Thursday, January 29, 2009
Here's the question I've been pondering this week:
How often does a Super Bowl pit two QBs on the verge of legend-dom against each other, so that (barring an injury that would take one of them out of the game and assuming they play well enough to deserve most of the credit they will get if they win) if either team wins we'll be talking about a new member of the "greatest NFL QBs ever" conversation come Monday?
As it stands, Roethlisberger is a wunderkind, having gone a ridiculous 51-20 during the regular season and 7-2 in the postseason in his 4 season in the league. Add to that the record-breaking start to his career and that Super Bowl victory in his 2nd season and to win a 2nd title - in a measly 4 years in the league! - will elevate him into the upper echelon of QBs, even if he doesn't yet possess the game-changing ability of a (P.) Manning or Brady.
Warner has taken a different path, but one no less amazing. The former Arena League standout and grocery guy has out-of-this-world passing yards and would, with a win on Sunday, provide an exclamatory bookend to his career, placing the 2008 Cardinals next to the 1999 Rams. Winning two titles 9 years apart, with two different teams, both massive underdogs during most of the season? That guy would be a legend as well.
For the purpose of this argument, I will exclude QBs who are looking for their first Super Bowl win (like Elway in '97) even if that win would somehow validate their career.
Super Bowl X - Terry Bradshaw (who had won IX the year before) facing off against Roger Staubach (who had won VI)
Super Bowl XIII - Bradshaw vs. Staubach deux
Super Bowl XVIII - Jim Plunkett (who won XV) vs. Joe Theismann (who won XVII)
To that we might add the following other close parallels (ignoring the criterion of having already won one):
XXIV - Montana (with 3 wins in his pocket) vs. Elway (appearing in his 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years)
XXVIII - Aikman (gunning for the repeat) vs. Kelly (appearing in his 4th straight Super Bowl)
XXXII - Elway (4th Super Bowl appearance) vs. Favre (gunning for the repeat)
Come Sunday night, we'll see who's left standing, and - if the Steelers win - if Roethlisberger puts together a game to elevate him into Bradshaw/Montana/Brady conversation or "merely does enough to win," as if he were a doubly-miraculous version of Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson.
But for the first time in 25 years we'll be guaranteed to welcome a new member into the elite club who have won more than one Super Bowl.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Still, sometimes you just have to wonder about things like this.
It is a shame, of course, that jokes about horns, winds, brass, or other appropriate jokes are not part of CNN's reporting. At least, that's a shame for me.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
In Israel, most of my private conversations are in English.
But public discourse - in class, supermarkets, cabs/busses, et c. - takes place in Hebrew.
In spite of the significant amount of Hebrew exposure I'm getting in Israel, coming back to the US was not jarring for me in terms of private conversations. Rather, it was the public spaces where I felt most ill-at-east - needing to remind myself, again and again, in a supermarket to ask for the aluminum tins and not the חד-פעמי stuff, et c.
This begins, I think, to outline the substantive differences between life in Israel and life back home.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
For the time being, I direct people back to the post that began this blog, written a few hours after Obama gave his victory speech on Wednesday morning (in Jerusalem), November 5.
In the article, Verducci includes this wonderful tidbit:
Who are the three former Cardinals that have plaques in Monument Park?
Hint: Trick question? It is and it isn't.
Answer is here.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
I first developed my fear of flying in high school, I think while thinking too much during many flights by myself to USY events and to see camp friends. It got worse during college, highlighted by two sketchy-as-hell flights. Then came 9/11, and the crash of Flight 587 over Queens. I stopped flying for four-and-a-half years, and began again, reluctantly, over Presidents' Day Weekend in February of '06. I've been coping with it ever since. Thursday was a pretty good day; the week before less so. But the story here is about the flight experience.
At Ben-Gurion, pre-flight, two interesting notes:
- I had neglected to renew my 3-month tourist visa when it expired in early December, and was prepared for pretty much anything (which I imagined might consist of some haggling and/or a fine) as I approached passport control. The woman who was processing my passport began the expected haggling, then called over a supervisor. The supervisor asks me what I'm doing in Israel, and about 2 seconds into my response (in Hebrew), she turns to the processor and says "אנחנו לא מעכבים יהודיים. תשחררי אותו." - We don't stop Jews; let him go. And there I went, feeling a tad awkward about benefiting from racism but not complaining. (Not sure if this is, as it were, written policy that others [or me] could use in the future לכתחילה, but it was sure nice.)
