27 March 2015

Anne Frank

There was a play last evening. My dear friend and colleague, Tami, directed a performance of the play And then they came for me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank. The play represents an account of the life of Eva Schloss and her family during the Holocaust. Schloss and her mother survived Birkenau, but her father and brother died on the forced march from Auschwitz days before its liberation. Eva became (by default and in Anne Frank’s absence) Anne’s stepsister—after the war Schloss’s mother married Otto Frank, the only member of that family to survive the Nazi horror.  Anne is a Jewish icon of no less prominence I think than Moses. Her diary has been and will continue to be read by millions of people speaking myriad tongues; she is the subject of countless academic and [inspirational] papers. She figures prominently as trope in Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer, in which Nathan Zuckerman fantasizes that the girl sleeping upstairs at the home of his hero is Anne Frank, and that they fall in love and he brings her home to his parents. “Look Mom, I have found the perfect Jewish girl.” What parent could criticize this choice for a bride? Ellen Feldman’s novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is an account of Peter Van Pels based on his relationship with Anne gleaned from the diaries, and speculating on the life he might have lived had he survived the camps. Anne is in the public eye continuously.
Chapter 19 of Deuteronomy begins with the ritual of the red heifer (a chukkat—a commandment without explanation or even rationale), and then the following chapters of the weekly portion tells the story of the failure of Moses, Aaron and Miriam to gain entrance to the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering. After all of those years in the wilderness—forty years— after all that they had suffered and endured, after all that time wandering, and after all that they had accomplished, Miriam, and Aaron and Moses are denied access to the Promised Land. First Miriam dies, and then Moses and Aaron are told that neither of them will be permitted to enter Israel. It is a long way to go, I think, without ever arriving. The Grateful Dead seem to speak to the experience of Moses, Aaron and Miriam when they sing, “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” Though we never hear Moses and Aaron and Miriam ever wonder when they are going to be there, they at least know that they are going somewhere. But to have traveled almost to the destination and then to be denied access to it, well, that just seems too ironic. I wonder how one defines a life that never arrives at a destination.  At the end of their lives, Moses, Miriam and Aaron will not sit comfortably by the pool and reminisce nostalgically about their lives; they will not say, ‘Well, it was tough going, but now, look, it was worth the trouble.” Indeed, only Aaron has anyone to pass things to—after his death, Aaron’s son, Eleazar, assumes the sacred vestments and the role of high priest. But, Miriam and Moses not only have no one to pass things on to, they have nothing to pass on. These three have struggled for the past forty years—Aaron and Miriam had never even lived in the palace and been raised as royalty¾and now, having come almost to the end, they are denied resolution, denied completion, denied final satisfaction. How can they answer to their lives?
            Robert Pirsig wrote that it was the sides of the mountain that sustained life, but that it was the peak that defined the sides. There must be some idea of an end to define the means. Ends do change, and means change along with the change of ends, but means and ends exist in a relationship. It is a cliché to say it is not the destination but the journey that is important. I think it is a cliché because unless we are headed somewhere, unless there is a destination, a peak to define the travels, well, then there is no journey but only aimless wandering. Perhaps it was this that led the people wandering in the wilderness to grumbling: oh, they might have known they were headed towards the Promised Land, but as do children, they immediately wanted to know “Are we almost there?” And they complained, “We’re hungry!” “I’m thirsty!” “Are we there yet?” “I have to go to the bathroom!” A failed journey is a journey that doesn’t arrive at a destination; not to arrive at the destination is to remain on a journey, but if you aren’t headed anywhere, then all the wandering is not a journey—it is just aimless wandering. For the hoboes, for Kerouac and the Beats, for the hippies of the 1960s, it wasn’t aimless wandering in which they engaged; it was the experience of the road. But after four hundred years of slavery, well, perhaps the Israelites could be excused for their abhorrence of the road and with their impatience to arrive. Aren’t we there yet?         
            I think often of Anne Frank, who, too, did not enter any promised land after spending twenty five months of wandering, albeit, in the sedentary confines of the Secret Annex. After 25 months in the Secret Annex, living a life in conditions so horrific that they exceed my capacity to comprehend, her life ended of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. We turn the page of the diary—ah, but we know the destination here—we read, “Anne’s diary ends here.” What was all of her suffering for, I asked myself. The incredible, almost inhuman discomfort, the perpetual terror of being discovered, the experience of an excruciating, horrible claustrophobia defies my ability to conceptualize it. That hiding which was supposed to be a journey, but where did it lead? What was it for? Only to exit into the stench of the camps and the horrible issue of smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria. When I consider Anne, my grief overwhelms me. How to answer for the twenty-five months journey in the Secret Annex? For what purpose? I remain dumb.

