Monthly Archives: February 2012

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape

Continued from Too Far Gone and With you I felt my hands extend a kiss

82

after Walt Whitman

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own, head bowed. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden. The chime
of mass will come to soon – I need you back.

88

The workshop of the sea furnishes love
of every breath, precious to the swimmer,
communion with the heady sky above,
busy with intentions toward the water,
fluency in the movements of fish, their
instincts when startled, their resting places,
and most of all, an urge, to sail over
mysteries, touching just their surfaces.

89

I see the continual miracle
in the sea even now, the rocks and waves
in their mystical embrace, the sickle
moon conveying in the tides, secret caves
concealing eels and sleeping sharks, the graves
of sailors haunted by the songs children
sing playing on the beach. The sea salt saves
me from despair, tearful and known to men.

90

after Paul Celan

I dwell on the sea, standing at the stove.
What I have written grows hollow, things we’ve
said, sea-green, burn like embers in the cove.
The sea does not devour the naïve,
the sea immortalizes those who leave
the common road for the pure and deep, songs
thunder in the surf for those who believe.
The coffee sputters, bitter now and strong.

93

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you, in due course, will
replace your long limbed bones, a yellow leaf
framing a cluster of grapes will shine, grief
will hide itself in the earth, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us. I draw the line.

96

If you are changed, and do not wish to write,
and do not think on me, but still return
from Albania’s wilderness and the sight
of war wounds scattered like wild roses, learn
to love me again, promise to try, turn
aside from unending war and look deep
into the country of your birth, and yearn
for peace, a summer of yellow pears, sweet sleep.

98

after Khalil Gibran

I can’t believe I allowed you to go,
that you went to war with my blessing.
Some women do not seem to feel the blow,
their loss a gift to their country that brings
neither pain nor joy. I see them giving
their prayers over to the dead without thought
of virtue, just as the myrtle breathing
its fragrance in the night gives grace, untaught.

106

after Rainer Maria Rilke

Soon you will leave your odyssey behind.
At war’s end you will come, much as you went,
by sea. There is no light house. You can find
me in the aura of tears that augments
startlight, the disfigured stars of lament
will light your way with every candela,
home to where a slender young palm tree bent
in the wind like a girl of Ithaca.

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With you I felt my hands extend a kiss


Continued from Too Far Gone

31

The days twist together like braids of red
garlic that hang from the rafters, until
you have filled the house and the smell of bread
is imbued with the chambered bulbs’ thick, shrill
fragrance, strident as a woman’s voice, filled
with unspent hours collecting inside
the heart of our life together. What spills
onto the table top is the aside
to your companions, thinking of your bride.

32

I know you think of me, but be unkind,
so you will not be shattered when you see
what deprivation, heartache and resigned
devotions to your cause have done to me.
If I have bravery in me still, be
amazed when I smile and forget to run
to your arms, already relieved, pity
and grief for your suffering forgotten,
made proud by your survival, unbroken.

35

Your body is not so many parts to me,
biceps femoris, sternum, radius,
every outline in your flesh seems to be
drawn without lifting the pencil, anxious
to say something about your soul, precious
in the immediacy of feeling
and the completeness of every conscious
movement – your smile is felt in your curving
shoulder’s cusp, trapezius, tender, knowing.

38

The green sea is a moral element,
sailors know her dice are always loaded;
quick to judge and clear in ascertainment,
she lifts the great man up, even handed
and respectful of talent. You headed
into her world of paladin intrigues
fearlessly, every ordeal completed
in turn. She could not amaze you, fatigue
could not catch you, trailing you by a league.

39

Mandras, if a mast could be a tree and
flower, if its boughs could bend with the wind
and sing a little with the birds, your hand
would be heavy with fruit and pursed leaves twinned
on either side of the fruit’s stem, bright skinned
and long limbed, perfectly symmetrical.
You were meant to shadow purple finned
porpoise and roseate pandora and pull
the secrets from the sea, an immortal.

63

after C.P. Cavafy

A Greek in Alexandria admired
this in a youth, his sensuality.
More illicit than yours, nightly tired
in the arms of strangers, young and pretty
in a secretive, hot tavern city.
“Pleasure itself enjoys his blood,” he wrote.
We are a village couple, the pity
and admiration of poets remote
to us, our kisses modest, dances rote.

66

I broke a branch of acacia for home,
fragrant and turned many times by the sun
in its greener days. With it I can comb
the numbness of winter out of the dun
shadow cast over the porch. There are none
of the flowers I described to you, all
is brown from stem to pith. Today I shun
the world of fantasy. I don’t recall
my name in your voice or shudder, enthralled.

67

Where is the remainder of our love, where
has it overflowed? Where has it sparkled
like iron at work on a wheel, hot air
dancing with embers? What have I struggled
to remember all this time? What buckled
under the brick laying hours, what drowned
under the weight of silence? I stumbled
over the thought of you today, could sound
out none of your promises, senses bound.

71

after Paul Celan

I want you to stand in the shadow of
the war-torn air, and stand for no one and
nothing, unrecognized except by love,
there for me alone, my ring on your hand,
a more sacred and unerring oath’s band,
with all there is room for in that, even
without language. Let your unit disband,
return without my letters, believe in
no rumors about me, hope unshaken.