- Less than three minutes after I pass through security, I get a text message on my Israeli cell-phone, from סלקום, advertising cheap rates to call Israel from חו"ל - big brother knew I was leaving the country. Eerie.
On the plane I was treated to the sickest on-demand entertainment opportunities I've ever seen, including the normal variety of games and the following sick movies (a selection of the 300+):
- Matrix trilogy
- X-Men trilogy
- Godfather trilogy
- Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Back to the Future
- Fight Club
- Spider Man 1 and 2
- The Wire
- Six Feet Under
- Big Bang Theory
- Grey's Anatomy
From the first flight I took after my four-and-a-half year break, in '06, I've been awed by the stunning beauty of the views from above.
On the flight from Tel Aviv to New York, I was treated to a lot of clouds, but also glimpses of breathtaking geography: the rocky crags of Southeast Europe; industrial zones of Germany; agricultural fields and massive wind turbines of the Netherlands; rolling grass-covered hills of northern England or Scotland; Quebec's glaciers and ice-covered mountains; shelves of ice hanging on the Atlantic Coast. Add to that the magnificent clouds, occasionally truffula grass rolling like cotton candy, or gossamer strands of loose fibers, or appearing as elevated versions of the ocean itself, waves of white interrupting flat, calm sheets. As we were landing, the setting sun projected a faint rainbow in the translucent clouds. Stunningly beautiful.
Upon our final descent, seconds before we touched down, I was reintroduced to the America I know so well: IKEA, Babies 'R' Us, and Toys 'R' Us across from the airport. What a classic first glimpse of America to our visitors from abroad. During the two hours I spent in the SuperShuttle winding my way, painfully slowly, towards Annie and Emily's apartment next to JTS, the sheer weight of our consumer economy rose up around me, from the redesigned Duane Reade facades to the familiar Hot & Crusty, Dunkin' Donuts, and more.
If I could only figure out why cell phones are banned between passport control and customs in Newark (a process that could easily take 30 minutes as you wait for your luggage), I'd feel pretty good about the whole process.
In the US through January 25th, will try to keep up the recent rhythm of posting.
- What makes Jobs different from other CEOs? Company founders? Innovators? Successful culture-builders?
- Does anyone in the world of business - today or historically - compare to Jobs on this front?
- Is Jobs's irreplace-ability, as it were, about the job Jobs does? Or about Jobs himself? Is it good? bad?
What I'm getting at here - at least the thing that interests me - is about exceptional leadership and its transmission over time, about freaks of nature, about sustainability of greatness.
Friday, January 16, 2009
From those horrific insects that wrap themselves around Chekhov's cerebral cortex to the concept of a Genesis device to the introduction of the Kobiyashi Maru sequence (the inspiration for one of my favorite Star Trek novels), this is a movie full of sci-fi awesomeness. It is, I believe, the blueprint upon which the other great Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country is based, complete with a worthy nemesis quoting classical literature (Shakespeare in VI, Melville in II). And both grapple with Kirk as Peter Pan, reluctantly aging. And, if the script I found on-line is true (though I don't remember it this way), both end with Kirk quoting Peter Pan - from which I've developed one of my favorite rhetorical set-pieces.
While others will remember Montalban for different roles and for his trailblazing work on behalf of and as a Latino actor, I'll remember him for helping to resurrect a franchise that looked dead after (Motion Picture - for good reason).
Rest in peace.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Recently, however, I've heard/read the same answer to one of the most intractable Gordian Knots (yes, that was redundant) in two different places over the past few weeks, so let's expand on it a bit.
The problem is explaining Israel's relationship with the outside world. The answer, offered by Newsweek this past week and current חייל בודד Bombs over Maghdad during a late-Friday night conversation a few weeks back, is one word: freiers.
