Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spots of Time

There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight
In trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired...

--William Wordsworth

I've been reading the work of the Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, in particular The Man With the Shattered World.

Published in 1972, The Man With the Shattered World documents Luria's work with Leva Zazetsky.

While a soldier in the Soviet army in 1942, Zazetsky is wounded: shell fragments cause severe damage to the occipito-parietal region of his brain.

As you can see from the image of the bones of the skull, his wound covered a fairly large region of his cranium and ultimately caused a wide range of neurological problems.
 In particular, the regions at the top and the back of the brain (the occipito-parietal lobes) regulate visual input and processing (on the right side of the parietal lobe) and spoken and written language (on the left side of the parietal lobe).

Zazetsky not only lost the right-hand side of his field of vision, but also suffered from an inability to synthesize discrete characteristics of images into a comprehensive whole.

Luria offers the following explanation:
Let us assume such a person is asked to look at a picture of a pair of eyeglasses. What is it he sees? One circle, then another, then a cross bar, and finally, two cane-like attachments. His guess is--it must be a bicycle. Such a patient cannot perceive objects, even though he can distinguish their individual features. (29)
More compelling, perhaps, is Zazetsky's own description of his struggle.  Despite the severe challenges posed by the nature of his brain injury, Zazetsky not only learned to read and write again, but also kept a journal in which he recorded his memories, thoughts and sensations.

Luria's book is a fascinating interweaving of Zazetsky's impressions and experiences with the neuroscientist's own observations.  Because his field of vision is both damaged and distorted, Zazetsky cannot process more than three letters at a time: it is impossible for him to see an entire word, so in order to learn to read again, he must read each word letter by letter.

In addition, he must struggle to remember each letter as he perceives it: because of his injury, he cannot recognize letters as such.  When he sees them, they don't appear to be Russian--he can't tell what they are, exactly, even if he is told that he is looking at Russian words.

Oddly enough, he can identify them if he recites the alphabet from memory.  So initially, this is what he does: he automatically recites the alphabet without thinking and when he gets to the letter he sees in front of him, he can identify it.

Because this is time-consuming, he eventually develops a new way to recognize letters.  Ultimately, he associates them with names or concepts that he can more readily retain in his memory:
There were three letters in particular I had trouble remembering--"s," "k," and "m."  But later I remembered the word krov ["blood"] which came to mind so often I couldn't possibly forget it.  I concentrated on this word and soon began to associate the letter "k" with it and would remember it each time.  Then I did the same thing with the letter "s"--associated it with the word son ["sleep"].  Since I think of that word every night when I go to bed, I quickly remembered the letter "s."  Before that I could never recall it. (67)
Despite his tenacity, his progress remains slow.  As he observes, "I also have to focus a little to the right and above a letter in order to see it.  That's the way I manage to see a letter, though I can't immediately remember how to say it.  My memory seems blocked, as though it has some kind of a brake on it" (68-69).

Perhaps most bizarre and unnerving are what Zazetsky comes to refer to as "bodily peculiarities" (he also experiences "spatial peculiarities" as well).  In particular, he cannot locate his own hands or feet (or other areas of the body)--he has to think of what these words refer to and then hunt for them on himself.

As he says, "I always forget where my forearm is located.  Is it near my neck or my hands? ... Say a doctor asks me to show him where my back is.  It's strange, but I can't do it" (43, 44).

He would also "lose" the right side of his body at times:
I move the fingers of my left hand, feel them, but can't see the fingers of my right hand and somehow I'm not even aware they're there.  And I get terribly upset.  I know there's something I should keep in mind--that I suddenly 'lose' the right side of my body because I'm always forgetting I can't see on my right side.  But I can't get used to that idea, so often I'm terrified when part of my body disappears. (42)
What I find so interesting about The Man with a Shattered World is that it calls into question our assumption that our identity is premised upon our memories, upon the spots of time that Wordsworth identifies as "renovating" our very selves with an inherent sense of virtue.

We assume a continuum of memory underlying identity, coherence, and even literacy, but fragmentation and "shattering" are always possible.

In the end, as The Man with a Shattered World suggests, time itself can become spotty.

But even when it does, the struggle to define ourselves continues: perhaps not surprisingly, Zazetsky originally wanted entitle his memoir, I'll Fight On.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rumi and Whirling

Reading Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic.

He is the founder of the Mevlevi order, whose dervishes are known for their "whirling."

"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."

"We come spinning out of nothingness,
Scattering stars like dust."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the course of my intellectual meanderings, I sometimes come upon some truly strange information.

Case in point: one of the texts I'm teaching makes a reference to "a fuller" washing cloth.