77

Mandras, a woman cannot write plainly
or with perfect hope uninterrupted
by the thought of death, or be patiently
silent about premonitions. I said
I would write, not that I could send unread
letters to the front forever, pouring
my little courage out line by line, head
dizzied by the unknown, always feeling
your silence on me, accumulating.

78

With you I always felt my hands were meant
for something sacred, not just the practice
of a woman’s work, or for a patient.
With you I felt my hands extend a kiss,
and if I brought a woman’s art to this
it was the intuition of my soul
and not what I had learned. Each day I miss
their honesty, forever fading, whole
only while we touched, the grace you stole.

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Too Far Gone

One of my favorite Christian Bale movies is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which completely changed the way I see Nicholas Cage as an actor. In the movie he wins the heart of a doctor’s daughter played by Penelope Cruz. Her first love, Mandras (Christian Bale), goes to war before they marry, and returns none of her letters to the front. When I wrote fan poetry about the movie, I composed short stanzas that each represented a letter to Mandras, but I never finished the series. The idea was to chronicle the search for love in words that were never answered, and show how the heroine’s understanding of love collapses into words in a deeply unsatisfying way. Some of the stanzas were much better than others, so I’ve tried to pick out the best and break them up into shorter series.

5

To write I must step out of my own heart,
letters have come, and none from you. I wait,
and hope my many notes to you impart
a sense of urgency about your fate,
that at your letters you must hesitate
to tell me of the fighting not because
you are in danger – that you dedicate
your thoughts of me to your safety and pause
to describe them not to betray this cause.

7

I thought your letter would come today and
told your mother so. We have heard nothing.
She does not let me steady her strong hand,
she is too old for useless consoling.
She trembles for you and calls it aging.
She did not seem surprised you do not write.
I understand none of this. Do I bring
you so little comfort in the bare night
with my letters, you deny me outright?

9

If I’ve grown harder than I mean to be,
you have confused and changed me. But I miss
your stubbornness, the way you gently
show me I am glad when something amiss
shocks me. You bring my head to rest and kiss
me with the weight of my hurt in your hands,
and I cannot be disappointed. This
I can only imagine now, demands
useless, but your pledge to comfort me stands.

11

after Pablo Neruda

The ideal and loved voices of the lost
find us in our beds, like music at night,
the first poetry of our lives exhausts
its tenderness on these moments, and slight
movements of thought shed a christening light
on the sleeper’s face. What then fades away
is the hurt of loss, and with it the right
shape of the knife, the memory. A day
passes without you and I learn to pray.

16

Today I heard you have seen the fighting.
The men with you have written home and said
nothing from you. So many are writing,
and if Albania is a hundred
miles away you are farther than most, dead
to my pleading with you to write until
I can see you again, and finally thread
my fingers through your hair, embrace and fill
my arms with you, and prove I love you still.

23

Enclosed in the fragrant pine walls that keep
our house warm, wide and shadowed, I pass
a boring day pacing walls with the deep
and lingering eyes of a wine filled glass,
wondering what a closed window forecasts,
whether I should open it wide – would light
and its bright reminders of life oppress
the room and disclose your long absence? Night
visits the afternoon inside. I write.

24

I am a stranger to my closest friend,
my father does not recognize our love.
He’s given me to you but at the end
of my extremity an undreamed of
loneliness stretches between us. To shove
my impatience to see you aside, wear
a more delicate smile and be above
these darkest passions is beyond me. Prayer
disappoints him. He could be unaware.

26

I confess, I have found a little peace
lighting a candle for you in the church
every day. The ancient myths of Greece
are full of women struggling to search
their hearts for courage, waiting in the lurch,
and on so many altars, empty thrones
and unanswering shores, lay silver birch
adorned with bells, and piled hyacinth grown
for the gods on whose mercy men are thrown.

28

You volunteers, untamable and yet
compliant in the call to arms, stony-
maned stallions answering rage with a jet
roar and a body for the wounding, knee
bent to the discipline of the gun: see
what you can do but come back whole and keep
your promises to us, to be just, free
of dispassionate murder, and as deep
as a priest in your prayers before you sleep.

29

To move from thinking of you at church to
thinking of you in the kitchen is hard,
it forces me to believe I know you
well enough to feed you – the feeling jarred
at first because I often tried to guard
my heart from fear of loss by thinking we
are strangers in a way. In your regard
for me I saw impulsive love – I see
at last that you could not abandon me.

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Bokeh

Bokeh is a form of art photography I discovered on Morguefile, in which much of the image is deliberately out of focus, for effect. It brought to mind the work of focus pullers, and the choreography of acting for screen when the focus puller has certain marks on the set that the actors must hit on time to stay in focus. What looks pell-mell in an action sequence may have to be very tightly controlled to work for camera. In the credits, the focus puller may also be called the first assistant cameraman. This may be one of the toughest jobs in all the credits, not least of all because when the focus isn’t perfect every penny of production value and every iota of fleeting inspiration that has gone into the shot has been wasted.

You rarely sense how closely the focus puller manipulates your gaze by choosing which parts of the image on your screen are in sharpest focus. There is occasionally a reveal, as when the doctor examining a Galapagos beetle in Master and Commander suddenly spots the Acheron in the distance. If manipulating the focus for that shot sounds tricky, now imagine doing it without looking through the lens! The camera operator must tell the focus puller whether or not the shot is in focus – only a knowledge of optics and cinematography tells the focus puller how to judge the distance. I found a detailed description of out-of-focus photography technique that hints at the complexity of the focus puller’s job.