20 March 2015

Thinking aloud

Christopher Bollas defines the self not as a unitary entity but as a capacity: self is the capability of perceiving the self.  In this formulation, self becomes process. My self is unknowable but can only be experienced. Self cannot be immutable else what’s a heaven for? Were the self to be inflexible it would suffer unending frustration as the external world forever alters and education would be pointless. The same actions will rarely produce the same result.  In the encounter with objects ‘I’ becomes the question: who am I? what is that? who is that? what next? etc. Bollas states, “as we move through our life we do so as a personality, a unique set of evolving theories generating insights and new perspectives, but meeting up with experience that turns our self as theory increasing sets of questions.” The self in this sense is all possibility; in reflection self becomes but is never fully known. In reflection I become me, but the me I become is then a new theoretical construct; as the me moves the intellect raises new questions that continues to form the self that the intellect perceives. New questions arise from the theory.
     I have in the past considered that our Desire is unknowable, and we can know only its satisfactions: to know our desire would reduce it to mere appetite. I am not sure I would equate Desire to self, but perhaps that is a direction into which I am heading. Our desire, perhaps, is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower/That drives my green age . . .” Our experience is driven (?) by what Bollas refers to as ‘our idiom’: “the aesthetic of being that is driven by an urge for its articulation, its theory of form, by selecting and using objects so as to give [those objects] form.” I equate that ‘idiom’ with the force that drives the flower and that might be my Desire. That idiom is the force in me that demands expression, that requires some form and structure in order to be realized, and that seeks out in the world for those objects (or it makes such objects of that which it finds) with which I can play- establish relations and use that become psychic relations as well. I think the world contains illimitable objects for my use. Idiom starts as theory and becomes experience that develops new theory that inspires new experience. Bollas rhetorically asks that if an individual has “an appreciative sense of the self’s experiences, isn’t it likely that the organizer of such inner constellations will be unconsciously aware of introspective delight,” and continue to enjoy reflection and the pursuit of insight. Wouldn’t the pleasure of perceiving the self (and therefore of having a self) offer unconscious pleasure and inspire continuance. Objects chosen from the influences of my idiom possess their own integral form, and my use of them gives to those objects idiosyncratic form that leads to delight. I can go on. I want to go on. Going on is the pleasure. Where once was id—Desire—now there are objects. Bollas says that, “In play the subject releases the idiom of himself to the field of objects, where he is then transformed by the structure of that experience, and will bear the history of that encounter in the unconscious.” Thus, to be a character (not equivalent to being the self) is to “enjoy the risk of being processed by the object.” Since my engagement with actual objects is limited by space and time, and since I can carry about only my psychic relations to the objects to which I relate, then I understand my self when I recognize my participation in the world of objects.
      One of the places where I release my idiom into he world of objects is in writing. As I sit here trying to make sense of what is above I am content. And when I read books (not just any books, however, only ones to which my idiom leads me—and that idiom comes from somewhere—I am at play.

10 March 2015

Mithridates, he died old

I don’t remember in whose class exactly I first read the poetry of A.E. Housman, but I am looking now at the text that Henry Taylor assigned in the course Modern Poetry, and many of the poems by Housman are dotted and so I assume that mark means that they were assigned and that I must have read them, because I did read them all though I learned a few.
            I’m looking specifically at the poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” one of the poems I certainly learned. Terence, I believe, is the poet, and his friends berate him for the dolorous, depressing views of life expressed in his poetry: “It gives a chap a belly-ache” they moan! Pipe us a tune to dance to, Terence, and cease singing these dismal bits of poetry that are so sad that they even killed the cow to whom you first chanted them!
            But Terence responds: If is good cheer you want, friends, there are sources more appropriate than poetry, and liquor seems to Terence the most effective antidote to depression and despair.
            Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
            For fellows whom it hurts to think:
            Look into the pewter pot/
            To see the world as the world’s not.
Inebriated beyond consciousness, fallen drunk along the road, the world appears pleasant and hospitable until, alas, he awakens from his drunken stupor and realizes that the tale was all a lie: “The world, it was the old world yet,/I was I, my things were wet . . .” And so will begin another day. Some years later Samuel Beckett will have Pozzo pronounce something similar: “But¾but behind this veil of gentleness and peace night is charging and will burst upon us pop! Like that! just when we least expect it. That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”
            Terence advises his friends that though the world has much good, it possesses, in fact, much less good than ill, and that they would do well to live their life expecting and preparing for that ill rather than hoping for and awaiting the good. Of his poetry he cautions his friends, that “Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale/Is not so brisk a brew as ale . . . If the smack is sour, The better for the embittered hour.” We toughen ourselves with small doses of the bitter that we be not destroyed by it when it inevitably assails us! There was a king in the East, Terence says, who knew how easy it was to poison the food upon which the king would feast, and so each day with each meal the king would add a small portion of “all that springs to birth/From the many-venomed earth.” And as “they” added arsenic to his meat and strychnine to his cup, his would-be assassins sat aghast at the failure of their poisons to effect any harm at all. Indeed, they “shook to see him drink it up.” The king had made himself immune to the poisons by imbibing a bit of them every day. “I will tell the tale I’m told,” Terence says, “Mithridates, he died old.”
            I was sitting in my spin class this morning and Kathy was yelling at me to increase my pace by five RPMs and to raise my Watts by twenty percent, and was saying something about the lessons of adversity and pain, and I, weary and out of breath, spun my legs as fast (or as slow) as I could manage, and all I could think to say was that Mithridates, he died old. I pedaled harder, but only hard enough to inure me to the embitterment I would face outside. You see, I read the news today, oh boy!