Since I've never claimed to know it all, I'll freely admit, I had to look up what fulling, in fact, was.

Fulling is the process of cleaning woolen cloth to get rid of oils or impurities and make it thicker.

The woolens are first scoured: in ancient Rome, this was done with... urine.

If you're thinking, "oh, gross! not my sweater!", you should know that the ancient Romans often used urine as a mouthwash.

They got it (the idea, I mean, not the urine) from the ancient Greeks.

While I realize that nothing I say will change the fact that it still sounds quite gross to all of us today (we prefer the lovely green chemicals mixed with alcohol and artificial mint flavoring provided by Johnson & Johnson), urine is sterile (unless you have an infection, of course) and it contains ammonia, which is a powerful cleanser.

Urine was actually used quite a bit throughout history, for medicinal purposes. And in ancient Rome, it was used so often and for so many purposes that it was taxed.

Better not tell Congress or the IRS.

Okay, enough of the pee-talk. With regards to the history of fulling, scouring is eventually done with a kind of clay. Today, they use soap.

At least, I hope so.

The woolens were then milled or thickened.
In Scotland and elsewhere, fulling was carried out by pounding the cloth with your hands or feet (called "waulking"). There is an entire tradition of Scottish "waulking songs" that were sung by women to set the pace and pass the time.

Usually, one woman sang the verse (my guess is, the one who could actually carry a tune) and the other women sang the chorus. The songs often start out slow and then the tempo picks up.

They're usually simple, beat-driven songs with lots of meaningless words or vocables (as in the use of "HEY, hey, hey, hey, hey, HEY" at the start of Train's "Soul Sister," for example).

They would NOT be singing "American Pie" or "Stairway to Heaven."

The cloth was then stretched on frames called "tenters." These tenters were then attached to hooks.

And this is where my day picked up: I discovered that this is the origin of the use of the phrase "on tenterhooks" as a way of describing a state of suspense.

This also explains why, when I have to clean the kitchen or sweep, I like to put on Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Threads and Salt-Shakers

I spent the week visiting my best friend and her family, which is why I haven't blogged in a while. In case you missed me.

The visit is always book-ended by a 10 hr. drive each way, and almost every time I make it, I come upon an accident. Sometimes, it's an accident that has just occurred.

Luckily, none of them has been as bad as the accident I once drove by on my way back to NJ from RI. As I wondered what on earth was hanging off of the side mirror on the driver's side, I realized that it was the driver.

I drove about 30 mph for the rest of that trip.

It's a strange feeling when you come upon an accident after spending hours on the highway, because in a couple of cases, I recognize the car, and it's usually someone who passed me not too long before.

Yesterday, it was the same thing. This time, the front of the car and the ground around it was on fire. Luckily, no one seemed to be seriously hurt.

I always think about how it all hangs by a thread. Literally. We're connected to each other by strange threads that we sometimes can't even see. There's no reason why that particular car got into a fender bender--or a serious accident--with someone. It could easily have been me.

As I've said before, if there's any advantage to the rather difficult life experiences I've had over the past few years, it's the fact that it's made me more aware of such threads.

I'm aware of the randomness of "fate" (for lack of a better word). We choose, sometimes, and sometimes we're apparently chosen at random.

While a lot of people might think this makes it all quite meaningless, for me, it makes it all that much more meaningful. If so much is out of my control, then that makes the things that are in my control--the choices I make about who I want to be, how I want to act, what I want to contribute--that much more important.

It takes blame entirely out of the picture. I think that's one of my personality pet-peeves, actually: people who always look to blame someone else for something.

Worry about yourself. Shine that light inward, and what do you see? If you reserve the right to take everyone else's inventory, make sure you're prepared to allow others to do the same.

Not all threads are so serious, of course, and my drives up and down the East Coast aren't entirely philosophical (or morbid).

For instance, there's always that 15-minute span of time when they play "American Pie" on the radio and the mandatory "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie" sing-along begins.

It's a theory of mine that all Americans of a certain age probably know the lyrics to that song. Whether they also know what they mean is another story, of course. I confess, I've been baffled for over four decades now.

So a portion of my trip is spent wondering why Don McLean did it. It is also spent wondering whether, when Jimmy Buffett describes searching for his "lost shaker of salt," he's referring to something more than a literal salt shaker.

What is life's existential salt-shaker? And if one loses it, can it be rediscovered? In fact, "Margaritaville" is all about taking responsibility for one's life: starting from a position of blame and ultimately realizing, "it's my own damn fault."

Mostly, though, I spend the ride in awe of my best friend and my great good fortune in having the threads that have connected me to her for over 25 years now. She's doing the Ultimate Hike for CureSearch: it's a one-day, 28.6 mile hike through the foothills of North Carolina to raise money (and awareness) about pediatric cancer.