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Epic adventures

One of the main reasons I took to writing fan poetry was to have more ideas for writing adventure poetry. The thing is, action is especially hard to versify. I don’t know many English language examples of adventure poetry to use as models. There’s Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade of course, and huge numbers of verse translations of Homer, but I find Lawrence of Arabia’s prose translation of the Odyssey reads better than the other English Homers. Shakespeare’s Henry V has poetic speeches about adventure that go deeper than these other examples, but all his poetry is about love. His stage version of the Iliad is brutally ironic and undercuts the theme of heroism relentlessly. So far, I’ve had more luck writing love poetry about movies than writing action. It seems useless to work on my Alexander epic yet. Alexander’s sympathy with Hephaistion is easier to write than his ambition, his military victories, or his personal courage in battle. The meter is easier to adapt than the action is to write.

There was a craze for Homeric hexameters and other verse translations of Homer in English in the Victorian era; Tennyson was one of its detractors.

“Why take the style of those heroic times?
For nature brings not back the mastodon,
Nor we those times; and why should any man
Remodel models? these twelve books of mine
Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing-worth,
Mere chaff and draff, much better burnt.”

But even in this ironic poem about the revivals of ancient myths, “The Epic,” he concludes with a nostalgic nod to the desire to bring back the “deep-chested music” of old, saying it brings back his Freshman days.

Is it hopeless? Well, I found an Australian poem about stock riders that makes me think otherwise. I just bought a modest collection of Australian poetry edited not by a writer but by an unassuming reader, Jamie Grant, called 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know. This one is by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870). The narrator is an old man who can barely sit his horse, reflecting on a life of adventure. These stanzas are from the middle of the poem.

’Twas merry ’mid the backwoods, when we spied the station roofs,
To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,
With a running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs
– Oh, the hardest day was never then too hard!

Ay, we had a glorious gallop after Starlight and his gang
When they bolted from Sylvester’s on the flat!
How the sun-dried reed-beds crackled, how the flint-strewn ranges rang
To the strokes of Mountaineer and Acrobat!

Hard behind them in the timber – harder still across the heath –
Close beside them through the tea-tree scrub we dashed;
And the golden-tinted fern leaves, how they rustled underneath,
And the honeysuckle osiers, how they crashed!

We led the hunt throughout, Ned, on the chestnut and the grey,
And the troopers were three hundred yards behind
While we emptied our six-shooters on the bushrangers at bay
In the creek, with stunted box-tree for a blind.

There you grappled with the leader, man to man and horse to horse,
And you rolled together when the chestnut reared:
He blazed away and missed you in that shallow water-course –
A narrow shave!–his powder singed your beard.

In these hours when life is ebbing, how those days when life was young
Come back to us! how clearly I recall
Even the yarns Jack Hall invented, and the songs Jem Roper sung
– And where are now Jem Roper and Jack Hall?

Ay, nearly all our comrades of the old colonial school,
Our ancient boon companions, Ned, are gone:
Hard livers for the most part! somewhat reckless as a rule!–
It seems that you and I are left alone.

– excerpted from The Sick Stockrider

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Memorial Day

Towards the end of the song Memorial Day (on the album Bastard Life or Clarity), Russell talks about his memories of his grandfather, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific in 1944. For him a simple meal of rice could bring back intense memories of the war. The story takes me back to dinners with my grandfather, who served in WWII and the Korean War and was a prisoner of war twice in Korea. His memories of famine, shared by his captors and his rescuers (Korean civilians) made it unthinkable to leave a grain of rice on his plate at the end of a meal, though his appetite was poor and his digestion worse.

I have always had trouble writing poetry with refrains, but in the WWII prisoner of war drama Hart’s War, I found a subject that allowed me to use repetition to moralize on the action of the poem, which saves subtlety, so I wrote several villanelles about the movie. It’s easy to say Hollywood makes too much of honor and war valor, but this movie has plenty of subversive things to say about courage. Villanelles are an especially difficult verse form, but I was pleased with these two results.

I.

The courage to survive bends like a slender flame,
or like a naked tree in falling snow, shifting,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

I stared into the sky, struck down, the human frame
of the surrounding snow a company, drifting.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame.

I felt the silence like an elegy’s bleak claim,
as though the soundless wind spoke of their stolen spring,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

Imprisoned, I confessed in a steady tone: name,
rank and serial number. He went on, smoking.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame.

Always polite, he only hinted threats, and blamed
others when he found me crouching naked, shaking,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

All he wanted was fuel tank positions, fair game,
blood need not spill on my account. I was breaking.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

IV.

To witness evil is to be a bystander,
complicit by standing aside and surviving.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

There is shame in fellow-feeling if the danger
passes you over, you hang your head escaping.
To witness evil is to be a bystander.

The hope of confronting evil pleases soldiers,
but soldiers are men who smile darkly on fighting.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

When the chain of command is the battlefield, their
smiles are stiff and unflinchingly self-effacing.
To witness evil is to be a bystander.