Newsweek takes the Holocaust approach - not unreasonably. BoM took a general cultural approach, arguing that nothing is worse for your street cred in Israel than being seen as a freier - sucker. This goes beyond Barak balking in 2000, helps explain the disproportionate response in Gaza, and might explain why Sadat got killed (he was Egyptian, not Israeli, but seemed to be operating under the same paradigm).
What is perhaps most interesting to me (and, perhaps, belongs in the academically irrelevant category - which might be why I like it) is the extent to which this freierphobia (let's see if that word can catch on better than שבולימ"ה) helps explain Israel's relationship with America and American Jews. If they rely on us to much, they're פריירים in their own eyes. Because we spend money like we control the world's journalistic, entertainment, and political apparatuses (hey - stereotypes are based on something, no?) and support Israel even against its better interests, they see us as פריירים too - and we have no credibility in their eyes.
The next time I can't figure out why Israel or Israelis are doing something, I'm going to try the freier hypothesis and see where it takes me - you should too (or would that make you a פרייר?).
Tonight (and for these things I need a camera phone) I saw the following headline on a number of bulletin boards at Hebrew U.:
Is Canadian Literature Post-national?The question, of course, is the title of what promises to be an inane academic lecture, and this headline belongs next to the dictionary entry for "ivory tower irrelevancy."
I mean no offense to my Canadian friends (Dr. Dre, DMG, Uncle Mordy, and the legends of the late '90s צוות אגם at CRW [and Dana Mahone]), but the question either assumes (as most Americans have been claiming for years) that Canada has no national identity of its own (and, therefore, can have a national post-national literature) or that the identity is such a meaningless hodgepodge of other identities that it practically has no national identity of its own to begin with.
I'll take the American dream, a vision into which hundreds of ethnicities can filter their prior identities and experiences, only to see a richer, deeper, more compelling, but inherently American product emerge.
Then, hours after reading that article, I read this, which reeks of, well, racism, pig-headedness, and stupidity. Let's hope the Supreme Court, as the article predicts, gets it right, and let's hope these CEC fools get thrown out on their moronic asses.
What perplexes me hit home while I was flipping through SI.com's slideshow of the inductees who received the greatest percentage of votes in the history of the hall. To which I ask the following questions?
Was Tom Seaver the greatest player ever?
Who didn't vote for Cobb, Ruth, or Wagner?
What racists didn't vote for Aaron?
Ripken over Ruth?!
Brett over Aaron AND Ruth?!
Schmidt and Gwynn over Ruth?!
Similarly, Posnanski's analysis of Henderson's qualifications blew my mind - I just don't get how anyone could not vote for this guy.
Now let's imagine what these guys do with today's greats, even excluding those ravaged by injury (Griffey) and tainted by steroids (McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, Bonds). How do you not vote for Maddux? Pujols (assuming future good health and maintaining his sick consistency)? Rodriguez? Mind-boggling.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I thought of Stewart's standard when my iTunes (on shuffle) landed a remarkable poem I had never before encountered last Monday afternoon as I was working at Hebrew U. The poem, "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell, is as raw and sensual as any I've ever read. Thinking at first that I was listening to a poem that was ostensibly about something else but with a strong undercurrent of sexuality, I began paying close attention only for the brunt of the poem's lyrical message to smack me across the face.
The poem, which you can read here (it's fascinating, by the way, to encounter other under-the-radar bloggers through google searches and search around a little bit in their on-line lives) is a wowzer - fresh, vivid, and lyrical.
Now, as to its possibly pornographic nature, I'll weigh in with a "no." Although I'm not sure I'm capable of acknowledging anything, at this point in my life (at least), as "obscene."
