05 January 2017


In the recent London Review of Books, I read an entry in article by Alan Bennett that was entitled “Diary,” that describes hyperthymesia as “a rare medical condition defined as being marked by ‘unusual autobiographical remembering.”  I am amused by the notion that autobiographical remembering might be considered “a rare medical condition.” As myself a hypochondriac, I suffer from several rare and not so rare medical conditions, and am always interested in discovering a new potential malady from which I might now or in the near future suffer, but hyperthymesia can be found in neither Dictionary.com or in the Oxford English Dictionary. Alphabetically the latter moves from hypersthenia—extreme or morbid excitement of the vital powers—to hyperthesis—in philosophy the transposition or metathesis of a letter from a particular syllable to the preceding or following syllable (a definition I don’t understand since the example offered appears in Greek). There are numerous other hypers- listed in the dictionary but not hyperthymesia. I do, however, find hyperthymesia on Wikipedia. There I read that “American neurobiologists Elizabeth Parker, Larry Cahill, and James McGaugh (2006) identified two defining characteristics of hyperthymesia: spending an excessive amount of time thinking about one's past, and displaying an extraordinary ability to recall specific events from one's past.” Why either of these characteristics might be considered a medical condition mystifies me.
     The question I want to consider first concerns the identification of hyperthymesia as a rare medical condition? Of course, controversy surrounds the diagnosis, with some arguing against the actuality of the condition and merely ascribing the ability to remember so much to a . . . well, to good memory skills. To those who ascribe hyperthymesia as a rare medical condition, hyperthymesiacs, they seem to have little control over their stream of memories and hence, can’t focus (nor function capably) in the present. This might suggest that the flow of memories occurs without provocation, as an unbroken and interminable narration of past events occurring without particular stimulation. Personally, I find this difficult to accept. Outside of an isolation chamber exists a world and no one knows exactly what it is in the individual’s world that might provoke any one thought from rising to the surface of an ever-moving stream (I think here of Proust and his madeleines), though one can, I think, understand the motive for the appearance of any one particular thought,¾Proust redux. But then, as Joyce and Freud taught us, that thought exists in a stream flowing seemingly without effort but affected by the complexities of the speed, location and depths of the waters and by that which lays immediately and subterraneously below the surface and the conditions of the atmosphere that sits above it, all of which factors influence the movement of the stream and raise to the surface of the stream’s movement any number of seemingly random thoughts which complicate its movement further.
     I might suggest that hyperthymesia consists in the capacity to recognize one’s personal past in everything in the world. Every object perceived recalls an object relation and use. Perhaps that in many cases this would become a heavy burden but hardly a rare medical condition. Were every event or appearance of an object to call up a former (and yet still active) object relation and even use would involve constant reflection and recognition of the personal past in the present. I suppose in such a case nothing would ever seem new, and all forms of surprise would exist not in the appearance of any object but in the connection that object would stimulate in recall. Little would appear as what it actually is in the present but rather, all focus would be on what the object might mean and from where that meaning derives, and that would (for hyperthymesiacs and for everyone else) necessarily always be defined autobiographically. We see really only what is meaningful individually to each of us. The past would always be somewhat present, and for some might represent a heavier burden than for others. Hyperthymesiacs might not be physically slumped over by the weight (though carrying the weight on one’s shoulders is a common cliché for such occurrences) but she might appear a bit distracted much of the time. Not whimsical but abstracted. I have known such people. I have been such people.
     Perhaps the “cure” for this “rare medical condition” might be the learned ability to forget. But I wonder how the art of forgetting might be learned. Torah says that when the people are settled in the land they should blot out the memory of Amalek and what he did to them on their journey out of Egypt, but then Torah immediately after cautions “Do not forget.” Does Torah mean do not forget to remember or do not forget to blot the memory which requires remembering. Perhaps hyperthymesia derives from Deuteronomy. This remembering and forgetting is a complex relationship. How to know what to remember and what to forget seems to me an impossible but common condition from which we all suffer.