There is a sweetness to the man who smarts under
abused authority, his shame-faced fidgeting.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

But for him to take a stand is radical, your
instinct is to brush off the excess of feeling.
To witness evil is to be a bystander;
to see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

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A Beautiful Mind

The screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, inspired by but very different from the book of the same name, has been criticized by some as whitewashing the hero’s faults to keep the audience sympathetic and promote a more understanding view of schizophrenia. One reviewer claimed that it was pure Hollywood to depict Nash as lonely and socially excluded, claiming he was more a monstrous bully in his own right than a victim of bullying. But I found biographical details elsewhere supporting the movie’s portrayal of Nash, at least for capturing the spirit of his story, though important themes were re-imagined through fictitious events to streamline the plot.

These themes touch on a now-marginalized approach to understanding schizophrenia that focuses on the correspondence, however seemingly distant, between the content of delusional beliefs and hallucinations and the patient’s real life experiences, and looks into the subjective stress levels during real life events triggering psychotic episodes as being disproportionate not only because of genetic vulnerability but also for experiential reasons, with special attention to pre-existing cognitive processes that enable these events to have such catastrophic consequences. What sets this approach to understanding schizophrenia apart is simple: the accounts given by the patient, even during a psychotic break, are not considered “un-understandable,” and treatment enlists the patient’s own cognitive powers, instead of suppressing cognition by refusing to listen to psychotic ramblings and using powerful sedative drugs or newer antipsychotics designed to inhibit the experience of “salience,” the perception that something (any observation, internal or external to the mind) matters, has significance, or holds meaning.

Representing these now-subversive themes and what they meant to John is important, considering how other discrepancies between the screenplay and events in his life conceal one of his most remarkable accomplishments. In reality he did not give an acceptance speech when he received the Nobel, as the organizers lacked confidence in his state of mind. He had not been in treatment for decades, and the line in the movie attesting to his use of newer antipsychotic drugs was inserted out of deference to the views of the screenwriter’s mother, a mental health professional who feared the movie would inspire other patients with psychosis to refuse these drugs. Nash is one of the rare survivors of schizophrenia known to have gone into remission despite refusing antipsychotics since his last discharge from involuntary inpatient care in 1970.

Dr. Rosen: You can’t reason your way out of this!
Nash: Why not? Why can’t I?
Dr. Rosen: Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!

This exchange privileges the conventional wisdom that the schizophrenic mind is the patient’s own worst enemy, and not a potential ally in treatment. At other moments, the screenplay credits Nash with waging a tenacious battle to turn his mental prowess to his advantage through introspective critical thinking, despite the handicap of sedative drugs and entrenched self-defeating thinking patterns underlying his delusions and hallucinations. But Nash is held to be almost alone in having succeeded along these lines, and it is unheard of to counsel schizophrenic patients to try.

I think what Nash achieved through his own efforts is more widely attainable than most experts believe, particularly if supportive talk therapy is available. My account of schizophrenia draws on two bodies of research on psychosis that fall outside the traditional realm of genetic explanations and drug therapies: traumagenic models of psychosis and newer research linking lifelong social cognitive deficits to vulnerability to psychosis and treatment outcomes. I don’t want to discount the potential benefits of biomedical treatment altogether, but I do not believe these treatment strategies are always necessary or ever sufficient on their own. I have not delved into the literature arguing that the heritability of psychosis is less clear than is widely supposed, or research on the limitations and side-effects of anti-psychotic drugs. But I am familiar with research showing that many psychotic patients find little relief using the available medications, those who do experience relief are at significant risk of frequent relapse even if they adhere to treatment guidelines, and some of the most common medication side-effects are more immediately stigmatizing than the illness itself, particularly movement disorders (ticks and tremors) that unlike psychotic symptoms can be ever-present and impossible to conceal.

The conventional wisdom is now scathingly against traumagenic models of psychosis, but retains the theory that psychotic patients erupt into delusions and hallucinations in response to stressful life events – the key to maintaining both views is to always maintain that the events in question are in no way traumatic, and that the patient has a hair-trigger response to seemingly ordinary sources of stress. This only makes sense if you utterly ignore how clearly distressed the patient has become, treating the subjective experience of distress as meaningless in the same way the delusions and hallucinations are considered meaningless. It makes more sense when you look at how trauma is defined in the diagnostic manual of psychiatry, quite unlike the dictionary definition, with the criterion that unless the situation is life-threatening or threatens bodily harm, it is not trauma. Leaving aside how often assault histories recounted by psychotic patients are dismissed out of hand by treatment providers quick to infer that these are artifacts of psychobabble and not real events, this definition of trauma was designed to rescue combat veterans with PTSD from being lumped in with schizophrenic patients with whom they might have many symptoms in common, recognizing that schizophrenia is perhaps the most stigmatizing diagnosis of all.

The expert community is more receptive to new approaches to linking psychosis to ordinary cognition by calling attention to the mediating role of social cognition, that is, the patient’s grasp of ordinary rules of human behavior and their ability to make accurate inferences about the intentions and dispositions of others. Without social skill it is not unusual to make mistakes when trying to read other people’s minds from their nonverbal cues and sometimes oblique statements about what they’re thinking, feeling or doing. And without close human contact, it is impossible to check one’s own speculations and ruminations against alternative perspectives, a process called “reality-testing” that keeps all of us from becoming profoundly out of touch. Without social skill, it is easy to fall short of opportunities for reality-testing and live increasingly in one’s private thoughts, which can steadily grow less and less realistic. In fact, living alone is a known risk factor for developing full-blown psychotic symptoms even in people with no history of mental illness.

