my memory, dropped like acorns from my resting brain? Was it a fragment of another time and place?
Engel also allowed the pseudo-hardboiled detective banter of Cooperman to do double-duty as sarcasm about his illness.
"This is the real Sheila Kerzon. The imposter was Heather Nesbitt, her roommate. And, in a minute, without a net, I'm going to see if I can guess my own name."
I can only imagine that must have been liberating, and this reader some indication of the frustrating struggle that must have been behind the recovery from this illness that is belied by the creation of a detective novel while not being able to read!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mystery of himself (Books - Memory Book by Howard Engel)

I first learned of Howard Engel in A Man of Letters, a chapter in Oliver Sacks latest book The Mind's Eye, about a man whose stroke leaves him unable to read but not to write (alexia sine agraphia). This would be limiting for most adults, but is tragic for Engel who is a mystery writer. In Memory Book (2006) the detective of many of his mysteries - Benny Cooperman - awakens in a rehabilitation hospital, himself the victim of alexia sine agraphia due to a bop on the head. He must solve the mystery of how he got to be that way. What case was he solving, who hit him, and why? But before that, he must solve more pressing mysteries of how to make sense of the strange blobs on a page that he knows are letters which make words.
I looked around me blankly. I could see everything I could normally see. I saw the nurse, the curtains, the bump of my knees under the covers. Through the window, I could see the hospital across the street. There was nothing wrong with my vision. What's-Her-Name reached over to the folded newspaper by the window and handed it to me. I picked up the first section and opened it. I looked at it in disbelief. It could have been written in Serbo-Croatian or Portuguese or Greek. I couldn't make out the words. I squinted hard at the front page, recognizing the logo of The Globe and Mail. It was English, but the words below were foreign. My hands began to shake. Again I squinted hard; I could make out most of the letters - I saw "The" and "and" - but the normal black-and-white words kept their secrets from me...
Each time he awakens and meets someone, he must solve the mystery of how long has past since the last time he saw them, and whether he has already said to them the things he is saying, as he is also amnesiac. Benny Cooperman learns that he is repeating himself. He can't seem to hang onto the names of people, even with the "memory book" the hospital provides him.

This books reads as though Engel was using the writing, at least in part, as an exercise in recovery, which lends the book considerable professional interest for me as a neuropsychologist-in- training, but doesn't do much for the average pleasures of mystery reading. That part of the book I'm finding rather slow going. But Engel, no doubt, is finding his re-vamped visual system and memory of more immediate interest than plotting another book in the Benny Cooperman series. As such, I found his descriptions of building new routes to access old memories fascinating, and the delightful thing about the conceit of the mystery form his has chosen, is that he must imagine how that same experience would affect his detective Benny Cooper.
It was going to be a peculiar life, I had to admit: part of my old memory worked - I could still remember about the Battle of Hastings and when Julius Caesar crossed his Rubicon - but I could no longer remember the names of my many first cousins. While I was trying to list all sixteen of them, I had the haunting feeling that I had done this before. I didn't so much mind the duplication of the work as I did the feeling that I was looking over my own shoulder to see what was going on. I could remember Anna and her father, but I had lost his first name, And in order to remember his last name, I had to go back to Anna's, which, of course, was the same. I kept surprising myself with my own ingenuity; for instance, I was trying to recall the name Grant for some reason. I spent ten minutes going through the alphabet searching for the name. I succeeded only when I remembered that I'd once worked for a Saul Granofsky, whose daughters had changed their name to Grant. My memory was full of such filigrees of twisted silken strands. My new memory required me to build a latticework of aids to criss-cross my experience and expectation.
It remains to be seen how the mysteries, both of them, turn out. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Probing the experience of seeing (Books - The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks)

I have always enjoyed Oliver Sacks's vivid, humane portraits. He is a doctor/author who has always managed to write about people instead of cases and in none of his books is that better exemplified than in The Mind's Eye, in which Sacks's experience of his own eye tumor is the subject of one of the pieces.

