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.


Liberal Learning and Making Stuff: Review of Anderson’s MAKERS

This weekend Bloomberg.edu released a podcast of an interview I did with one of their reporters on the liberal arts as a pragmatic form of education for our time. Today my review of Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution appeared in the Washington Post. Anderson argues that the digital economy offers enormous opportunities for inventors and entrepreneurs.

Having spent seven years as president of an art and design school known for education through the arts, I am particularly interested in the ways in which “making stuff that matters” is relevant to liberal learning. Over the next few years we will be launching an initiative to enable more Wesleyan students to increase their digital and computational literacy, and we will be expanding access to spaces in which students can make stuff with digital tools. Liberal learning should go hand in hand with creating things that make a positive difference in the world. Here’s the review:


These days, when our slow recovery from recession seems like a full-employment program for pessimistic pundits, it’s great to have a new book from Chris Anderson, an indefatigable cheerleader for the unlimited potential of the digital economy. Anderson, the departing editor in chief of Wired magazine, has already written two important books exploring the impact of the Web on commerce. In “The Long Tail,” he argued that companies like Amazon that faced distribution challenges arising from having large quantities of the same kind of product would thrive by “selling less of more.” Corporations didn’t have to chase blockbusters if they had a mass of small sales. In “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” he argued that giving stuff away to attract a multitude of users might be the best way eventually to make money from loyal customers. Anderson has also helped found a Web site, Geekdad, and an aerial robotics company. From his vantage point, in the future more and more people can get involved in making things they really enjoy and can connect with others who share their passions and their products. These connections, he claims, are creating a new Industrial Revolution.

In a 2010 Wired article entitled “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits,” Anderson described how the massive changes in our relations with information have altered how we relate to things. Now that the power of information-sharing has been unleashed through technology and social networks, makers are able to collaborate on design and production in ways that facilitate the connection of producers to markets. By sharing information “bits” in a creative commons, entrepreneurs are making new things (reshaping “atoms”) more cheaply and quickly. The new manufacturing is a powerful economic force not because any one business becomes gigantic, but because technology makes it possible for tens of thousands of businesses to find their customers, to form their communities.

Anderson begins his new book, “Makers,” with the story of his grandfather Fred Hauser, who invented a sprinkler system. He licensed his invention to a company that turned ideas into things that could be built and sold. Although Hauser loved translating ideas into things, he needed a company with resources to make enough of his sprinklers to turn a profit. Inventing and making were separate. With the advent of the personal computer and of sophisticated but user-friendly design tools, that separation has become increasingly irrelevant. As a child, Anderson loved making things with his grandfather, and he still loves creating new stuff and getting it into the marketplace. “Makers” describes how today technology has liberated the inventor from a dependence on the big manufacturer. “The beauty of the Web is that it democratized the tools both of invention and production,” Anderson writes. “We are all designers now. It’s time to get good at it.”

Here’s where social networks come in. By sharing design ideas, we improve performance and find efficiencies. Communities of makers — whether they care about sprinklers, 3-D printers or flying robots — exchange ideas, correct one another’s plans, and together make something worth having (and that many are already invested in). Anderson sees a revolution in the contemporary preference for amateur content, and he approvingly cites Web entrepreneur Rufus Griscom’s talk of a “Renaissance of Dilettantism.” This is a “remix culture” in which everything can be customized. Web culture reveals the “long tail of talent,” and with barriers to entry rapidly disappearing, Anderson sees a new, more open playing field in which inventor-entrepreneurs (makers) will fuel economic development while creating fulfilling, less hierarchical communities.

This is heady stuff, and Anderson is an excellent guide to companies that make niche products for an international market. There are, apparently, enough folks interested in products like hammocks, weapons for Lego sets, and cool flying machines to support producers whose design and manufacturing costs are kept very low. Most of Anderson’s product examples are the kinds of things boys like to play with, and there is something of the “I found other kids like me” joy in his descriptions of community-building through the social networking of makers. The new industrial revolution, apparently, will have less to do with confronting poverty, disease and climate change, and more to do with inventing better, cooler toys. It will also be, like the last one, very male.

A firm believer in the wisdom of crowds, Anderson doesn’t take time to explore the dangers — or the limits — of wired dilettantism. He counts on networks to uncover error rather than to reinforce prejudice, and he has faith that real talent will be recognized more easily by those invested in solving a problem than by those seeking somebody who is merely properly credentialed.