As for phenomenal poetry? I know it when I hear it.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Before Shulman spoke, in the closing session of the IARJE's conference on Multiple Identities in Jewish Education, Annette Hochstein, the President of the Mandel Foundation-Israel, spoke movingly about the individual to whom the session was dedicated, Prof. Seymour Fox זצ"ל. In what appeared to me to be a word-for-word translation of the English version she delivered at JTS last year (in a conference wholly devoted to Fox's memory), Hochstein painted a moving picture of Fox's uncanny ability to make whomever he was speaking with feel as if they were the center of the world, while simultaneously (depicted in a wholly positive light by Hochstein) pushing his own agenda about educational research, practice, and innovation. Fox was larger than life - Hochstein's premise was answering the question "How did this man accomplish so much in one lifetime?" - and the nods and murmurs around the room were testaments to his reach and impact. I wrote about Fox for a "Yom Shishi Thought" for the Wexner Graduate Fellows shortly after the conference at JTS:
I spent the better part of Sunday and Monday at a conference in memory of the greatest Jewish educator of the last sixty years, Seymour Fox (ז"ל). It was my first conference as a graduate student, and I thoroughly enjoyed the collegiality that permeated the meeting for doctoral students in Jewish education; the level of discourse in presentations by established and rising stars in the field; and a sense that I, too, get to find my place and make my way through this world. But most of all, I missed Seymour, whom I never met, and in whose gigantic institutional, philosophical, and visionary shadow I hope to make my mark.
The organizer of the conference made it quite clear in his introductory remarks: save one session of reminiscences by four of Fox's close friends and colleagues, this was not to be a conference about the man as much as it was supposed to focus on areas of scholarship that lie at the center of Fox's powerful legacy. Fortunately, for me at least, the same organizer pointed out, in his concluding remarks, how wrong he was. Each and every presentation, from the sublime clarity and fresh agenda of the reigning dean of the world of teaching and learning, to the passionate presentation of Fox's most intimate and enduring collaborator (that I am quite sure most of the audience dismissed as out of their league), began with an anecdote (or three) about Fox, and proceeded to embody parts of his personality: his energy, his humor, his Judaism, his scholarship, his inquisitiveness, his rigor, or – in a few lucky instances – all of these and much more.
Fox blazed a trail in the world of Jewish education we cannot hope to repeat. His work in the Ramah movement, at the University of Chicago, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Hebrew University, and with the emerging powers of both the Melton and Mandel Foundations created key infrastructure and developed crucial research paradigms. Most impressively, however, he worked tirelessly to cultivate no less than three generations of successors, often possessing an uncanny ability – clearly rooted in his own remarkable talents and unwavering commitment to the Jewish people – to convert people to his cause, Jewish education.
At this time of year, in particular, I am anxious about living up to our predecessors' standards. We move into the twilight of the semester, and I wonder if I am worthy of contributing in a way that matches up favorably with those whose work preceded me. As we read of his first wanderings in this week's parashah, I internalize Ya'akov's existential angst (How can I possibly live up to my grandfather's example? Will I be able to pass the torch to my own children?). In light of all this, and as a living testament to a man whose exercising of leadership we all will miss in the coming decades, I ask that we consider the challenge that Seymour Fox and his generation have left us, and that we also gain strength from Fox and others' example of how exactly to blaze new trails, to inspire others, and to do the holy work to which we have committed ourselves.
Now for summarizing Shulman's message, clearly grounded in what I understand to be his second great contribution to the field of education (after the introduction of the notion of "pedagogical content knowledge" as the "missing paradigm" in his famous 1986 article in Education Researcher): the notion of professional identities as consisting of "habits of the mind [cognitive], hand [practical], and heart [ethical]." This notion has been at the core of the Carnegie Foundation's (of which Shulman is the President Emeritus) "Preparation for the Professions Project" (PPP), a comparative study of professional education in a variety of fields, including medicine, nursing, law, education, ph.d. programs, clergy, and more.
After a number of illustrative anecdotes, Shulman began with the first of three claims he was hoping to make: identity consists of more than a sense of self and belonging, and this larger sense of definition includes the thinking [cognitive], the doing [practical], and the feeling [ethical] of professional identities.
Shulman made the compelling etymological observation, that professions involve the act of professing - a profession means sharing a set body of values and commitments that professionals profess (excuse the circular logic, but I think you get my point). Identity, then, is not something as "simple" as a collection of all our communal affiliations (Jewish, American, of generation Y, et c.) - however complex that definition of identity might be - but rather a representation of how we think, act, and feel in the world. Our identity, then, is not just shaped by the lenses through which we see the world, through which we examine and interpret texts - it is also the person who lived through the journey to those specific lenses.