I see both these factors in biographical details about John Nash before he attended Princeton as a promising mathematics student. His brilliance as an original thinker was not quickly recognized in real life, and for his social awkwardness he was in fact bullied and socially excluded, experiences that would have reinforced the tendency he showed at an early age of being a loner with little sympathy for others. I imagine his commitment to intellectual challenges in childhood was in part compensation for his lack of social skill, as a source of pride and as something his parents and teachers, when they recognized his potential, warmly encouraged him to pursue. And I question whether his childhood was peaceful because of his bisexuality, with many who knew him as a boy attesting to his having been bullied for showing homosexual interest in other boys. Later in life he was dismissed from his first job as a professional mathematician because he was caught in a police action targeting homosexual activity in public bathrooms, a blow predating any sign of his psychotic symptoms that could only have been humiliating in the extreme. In this context, his later grandiosity seems in part justified by his intuition about the significance of his own work, which would not soon be acknowledged, and in part a natural defensive maneuver he needed to overcome shaming experiences that had undercut his sense of dignity.

The traumagenic model of schizophrenia does two things differently: it looks at trauma histories as factors in the patient’s biological and cognitive vulnerability to psychotic episodes, and it looks at the subjectively traumatic nature of stressful life events that trigger psychotic episodes in adulthood. Childhood trauma can lead to some of the same brain abnormalities related to heightened sensitivity to stress observed in schizophrenia, suggesting life experience, particularly during the brain’s early development, can lead to biological differences conventionally attributed strictly to genes. And recent histories of interpersonal victimization are very common in acute psychotic patients, as well as being prominent themes in the content of delusions and hallucinations for many patients, not unlike intrusive trauma memories or experiences of reliving traumatic events in patients with PTSD. The literature on social cognition in psychotic patients, on the other hand, points to many areas of continual misunderstanding that, in a patient with hyper-arousal and inner fears of victimization, would allow paranoid ideation to arise when no real persecution is evident. A real history of being bullied could create these conditions of hyper-arousal and inner fear of victimization, and without good social cognition the beginnings of paranoia need not be utterly bizarre. By the time psychosis is discovered, however, delusions are by definition bizarre. Even so, I am convinced these beliefs are organic cognitions that can be explained, if the patient will enter into a therapeutic dialogue about the content of their delusions reflectively, and help develop a narrative about how they arose. Left to one’s own ruminations in a state of paranoia that discourages reality-testing, I think bizarre beliefs could find a prominent place in one’s day to day thoughts and become fixed and unshakable because of the way their emotional intensity bends other thoughts toward them and allows them to become organizing principles in making sense of the outside world.

In attacks on A Beautiful Mind that focus on how much more endearing the movie’s hero was than the real life John Nash, I will ignore horrified reactions to homosexuality and a deficit of patriotism, and focus on tales of the mathematician’s ego-centricity and mean-spiritedness. Egotism and cruelty are often ascribed to another patient population known chiefly for their poor performance at social cognition, people on the autism spectrum. A central idea explaining these traits is their inattention to the perspectives of others – in the extreme case, they seem unaware of other minds, and at minimum they find putting themselves in other people’s shoes counterintuitive and demanding of concentration, unable to readily guess where someone else is coming from if they have a disagreement. The jargon for perspective-taking is “theory of mind,” and new research is showing that patients with psychotic symptoms also have pronounced difficulties in this area. This makes reality-testing especially difficult, in the sense that one would not readily believe anyone else who contradicted their preconceived ideas, and would not seek out alternative perspectives to keep oneself from getting “out of touch”. Maintaining seemingly bizarre delusions hinges on the patient’s ability to avoid contradictory evidence and privilege any perceptions that seem to reinforce the delusion somehow. Utter reliance on one’s own perceptions to evaluate the world without critical feedback from others can make this possible.

What could possibly short-circuit this self-reinforcing delusion, except change from within? Cognitive behavioral therapies offer a way to harness the authority of the patient’s own thoughts by teaching them to do their own reality-testing with limited and abstract guidance that allows them to continue to trust themselves as interpreters of their own lived experience. It appeals to their capacity for rational cognition instead of assuming they have none, teaching flexible methods for reality-testing instead of telling them what is real and what is not. The appeal of these methods above the status quo, from the patient’s perspective, is that they are offered as adaptive tricks to question the validity of distressing, potentially immobilizing perceptions instead of being tormented by one’s thoughts. Thus the patient’s distress is validated and the therapeutic alliance is focused on relieving this subjectively real distress, no matter how bizarre the patient’s account of private torments. The content of the delusions may be insurmountable in some respects, for no one in their right mind can shake the convictions of private knowledge – much of what we experience in life that matters to us is not witnessed by others, verifiable with evidence, or easy to validate with external sources. It is in the nature of memory to be rich in utterly private knowledge to which we can testify only on our own personal authority. Hopefully the cognitive distortions driving disproportionate reactions to seemingly minor sources of day to day stress can be redressed effectively enough to minimize the patient’s recourse to flight (out of the here and now, into a private and unreachable reality) and reduce their avoidance of potentially stressful social situations that, more than anything else, can distract them from their inner world and at times offer critical feedback they can accept.

Nash: I’ve gotten used to ignoring them and I think, as a result, they’ve kind of given up on me. I think that’s what it’s like with all our dreams and our nightmares, Martin, we’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive.