Anderson is a good storyteller, and these anecdotes effectively highlight changing economic dynamics. Take Jordi Munoz Bardales, who went from hacker-hobbyist to CEO just a couple of years after graduating from his Tijuana high school. Bardales’s posting online of his design innovations to a toy helicopter was proof enough in Anderson’s eyes that he had the right stuff to be the leader of a robotics firm. It just didn’t matter where he went to school. It mattered that he had the skills and a capacity to share them.

In Anderson’s view, the Web creates an arena in which inventive people can connect with one another and figure out ways to turn their designs into things that will succeed in the marketplace. This will “unlock an economic engine” as thousands of small enterprises find new ways to be sustainable. Anderson convinced me that these enterprises will indeed succeed in making cool things that are fun to play with or that offer heightened convenience.

And I even have some hope that these new powers of making might address some of the major problems that still plague us from the last Industrial Revolution. Making hope in the future may be the most important product of the dynamic Anderson describes in his inventive new book.


From Affordability To Transformation

Since I first posted a blog at the Washington Post about affordability plans at Wesleyan, there has been strong interest in our three-year option. I’m delighted and a little surprised. As I’ve said, it’s not for everybody, but the three-year possibility might make sense for many people. Here are two audio clips in which I’ve discussed what we are doing in this regard:

NPR Marketplace

WOR Radio New York

When I arrived in the office this morning, Heather Brooke asked me how I liked the Wall Street Journal piece. I didn’t know anything about it, and then was surprised to read the opening lines of an op-ed by Fay Vincent:

As the costs of attending college continue to mount, often well beyond the rate of inflation, the search is on for ways to economize. One seemingly obvious way is to reduce the number of years required to graduate. Last month, Wesleyan University, the private liberal-arts college in Middletown, Conn., did just that.

President Michael Roth announced that his institution would encourage students who wanted to complete the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree in three years rather than the customary four. These students would take some course work during the summer along with their normal load during the school year.

“I think it’s important to show that liberal arts colleges, even ones as selective as Wesleyan, are trying to do something about affordability,” he told the Associated Press. Tuition, room and board there is nearing $50,000 per year.

There are a smattering of other colleges across the nation that have three-year programs, but none with as high an academic profile. And while the Wesleyan decision has not attracted much attention or discussion, I suspect there will be more such cost-saving efforts in coming years.

Mr. Vincent was underestimating the price of institutions like Wesleyan, but I was pleased to see him encouraging experiments that will enhance affordability. At Wesleyan, we also want our experiments to intensify the educational experience so that it is more compelling than ever. A liberal arts education has long been about transformation. With Wes faculty, students, staff and alumni making contributions, we can also transform liberal learning so that it’s more relevant than ever!

Creativity Works at Wes

What follows is a book review I published this weekend in The Washington Post of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. For years people have said that Wesleyan is a place for creative students, and recently we have tried to define more specifically how the work on our campus helps students develop their capacities for innovation.

A few days ago, applicants to Wes found out whether they have been invited to join the class of 2016. The competition for spots was very intense this year. With more than 10,000 applicants, most of whom are highly qualified, the process of putting together a class is increasingly difficult. We are looking for students who will thrive in the engaged, collaborative and imaginative campus culture here. Over the next four weeks many of the prospective pre-frosh will be visiting Wes, trying to determine if this will be their home and their launch pad for the next four years. The students who choose Wesleyan will likely be those who find that the dynamic student and faculty culture stimulates their own imaginative capacities. Creativity works at Wesleyan.


Check out these recent articles on the student music scene at Wes:




Here’s the review, crossposted from washingtonpost.com:

Not many writers can make plausible links among musicians Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, animators at Pixar, neuroscientists at MIT, an amateur bartender in New York, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Israeli army reservists. Not many reporters do research about an expert surfer who has Asperger’s, information theorists, industrial psychologists and artists. But Jonah Lehrer is such a writer-reporter, who weaves compelling and surprising connections based on detailed investigation and deep understanding. He says that working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, and his book is an excellent example of how a dynamic storehouse of captivating information feeds creative thinking and writing.

Lehrer begins with the story of a pop-culture breakthrough, the artistic reinvigoration that Dylan experienced when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan was finishing a grueling tour schedule that had left him increasingly dissatisfied with making music. He decided to leave behind the madness of celebrity culture and the repetitive demands of pop performance. But once he was ensconced in Woodstock, N.Y., once he decided to stop trying to write songs, the great song came: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said. “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Lehrer adds, “Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

Many of the stories that Lehrer recounts in the first few chapters stress the benefits of paying attention to internal mental processes that seem to come from out of the blue. We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams, to the thoughts or fantasies that seem nonsensical. Sometimes this attention must be very light, so that the stream of ideas and emotions flows, as when Ma feels his way into a new piece of music. Sometimes the attention must be very great, as when W.H. Auden (assisted by Benzedrine) focused on getting the words in a poem exactly right.

