Returning to Freud and Remaking The Past

My review of Adam Phillips’ excellent new biography of Sigmund Freud, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, was published in the Washington Post today. I’ve been writing about Freud ever since my frosh classes at Wesleyan, and every so often I still return to psychoanalysis. In reading Phillips’ account of Freud’s early years, I was reminded of Hayden White’s remarks at this year’s Commencement.

You can change your personal past. You do not have to continue to live with the past provided to you by all of the agencies and institutions claiming authority to decide who and what you are and what you must try to be in your future. You can change your past and thereby give your future a direction quite different from what has been marked out for you by others.” — Hayden White

White told our graduating class that “the future you deserve depends on the past you make for yourself.” Not bad advice…and very much related to the view of the self and of history that Freud developed in his early years

The Making of a Psychoanalyst

By Adam Phillips

The introduction to Adam Phillips’s new book is titled “Freud’s Impossible Life,” and the author makes clear more than once his view that the biographer’s task is an unmanageable one. Freud himself didn’t make things easy, destroying a lot of evidence of his early years so as to lead (as he said) his future biographers astray. And he did this long before he had anything like the kind of résumé that would have interested biographers.

As Phillips notes, Freud had a strong distrust of the biographer’s task, although he himself wrote speculative biographical studies. “Biographical truth is not to be had,” Freud wrote, “and if it were to be had we could not use it.” So much of a person’s life is underground, unconscious, and how we reconstruct it may reveal more about ourselves than about our subject. Phillips draws on two big Freud biographies (by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay), fully aware of their limitations.

In writing about Freud’s first 50 years, the author (who is also a practicing psychoanalyst) doesn’t have much evidence to go on. “Nothing, it is worth repeating, is properly known about Freud’s mother,” Phillips emphasizes, and he is also reduced to general speculations (or silence) about his father, wife, siblings and children.

But there is also freedom in the lack of evidence; one of the reasons Freud was so interested in the ancient world, Phillips tells us, was the paucity of verifiable facts. According to psychoanalysis, “only the censored past can be lived with,” and we “make histories so as not to perish of the truth.” For Phillips, psychoanalysis is part of the history of storytelling, and “a biography, like a symptom, fixes a person in a story about themselves.” What kind of story, then, does Phillips have to tell about Freud and about psychoanalysis?

His story about the life and the work is ultimately more invested in the latter. Young Freud, a secular Jew, tries to assimilate into Viennese society while also theorizing that we humans have desires that can never be assimilated with our public, social roles. He is attracted to mentors who introduce him to painstaking scientific research (Ernst Brücke), to charismatic investigations into the irrational (Jean-Martin Charcot), to clinical work that reduces hysterical misery to common unhappiness (Josef Breuer) and finally to unstable speculation on the secrets of human nature (Wilhelm Fliess). “In this formative period of his life,” Phillips writes, “Freud moves from wondering who to believe in, to wondering about the origins and the function of the individual’s predisposition to believe.”

As a young doctor in training at Vienna’s General Hospital, Freud asked his fiancee to embroider two maxims to hang in his lodgings: “Work without reasoning” and “When in doubt abstain.” This is so telling for Phillips because work and abstinence would eventually be at the center of psychoanalysis — both paradoxically reframed as dimensions of our circuitous pursuits of pleasure. The Freudian question par excellence: “What are you getting out of your abstinence?”

Phillips does tell us that, as a young child in the 1860s, Sigmund regularly found himself displaced by the birth of new siblings — six in seven years. As newlyweds in the 1880s, Freud and his wife practically repeated this history, welcoming new children — six in eight years. Surrounded by all these little ones, the young father spent more and more time trying to understand their demands on the world around them — how they communicated those demands and how adults responded.

One of the most important ways we deal with the demands we make and those made on us is to try to forget them. Unmet demands — unrequited desires — can hurt, and so in order to get back to work (and love), we may push them away. Frustration and the repression of frustration became central to Freud’s thinking in the 1890s, when he was in his late 30s and his 40s. At first he tried to understand the phenomena of pleasure, frustration and forgetting at the neurological level. Then he started paying attention to how we express in disguised form the complications of our appetites — in symptoms, in slips of the tongue, in jokes and especially in dreams: the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Now Sigmund could become a Freudian — an interpreter who showed how our actions and words indirectly express conflicts of desire. The conflicts among our desires never disappeared; they become the fuel of our histories. Making sense of these conflicts, understanding our desires, he thought, gives us an opportunity to make our histories our own.