Which moves us into Shulman's second claim, that it is a colossal mistake to view the notion of "multiple identities" as he thinks (and I think he's right, to a certain extent) we do, as "an absence of unity," "a burden" to be tolerated and suffer through. Rather, Shulman suggests - and here he relies on the richly diverse intellectual notions of bricolage (Levi-Strauss), "remix culture" (Brown), and the "eclectic arts" (Schwab) - that multiple identities are a capacity and a virtue (within limits); that the creation of multiple identities should be an educational goal.
Therefore - and here is Shulman's third claim - we must begin working on "pedagogies of multiple identity formation," because such an educational goal should not be left to chance for its own development.
Identities, then, like intelligences (in Gardner's theory) can be utilized in complementary ways, as we develop different types of identities in students and encourage them to use different ones at different times. Thus - as in Gardner's theory (which Shulman claimed he disagreed with but then utilized anecdotally not twenty minutes later - would love to sit with him and work that one out) - we are acknowledging the existence of something in the hopes that we can turn the accidental outcome of life into an intentional potential of our educational models.
Shulman caught my attention with these three claims; his riffs during the rest of the presentation were pure academically educational ecstasy.
- Mentorship no longer exists the way it used to in the professions. Instead of a one-on-one relationship between a teacher and a student, we now have a reciprocal and multi-directional experience. That experience, then, leads towards the development of multiple identities - of different people we hear in our heads when we ask ourselves (what would my mentor do in this situation?). Those assumed identities (of your first boss, favorite professor, best friend) work well together; wearing them at once or switching between them freely is decidedly not a burden, but a toolbox from which to choose.
- To have but a single identity is to be bound to that identity, to lose autonomy. Therefore, embracing multiple identities allows us to grow, to choose, to build one off the other.
- This one is mine, inspired by Lee: singular identities means every situation is either a win or a loss; it either benefits or detracts from your existing self and that self's claims. Multiple identities allows many more winning situations, as we play with multiple variables at once. What's the נפקא מינה for this? Well, for me, it's all about the mistake of using the marriage-identity as the predominant variable of success or failure in Jewish education. If we assume that this tribal, partnering identity is paramount (or singular), then we exist in a win-or-lost situation, and are therefore forced to make absurd and unnecessary conclusions. Rather, the adoption of a multiple identity (and, therefore, multiple spectra) model of outcomes means that we can acknowledge the positive and the impactful in all that we have done. (Same goes for people who insist on voting for so-called "pro-Israel" candidates, with no care as to what other horrific things they stand for ....)
- Borrowing from Miriam Ben-Peretz's notion of "Curriculum Potential," Shulman suggests a language of "identity potential," whereby multiple identities can potentially flower into a diverse tree-like complexity, as opposed to converging in "identity monoliths."
- What are some models in this approach? Medical, nursing, and Ph.D. programs, whereby mentorship exists across multiple people at different stages. Additionally, these programs (well, especially medicine and nursing) highligh the repetition of practice, which is how we form Shulman's "habits" in the first place. (N.B.: This matches up nicely with Gladwell's idea in Outliers of the 10,000 hour rule - the difference between successful expert and unsuccessful novice is 10,000 hours of practice.)
- The principles for effective habit formation (and I apologize for not getting down the source on this one - this language is not Shulman's): enactment (the vision must be enacted into a reality); embodiment (the mentors must embody an holistic sense of the vision); and dailyness (a + b must happen on a daily basis).
- Thus, following Merton, Shulman argues against the search for a unified theory of Jewish identity (which Alan Hoffman had suggested should be our goal) but, rather, for "middle range theory," little theories that need not coalesce together under one umbrella or another that each helps to explain and push forward our thinking.
As Sharon Feiman-Nemser (increasingly one of those voices in my head to whom I turn to ask "What would Sharon do?") likes to say (and said last night): this was generative.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Lucky for me, I noticed the following piece on SI that linked back to a Slate article by Bill James. James, properly identified as "the grandfather of sabermetrics," puts forward an intelligent and compelling argument for inciting a statisticians' boycott of the preposterous BCS.