Lehrer explains some of the neuroscience behind these different modes of attentiveness. Making use of the power of the right hemisphere figures in, as does activating more energy from the prefrontal cortex to “direct the spotlight of attention.” He discusses experiments that explore which parts of the brain seem most active in different kinds of pursuits. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, the power to inhibit our flights of fancy grows. But as inhibition and focus increase, the capacity to improvise seems to diminish.

Lehrer notes that modern science has given new names to ideas that philosophers have been exploring for a very long time. Despite the fancy terminology, I found the anecdotes about scientific experiments less interesting than the anecdotes about poets, artists, surfers and inventors. That’s partly because the science stories seem to overreach, pretending to offer explanations for creativity by finding precise locations for the multitudinous connections that the brain generates. In an organ with the networking plasticity of the brain, location might not explain so much.

The last three chapters move from individuals to contexts. Lehrer offers fascinating accounts of why cities generate intense creative work and why certain urban-planning principles that emphasize heterogeneity (think Jane Jacobs) are so powerful. He shows us why teams that “are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected,” such as those at Pixar, are the most innovative. Too much strangeness, and things fall apart. Too much closeness, and the generative spark is never struck.

Lehrer shows why brainstorming usually fails to result in real innovation because nobody is pushing back on bad ideas. “The only way to maximize creativity . . . is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. . . . We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.” Or, as Lee Unkrich, a Pixar director, put it: “We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. Together.”

Lehrer concludes with a discussion of why certain epochs seem to be more creative than others. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it is through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output. He quotes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who emphasizes that “even in this age of technology, we still get smart being around other smart people.”

Glaeser and Lehrer are showing why cities remain so important, but as the president of a university, I can also see how this applies to our campuses. Students and faculty seek the inspiration that is available all over campus, and that’s why so much learning happens outside the classroom. Sitting by yourself with your computer, even if you have access to thousands of Facebook “friends,” just isn’t the same as being in a creative, cosmopolitan culture in which new connections are continually (and surprisingly) formed.

“Imagine” doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing and cultivating a willingness to take risks. Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities. Reading his book exercises the imagination; the rest is up to us.

Book Review: “The Castrato and his Wife”

Yesterday the Washington Post published my review of this wonderfully interesting book of European history. In my Modern and Postmodern class we kept coming back to what it means to talk about the “really real.” So did Ms. Tenducci in the 18th century, and the historian Hellen Berry today.
In 1775, Dorothea Maunsell and her new husband, William Long Kingsman, went to court to show that they were indeed legally married. They had already had two wedding ceremonies (one in Italy, the other in England), but there was a problem: a long, public record of Dorothea already being married to opera singer Ferdinando Tenducci. Those two had eloped in 1766 and had lived as a couple in England and then Italy. But Dorothea and William went to court to argue that the earlier liaison was in fact no real marriage. Tenducci had been castrated as a boy so as to preserve his pure voice. As a eunuch, he was deemed physically and legally incapable of being married.
Helen Berry, a gifted historian with a great story to tell, relates that the intentional removal of testicles was banned by the pope in 1587, as was the marriage of eunuchs. But the surgical mutilation continued for the next two centuries because, as Berry writes, “The fully trained castrato voice epitomized everything about Baroque style — artifical, sensuous, luxurious, and exotic.” As a youngster Tenducci was singled out for his lovely voice, and “someone in authority” probably suggested that having him castrated could lead to some money for his poor family.


(Oxford University Press) – ’The Castrato and His Wife’ by Helen Berry

Tenducci became a well-known singer in Italy, and his fame grew as he sang opera and more popular material in London and Dublin. He excited admiration and affection from men and women alike, and he was known to boast that he could satisfy women without risk to them. Berry describes him as having become a “celebrity pin-up,” and she explores how women who flirted with him (and other castrati) “found a loophole that was an escape from the sexual double standard.” Women could intimately associate with castrati, since these were not supposed to be “real men” who could ruin their reputations.