Freud came to this realization, indeed, came to psychoanalysis, when he acknowledged that “our (shared) biological fate was always being culturally fashioned through redescription and recollection.” Our fate, then, resulted from how we remembered and retold our histories, and psychoanalysis became a vehicle for telling those histories in ways that acknowledged our conflicting desires. Psychoanalysis wasn’t a methodology to discover one’s true history; it was a collaboration that allowed one to refashion a past with which one could live.

In prose that often crackles with insights, Phillips refashions the heroic period in Freud’s life, when he believed “that making things conscious extended the individual’s realm of choice; where there was compulsion there might be decision, or newfound forms of freedom.” At the turn of the century, before there were many followers and before there was an organization to control, “Freud emerges as a visionary pragmatist.”

This visionary pragmatist understood that we could construct meaning and direction from our memories in order to suffer less and live more fully in the present. Phillips tells a story of how Freud came to that realization, making psychoanalysis as he made his life his own.


No Break for Thesis Writers

Every March the campus empties out, and as the New England winter slowly gives way to spring, most students get a break before the mad dash to the end of term. But each year I am reminded of the seniors who remain behind, in the libraries or in science labs, in studios or just hiding in some quiet corner…writing, calculating, thinking, editing, and generally burning the midnight oil as they prepare senior projects.

I can’t help but think back to writing my own thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. This was one of my most important intellectual experiences, and the fact that I’m still teaching Freud in the spring (next week, in fact) points to the impact that focused research and writing can have. It may also point to my own lack of intellectual progress.

In any case… I put out a call on Twitter and also to the academic Deans to hear about the subjects on which seniors are working. This list is not representative…just a collection from those who sent me information. But look at the range of topics. Here’s what I’ve received:

Ariella Axelbank (advisor: John Finn), “The Lack of a National Theater in the United States”
Lucy Britt (Sonali Chakravarti), “Political Reconciliation and Forgiveness in Post-Genocide Rwanda”
Grace Powell (Doug Foyle), “US Drone Strikes in Pakistan and Yemen”
Chloe Rinehart (Jim McGuire), “Conditional Cash Transfers in Ecuador: Obstacles to Uptake”
Andrew Trexler (Joslyn Trager), “War Making and State Development in the Contemporary Middle East”
Jeremy Edelberg (Abigail Hornstein), “Corporate Bond Liquidity and Credit Spreads”
Mari Jarris (Ulrich Plass), “Theory, Empirics, Revolution: A Three-Dimensional Approach to Subverting Authority”
Bohao Zhou (Brian Fay), “Cosmopolitanism: A Pragmatic Attitude of Self-Growth”
Max Bigman (Jolee West, Joyce Jacobsen), “An Algorithm for Reform: The Potential Impact of Blended Learning on American Education”
Katie Deane (Studio Art),”In-Out, In-Out”
Joshua Neitzel (Francis Starr), “Stability of DNA-linked Nanoparticle Lattices”
Paul Hanakata (Francis Starr), “Unraveling the mysteries of the Polymer Thin-Film Glass Transition” (This thesis has already led to two publications!)
Peter Martin (Marty Gilmore), “Modeling and Analysis of Potential Martian Brines”
Lisle Winston (Scott Holmes), “Examining the role of histone variant H2A.Z in chromosome dynamics”
Matthew Donahue (Jill Morawski), “On Being Second Guessed by a Machine: A Reevaluation of the Bogus Pipeline”
Alec Harris (Elizabeth Willis) is writing a creative thesis that consists of poems about economics. He is an econ/English double major.
Anya Morgan (Rachel Ellis Neyra) is writing about zombies in American film and Haitian literature.
Emily Weitzman (Clifford Chase and Lisa Cohen) is writing a creative non-fiction piece about her experience with Sister Asya, a midwife, and other Muslim women in Kenya.
Aron Chilewich (Courtney Weiss Smith) is writing about the novels of Ben Lerner(not Marcus, as I had written), the much acclaimed author of contemporary experimental fiction.
Elizabeth Clayton (Kari Weil) is writing on the literary genealogy of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Taylor Steele (Amy Bloom) is writing about how food in its various states is connected to our experiences and desires.
Ethan Tischler (Mary-Jane Rubenstein),”Emptiness and Wholeness: Untangling the ‘Realities’ of Tibetan Buddhism and Quantum Physics”
Nathaniel Elmer (Architecture), “Beat Space”

In Romance Languages and Literatures I’ve head about the following:

Elle Markell is writing a thesis in Spanish about Argentinian writer César Aira.
Sarah Dash, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Fascist Ideology in the Kitchens of a Nation”

Christina Norris will produce a radio podcast in the format of “This American Life” to explore the public reception and consumption of the media portrayal of terrorism following the March 2012 terrorist attack in Toulouse, France, and the Boston Marathon tragedy a year later in April 2013.