In hopes that there will someday be a cure. That's what Ezra would have wanted: an end to the stupid cancer that took his childhood and that took him from us.

This Saturday was also the 2-year anniversary of my mom's death. She died of long-term complications from the cobalt radiation administered to fight her case of breast cancer in 1973: at the time, that was the standard follow-up treatment to a radical mastectomy. 

In 1973, the 5-year survival rate for Stage 3 pre-menopausal breast cancer was approximately 25%.  Today, the survival rate is between 40-67%.

So much has changed in such a short time. I know we can do it, little by little. I can hope for a cure, but I can know in my heart that things will get better and treatments will improve: people will suffer less and the threads that tie us to one another won't strain and break so painfully.

And that's a good thing.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Wonders of Art

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a student about an experience I had a few years ago.

I had gone to a reading by an at-that-time relatively unknown writer, Jonathan Safran Foer. His first book, Everything is Illuminated had achieved relative success, and he was visiting his alma mater, Princeton, to read from his work-in-progress, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

He was glowingly introduced by his former advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, and we all settled in to listen.

It was about a child, a clever and precocious child. Right up my alley: I love children. But then, about a page into the reading, I felt a sinking sense of reluctance. It was clearly about a clever, precocious child, and it was pretty clear he had lost his father on 9/11 and that the plot would more or less revolve around that fact.

I was a little surprised that this was only revealed at the end of the reading and that, at that time, the audience gave a small gasp of shock--this news would involve rethinking everything they had assumed about the clever, precocious child, clearly.

I thought it had been a bit obvious from the beginning, and I left feeling disappointed with the reading in ways that I couldn't quite explain. It isn't that I object to novels about 9/11, but... as I said, I couldn't explain it.

It reminded me of the growing sense of discomfort I had previously experienced over the course of reading Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina.

If you haven't read it, I won't spoil it. All I will say is that 1) it is disturbing, if generally well written, and 2) the ending is beyond appalling.

After I told my story, my student suggested that I check out an article by Melvin Jules Bukiet entitled "Wonder Bread."

I was a bit relieved, to say the least. I thought I was the only pessimist out there who felt reluctant to use old-fashioned words like "hokey."  I thought I was the only one who was increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the word "victim" has been increasingly replaced with the sentimentality of the term "suvivor."

Don't get me wrong: I don't object to survivors in any form (except on reality-tv programs). But some events and circumstances are pretty horrific and not easily assimilable--if they ever are or can be.

I'm not sure we do anyone any favors by moving quickly to the notion of being "a survivor."

As Bukiet argues,
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.

Bukiet's argument reminds me of a 2007 New York Times article by Stephen King, "What Ails the Short Story." King notes,
Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."
Both Bukiet and King remind me of the work of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. In works such as The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu notes that, with the rise of capitalism, the market for art and culture has shifted radically.

In Shakespeare's time, for example, artists sought patronage. You had to write or paint or sing to please the king or queen. If you wanted to criticize the ruling powers, you had better be subtle and clever. If you wanted to say what you wanted to say, you had better find a way to do it without upseting too many of the people who might bankroll your work.

With capitalism, Bourdieu argues, the audience and the market for art splits. On the one hand, you can write, paint, sing, act or whatever for "the field of large-scale production." In simpler terms, this "field" is what used to be Oprah's book club: a mass-market audience where you make money on your art because a LOT of people buy it.

Or, Bourdieu argues, you can produce art for "the field of restricted production"--that is, the people-in-the-know. Other writers, critics, and intellectuals, in short.

The problem for the artist, Bourdieu notes, is the implicit but complete separation of the two spheres: if you write to sell, critics and other writers may assume you simply can't be very good.  After all, their entire livelihood is premised on the assumption that they can do or offer or appreciate something that "regular people" can't do or even appreciate.

If you produce art for artists, though, you risk never being able to make a living from your art. There are a limited number of endowments and grants, and competition for that share of the market is fierce.

I'm wondering (dangerous word, I know, but I can think of no other at this point) whether one of the consequences of this intersection is the kind of flattening of moral experience and the artistic self-consciousness that both Bukiet and King observe and decry.

In What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty, Arthur Kleinman notes that "Extraordinary experiences--the end of life, emergencies, extreme social conditions--concentrate the focus of ordinary men and women on what is most at stake for them."

If writers and artists exist to both inspire and amaze us--to show us the beauty and the horror of this concentrated focus so many of us experience--then we cannot afford to lose that concentration in an effort to feel better about ourselves, at any cost.

We cannot simply wonder.