Dorothea had been one of these women. She studied music in Dublin with Tenducci in 1765 when she was about 15 years old, but not too long afterward asked him to take her away as his wife. Their elopement was scandalous, but the notoriety didn’t hurt Tenducci’s career. They eventually escaped the wrath of Dorothea’s father (and some of Tenducci’s debts) by moving to Italy. There the young woman was sometimes described as the singer’s student, often as his wife. In early 1768 Dorothea published in London a 68-page pamphlet, “The True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci.” Of course there was gossip, but Dorothea accompanied Tenducci to his concerts and even sang with him to critical acclaim. Dorothea had escaped her Dublin family and was a part of Tenducci’s operatic life. Berry reports the astonishment of the famous Casanova, a man not easily shocked, at meeting Tenducci and his wife. Casanova even remembers them having children. How was it possible for a castrato to be a husband, let alone a father? What was a real husband, anyway? In any case, the couple seemed happy. They were on stage.

The sources are silent on why Dorothea left Tenducci. We know that she was alone in Florence, and she may have resented being left behind while her famous husband went away on tour. Perhaps the reports of her being a mother indicated that her relationship with Kingsman was longstanding. In any case, in November 1771 she sneaked to Naples to meet up with Kingsman, who had just received his inheritance. The following spring she married him in an Anglican ceremony in Rome. She begged her father’s forgiveness and asked to return to Dublin. He sent money for the trip, and the couple had another marriage ceremony in the summer of 1773. They wanted their child to be granted legitimacy retroactively — not an unusual occurrence in the 18th century.

In early 1776 the court ruled that Dorothea had never been married to Tenducci because the singer was incapable of being a husband. The judge had considered much detailed testimony on the opera star’s anatomy, including a salacious report that Tenducci carried his surgically removed testicles with him in a red velvet purse. Dorothea’s legal marriage was to Kingsman. He, a normal man, eventually died in a debtor’s prison. We have no records of Dorothea continuing to write or sing.

Tenducci is reported to have lamented the loss of his wife, but he did not contest the verdict. He went on to a distinguished if tumultuous late career, including concerts with J.C. Bach at Versailles and Paris in 1778, where Mozart composed a piece for him. When the French Revolution raged, the singer retired to Italy, where he gave music lessons and the occasional concert as “Count Tenducci.” Upon his death, a mass featuring “the finest musicians” was celebrated in his honor in Genoa.

In the 18th century, questions about identity, freedom, love and nature were inflected by the beauty of performance made possible by mutilation. Are the contemporary versions of these questions so different? Berry’s meticulously researched yet very readable story of Tenducci and Dorothea resonates across the centuries to our own time. What makes a marriage real? Do we want our celebrities (or spouses) to be “natural” or eccentric?The Castrato and his Wife is a fascinating account of how masculinity, femininity and marriage were being reshaped in 18th-century Europe just when modernity was taking shape.

Thinking Photography with Diane Arbus and Errol Morris

My review of Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus and Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography appeared in today’s Washington Post. I’ve been teaching and writing about photography for several years, and at Wesleyan have found colleagues especially knowledgeable about the medium and its history. Jennifer Tucker writes about images and science, especially in the Victorian period, Andy Szegedy-Maszak is eloquent on photographs and our knowledge of the ancient world, and Claire Rogan does a marvelous job of making Wesleyan’s own photo collection come alive in exhibitions and catalogues. My interest in photography began as part of my study of how people make sense of the past, and in my new book, Memory, Trauma and HistoryI have included essays that examine how photographs change the ways we think about recollection and knowledge.

Each spring since coming to Wesleyan I’ve taught a course called The Past on Film that deals mostly with how some classic movies teach us about core issues in the philosophy of history. This year I am planning to integrate some discussions of photographs into the course, as I did when I first started teaching the class.

Here’s the review:


Diane Arbus made arresting, absorbing photographs of dwarfs, twins, giants, nudists and carnies. “I really believe,” she said, “there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Together with other artists expanding the boundaries of photography in the 1960s, she altered the way we understand portraiture and thus the way we see people. She was criticized, most notably by Susan Sontag, for providing the cheap thrills of gazing at freaks. She was applauded by casual viewers, collectors and her fellow artists for turning the idea of the outsider into a compelling investigation of the possibilities and limits of representing otherness — of picturing people with whom connections are never simple, always frayed. The images stopped us in our tracks and stayed in our minds.

In “An Emergency in Slow Motion,” William Todd Schultz rushes toward Arbus convinced of the viability of psychobiography, of using general research findings in psychology to make sense of individual lives. He has written on madness and creativity, and on Truman Capote; in this book he discusses Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, to name just some of the troubled stars who grab his attention. He professes modesty, talking of truth as a direction, not a destination, and of not being able to resolve the mysteries that are part of any complex personality. His goal “is to make sense of Diane Arbus’s psychological life . . . the subjective origins of the pictures themselves.”