23 December 2016

Jane Addams and Donald Trump

For my students the cliché “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it” remains true. Actually I think Santayana’s idea varies slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Every semester I collect and read final papers concerning at least educational history that espouse the sentiment expressed in the cliché in the hope that in their study they will avoid in their classrooms the repetitions of the mistakes and errors of the past. My students reject Stephen Daedalus’ plaint that “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Neither will they hold to the idea that, in fact, though human culture continues to develop, it does not necessarily learn, and our gross misunderstandings, pathological narcissisms, prejudices and over-prideful natures (to name only several unfavorable characteristics that come immediately to a mind up too early and ready to travel) do not cease to troublingly trouble our lives.
            In the chapter “Echoes of the Russian Revolution,” in her wonderful book Twenty Years at Hull-House (wonderful because her work reminds me that there are very, very good people in the world doing good work) she writes of the repercussions that troubled her community and all of Chicago from the fear aroused by the activities of Communists and anarchists associated with that event and the revolutionary activities then roiling Russia. Not that there hadn’t been trouble in Chicago before, but Hull-House begins (1889-90) two years or so after the Haymarket Riot. The public reaction to anarchism is exacerbated by the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo, New York by a professed anarchist, and Hull House is implicated because of its connection to its sympathetic relations with several prominent communists and anarchists. She had welcomed the representatives of these movements whose efforts did not conflict with those those of Hull-House though their methods might have differed. Addams writes, “Certain it is, as the distinguished revolutionists have come to Chicago they have impressed me , as no one else ever has done, as belonging to that noble company of martyrs who have ever and again poured forth blood that human progress might be advanced.” Addams own effort at Hull-House attempted to improve the state of the human condition by advocating for those without power and status in American society.
            Accused of collaboration with anarchists and communists, Addams received vilification, threat and hate mail from an ignorant press and public. She writes that the public response to the presence of the anarchists merely proved their argument: “. . . that this moment of panic revealed the truth of their theory of government; that the custodians of law and order have become the government itself quite as the armed men hired by the medieval guilds to protect them in the peaceful pursuit of their avocations through sheer possession of arms finally made themselves rulers of the city.” Might makes not right but asserts power and it derives from money.
            So here we are during the potential fascist reign of Donald Trump who campaigned on the vilification of an immigrant population, sowing fear and suspicion amidst an already uncertain public, and who then threatened to rid America of the ‘evil’ element represented by that immigrant population and particularly those of Muslim background. Exclude them! Throw them out! I read in The New York Times that “On Wednesday, [Trump] appeared to say that recent terror attacks in Europe had vindicated his campaign pledge to bar Muslims from entering the United States. Aides later said he was merely restating his promise to implement strict vetting and suspend the admission of people from countries associated with terrorism.” In either case, we are in for a very ugly time.
         And to this Addams has a response. Acknowledging that the assassination represented a horrible and senseless act, she writes, “I was firmly convinced that the public could only be be convicted of the blindness of its source, when a body of people with a hundredfold of the moral energy possessed by a Settlement group should make clear that there is no method by which any community can be guarded against sporadic efforts on the part of half-crazed, discouraged men, save by a sense of mutual right and securities which will include the veriest outcast.”  Only by actively living by our ideals and actively advocating for them will be secure our safety and our future. These words and sentiments seem completely foreign to the developing Trump administration and to the public that supports him. There is precedent: the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist Movement under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the development of the concurrent fascist regimes of Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini.