Two more in NSB from Matt Kurtz:

Rachel Rosengard, “Comparing two methods for improving verbal memory in schizophrenia”

Rachel Olfson, “Methods for Remediation of Theory of Mind (ToM) Deficits in Schizophrenia”

Sarah Mahurin reports that Elsa Hardy (AfAm, Hispanic Studies) is writing a thesis on cross-cultural exchange between child care providers and their employers.

Sarah Sculnick (English) is writing on the urban literary regionalisms of Gwendolyn Brooks (Chicago) and August Wilson (Pittsburgh).

In General Scholarship:

Maggie Feldman-Piltch, “Enforcing the Human Rights Obligations of Organizations”

And from FGSS, certainly a contender for best title:

Ella Dawson (Robert Steele), “Girl Has Sex, World Doesn’t End: Reconceptualizing Feminist Erotica”

That’s already an impressive list, but there are lots more theses being written, drawn, and performed. I apologize for not having a more complete list, but if you are so inclined…just add titles to to comments below.

Sigmund Freud on Boycotts, Conflict and Culture

Sigmund Freud asked to offer a guest blog. We posted it yesterday on The HuffingtonPost.


In December I enjoyed announcing to the guards at The Jewish Museum that my name was Sigmund Freud, and that I was coming for the Wish You Were Here event. I died in 1939 (and it was enough already), but Michael Roth had been invited to speak for me, as me. Roth was interviewed in my place — not just to talk about me. He’s a historian, unanalyzed I regret to say, but he did curate a large exhibition about my work that came to the museum almost 20 years ago. How he had the chutzpah to speak as me I can’t say, but the crowd seemed to really enjoy it. He probably went too far in his nasty (but accurate) characterization of Jung, but hey, it’s a Jewish Museum.

When the museum agreed to accept the exhibition about my work in the 1990s, it was a brave act. Psychoanalysis is controversial, and at that time its detractors were making nice careers for themselves. When even the plans for the exhibition were under sharp attack, The Jewish Museum stepped forward and agreed to be a venue for the show, Freud: Conflict and Culture. This was an institution that would take risks, and so I wasn’t all that surprised in December when the head curator announced that Franz Kafka would be the next speaker in the series, and that the controversial feminist philosopher Judith Butler would speak for Kafka. I was proud to be in the museum at that moment, even in the guise of Michael Roth. After all, museums are not just custodians of culture, they should be places of active engagement. Roth tells me that Judith Butler had been wrestling with Kafka for years, and that she is among our most fertile philosophical minds. She is also a supporter of the BDS movement to isolate Israel and challenge its occupation of the territories. But she wasn’t asked to talk about Israel. She would be Kafka, and at a Jewish museum they would be able to live with that tension. Good.

But no. Roth tells me that the event has been cancelled because Butler’s politics are just too controversial. Here’s what the press release says:

While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended. Butler offers this comment: “I was very much looking forward to the discussion of Kafka in The Jewish Museum, and to affirm the value of Kafka’s literary work in that setting.”The March 6th program “Wish You Were Here: Franz Kafka” will not take place.

What a sad commentary on the Jewish community’s tolerance for debate these days! It’s not as if the event had to be cancelled because of the philosopher’s views on Kafka made her an inappropriate spokesperson for the writer. The fact that Butler had taken a strong stand against a particular variety of Zionism just disqualified her from talking about one of the most important writers of the last century. Now, I’m no literary critic (my tastes run toward crime fiction and the fantastic these days), but Franz Kafka would seem like just the right person to “bring back” after having spoken with me about how to understand the disguises we use to mask our conflicting impulses. But apparently, even in the New York Jewish community, culture we can debate about, but conflict over Israel we cannot abide.

Roth tells me in America today conflict is everywhere, but that people are determined to hear only from those with whom they know they will agree. Around the time he was speaking for me in New York, he wrote an angry op-ed condemning the American Studies boycott of Israeli universities, calling it “a repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Roth has known Butler since they were both young assistant professors, and he strongly disagrees with her approach to Israel and the occupation. He just doesn’t understand why this kind of disagreement should get in the way of hearing her bring Kafka back for a conversation. So now he wants to collaborate on a short essay critical of a cultural context in which a gifted philosopher won’t be able to talk about European literature because of her views on Middle East politics. You’re reading it.