Alas, “An Emergency in Slow Motion” doesn’t provide a convincing account of the subjective origins of the pictures because Schultz gives no indication that he has looked closely at them or done the basic research about how they were made. The book is handicapped by having no illustrations whatsoever — perhaps he couldn’t get permissions from the famously controlling Arbus estate. His descriptions of the important images or the process of making them are vague and uninformed. Schultz simply relies on the comprehensive exhibition catalogue “Revelations,” Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography and a handful of supplementary sources. Aside from a few interviews, he seems to have done almost no primary historical research and little reading in the history of photography.

Schultz does use a wide range of psychological theories. As if they were varieties of pasta, he throws them against the Arbus “case” to see what might stick. At times this is so trite as to be comical: “There’s a personality dimension Arbus was unusually high in, a so-called ‘artist type.’ ” He tells us she was high in “O,” which means she was “open to experience.” He tells us that Arbus’s picture-taking “was very psychological.” “What is it about these pictures? Like Plath’s ‘Ariel’ poems, they are decidedly not nice.” Right.

The perfect antidote to Schultz’s uninformed banalities about Arbus’s pictures is Errol Morris’s detailed explorations of photography’s connection to the real world. Morris is a great documentary filmmaker who has expanded the limits of that genre, and in recent years he has been blogging about photography for the New York Times. The chapters of “Believing Is Seeing” are taken from those blog posts, which show the author doggedly investigating entrenched assumptions about photographers and their pictures. Can one tell if Roger Fenton moved cannonballs around for dramatic effect in his pictures from the Crimean War? Was Sabrina Harman really smiling over a dead body in Abu Ghraib, or was it a “just say cheese” smile? Did Walker Evans add his own alarm clock to a documentary picture of a fireplace?

Facts matter to Morris, as he proves by doing basic detective work. He engages in archival research, he interviews experts, and he presses skeptically against theories and assumptions. He prides himself on “a combination of the prurient with the pedantic,” and the mixture works just as well in this book as it does in his films. Facts matter in the way that photographs matter: They tell us something but never reveal the whole story.

Photographs edit reality; they conceal even as they reveal. But Morris doesn’t rest at this level of generality. He wants to determine how this picture edits a particular reality, how that photographer tends to conceal certain aspects of reality in order to highlight others. Morris asks whether a photograph can document reality, function as propaganda and also be art. His answer is a resounding yes. The mysteries of photography stem in part from its never being able to tell the whole truth but almost always having something to say about the ways things were.

Morris tells us that his questions about the relationship between images and reality began with photographs of his father, who died when Errol was 3 years old. He has no memories of his father, but he does have images. In the chapter on documentary photography, Morris comments movingly on an Arthur Rothstein Depression-era photo of a father and his two sons seeking shelter in a dust storm. By interviewing a historian who tracked down one of the boys years later, Morris understands how the picture came to define how one of the sons viewed himself and his family. A photograph “brings time forward, but also compresses it, collapses it into one moment.” It is a moment that is found in the image but lost to the present: “Eternally trapped in the present, we are doomed to perpetually walk ‘in front’ of the past.” Photographs remind us of what cannot be seen anymore.

Morris’s book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel. Like Arbus, Morris knows that photographs gratify some of our deep cravings, but also that they also never fully satisfy. A photograph “partially takes us outside ourselves” and “gives us a glimpse . . . of something real.” This is a key part of what Arbus and Morris are both after.

Photography’s preservation of traces of the past offers the possibility that “we too can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches beyond our lives.” By paying such close and caring attention to traces of the past, Morris greatly increases the possibility of their living on. He shows us what it means to do the hard work of saving memories from oblivion.


Reviewing a book on Contemporary Art from Los Angeles

I reviewed “Rebels in Paradise” in yesterday’s Washington Post. I had taken the assignment with real pleasure, having great respect for the vibrancy of the Los Angeles art scene that developed in the 1960s and that continues to generate interesting work today. I spent more than fifteen years in Southern California, the last five of which running the Scholars Program at the Getty Research Institute for Art History and the Humanities (they have since dropped “and the Humanities — but that’s another story). The Getty is embarked on a multi-year project that examines contemporary art in California, and I look forward to seeing the results.

“Rebels in Paradise” recounts the story of how adventurous contemporary art developed in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, and how an “art scene” took off in the city during the ’60s. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is especially interested in the “scene” part — of how little-known artists joined together to form a cool cohort, ultimately achieving L.A.’s grand prize: celebrity. She tells us just a little about their work: how Ed Moses busted the borders of the gallery format, how Ed Ruscha integrated words into his paintings, how Robert Irwin  and James Turrell discovered light as their medium, and how Judy Chicago explored sexuality and gender in this macho atmosphere. But we learn more about who was sleeping with whom, about prices for art when it was cheap, and about how these West Coast artists came to understand their careers in relation to the entrenched interests in the other art scene they sought to supplant: New York’s.