This moral of the story in A Beautiful Mind is not so far removed from what the real Nash says for himself. He was pleased with the movie (though he thought the music was too loud). In real life Nash concedes that returning to mathematical work and finding distraction from his delusional beliefs has been a recovery process, with the caveat that recovery from grandiose delusions is bittersweet. Yet in an interview with Schizophrenia Bulletin, he argued that the only way to de-stigmatize psychotic experiences would be to do away with the diagnosis schizophrenia itself. I agree with him that the biomedical paradigm does not, as its proponents claim, reduce stigma at all. If anything it elevates the disdain of the treatment provider for the patient’s accounts, and in the presence of such disdain there is no therapeutic alliance at all.

What would that leave us with in the way of understanding? Some experts in mental health would argue that “it is more productive, theoretically and clinically, to research specific behaviours and cognitions than the heterogenous and disjunctive construct of schizophrenia, which has poor reliability and validity” (Read et al. in Trauma and Psychosis, eds. Larkin and Morrison 2006, citing Bentall 2004 and Read et al. 2004). I would not go as far as Foucault in stripping madness of objective validity and treating it as a relative category always socially constructed for political purposes, because I take issue with the postmodern project of understanding medicine as a political discipline that can best be critiqued with liberation ideologies that privilege every marginalized position above the claims of the hegemony of consensus. I should think the choice to have someone institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital against their will is often about containing (and trying to correct) behaviors that are objectively an imposition on others, if not as a forensic patient then because the behaviors seem self-destructive and intractable and are so difficult to understand. Involuntary hospitalization may not be the most constructive solution to containing or correcting such behaviors, but resort to these tactics is testimony to how readily others can agree that the behaviors are problematic. Only radical subjectivity would argue against understanding that something is wrong, and I doubt honest subjectivity would credit the person in question with freedom from distress brought on by these provocative behaviors, or the cognitions behind them.

That said, I will point out that hallucinations and delusions are not uncommon in healthy people who will never seek help for mental illness, and the best way to reduce stigma against people who do suffer from psychosis is to normalize these experiences and focus on therapies that improve quality of life outcomes, rather than treating any recurrence of hallucinations or delusions as symptoms of relapse in their own right. Nash thinks of mathematics as an art, and of madness as something great artists risk by virtue of their gift for originality, and their willingness to seek new ideas by taking unconventional perspectives. So I will close with some lines from the poetry of Paul Celan, one of my favorite writers, and an artist who did not survive his battle with psychosis:

“Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.”

– from Corona, translated by Michael Hamburger

Unreal as this experience sounds, it is objectively magical, and enchantment with such otherworldly experience is surely not wrong in itself.

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Filed under A Beautiful Mind, Poetry, Postmodernism

Kin and country, work and love

What is it with Hollywood and reluctant heroes? I’ve taken one stab at giving them a pedigree, but Schiller’s relatively obscure legacy can only be a partial explanation. As much as Russell Crowe wants to distinguish Maximus from iconic action heroes like the cop in the Die Hard franchise, both characters spend their illustrious careers killing bad guys secretly dreaming of a modest retirement, utterly unambitious in their work despite self-evident talent of a superhero caliber. Would it be worth it to save the world from terrorists if said terrorists hadn’t kidnapped your daughter? Maybe, but only if you happen to be on duty when the shit hits the fan and no one else is available. And therein lies my next angle on reluctant heroes – they’re our family men.

Maximus is trusted by Marcus Aurelius above all men because his excellence as a general doesn’t compromise his commitment to his family with ambition. But if he had put his family first he would not have risked all to honor the dead Emperor’s last wishes for a legacy greater than his conquests. Quintus may have justified his loyalty to the usurper on his commitment to his own family’s safety. Maximus can only offer his family vengeance and impatience to join them in the afterlife. But in her moral philosophy of public life, Jane Jacobs warns against privileging the domestic sphere as more naturally virtuous than public life, or treating the family as an island that can endure in a social milieu where corruption in public life makes it dangerous to trust strangers. Without recourse to justice outside the home, families can be destroyed from within with brutal efficiency.

Not all trade-offs between public duties and private commitments are tragic conflicts. But how often does the gifted artist find balance, when it is so commonplace for the skilled worker to undervalue his own family’s needs out of love of his work for its own sake? Einstein, the iconic genius, was no family man. The alternatives are laid out starkly in Cinderella Man and American Gangster. Jim Braddock faces the world championship with milk money in mind, and Richie Roberts dodges weekends with his son to chase criminals in a city so corrupt his efforts seem futile. Richie is the genius who will beat the odds and single-handedly clean up the NYC drug enforcement police force, against seemingly impossible odds. Jim Braddock is the man we want our children to look up to instead.

I came across an interesting generalization in a textbook on corruption research, “Cultural and social factors are related to a country’s level of corruption; in particular, when family ties are very important, reported corruption is high” (Rose-Ackerman 2006). So it’s not just Sicilian families, then? The more assiduously we provide for our own, the less ground we will give for the public interest, I suppose. Frank Lucas is a family man, exploiting the strength of family ties in his crime organization in the Sicilian fashion, but showing his kin genuine consideration at the same time.