Having lived most of my life in Vienna, I know a little something about conflict. It’s easier (and sometimes even necessary) to find groups with which you agree and get reinforcement for your own views. But this is a dangerous business; you can lose your ability to learn from difference and conflict — the wellsprings of real cultural development. That’s why cultural boycotts are so debilitating — whether it’s the refusal to hear from Israeli professors or the refusal to hear from an anti-Zionist philosopher. Isolating yourself from voices with whom you might disagree is also a sign (need I say it?) of your own insecurity about the views you claim to hold so dearly. Fear of your own error is often expressed as aggression against an outsider’s view.

But another op-ed? I asked Roth whether he thought people only read essays with which they knew they’d agree. Only one way to find out, he replied.


Review of a Famous Amnesia Patient

From time to time my work takes me back to psychology, or at least to psychoanalysis. Last week I spoke at Clark University on Sigmund Freud. This was particularly meaningful to me because I often teach Freud’s “Clark Lectures,” and Clark was the only university at which Freud spoke. I even got my picture taken with the Freud statue!



I published a review on more mainstream psychological research in today’s Washington Post. The book deals with memory and amnesia, a topic on which I’ve worked over the years. I’ve attached it below.

PERMANENT PRESENT TENSE The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M. By Suzanne Corkin Basic. 364 pp. $28.99

Henry Molaison (1926-2008) lived a long life, but as it turned out, he experienced most of it in a very short time segments. His seizures started early, and by the time he was in high school they had become frequent. Medications to control epilepsy had a variety of side effects, and still they didn’t eliminate the seizures. The terrible blackouts were always a possibility.

Wilder Penfield had been experimenting with brain surgery on human patients since the 1920s, sometimes “operating on epilepsy patients while they were awake and conscious so that he could pinpoint the abnormal tissue responsible for their seizures.” Penfield’s work received widespread recognition, and when William Scoville examined Henry in the early 1950s, a surgical option seemed likely to provide some relief to the patient. We can imagine why Henry, then 27, and his parents decided to take a chance. Everyone involved knew that the operation was experimental, even risky. The lobotomy was scheduled.

Scoville extracted the front half of Henry’s hippocampus and most of the amygdala, among other parts of his brain. He hoped that this would significantly reduce the frequency of seizures. It didn’t work. Nobody seemed to consider the possibility that the patient would lose the ability to create any new, lasting memories. But that’s what happened. For the next 54 years Henry lived in “a world bounded by thirty seconds.”

Henry’s world was fascinating — for neuroscientists and psychologists — because it was a window onto how memory functions. He became one of the most studied human beings on the planet. Suzanne Corkin met him when she was a graduate student because her teacher co-authored a paper on Henry with surgeon Scoville. “Henry’s case,” as she puts it in one of her many inelegant phrases, “fell into my lap.”

The case defined Corkin’s career and became absolutely crucial for the development of the sciences of memory. Neuroscientists came to understand the “extent to which memory depended on a few centimeters of tissue in the medial temporal lobe” because a surgeon had destroyed those pieces of Henry’s brain.

Henry could not care for himself without significant help because he would forget just about everything that was going on around him. But psychologists and neurologists, Corkin first among them, made sure that Henry had a decent life. He would be brought to MIT on a regular basis for batteries of tests. Some odd things here and there seemed to stick in his mind; there was a sense of familiarity about a few people and a few tasks. Most of the time, he was happy enough to be a test subject — not remembering that he had been tested before, time and again, for decades.

Corkin expertly uses Henry’s case to illuminate major trends in memory research. Perhaps the fundamental lesson that scientists have drawn from his case — besides eventually stopping experimental lobotomies — is that memory is a complex interweaving of cognitive systems. Short-term memory (recalling something for up to 15 seconds) could be intact without any bearing on long-term memory. Henry could hold on to number patterns, for example, for about 15 seconds, but if more storage was needed in a task, he was deficient. He was able to call on “working memory” (the ability to store small amounts of experience while focused) in specific tasks, but he was not able to register the experiences for the long term required to concentrate on those tasks. Henry could respond correctly when he could focus, but he would lose the experience forever once the task was complete. Overall, Corkin tells us in her matter-of-fact way, “in spite of his tragedy, Henry got along.”

The explicit retrieval of the past is declarative memory: We are purposively calling up something that we experienced. Through remembering, the brain changes itself as new associations are formed with what is retrieved. Each time long-term memories are retrieved, they are edited — showing “that memory is an ongoing dynamic process driven by life’s events.” Henry’s case revealed how necessary the hippocampus is for this process.