Drohojowska-Philp’s breezy story begins with the liberating gestures of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom found a receptive audience among the young, artsy guys who started the Ferus Gallery in 1957. The founders of the gallery, curator Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz, had a knack for finding like-minded souls whose camaraderie was based on their contempt for convention, their affection for surfboards, motorcycles and popular culture, all combined with their deep commitment to visual experimentation. During the inaugural summer show, Beat artist Wallace Berman was arrested for obscenity. The Ferus Gallery was going to make a name for itself.

“Rebels In Paradise” has some interesting things to say about the development of a distinctive Los Angeles gallery world, with its connections to the entertainment industry and the burgeoning museum culture. It’s the 1960s, and genres aren’t the only things that are blurring. Rock and roll, art and movies often intersect, with the actor-photographer Dennis Hopper being the poster boy for what in hindsight might look like irrational exuberance. These were times when many Angelenos thought they might be in the center of the universe — unless they ventured off for too long to London or New York.

It was a glorious place to be young and rootless — or at least to act as if one were young and rootless. In addition to the beautiful, complacent movie stars, and the cool, aggressive artists, there was Jim Morrison trying out his chops and his look at clubs on Sunset Boulevard and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention beginning to baffle their audience. We don’t learn very much about how this energy infused specific works of art, but we are told that when the Velvet Underground played on the Strip in 1966, “Sonny liked it but Cher left.”

“Rebels in Paradise” tells us about the drawing in Berman’s show that drew the obscenity charge and about some of his other “dustups with the authorities,” but the author says almost nothing of interest about Berman’s art. This is the rule in the book. We are told that the owner of Barney’s Beanery (the Ferus gang’s favorite watering hole) bought Larry Bell a drink after his first artistic triumph, but we never learn much about what in the work was triumphant. It’s amusing to read the tale of Kienholz’s revenge on a TWA worker’s desk after the airline broke a lamp the artist valued, but it would have been so much more interesting if the author managed to relate the rampage to the work. Kienholz wasn’t just an irate passenger, he was also an artist, and we want to know how rage fueled his installations and how the violence of his public gestures was related to his private struggles and his artistic practice. We are introduced to the young Frank Gehry as he begins to discover his aesthetic itinerary, but we learn more about his psychoanalyst and Gehry’s gangster uncle Willy’s trip to a brothel than we do about his architectural breakthrough.

Throughout the book we get good stories, the kind that artists often tell one another over drinks, and that they or their friends shared with Drohojowska-Philp. But in the author’s artless hands these seem more gossip than journalism — to say nothing of art history. Irwin and David Hockney are discussed at some length in the book, but the author does not do justice to either the ambitions of their work or to its critical reception. She does tell us that Irwin was “practicing phenomenology” and “questioning the purpose of painting,” but there is no extended discussion of what this meant to him or to others. We get gossip about Hockney’s portraits and are treated to his views of the clubs and of sex, but almost nothing about his understanding of composition and visual experience. Hockney is quoted as saying there were no ghosts in Los Angeles, which was true enough for him, since he was happily unaware of the city’s past. Unfortunately, Drohojowska-Philp embraces this naivete, doing little to show how her artists were actually part of the city’s ongoing history.

Drohojowska-Philp quotes the great critic Dave Hickey’s comment that Los Angeles developed a minimalism that “created a gracious social space. . . . It treated us amicably and made us even more beautiful by gathering us into the dance.” The promise of gathering us into beauty was and is part of Los Angeles’s persistent charm, part of its invitation and (sometimes) its disappointment. “Rebels in Paradise” tells us just enough to make the dance seem attractive, just enough to evoke reflections of its historical reality. As Dennis Hopper said: “This is our reality — the comic books and soup cans, man.”

Cross-posted from Washingtonpost.com

Summer Reading: Review of Saramago’s SMALL MEMORIES

This weekend the WASHINGTON POST ran my review of José Saramago’s posthumously published memoir. For me, summer is a time to catch up on reading that I can’t quite get to during the school year, although I also have to get a lot of writing done myself over the next couple of months. I enjoy reviewing books outside my scholarly field. I have to think about them more intensively than I would as a casual reader, and yet I do not have a scholarly investment in the reception of the work. I did not know Saramago’s work before I reviewed SMALL MEMORIES, but now I can understand  why his achievements as a writer have seemed so remarkable to so many — especially in Europe. Discovering writers that matter to you is an intensely personal process, a process that began for me as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. Reviewing is one way for me to share that process.