19 December 2016

19 December 2016

My reading seems these days to be directed exclusively by the despair I daily experience following the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Or perhaps I read with my despair and make the book speak to (or of) that anguish. In any case, the pall this debacle has cast over my life has led me to Conrad’s Lord Jim and led Lord Jim to me. In any case, Lord Jim suited my despair. Not that the novel has much direct connection to the recent political tragedy, but that its sensibility seemed apt to my own despondent sense of life in the wake of the event. Lord Jim is, at a minimum, the story of human frailty and weakness, and how this weakness manifests itself not overtly but, as Marlowe says, rather like a snake in the bush hiding. That snake though hidden is not less dangerous but is perhaps, moreso because unseen, who could know when, if, and where it might strike. In David Runciman’s recent article in the London Review of Books, entitled Is This How Democracy Ends, he argues that one response to the horror of the election might take form by the ‘adults in the room’ deciding to hunker down and wait out the storm. Trump is a child in the room throwing the tantrum, yet the other children in that same room might feel safe in the awareness that eventually the grown-ups will be around to pick-up the pieces. Runciman argues that people voted for Trump because they had faith in democracy to contain him. But to Runciman the danger that remains while the adults do hunker down and wait out the storm is that politics will atrophy and “the necessary change” to our institutions and our lives will be put off by the “overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse” that Trump’s election threatens. The danger is that while we try to keep the tanks off the streets nothing about change will be effected. The snake hidden remains poised and free to strike.
            It is Stein the German to whom I am drawn in the novel, Lord Jim. He has had to escape Europe as a result of his revolutionary activity and since become a successful trader in the East Indies. He has sent first Cornelius and then Jim to the trading post. As a hobby, Stein collects beetles and butterflies; in the book the characters of Cornelius, Chester and Brown the epitome of the former and Jim the exemplar of the latter. Cornelius, a beetle, “reminded one of everything that is unsavory.” Jim, however, “is a romantic . . . romantic. And that is very bad . . . Very good, too.” Stein acknowledges that we all aspire to be beautiful and fragile butterflies, attempting to find “a little heap” of dirt and to sit still upon the mud; but in fact, we are all beetles, crawling about slimily amidst the mud. None of us are good enough. “But man he will never on his heap of mud keep still. He want to be so, and again he want to be so . . . . He wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil—and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow—so fine as he can never be . . . . In a dream . . . .” Stein understands the futility of our romanticism. He says to Marlowe, “It is not good to find you cannot make your dream come true, for the reason that you not strong enough are, or not clever enough . . . . And all the time you are such a fine fellow, too!” Stein punctures the romanticism as a result of which Jim is eventually destroyed. Even Stein had so suffered. He says to Marlowe, “Do you know how many opportunities I let escape, how many dreams I had that come in my way?” We are mortal and flawed. We are beetles pretending too often to be butterflies. And today we are led by the grossest of beetles.
            I don’t know . . . I perhaps am not such a fine fellow—a beetle perhaps like the rest, though I maintain illusions. But perhaps I am good enough. I had illusions, indeed, even yet hold onto a great many of them . . . but the election of Trump has cast a great pall over most of them. Stein says that one drowns by fighting to climb up out of the turbulence; rather, one must submit to the destructive element and then use your hands and feet in the “deep, deep sea keep you up.” The latter description reminds me of Primo Levi’s assertion that to follow the rules in the camp was to drown. To survive Levi said that one had to learn how to be a beetle and reject the whole notion that humans were butterflies. But by becoming the beetle Levi lived somehow to metamorphose into a butterfly.
        David Runciman suggests that now is the time to mobilize and not to hunker down. And I am reading Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House. She says that if the Settlement is to seek its expression through social activity, it must learn the difference between mere social unrest and spiritual impulse.” It is the latter with which I struggle: how to give substance to that spiritual impulse in this age of Trump. I would not be murdered for my romanticism, but I cannot abandon all hope who must enter here.

09 December 2016

Is This the Fast I Demanded? Isaiah asks.

Every day it gets worse. Every morning I awaken to a world that will be run by at best amateurs but at worst incompetents. And I read somewhere—I can’t seem to stop the banner announcements flashing regularly across my iPhone concerning his tweets and his visitors and his business ethics and his sexual predations. And his appointments. And it seems she is back: Sarah Palin’s name has been put forward as possible head of the Veterans’ Administration. Another figure little government service—she quit her governorship in Alaska because . . .? Well, that is an unanswered question, really. And it isn’t even inauguration day. I despair. I think of the bleak world of Orwell’s 1984 and I think it is here.
     For HUD a man who has never had the responsibility of running an agency of any size and probably thinks HUD is the name of a movie with Paul Newman. For the head of the EPA a man who denies the work of scientists from a variety of disciplines and is prepared to destroy what is left of the environment. For the Secretary of Labor a man who hates workers, which makes him a perfect selection for Trump because he hates workers too, especially if they are in a labor union. For Secretary of the Treasury a Wall Street crony—so much for draining the swamp. For Secretary of Education a woman who is prepared to destroy public education. And as a candidate for Secretary of State we are presented with a man who in the bed of his mistress gave away classified information—and who pleaded guilty to the deed. But it is Hillary whom they want locked up. The other potential candidate had been Rudolph Giulani who was earning millions of dollars giving speeches to elite organizations and foreign countries while Trump made her speeches the centerpiece of his disgusting campaign. AS Chief of Staff Steve Bannon, a racist, anti-Semite and misogynist, and for Press Secretary Reince Priebus, the head of the RNC that couldn’t stop Donald Trump despite everyone’s awareness of his incompetence. And as President a man who boasts that he grabs women and doesn't pay taxes and has no interest in relinquishing his ties to his own business interests. And understands no conflict of interest in this decision.
     Piece by piece Donald Trump and his heinous crew are dismantling the United States of America. I don't now if it is Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker" or his "Waiting for a Miracle" that names this moment.