In reading about Henry as a test subject and “guide” for neuroscience, I was eager to learn more about other aspects of his life over these decades. Corkin seems to have grown genuinely attached to her mild-mannered scientific treasure trove, but her descriptions of his existence are flat, at best. We get only the faintest glimpse of how it felt to live this rudely segmented life. The destruction of his amygdala probably flattened his emotions, his desires. Corkin tells us that after the death of his father, Henry did not “consciously grasp that his father was gone unless someone reminded him.” Yet over four years the loss seemed to sink in. It was Henry’s own words that I found especially moving: “I am having a debate with myself — about my dad. . . . I’m not easy in my mind. On the one side, I think he has been called — he’s gone — but on the other, I think he’s alive. I can’t figure it out.”

For years Henry lived with his mother, and there are indications that their relationship was complex and difficult. But this was not the subject of the neuroscientist’s research. This book informs us that at times Henry was prone to terrible rages and that he even threatened to kill himself, but there is little attempt to see the world from his point of view. Perhaps that would have been impossible; it would certainly have been inconvenient.

Corkin acknowledges how important Henry was for her work. She recognizes that “our research with Henry was certainly a boon to my lab’s reputation” and affirms his “limitless worth as a research participant.” But what does it mean to participate without memory? Corkin became Henry’s guardian in his later years and saw to it that he was comfortable and well cared for. She also saw to it that upon his death, his brain was quickly removed from his skull so that it could be studied with all the technology now at our disposal.

“Henry was dead,” Corkin writes, “but he remained a precious research participant.” How you feel about such a sentence will probably be a good indicator of how you will feel about poor Henry and his doctors in “Permanent Present Tense.”

Center for the Humanities – Justice and Judgment

When I was a student at Wesleyan in the 1970s, I spent almost every Monday night at Russell House attending lectures from the Center for the Humanities. They usually drew a decent sized audience of faculty and students, and many of the visiting speakers were big names in their fields. It was the heyday of critical theory and deconstruction, and I heard many a talk in these areas that I found difficult to understand. Still, I was always at what were affectionately called “Monday Night Services.” Knowledge was happening at the Center, and I wanted to be part of it.

Years later I came back to Wesleyan to offer a Monday night lecture at Russell House. My faculty advisor, Henry Abelove, was the director of the Center at that point, and he’d asked me to talk about psychoanalysis and the exhibition I’d curated about Sigmund Freud at the Library of Congress. I found it terrifically moving to stand at the podium there where I had often sat in the audience (bewildered).

The Center for the Humanities has gone through a variety of incarnations since it was founded in 1959. Its current director, Ethan Kleinberg, has beefed up its web presence (see iTunes and YouTube), brought together a great group of fellows and speakers, and planned some exciting events. Next Monday at 6 p.m., Professor Samuel Moyn, from Columbia University, will speak on “The Political Origins of Global Justice.” This lecture kicks off the series on Justice and Judgment. The lecture series has moved from Russell House and will take place in the Daniel Family Commons (on the third floor of Usdan).

From September 26-28, The Center will host a conference on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was published 50 years ago. Arendt, one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century, came to Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities to finish the book, and so it’s particularly fitting that the conference marking its publication will take place here.

For its first 50 years the Center for the Humanities operated with various funding streams that fluctuated with the times. We decided to change that and asked the Mellon Foundation for help. I am delighted to let everyone know that in the late spring we completed a matching gift program with Mellon. Wesleyan raised $4 million in endowment funds, and the foundation added another $2 million! Others may be fretting about the “crisis in the humanities,” but thanks to the generosity of our donors the Center for the Humanities will continue to offer great things to Wesleyan and the world for decades to come.


Mad About Wes

Last night a few hundred Wesleyans gathered at the Director’s Guild Theater in New York to hear from Matthew Weiner ’87, creator of Mad Men. This was one of the kickoff events for our THIS IS WHY fundraising campaign, and the energy was terrific. I met some recent graduates who were eager to hear how Matt went from being a College of Letters major to a film and television writer. Older alumni were comparing notes with me about how the mania for period detail in Mad Men got the epoch just right.

Matt told a hilarious story about his poetry thesis and spoke warmly of the creative friends and teachers at Wesleyan who helped launch him into the world of ideas and media. Was it the Freud seminar taught by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl and Paul Schwaber, or the work in writing seminars with Anne Greene? COL director Kari Weil seemed to think that it was all those discussions about books that matter, and Matt provided plenty of evidence for that when he talked about Don Draper’s tenuous existentialism. It was a wonderful evening, and at the end we announced a new $600,000 donation to financial aid from an alumnus who wanted to celebrate the occasion. It was a great night for alma mater!