What are the chances? That a child surrounded by illiteracy, shuffling between his family’s new life in Lisbon and their roots in the countryside, will have such an intense appetite for words that he relishes pages from discarded newspapers, seizes on fragments of Molière in a guidebook, and will one day create parallel worlds in which an entire nation goes blind, in which Jesus apologizes for God’s sins, in which death suddenly stops occurring. These worlds, fantastic as they are, turn out to be uncomfortably like our own.

What are the chances? That a writer whose early efforts were greeted with harsh criticism (or mere silence) leaves the literary world behind to concentrate on journalism, returns in his 50s to pen novels that capture the imagination of European writers and critics, is celebrated for political bravery and artistic originality and crowned with the Nobel Prize for literature.

José Saramago (1922-2010) was this child, this writer, and in “Small Memories” he has provided us with a collection of memories of his childhood and adolescence. The recollections don’t follow a linear path but instead touch lightly on lives framed by poverty and frequent brutality. But in Saramago’s retrospective imagination, these are also lives infused with dignity, affection and deep connection. The author knows the tricks that memory can play, and on some matters he has taken great pains to test his recollections against recorded facts. Saramago is fascinated by the vagaries of remembrance, at one point wondering if certain memories he had were really his.

Although his parents moved to Lisbon when he was just 18 months old (his father was to be a policeman), Jose continued to shuffle between Portugal’s capital and Azinhaga, his native village. The village was the “cradle in which my gestation was completed, the pouch into which the small marsupial withdrew to make what he alone could make, for good or possibly ill, of his silent, secret, solitary self.” The reader is introduced to various family members: a father consumed by jealous rage; grandparents who are hardened, stoic workers but who keep the weakest of their piglets warm by bringing them into their bed for a few nights. The author’s mother is long-suffering, but she is also the young woman who on passing through a doorway forgets she is carrying a jug of water on her head because she has just received a proposal from her future husband. “You might say that my life began there too,” Saramago writes, “with a broken water jug.”

After relating this incident of the broken jug, Saramago tells the reader that his older brother, Francisco, died at age 4 in the spring of 1924, some months after his mother brought them to Lisbon. The author wonders about his memory of his brother, the “happy, sturdy, perfect little boy, who, it would seem, cannot wait for his body to grow and for his arms to be long enough to reach something.” “It’s the summer or perhaps the autumn of the year Francisco is going to die,” Saramago writes, adding it’s “my earliest memory. And it may well be false.”

I was unprepared for the piercing sadness of this hazy recollection, steeped in sorrow but told in the same calm, matter-of-fact style as Saramago’s other childhood recollections. From the loss of his older brother we are led to a memory with a “fierce and violent truth”: Saramago’s brutal encounter with a pack of older boys who, holding him down, thrust a metal wire into his urethra. The horror and sadness of the wounded little boy, blood streaming from his penis, is startling in the context of the quiet charms of the volume as a whole. Francisco is dead; little José has no one to protect him. The physical wounds will heal, but the longing for the missing brother — and a concern for those who are vulnerable to all sorts of brutality — will always remain.

Shortly after relating this incident, Saramago recalls his older friend the “prodigious shoemaker,” also named Francisco, who asked the young author-to-be if he believed there were other worlds, where other possibilities were realized. When Saramago first decided to write a memoir, he tells us that he knew he would want to write of his brother. Bringing the forgotten back through words is the writer’s alchemy, his power to create when faced with the harshness of the world.

Saramago, a poet, journalist and diarist in addition to being an acclaimed novelist, knew that words mattered a great deal — that they can even point to one’s destiny. The writer’s paternal family name, for example, was de Sousa, and the author tells us it was a town clerk’s joke to register his surname as Saramago — the name for a wild radish eaten by the poor in harsh times. The boy grew into his name, taming his wildness but always remaining faithful to his roots in poverty. “Small Memories” is an expression of that fidelity, a small but nourishing last gift from a great writer.