The tension between public life and the security of the household is embedded in the political liberal’s defense of personal privacy and the political conservative’s defense of domestic prerogatives to self-government. Every polity has ideas about how families should work, and every political minority takes refuge in the home when its values are under assault. So there is room for muddying the topic of corruption in with political dissent. If for its own purposes Hollywood is politically cosmopolitan, expecting generic heroes to serve humanity rather than region, country, race or sect, the family is the protagonist’s refuge from overextension, a tribal unit where his identity means something, and not just everyone can make equal demands on him for help. If he’s written too generic, then like the hero in Red he might find retirement a little empty, but sometimes we concede that being the ultimate badass comes at a price, an achievement made possible by love of work to the exclusion of the rest life has to offer.

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Filed under Acting, American Gangster, Cinderella Man, Gladiator, Systems of Survival

“From the inside out”

I’ve mentioned Elaine Scarry’s literary account of pain before, and I’d like to go into it further to talk about the violence in Cinderella Man. She sees pain and imagining as opposite poles on the spectrum of mental experience, one a passive, receptive and aversive state of consciousness, the other active, inventive and free to transform our lived experience into a realm of limitless possibility for supernatural consolations and rewards. In between these poles are the simple verb-object sensations, feelings cognizant of something, as almost all somatic states (she names “hatred for, seeing of, being hungry for”) are mental states that are necessarily referential, whereas pain is without a referent, and the imagination cannot be experienced independently of its referents, in the sense that we cannot imagine in vain for any referent (e.g., don’t think of a pink elephant). For this reason her account of pain is also an account of culture, because to her mind our pain is answered by our imagination, and out of imagining the flowering of culture gives rise to artifacts that mend and succor every cause of suffering. At the same time, the silencing power of pain as a state of consciousness inspires our use of weapons to govern allegiances and convictions with incontrovertible expressions of power, and she dwells at length on the significance of torture as an instrument of oppression that subjugates the victim’s conscience.

I admire her effort to give an account of violence that has depth and complexity, because she can readily show that pain is an especially slippery subject, one we are prone to oversimplify if not discount altogether, in part because it is so difficult to objectify. The topics I tried to capture in my poem about Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma are enumerated in a passage in which she reveals how many ways we have of silencing the pain of others in our own minds. (1) Pain is a negation, a feeling of “against” that defies the person experiencing it to have any other psychological characteristics or content, a feeling that the body is become alien to the self, that “other” is intruding onto the body and an “enemy” force has been internalized, violating the self’s integrity and making expression of pain a self-betrayal that admits the “enemy” within; by its very nature pain is deniable and to admit to pain is a corruption of the will to resist defeat. (2) Pain’s internal location creates an illusion of self-agency, implicating one’s own body in the cause of suffering; yet a healthy and whole body is not in pain, hence pain is by definition external in origin; the paradox is totalizing – to resist a force that is at once internal and external is futile, and the only recourse from pain is to deny it any expression. (3) Pain is obscenely humiliating, because it conflates the privacy of felt-experience with the utterly public experience of disability, handicap or punishment; hence the sufferer may be exposed but his suffering is not a shared experience felt by observers. (4) Pain destroys the sufferer’s capacity for language, first by monopolizing language in desperate complaint, then by overwhelming the psyche to the point that it is no longer verbally articulate. (5) Pain is blinding and empties consciousness of all else, so that what speech can be managed has no meaning for the sufferer. (6) Pain is totalizing, a distraction from both the self and the environment, a narrow felt-experience that invades the perceived environment and permeates the body until every object in the inhabited room and every part of the sentient body feels like an instrument of wounding; and finally. (7) Pain is unreal to others because it resists objectification, so that the undeniably real experience of the sufferer can readily be categorically denied by anyone else, doubling the aversiveness of hurt with the psychological aversiveness of negation and rejection, lack of acknowledgement and refusal to be recognized. This is especially true of chronic pain, for we are no sooner made aware of it than we urge the sufferer to seek distraction; here the instinctive recourse to imagination, and also the belief that pain is not objectively real, if the imagination can remove our attention from it at will (a passage in the TOFOG song Danielle belies this dogma that distraction is a cure-all, “Forgettin’s only temporary / In the middle of nothing / My eyes get weary I feel like crying”).

But the scope of her book is much broader than acute or chronic pain, drawing subtler examples of embodied cognizance from The Old Testament and Karl Marx, talking for instance about the sun striking Rebecca’s eyes in the field, or describing labor as a controlled discomfort that realizes the ambitions of the creative imagination by bringing artifacts into the world that serve our comfort and convenience. These less distressing sensations have the same privacy, the same existential subjectivity, interrupting the continuity of sentience with the body’s utterances. In another book, Resisting Representation, she remarks on how unusual depictions of repetitive work and its aversive qualities of boredom and physical strain are in art and literature, as though these parts of our lives were mindless and uneventful, never coming up in our stories about ourselves. We do, however, have ways of making sense of our more embodied moments. I like how Australian poet John Forbes describes them as “diaries of pure sensation,” those stranger parts of our lives that are not quite shareable.

“Flexed suddenly the muscles of the stomach
can make the joints in the back of your neck
go ‘crack’. This clears the room for you,
the way these diaries of pure sensation
balance your responses against how you think
you will respond, leaving a margin of wind
for you to turn into.” – excerpted from Rolling in Money

Scarry sees productive work as a liberating discomfort, where any pains taken are an investment with rich returns. Comically, she goes on for pages about how much more relief a pregnant woman would enjoy if a sympathetic man built her a chair, as opposed to perhaps distracting her from lower back pain with an expressive dance about his sympathetic pain. An object made by hand, like a lever, is expected to reciprocate disembodying relief from the problems of sentience in excess of the effort expended to create it, to exceed the power of work to distract from those problems, and to exceed the duration of this distraction in utility over time. This excess of reciprocation can be appropriated by someone other than the maker of the artifact, but this vulnerability to appropriation gives the maker another advantage – the power to exchange it for something else. On the other hand, the investment of labor in creation may fall short of these attainments if the artifact is a failure, or the fruits of one’s labor can be appropriated with minimal compensation for the work, if tools can be alienated from their users in the form of physical industrial capital.