I’m heading back to campus today. There is so much happening on campus this weekend — from music and public life in Indonesia to great international theater at the CFA (not to mention Company at the Second Stage). Lots of great athletic action, too! Check out the calendar and find out why we keep saying, “THIS IS WHY.”

Next Wesleyan Coursera Classes

This week two more Wesleyan classes debuted on Coursera. Richie Adelstein is teaching a six-week class called Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics. Andy Szegedy-Maszak is teaching The Ancient Greeks, a seven-week survey of Greek history from the Bronze Age to the death of Socrates. These are free, online versions of courses given at Wesleyan, and there is still time to enroll. Lisa Dierker’s class, Passion Driven Statistics, is a six-week project-based class that will begin March 25. Lisa’s class just received a great shout-out in Forbes magazine. Scott Plous’s Social Psychology class begins this summer and has already attracted amazing buzz.

Scott Higgins just finished up his class on The Language of Hollywood. Since I was also enrolled I can say that it was a great success. There is a strong demand for film studies classes, and his introduction to sound and color was a hit. One of the discussion threads on his class said that Prof. Higgins “deserved an Oscar,” but I especially enjoyed the hundreds of people who wrote in under the rubric, “Prof. Higgins, We Love You.”

I’m still working my way through my 14-week Modern and Postmodern class on Coursera. Students from around the world are giving me new insights into the material. One writes about thinking of Nietzsche as she watches her son ski into the woods, another about how she carries a copy of Baudelaire with her as she bikes around town. A student from across the globe writes that “learning makes me feel alive.”  I hope I can benefit from these diverse perspectives when I teach the class on campus next spring. Next week, Sigmund Freud and then on to Virginia Woolf!

Talking Theory, Interviewing Theorists and Historians

On Wednesday afternoon I presented a lecture in Wesleyan’s critical theory series on Michel Foucault. It was fun to prepare it, as it gave me the occasion to go back over some of the work on which I used to focus a great deal of my time. I first read Foucault here at Wes as a frosh in Henry Abelove’s intellectual history course, and my first academic publication (in Wesleyan’s History and Theory in 1981) was called “Foucault’s History of the Present.” Although I was often critical of the philosopher/historian in my writings, I had (and have) enormous respect for him. When I was a young graduate student I met Foucault in New York, and he took an interest in my dissertation project concerning appropriations of Hegel in 20th century France. When I moved to Paris to do my research, Foucault opened many doors for me, and he was willing to read my work and help me find original documents that would prove to be invaluable for the arguments I’d make in Knowing and History. As I prepared my lecture, I thought back to those days when critical theory helped loosen the grip of conventional ways of thinking on academics and helped many to pursue research topics that otherwise would have remained invisible.

Another person who spent a lot of energy on understanding Hegel in France is Judith Butler, whom we welcomed to campus a few weeks ago. Judith and I first met in 1983, and we have touched base with some regularity ever since. Although our paths (and views) have often diverged, I’ve admired her work and consistently learned from it. Last year I spoke in her critical theory series at Berkeley on photography and trauma, and recently she was at Wesleyan to talk about her writings on democratic and inclusive alternatives within the Zionist tradition. Ethan Kleinberg asked me to record an interview with Judith at the Center for the Humanities, which you can see here.

In the last couple of years I have published interviews with two historians who played a role in bringing psychoanalytic theory into conversation with European intellectual history. The essay was based on the first interview with Peter Gay, the biographer of Freud, which was published in a book called History and Psyche. You can read the interview here. The second interview was with my teacher (and beloved Wesleyan professor) Carl E. Schorske, which was published in American Imago and can be accessed here.

The intersection of theory and historical studies has been an area of great strength at Wesleyan for a long time. What a pleasure it was to leave my administrative work behind for a few hours this week to talk with students and faculty about these issues!


Hallucinations and Art: Two Book Reviews

From Sunday’s Washington Post:

HALLUCINATIONS By Oliver Sacks. Knopf. 326 pp. $26.95

As a young professor, I traveled to Vienna to visit a friend. Knowing that I’d written my first book on psychoanalysis and history, he sent me off to Freud’s old apartment and office, which had been converted to a museum. One rang a doorbell to be admitted, and I was shocked when the museum attendant greeted me by name. Surely, I thought, my old friend had called ahead to play a little joke on me. Again, the attendant spoke to me by name in German, calling me “Professor Doktor Roth” — or so I thought. My wife was right beside me, and she later told me that nothing of the kind had happened. The museum employee had merely told me the price of admission.