Each chapter in this latest collection focuses on a person whose visual system is somehow compromised or enhanced. I say visual system rather than eye because most of what we experience as 'seeing' is accomplished by the central nervous system. The retina, which is the curved screen upon which our lens focuses the light entering our eye, and that forms the back wall of our eye, is actually part of the CNS. It's like a little piece of brain that hangs by a stalk (the optic nerve). The characters of The Mind's Eye include a pianist who loses the ability to read music, a mystery writer who looses the ability to read words (but not to write them), and several people who are selectively blind for faces but not necessarily for other classes of objects. There is a chapter devoted to stereoscopy, or how the brain combines the images from our two two-dimensional retinas to create an illusion of three-dimensional space. In this case, a woman with life-long strabismus, who could not see in three dimensions because she viewed the world through one eye at a time, gains the ability to see in 3-D. I found this section particularly charming, not so much for the case study but because of the fact that Dr. Sacks, having developed an interest in stereoscopes in his childhood, built himself several:
So when, at the age of ten, I developed a passion for photography, I wanted, of course, to make my own pairs of stereo photos. This was easy to do, by moving the camera horizontally about two-and-a-half inches between exposures, mimicking the distance between the two eyes. (I did not yet have a double-lens stereo camera, which would take simultaneous stereo pairs).

After reading how Wheatstone explored stereoscopic effects by exaggerating or reversing the disparity between the two images, I began experimenting with this, too. I started taking pictures with greater and greater separations between them, and then I made a hyperstereoscope, using a cardboard tube about a yard long with four little mirrors. With this, I could turn myself, in effect, into a creature with eyes a yard apart. I could look through the hyperstereoscope at a very distant object, like the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, which normally appeared as a flat semicircle on the horizon, and see it in its full rotundity, projecting towards me.
We were able to have fun before television and the internet! Sacks's memoir, Uncle Tungsten, is full of such examples of himself or members of his family pursuing their curiosity about the world's flora, fauna, and physical phenomena, through active research. I delight in the fact that Sacks was a member of the New York Stereoscopic Society prior to his own eye troubles (not to mention the American Fern Society and the New York Mineralogical Club, both mentioned in his bio). The fact that Sacks pursues his curiosities so avidly, whether about people or phenomena, is reflected in the way he listens to and relates the stories of his patients.

Through his case histories, Sacks also writes on how the brain evolved the skill of reading if it wasn't "designed to" do so, how our eyes take in surfaces and the boundaries between them but the brain constructs"objects" from them, the von Helmholz and Young theories of color vision, and how the brain is able to fill in holes in the visual field - both those naturally occurring in our blind spot (the place where the optic nerve exits from the retina) - and those created by injury or illness. Sacks's description of his own loss of vision is particularly evocative. He communicates through it not only how the brain constructs what we perceive from the cues the eyes collect, but also how the limits of the eye produce a different experience for the brain. When Sacks loses the peripheral visual field of one of his eyes to a tumor, he not only cannot see that portion of space, he seems to lose his awareness that it exists at all.
Kate and I finished our walk and headed back to my office. I walked ahead and got inot the elevator - but Kate had vanished. I presumed she was talking to the doorman or checking the mail, and waited for her to catch up. Then a voice to my right - her voice - said, " What are we waiting for?" I was dumbfounded - not just that I had failed to see her to my right, but that I had even failed to imagine her being there, because "there" did not exist for me.
The last chapter, which lends its title to the book, was most interesting to me. Mental imagery is a particular interest of mine. Sacks writes of neural plasticity (the reassignment of new functions to neural real estate). For example the reallocation of parts of the visual cortex to either hearing or touch for those who are blind. Or the science-fiction like work of neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita , who takes advantage of such flexibility by connecting the output of a video camera, point-by-point to a grid on one of the most sensitive part of the human body - the tongue. Such a device enables blind people to walk across a room avoiding obstacles, to catch a ball rolled toward them, and make other such perceptual judgments not previously afforded them. Are these people "seeing," Sacks asks? Whether exploring case studies, the evolution of neuroscience, or more recent avances, Sacks's writing is probing, accessible, and humane in The Mind's Eye.