This must seem like an odd approach to blogging about a boxing movie, but what struck me most about the movie the first time I saw Cinderella Man was the intensity of the violence, and the physical cost of desperate poverty on Jim’s family, in hunger, cold, sickness, separation, humiliation and constant fear. And in the boxing ring, winning meant beating his opponents “from the inside out,” getting inside their heads in a battle of wills that tested his imagination, his ability to confront his opponents with a vision of his own unlikely victory. I didn’t know his story, didn’t believe he could win, so that first time watching the movie was a harrowing experience. The boxing scenes are so cinematically executed, the acting in them so expressive, the camera work so dynamic, I felt the blows without any experience or sympathy for the sport. To be fighting so badly injured, so much of the pain invisible, makes suffering in silence a theme of the movie for me, particularly because of the theme song’s treatment of militated optimism as a toxic oppression in a time of economic despair. At the same time, Jim’s ability not to be destroyed inside by anger or pain is so central to his heroism, it seems to explain why his story has stayed with us as a uniquely inspirational family drama. It shows in a larger than life way how our modest victories over pain, even those that are only temporary distractions, are a special source of dignity in our lives. At their most flimsy, they are evidence of the unlimited powers of the imagination, and when more concrete, they show readily how our inventive imagination invades the real world through our works.

Returning to the poem by John Forbes,

“…the rise &
fall of your chest arches over the day-to-day
posture you impose / on appearing as you are
– that is, not really knowing you’re alive
until the air touches more than your idea of
its following you around. Instead you are
in the wake of the air, preceding your first
impressions: delicate & quick, but here left
out of things, like a law of karma that will
never improve you. Just as a dead calm will
never delay the Owl & the Pussycat in their
beautiful pea-green boat, so you will continue
breathing like a sail & the comic loot from
this effect piles up on the deck, lots of money &
plenty of honey, wrapped up in a five-pound note.”

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Filed under 3:10 to Yuma, Acting, Cinderella Man, Poetry

Q’orianka Kilcher

Every fan has their dream ensemble cast, and mine includes someone who hasn’t co-starred with Russell Crowe yet, Q’Orianka Kilcher. She ripped my heart out and didn’t give it back when I saw The New World. I have some fan poetry about The New World that I’m happy with, but I can’t come close to the depth of her performance. I’m just compelled to try, because it got inside my head and needs an outlet in my own words. This one mirrors the rhythm of a fan video I found on YouTube that helped me escape the perspective of a girl who can’t see her first love as having betrayed her totally.

To fall aside from the world in a night of my own
possessed of a history none could atone
a child of a kingdom of new refugees
whose love brought their beautiful world to its knees
an exile and hostage abandoned at last
to a place without culture or sense of the past
I begin to acknowledge the ruse in your speech,
the secrets we swam in a treason to each.
I strain toward a silence that governs my loss
and not toward the signal that reaches across
the distance you placed in our covenant’s stead
a voyage so far not a word could be said.
I turn to my shadow and ask of the dark
is this love sufficient to wear such a mark?
An orphan to living kin, a stranger unsound within
I turn in amazement to everything.
I scoop the earth, and no rebirth
consoles my heart, a soul apart
the ghost of an heir to a dynasty,
I speak to you, and suffer through
indignity, resigned pity
the work that my body is alive to.
Though I forget, the touch of wet
the weight of leaves, the tug of sleeves
the habit of foot fall releases me.
I am a creature here, still touched by fear
a woman too, the one you knew
and I can abide by the solitude.

The movie is full of historical detail, but her last encounter with John Smith is not the way he described it, more forgiving and more romantic than her last words to him as he recorded them. She reminded him of his duty to her father and her people, who had adopted him when he was a feared enemy and prisoner in their land, a duty she felt he had abandoned when he left Jamestown. As a stranger in his country, she then asked for his protection as he had had her father’s, and called him father, to his great discomfort. Still, their last scene in the movie is beautiful.

Your high heeled shoes evoke a winding stair
narrow and resounding as a tower
for a bell, your captive hair an image
of a bird with unerring, proud carriage,
your skirts a library of roseate leaves
laid out in eloquent marble that receives
the voice of public men and magnifies
their speeches while it elevates men’s eyes,
your waist a famous line still whispered by
young husbands patiently seeking a sigh.
Your voice is that which lives inside this room,
a space for sound as measured as a loom,
and like a silhouette in stone, body
and clothes belong more to the garden’s tree
than to the echo of the child I knew,
repeating “ear” and “lips” with lips made new
by listening and learning language fresh
and full of undisclosed allusions etched
in half-forgotten etiologies.
Just then, your innocence of mysteries,
false speech, deceit and innuendo kept
your happiness in Orphic peace – you slept.
Today you speak with reservation, kind
and knowing, now forgiving, you unwind
yourself from me with delicate regard,
and I am no longer inside your guard.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Poetry