I was befuddled by this, and later as I searched in the museum’s library to see if it had a copy of my book, I realized that what I’d heard so clearly was probably an auditory hallucination. I so very much wanted to be recognized in the house of Freud that I’d perceived something that wasn’t there at all.

Most of the examples of hallucinations in Oliver Sacks’s graceful and informative new book do not have the transparent motivations of my episode in the Freud museum. Indeed, most of his examples don’t seem “motivated” at all; they have causes rather than meanings. That is, most of the occurrences seem to be products of neurological misfirings that can be traced to disease, drugs or various changes in neurochemistry. With some important exceptions, hallucinations don’t seem to reveal desires or intentions — the kinds of things that create meaning; they do reflect workings of the brain that cause us to see or hear things that are not really there. Parkinsonian disorders, epilepsy, Charles Bonnet syndrome, migraines and narcolepsy — drawing upon descriptions of these and other conditions by patients and doctors, Sacks explores the surprising ways in which our brains call up simulated realities that are almost indistinguishable from normal perceptions.

As is usually the case with the good doctor Sacks, we are prescribed no overarching theory or even a central argument to unite his various observations. Instead, we are the beneficiaries of his keen observational sense, deep clinical practice and wide-ranging reading in the history of neurology. This doctor cares deeply about his patients’ experiences — about their lives, not just about their diseases. Through his accounts we can imagine what it is like to find that our perceptions don’t hook on to reality — that our brains are constructing a world that nobody else can see, hear or touch.

Sacks has been fascinated by neurology since his student days (he is now almost 80), and he recounts his personal experiences with neurochemistry. He started experimenting with LSD in the 1950s, and when he was a medical resident living in Southern California’s Topanga Canyon in the 1960s, his drug use combined recreation with investigation. Opiates later upped the ante, and Sacks describes his interest and pleasure in altered states of consciousness. He recalls his hallucinations that drew heavily on Froissart and Shakespeare with neither pride nor shame. His perceptions weren’t based in reality, but could he still learn from them?

Sacks has long been an avid reader of the history of medicine, and he beautifully describes his intense, amphetamine-inflected readings of such 19th-century medical texts as the English physician Edward Liveing’s work on migraines. Drugs made reading seem more powerful, but as he came down from his high, Sacks realized that while under the influence of drugs he would never be able to write with the kind of sustained attention and care evident in the texts he admired. His epiphany was that he should follow his creative muse not through more powerful hallucinations but through the work of medicine and writing. “The joy I got from doing this was real — infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines.”

Over the past decades we have learned much more about how we see and hear with our brains — not just with our eyes and ears. Sacks describes how neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was able to induce “experiential seizures” by tracking electrodes over the surface of an exposed temporal cortex during surgery. His patients seemed to experience vivid flashbacks, as if the electrical charge had catalyzed a memory into a perception. Vivid though they were, these recollections seemed to lack personal significance. More recent work has explored how the brain creates networks of recollection that allow us to access memories, even as we reshape the past while bringing it into consciousness.

Some hallucinations, Sacks writes, do seem connected to highly significant, emotionally charged memories. When deep in grief, for example, we are more likely to perceive our loved one, even though we know that person has died. Bereavement “causes a sudden hole in one’s life,” and a hallucination evinces a “painful longing for reality to be otherwise.”

At the end of “Hallucinations,” Sacks returns to phantom limbs, a subject he wrote about at length in “A Leg to Stand On.” Amputees report pain in limbs they no longer physically possess, the brain seeming to retain an image of the body that trumps physical reality. Physicians today help patients learn to use their phantom limbs, fitting them into prostheses so that they can use their hallucination of a body part to maneuver what no longer seems like an artificial limb.

Turning a phantom limb from something strange and painful into something one integrates with one’s sense of self is a medical and human triumph. Sacks has turned hallucinations from something bizarre and frightening into something that seems part of what it means to be a person. His book, too, is a medical and human triumph.


From Sunday’s Los Angeles Times

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars. By Camille Paglia. Pantheon: 202 pp., $30

In the 1990s Camille Paglia established herself as a cultural critic to be reckoned with. Her daring “Sexual Personae” enraged feminists, even as it presented a view of culture, sexuality and control that offered little comfort to conservatives hoping to convert even more Americans to the cult of conventionality. Chaos, Paglia emphasized, might be contained for a while, but it would always find its way back into our lives. And that wasn’t something to be lamented.

Paglia was a radical libertarian eager to puncture sanctimony wherever she found it — either in the progressive pieties of political correctness or in the hypocrisy of fundamentalist hucksters hacking away at other people’s pleasures.

