Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Better Angels of Our Natures

Hamlet: (He) was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again.

Horatio: My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.

Hamlet: Saw who?

The pending bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in February of 2009 dovetails nicely with the current presidential season. He has long held a fascination for me (as for thousands of others I know), one which was reawakened when I recently got around to reading Joshua Shenk's book on Lincoln's battles with depression (an Atlantic Monthly article surveying some of this can be found here). One can quibble over exact diagnoses many decades after the fact, but it was plainly obvious to many around Lincoln that his was a depressive temperament, in marked contrast to the (high-functioning) narcissists typically attracted to politics.

What is so remarkable about Lincoln's legacy is the near unanimity of the reverence that he inspires (in The New Yorker Thomas Mallon looks at the Great Emancipator's career in the popular imagination since his martyrdom). Only he and Washington himself bear the mantle of true unity over division (tellingly, Washington was a far from typical politician as well). So when Obama talks of moving past the partisanship that has so poisoned the political process in recent years, there is a high bar to be crossed. But I reflect that for some of us, politics in this country has never been the same since the breaking of the Lewinsky scandal in early 1998. Ten years is a long time, and there is a tremendous hope and wish that someone can rise above the squalor of business as usual.

Even some of Obama's supporters seem to worry that expectations are too high, and are eager to remind us that he is all-too-human. In the current The New Republic David Samuels takes Obama to task, in an intriguing comparison to Ellison's Invisible Man, for refusing to shoulder the racial implications of his candidacy (whether Obama, had he done so, would enjoy even the prospect of possible victory that he appears to now, Samuels doesn't say). He also attempts a shrewd psychodynamic formulation in examining the effects upon Obama's character of a missing and disreputable father figure (this is the sort of thing psychiatrists used to do until they handed it off to reporters and critics in order to focus on meds).

Another Presidential storyline that has intriguing implications for Obama is the growing awareness of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his mulatto slave Sally Hemings (yet another book demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of Jefferson's clandestine second family is reviewed favorably here). Jefferson was another of the Presidential greats who was an ambivalent and atypical politician, more interested in architecture, education, and myriad other ideas than in governing (and in many historians' opinions he wasn't actually so very effective as President). But his was a great mind, and if he was capable of such hypocrisy, we should not pride ourselves overmuch in our advances since his time.

The possibility of crushing disappointment still exists (President Palin?), but I for one am excited that at this late date that Obama remains viable at the very least, that a very different sort of President--different in heritage, temperament, and intellect from most--could show that there may still be "something new under the sun."

This opinion should be no surprise of course--studies have consistently shown the liberal (and agnostic) inclinations of most psychologists and psychiatrists (whenever some Republican derides the "liberal elites" I can't help thinking "Moi?"--while reaching for my wine or latte, as the case may be). For fear of diminishing whatever miniscule readership I might still enjoy at this point, I won't say this is as it should be, but it seems a natural result (for better or worse) of close acquaintance over time with both the vulnerability and irreducible complexity of human experience.


Anonymous said...

"whatever miniscule readership I might still enjoy at this point" and this is a disgrace. A larger, grateful readership awaits you, which you can help find you if you start by registering the blog at technorati and google, and remember to EMBED your link in the comment box when you comment on other blogs. Any questions, just ask. Oh, have you visited and commented at Dr. X, yet?
I think you and Dr. X (who I adore) would share interests, and he is generous in promoting bloggers he likes. See also Jon Swift,
who does not do mental health, but is the wit and star of the progressive blogosphere and is devoted to boosting readership of small, quality bloggers.

As a consumer I've learned not to endorse mental health professionals on my own blog because my antipsychiatry brethren tend to swarm them with an unfortunate display of colorful disorders but I am so totally enjoying this site and have blogrolled you in a discrete fashion. Keep plugging away, this is great work.

Novalis said...

Thanks for the encouraging words!

John J. Coupal said...

Your comment about the mind of Jefferson reminded me of a quote attributed to President Kennedy.

Kennedy was addressing a dinner for US Nobel Prize winners at the White House. He said, to the effect:

"This is the greatest assemblage of human intelligence here, since those evenings when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Anonymous said...

You may or may not be surprised that many southerners still revile Lincoln. It is still thought of as the war of northern aggression.
Gore Vidal's Lincoln is an excellent book.

Anonymous said...

As a Roman Catholic conservative psychiatrist, I am curious to learn more about the studies showing that most in the MH field are agnostic liberals?????

Novalis said...

It's true and I can get you papers--it's much like the liberal predominance in general academia. I'm not insisting it's a good thing though, in fact, we need ideological diversity.

Novalis said...

Actually let me clarify. I am quite sure that therapist/psychiatrist types tend (substantially) toward liberal points of view (again, for better or worse). As for religion, I have seen surveys indicating that they are more likely to be agnostic or atheist than the general population, but this may not be saying much, and it definitely doesn't mean they're "mostly" agnostic.