The argument speaks to the basic fairness of an ideal sports climate, one that, for better or worse, is replicated, as far as I can tell, in NCAA Baseball and Basketball for Division I-A and in football for the lower divisions. And the NFL. Note, here, the "for better or worse" - nothing's perfect. But the BCS is all about lunacy - and one that pretends to use statistics in an objective way that actually play no helpful role. Such was the fundamental shift James caused in baseball - the introduction of helpful statistics.
Doubt I'm gonna stay up tonight to watch the game - just not that interesting.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
This morning, Nina Schneider, whose family I count among my dear friends, had an editorial published in the "Other Voices" section of the Cincinnati Enquirer. She's in 11th grade. Nivo '08 represent.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Monday, January 5, 2009
This piece of sick analysis and cultural commentary from 538 might be even more eye-opening.
So-called "trivial knowledge" is only trivial if it doesn't relate to something you care about. If you think this is trivial, you don't have a soul.
This one reminds me of an all-time classic West Wing episode (but which ones from the first four seasons weren't?).
This is the kind of Torah one needs to learn before שבת.
Makes me itchy.
1. I tried, as the war was beginning, to imagine a reasonable argument against the Israeli decision to retaliate. Needless to say, the thought experiment failed, and even my awesomely left-wing Skinny Mama of my Favorite (or Fat) Baby put it: I hate the cycle of violence, but I can't blame the Israelis for retaliating, and I don't know how to end the cycle. Agreed.
2. I spent the Shabbat with a חיל בודד, the legendary Bombs over Maghdad, who can probably still give Napoleon a run for being Napoleonic. In the midst of an intense (and highly rewarding) conversation about Israel and Israel education late Friday night, he opined that anyone who believes in a two-state solution must support what Israel is doing now in Gaza. Why? Because a two-state solution requires peace between the two states, and the rocket attacks on the Negev are not on territory inside '49's green line (Sharon helped to make sure of that by pulling out of those territories in Gaza). In other words, save the unilateral abandonment of the Gazan economy (and the not insignificant mistreatment of the former residents of גוש קטיף), Hamas theoretically has what the international community says it should have: control over its own territory. Attacking Israel - and especially Israel proper - from within that territory should be treated as an act of war. There's no two state solution if you only want one state, sans so-called Zionists.
3. What scares the most is Barak's statement that the ground incursion into Gaza (which currently appears to be attempting the impossible: to teach the Israeli public about fractions - first dividing Gaza into two, now three sections) will not be short. I would assume that the IDF would take the successful approaches of Gulf Wars I and II - a quick, overwhelming military strike followed by an equally quick retreat. No one wants to end up in a long-term ground war with guerrilla terrorists that we can't win.
My hope is that Barak said this only to lower expectations of a quick withdrawal, so as to make people like him even more when he pulls troops out before we all think he will.
4. The whole Wag the Dog approach is a frightening one, but I don't think it's real. Yes, Livni and Barak have what to gain from a successful, short-lived, low-casualty, high-upside military action, but the odds of those four criteria being met are quite slim, and we all know who wins elections in the middle of Palestinian uprisings and suicide bombings (see: Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon). More importantly, this wasn't a created war, this was retaliation that should have happened weeks ago.
5. Jerusalem is tense, and though I can't put my figure on how, the tension is affecting me. You wonder when the first פיגוע will take place, and where, and how much Israel has learned from the Second Intifada in order to prevent attacks.
6. Every Israeli army veteran is just waiting for the call that he's been called up - not a fun way to live your life, I imagine.
Today I was informed that one of my professors, who will be speaking at JTS next week, had planned to have one of his doctoral students lecture next week but it seems like the student will be in the צבא.
Eight years ago next month, I moved to קיבוץ סעד. There, I took a picture of a plane flying over us as it was landing in the Gaza airport. There, we used to often frequent the Subway across the street run by מושב כפר עזה. Probably too tasteless, but I think they should have found a way to market "רצועות כפר עזה" - chicken or beef.
Political messages must be sent, and the current support of the world (especially parts of the Arab world and the E.U.) are astounding. (Unprecedented?) I still wish innocent or good people on both sides did not have to die or be maimed in the process.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
This book is a good read, and I've excerpted four sections below, which I think are worth reading (because they're smart or funny, though not necessarily both).