She enjoyed a fight, or at least she recognized that fights made good copy and pumped up sales. She liked to throw around the word “Stalinist” and was herself compared to both a Nazi and to Phyllis Schlafly by prominent feminist authors. Paglia particularly enjoyed polemics against pretentious academics, reserving some of her nastiest and most amusing tirades for the followers of highfalutin French theory. This too was a guaranteed audience pleaser.

In the last decade we have seen a kinder and gentler Camille Paglia as she has moved from critical polemic to cultural appreciation. In “Break, Blow, Burn” she turned her attention to what she considered great poetry in English — from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. Taking a page (and perhaps a business plan) from her mentor Harold Bloom, Paglia wrote in that book that in “this time of foreboding about the future of Western culture, it is crucial to identify and preserve our finest artifacts.” She collected 43 mostly canonical poems and wrote a little about each in the hope the inspiration she found in them would be contagious.

“Glittering Images” continues this project — this time with brief discussions of 29 works of visual art. Whereas “Break, Blow, Burn” sought to help us hear again the strongest poetic voices, this volume wants to help readers “find focus” amid the “torrential stream of flickering images.”

Paglia’s goal is straightforward: By offering images of great artworks and helping us to give them sustained attention, she hopes that readers will “relearn how to see” with sustained pleasure and insight. Protesting against the intense animosity toward the arts she sees in American popular culture, Paglia wants her readers to recognize the deep feeling, craft and originality that went into the works she has chosen.

The range of art discussed is enormous, though there are few surprises in the Paglia canon. She begins with Nefertari’s tomb and offers a few pages on religion and politics in ancient Egypt and on Egyptology since Napoleon. The anonymous artisans who built the tomb “were faithful messengers of the cultural code,” linking profound cultural truths to elegant visual representation. Paglia’s sympathy for the intersection of religion and art serves her well in the early chapters of the book, as she discusses objects that were venerated for more than their aesthetic power.

Given her penchant for polemic, it was odd to discover that “Glittering Images” has no argument. Her brief discussions of the objects have the flavor of the textbook or Wikipedia, with occasional anachronistic comments linking them to present concerns. It’s probably a good thing that Paglia makes no attempt to sustain a narrative about art over the ages; instead she offers reflections on why she finds, say, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene so powerfully enigmatic, or why Bronzino’s mannerism has “a polished theatricality but an unsettling stasis.”

It would be silly to complain about the particular works that Paglia has chosen. They all repay vision and reflection, and that, after all, is her point. The critic sometimes seems to believe, with George Grosz, that “great art must be discernible to everyone,” and I suppose that’s why she concludes her survey with the limited imagination but visual virtuosity of George Lucas.

In her final chapter she writes as if popularity is a key sign of artistic greatness, though she knows that many of the artists she most admires were not at all part of the popular culture of their times. They often struggled to be seen, but that doesn’t mean that fame was their ultimate artistic goal.

I’m not sure why Paglia worries so that the fine arts today have lost touch with the masses, that they “are shrinking and receding everywhere in the world.” Sure, her favorite AM talk radio shows often make fun of artists. But people have been making fun of artists for a very long time. Meanwhile, contemporary photographers, painters, sculptors and videographers pursue their practice with intensity and patience, with craft and concept.

Toward the end of “Glittering Images,” Paglia writes with appropriate and infectious admiration about Eleanor Antin’s mail art project 100 Boots. Paglia notes that the “boots, like their creator, are outsiders, eternal migrants questing for knowledge and experience.”

Artists, questing outsiders, are still with us, still finding their way, making their way. Perhaps some of them will be inspired by the glittering images Camille Paglia offers here.


Classes Begin to Celebrate Labor Day

Last night Kari, Mathilde and I walked by the Huss Courtyard behind the Usdan University Center where hundreds of Wes students were gathered to take in the sounds of an amazing variety of a cappella groups. The cheers rained down, whether we were listening to old college tunes, Slavic folk songs, radio pop, and the occasional show tune. Did I really hear some Psi U brothers sing a bilingual version of La Vie en Rose? It was wonderful!! I felt like we were all getting in tune for the semester.

And now we are underway. Profs are putting the final touches on their syllabi, students are checking out lots of classes to see if they should keep the schedules chosen months ago, and the staff is making sure that the support structures are working — from library reserves to equipment in the fitness center. I meet with my Modern and Postmodern class in a few hours, and (like every year) I am both excited and nervous. I’ve been teaching for decades now, but each fall it’s the same mix of anticipation and worry. I’ve even had the traditional anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared… Sometimes, you don’t need Freud to discover a dream’s meaning…

Happy First Day of Classes!  Happy Labor Day!