Cross-posted from washingtonpost.com


Education: From Condescension to Respect

Today I put this up on the Huffington Post and thought it might also be of interest for readers of this blog:

This week political science professor Gerard Alexander hit a chord (or was it a nerve?) with his Washington Post essay on “why liberals are so condescending.” Despite the recent successes of the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, and a filibuster-happy Senate, Alexander repeats the old refrain: We conservatives get no respect. Rather than enjoy the intellectual disarray of the Left, Alexander seems to long for recognition from his liberal colleagues: You liberals think you have all the answers, and you never listen to us conservative voices, no matter how much education we have! Although many have recognized that the conservative movement did become “the party of ideas,” Alexander complains, liberals still see the Right as mired in false consciousness, hypocrisy, or both. What’s a faculty member got to do to earn some credibility? Publishing a provocative lecture for the American Enterprise Institute in the Washington Post isn’t a bad start.

But is the Left really more condescending than the Right? When Sarah Palin mocks Obama’s supporters with “How’s that hope, change thing working out for yaw?” is that not a form of condescension? Palin’s populist condescension toward those who don’t live in “the real America” pales before the patrician variety famously mastered by William F. Buckley. Woe to the liberals who carelessly strayed into his firing line. Two examples can stand for dozens of great zingers: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” Buckley sneered. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views,” he observed, “but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Alexander cites Paul Krugman as a prime offender of looking down his nose at conservatives, but why is this any different than Chicago-school economist Eugene Fama saying “My attitude is this, if you are getting attacked by Paul Krugman, you must be doing something right”?

No, liberals have no monopoly on condescension or intellectual and social smugness. Mocking people who drive Priuses (it used to be Volvos) is just as common as sneering at people in supersized pickups. But there does seem to be an easy association between elitism and progressivism that conservatives are able to reactivate at the drop of a hat. Why do we jump at the accusation? Is it because condescension is indeed a temptation for a politics that depends so much on education and on faith in the powers of knowledge? Liberals prize education – valuing it as a vehicle toward a more just and hospitable world. Education means enlightenment, which Kant famously defined as “freedom from self-imposed immaturity.” Confidence in the power of education can lead to arrogance because people in the know feel that they ought to be able to fix things. As people pursue education, they often feel that they are leaving false beliefs behind, that they are becoming freer as their illusions and dependence are dissolved. As this happens, many look around and see others who haven’t yet shed their old ways of thinking and are still mired in falsehood or reliance on authority. “I used to think like that, too,” says the advanced student to the frosh, “but now I know better.” This is what Eric Voegeli [it’s actually William, see comments below] was getting at when he wrote last year’s version of the condescension essay, “The Roots of Liberal Condescension,” published in the Claremont Review of Books (and found on the Wall Street Journal online). “Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he wrote,  “snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major.”

Does education necessarily breed elitism and condescension, and does it necessarily give rise to political liberalism? A little education very well might promote the intellectual arrogance many conservatives see in their caricature of a professor on the Left, but liberal learning is, after all, supposed to make us aware of how little we know. That’s what Socratic insight is all about: we need to learn because we understand so little. Education should lead to intellectual humility as we become more aware of our own ignorance. Conservatives also prize education, after all, but they do so because it should deliver the lesson of intellectual humility. Education should prevent us from thinking we can solve our deepest problems with science, technology or political structures.

There is a parallel here with faith. Some believers, infused with confidence in their own righteousness, display a spiritual arrogance that is offensive to those who don’t share their beliefs. But many people of faith discover a deep humility through their spiritual life — a humility that leads to openness to others rather than a proud sectarianism.

So maybe condescension depends less on questions of ideology, learning and faith than it does on differences in character. Some people just find it easier to sneer at others rather than to try to understand people with different points of view. The satisfactions of condescension are a temptation for people who feel they already know so much, just as the pleasures of elitism are seductive for people who are certain that God is on their side.

It’s always easier to be condescending when you don’t spend time with people who think or live differently than you do. That’s why it’s so important to find possibilities for dialogue that cut across ways of thinking or modes of belief. Political diversity is crucial for universities, for example, because if we live in an echo chamber of the Left, then we will forget how much we can learn from conservative thinkers who have rightly questioned our ability to master public and private life through systems of knowledge or government. Diversity of belief is good for all of us because if we think that we live in a community of the righteous, we might forget our responsibilities to those whose different beliefs and practices give meaning and value to their lives.

As a teacher and president of a university, I remain committed to education as an antidote to elitism rather than as a progressive cultivation of snobbery. As we learn, as we become more aware of our own ignorance, we should also become more open toward others, toward what they have to teach us. Looking down on others is surely a sign of intellectual fear rather than of a willingness to learn. An education in the liberal arts, which can lead to a political position on the Left or the Right, should result not in condescension but in its opposite: respect.

[tags]Huffington Post, journal article, Gerard Alexander, politics, Eric Voegeli[/tags]