Jamison spends the book utilizing the many famous poets, artists, and literary figures whom are either known to have or she believes to have had manic-depressive illness to articulate the symptoms of the disease and its expression. She notes the highs followed by the lows, the mild highs known as cyclothymia, the seasonal fluctuations, and more. Later on in the book she examines in a more focused way certain individuals' biographies and the familial (i.e., genetic) preponderance of the disease in certain notable artistic families. Over and over again she reminds us of the characteristics of manic-depressive illness, which can involve significant periods of time in between manic highs and depressed lows; it is most often the crests into full-blown mania which are the most fruitful periods in her artists' lives. The number of famous authors identified in her appendix as being likely sufferers of manic-depression or its related milder disorders is absolutely stunning - pretty much a comprehensive who's who list of poets, authors, artists, and composers. In the last chapter Jamison raises the questions about gene therapies and the possible eradication of the disease - some great quotations from other scholars deeply embedded in thinking about mapping the genome and its possible consequences.
The book left me with the following questions:
- What is our explanation for similar artistic creativity without the presence of manic-depression? Does such a creativity even exist? If so, is it a wholly different creativity, or the same, and the two are often related, but not always?
- Can you be an artistic genius and not be mad?
- Why aren't all mad people geniuses? Or are they, but some have their genius hidden by circumstances of their life or illness?
Now, for the excerpts:
In the fourth chapter, Jamison, describing the relationship between imagination and temperment, includes the following gems, brilliant by themselves and quite powerful in their juxtaposition (pg. 128):
Samuel Clemens, who described his own 'periodical and sudden changes of mood ... from deep melancholy to half-insane tempests and cyclones,' observed that the 'secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow,' reiterating years later that 'there is no humor in heaven.' The simultaneous existence and shared residence of such opposite moods and feelings is well-illustrated by Franz Schubert's assertion that whenever he sat down to write songs of love he wrote songs of pain, and whenever he sat down to write songs of pain he wrote songs of love. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, observed: 'The beauty of the world ... has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.' The ability to reconcile such opposite states, whether they are of mood, thought, or vitality, is a critical part of any creative act.Jamison devoids an entire chapter to the disease and genius of George Gordon, Lord Byron, including this amazing anecdote (pg. 168-169):
Life never remained entirely bleak for Byron, however. In fall 1807, having been told that regulations would not allow him to keep his dog at Cambridge, he acquired a tame bear - there being no rule forbidding bears - and housed it in the turret of his college rooms. His pleasure in the bear, which he walked through the streets of Cambridge, was obvious: 'I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear, when I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was "he should sit for a Fellowship ...." This answer delighted them not.' Byron and the bear, when later reunited at Newstead Abbey, would occasionally swim together in a vault leading to the graves of the monks who had previously inhabited the Byron ancestral home; along with other animals, the bear was kept in the family chapel, a thirteenth-century converted Chapter House. Byron had inherited his father's love for animals - in addition, as Doris Langley Moore has pointed out, to their shared capacity for incurring debt, as well as probable incest with their respective sisters ....In concluding her chapter on Byron, Jamison makes one of her crucial points - the association of artistic imagination and talent with manic-depression should not limit or obscure the greatness of that talent (pg. 190):
One of the many things that makes Byron so interesting is the sheer power of his life and emotion. To focus exclusively, or even largely, on his psychopathology - other than ot use it to understand him and his work - would be to make a mockery of his complexity, imagination, and vast energies. His personal discipline was extraordinary; his technical discipline, although overshadowed by the more Romantic notion of effortless poetry written 'as easily as the hawk flies' (and not helped by the fact that he seems to have published, with little discrimination, virtually everything he ever wrote) was also impressive. ... 'His reason was punctuated, even disturbed, by passion,' wrote Alan Bold. 'But whatever he was in person he was not, as an artist, passion's slave. In the poetry Byron masks his passion and makes it into endurable art.' Byron himself wrote: 'Yet, see, he mastereth himself, and makes/His torture tributary to his will.'Finally, by way of excerpts, Jamison, in her discussion of "Medicine and the Arts," reasons thusly as she questions the possible outcomes of genetic engineering or selective abortion as a way of removing manic-depression from the diseases of humanity (pg. 254-255):