05 March 2015

Burlington, Redux

I am in Burlington, Vermont. I was here several years ago when I was on sabbatical from the University and I was writing Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place. The Bed and Breakfast I booked this time is located just down the street from the cottage I stayed in then. (That cottage is referenced in Movement Four of the Symphony). I am here to visit my daughter who elected to stay here during her Spring Break, an irony par excellence, because the snow is piled feet high and the temperature remains below knee level. Three years ago I arrived in Burlington on a beautiful sunny February afternoon and during the first evening it snowed at least one foot. I am used to snow but I resent it following me about as I travel.
And today when I walked to town along the same route I traversed those years hence I remembered with great fondness—I enjoyed a calming warmth and satisfying joy—my meanderings in Burlington during that time when I walked these paths from the cottage to the town. Memories are, I know, imperfect, but I consider now whether feelings remain intact from their moments of origin, rise up from the unconscious until some protecting (or accusatory) superego suppresses them again. (So now as I look out of the window and see students walking the streets I envy their youths before I become aware of their angst). As Bartleby said, “I know where I am.” Phenomenologically speaking, what I feel I experience as real.

And when I sat down at Panera’s to await daughter’s arrival—she at work staffing  a Purim party at the Chabad daycare—I opened my email and found there a friend from the long ago past (that is not the same as the near or even yesterday past) whose reach across the country and the years gave me great joy. No, indeed, friendships are not really lost though they do sometimes as a result of life’s exigencies get put into storage. But when they are taken out, they are fresh again.
            Hello, still, David.

02 March 2015

On Hate, Part One

For any number of good reasons, I have been thinking a great deal lately about hate. As far as I can tell at this time, D.W. Winnicott began the work to remove from the concept ‘hate’ the negative aspects associated usually with it. I am exploring . . .
            My study starts in reality Jessica Benjamin offers as a definition of objects relations as “the psychic internalization and representation of interactions between self and object.”  If Freud suggested that development could be defined as the replacement of id by the ego, then Benjamin offers, “where ego is, objects must be.” We are the sum of our object relating and use.
            I do not know enough to elaborate with even slight sophistication at this point, but I do want to begin consideration: object relating results in certain alterations in the self ( the self here defined as a consciousness and an unconsciousness), and effects what is in psychology called a cathexis: a concentration of mental energy focused on another person, an object or even on aspects of the self. For example, I might consider my hypochondria a cathectic attachment. Object relations theory might offer that I relate to this rash, that pain, this twinge, that confluence of physical feelings, every slight change in my body by drawing it (them) within and assigning to them a cathectic charge: into symptoms that troubles me. I suspect that the hypochondria is a fear of death (Freud’s death principle enacted) but the hypochondria possesses an emotional charge, a cathexis, that gives it power over me and to an extent, sometimes small and sometimes large, controls my behavior.   
            Hate is mentalized anger, and in hate I destroy those objects to which I have been relating in my internal object world. But, when those objects survive my destruction, they become elements of reality and become objects that I can now use. To gain control over my intra-psychically charged symptoms would free up a great deal of time and energy for more interesting activity. The capacity to use objects becomes the work of psychotherapy, says Winnicott. But this process of object use seems to begin with the capacity to hate. Hate appears to be a developmental aggression in the service of separation. Hate, says psychotherapist Laurence Green, is self-delineating aggression, (I choose on what to aggress) and through our capacity to hate we give up our dependence on the other. I can cease relying on my hypochondria to control my thought and behavior in this world, and through hate I can begin to engage productively with colleagues rather than remain enraged at them from a comfortable distance. “Through the experience of hating we are able to relinquish the expectation that the person changes to meet our need.” Thus, having abandoned that demand, we can accept the other as separate, and we can begin to love—a topic I’ll save for another time. Hate is the energy of destruction that we use to break through our object (intra-psychic) world to engage in reality.
     In the classroom, then, do I hate my students, and do I teach my students to hate me?