The historical precedent is chilling. Tens of thousands of mentally ill individuals, including many with manic-depressive illness, were sterilized or killed during the Third Reich, and many other thousands of psychiatric patients were sterilizd earlier this century [i.e., the 20th] in the United States. Ironically, one study carried out in Germany during the 1930s addressed the advisability of forced sterilization of individuals with manic-depressive illness. The author, who found that manic-depressive illness was greatly overrepresented in the professional and higher occupational classes, recommended against sterilization of these patients 'especially if the patient does not have siblings who could transmit the positive aspects of the genetic heritage.' During the 1940s, in a study undertaken by the Committee on Heredity and Eugenics, researchers at the McLean Hospital in Boston studied the pedigrees of several socially prominent American families. They came to a similar conclusion: 'Perhaps the words of Bumke need to be taken into account before we embark too whole-heartedly on any sterilization program, "If we could extinguish the sufferers from manic-depressive psychosis from the world, we would at the same time deprive ourselves of an immeasurable amount of the accomplished and good, of color and warmth, of spirit and freshness." Finally, only dried up bureaucrats and schizophrenics would be left. Here I must say that I would rather accept into the bargain the diseased manic-depressives than to give up the healthy individuals of the same heredity cycle.'This disease is real, it is debilitating, and it sucks. But it is difficult, especially after Jamison's reasoned work, to not accept the gifts it gives to the world, most notably in the form of artistic genius, and most helpfully in the form of those blessed to reap its benefits while being spared its sharp (and too-often suicide-inducing) poison.
To say it differently: I find it hard (to say the least) to ignore the one guy in Germany of the '30's arguing to keep people alive.
Friday, January 2, 2009
That being said, I finished the year-end double issues of Time and Newsweek a few days ago and new issues don't come out until next week, so I've turned to juggling a few books. Merely because it was within reach late at night when I finished Time (whose end of year issue will inspire at least two future posts), and because it's gripping and timely (see: Gaza Strip military action), I've found myself chugging through Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem.
Friedman, no great stylist (at least at this early point in his career), writes humbly and illustratively as he makes his points. There is a great deal to like, but what has caught my eye thus far is a compelling explanation of what I will call "the Shi'ite problem" that I (a) had never heard before and (b) I can't believe every Middle Eastern analyst doesn't use constantly.
Friedman walks us through the historical context and ideological distinction between the origins of the Sunni/Shi'ite split in the wake of the Prophet Muhammad's death, noting that the Sunnis (which means "traditionalists") chose to follow the democratic process that was the approach to leadership-succession in the desert, while the Shi'ites, borrowing from the modus operandi of the divine-right monarchy of pre-Islamic Persia, opted for a familial succession. This much, we know (though most people don't add the ideological basis factor into the discussion, which is a shame).
What Friedman adds to the conversation - crucially, I think, and again I reiterate how absurd it is that we don't hear this much more often so that it becomes part of even the laity's conversation about the Middle East and Islamic radicalism - is this, quoting "Islam expert Edward Mortimer" in his book Faith and Power:
Sunni Islam is the doctrine of power and achievement. Shi'ism is the doctrine of opposition. The starting point of Shi'ism is defeat: the defeat of Ali and his house ... . Its primary appeal is therefore to the defeated and oppressed. That is why it has so often been the rallying cry for the underdogs in the Muslim world ... especially for the poor and dispossessed.Thus: Ahmadinejad, Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Mahdi army.
When talking about the major obscenity trials of the mid-19th century, Norman Mailer once said, "There's a wonderful moment when you go from oppression to freedom, there in the middle, when one's still oppressed but one's achieved the first freedoms. By the time you get over to complete freedom you begin to look back almost nostalgically on the days of oppression, because in those days you were ready to become a martyr, you had a sense of importance, you could take yourself seriously, and you were fighting the good fight."My (weeks) in-progress post on Natan Sharansky will shed more light on an implication of this.