Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Why is April National Poetry Month? Why should spring be more poetical than any other time of year? Here's one take, another by Kay Ryan, "Spring:"

Winter, like a set opinion,
is routed. What gets it out?
The imposition of some external season
or some internal doubt?
I see the yellow maculations spread
across bleak hills of what I said
I'd always think; a stippling of white
upon the grey; a pink the shade
of what I said I'd never say.

Spring, while obviously anticipated intellectually, nonetheless takes the eye and the body by surprise, year after year, teaching us the limits of the imagination and the inexorability of nature, even in its luxuriance. No less than natural disasters, spring is an assault upon the senses, the ultimate exercise of natural power. The mind, too, often surprises. So T. S. Eliot famously wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

And Whitman:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Spring's annual ritual is both promise and threat, a display of renewal ironically at odds with a mortal body. Spring best embodies the universe's basic superfluity--why something rather than nothing, indeed?

And yet Stevens warns in "Esthetique du Mal:"

The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one's desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair.

And Stevens's remedy?

Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Spring should be enough in itself; some of us seem to need poetry to explain why, for restless consciousness, it isn't. Nature has evolved beings who are impatient of nature.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Think Again

In the throwaway journal Current Psychiatry, editor Henry Nasrallah, M.D. offers what he calls a "psychiatric manifesto," a professional apologia of a kind, which is an interesting if typical example of the perennially insecure status of the discipline.

Here is an alternative "manifesto:"

1. Psychiatry deals with diverse impairments of mood, behavior, motivation, cognition, relatedness, self-understanding, impulse control and personal integration; that is, it deals with disorders of the self. While other areas of medicine deal with generic aspects of biological functioning, psychiatry specifically concerns itself with obstructions to self-determined individuality, in other words, selfhood.

2. Self-determined individuality has an essentially narrative aspect; the self comprises self-fulfilling stories which coincide or clash with the self-fulfilling stories of other persons. That is why third-party corroboration ("collateral information") is so often crucial to psychiatric assessment, and why psychiatry is irreducibly linguistic and why it has so little to say about an unconscious patient.

3. All mental phenomena derive from brain phenomena, so in principle all subjective experience may be influenced by neurophysiological means. However, as noted above, neurology deals with the generic aspects of brain functioning (its infrastructure as it were), whereas psychiatry deals with the idiosyncratic story that the brain, impinged upon by surrounding stories, endeavors to tell about itself. Mental disorders therefore entail an unstable and not precisely definable mixture of voluntariness and involuntariness.

4. While brain phenomena underlie all mental phenomena, the current very limited state of neuroscientific insight is such that practicing psychiatrists are not neuroscientists any more than, say, taxi drivers are auto mechanics. For the routine practice of contemporary psychiatry, the vast majority of neuroscience per se is irrelevant. This may change in the future, but despite freqent promises over the past twenty years that this will change any day now, it hasn't yet.

5. Because it aspires to authority over potentially controversial and debatable aspects of human conduct, such as matters of human behavior, identity, and relatedness, psychiatry has an inherently political and contentious dimension. Psychiatric nosology is an ongoing global process of consensual negotiation in which psychiatrists, while experts of a kind, are also mere participants.

6. Increasing knowledge of brain science and technology will no more solve disputes over psychiatric diagnosis than, say, the Internet has solved political problems. Debates over, say, psychotherapy versus medication arise to some degree from contrasting sensibilities and climates of opinion and are not therefore altogether resolvable by evidence-based analyses.

7. For the above reasons, while the stigma of mental disorders is very often damaging and regrettable, it is naive to think that such ailments will ever be as simple or as straightforward as many medical problems. This is so because any diagnosis constitutes not merely description, but also a moral claim, and in psychiatry's case, an unavoidably equivocal one.

8. While psychiatry as a discipline is probably no more flawed than any other large human institution dealing with complex phenomena, it is unhelpful to view critics of psychiatry as necessarily "ignorant" or "self-interested." The controversy has to do not with any exceptional benightedness of the discipline or its detractors, but rather is inseparable from the nature of the undertaking. Psychiatry attracts critics for the same reason that, on larger scales, the federal government or the Catholic Church do: all relate to powerful and yet deeply ambiguous human needs and vulnerabilities.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

National Poetry Month

I have finally gotten around to reading Kay Ryan:

A Certain Kind of Eden

It seems like you could, but
you can't go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It's all too deep for that.
You've overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you're given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them--
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

This poem spoke to me because of its message of belatedness, contingency, serendipity. We are born into gardens billions of years in the making, yet born also into some bizarre notion that we plant all anew. Yet that is the only way the garden progresses, through the pretense that every moment is pregant with infinite possibilities, not only for generation but for forgetting and "outgrowing." This is a counsel not for fatalism, but surely for circumspection and humility (and self-forgiveness).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back to the Future

Practical psychopharmacology is still largely based on mid-20th breakthroughs (chlorpromazine, haloperidol, lithium, benzodiazepines), so it is fitting to see hallucinogens come back around as a possible way out of our SSRI doldrums.

That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor, and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory--all these have served, in H. G. Wells's phrase, as Doors in the Wall. And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots--all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial. And to these natural modifiers of consciousness modern science has added its quota of synthetics--chloral, for example, and benzedrine, the bromides and the barbiturates...

Most of these modifiers of consciousness cannot now be taken except under doctor's orders, or else illegally and at considerable risk. For unrestricted use the West has permitted only alcohol and tobacco. All the other chemical Doors in the Wall are labeled Dope, and their unauthorized takers are Fiends...

I am not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call "a gratuitous grace," not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large--this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual. For the intellectual is by definition the man for whom, in Goethe's phrase, "the word is essentially fruitful." He is the man who feels that "what we perceive by the eye is foreign to us as such and need not impress us deeply." And yet, though himself an intellectual and onen of the supreme masters of language, Goethe did not always agree with his own evaluation of the word. "We talk," he wrote in middle life, "far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic Nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches."

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954)

Saturday, April 10, 2010


The Woman in Sunshine

It is only that this warmth and movement are like
The warmth and movement of a woman.

It is not that there is any image in the air
Nor the beginning nor end of a form:

It is empty. But a woman in threadless gold
Burns us with brushings of her dress

And a dissociated abundance of being,
More definite for what she is--

Because she is disembodied,
Bearing the odors of the summer fields,

Confessing the taciturn and yet indifferent,
Invisibly clear, the only love.

Wallace Stevens

Monday, April 5, 2010


It troubled me as once I was --
For I was once a Child --
Concluding how an Atom -- fell --
And yet the Heavens -- held --

The Heavens weighed the most -- by far --
Yet Blue -- and solid -- stood --
Without a Bolt -- that I could prove --
Would Giants -- understand?

Life set me larger -- problems --
Some I shall keep -- to solve
Till Algebra is easier --
Or simpler proved -- above --

Then -- too -- be comprehended --
What sorer -- puzzled me --
Why Heaven did not break away --
And tumble -- Blue -- on me --


Friday, April 2, 2010


In Simon Blackburn's essay (not available online) from The New Republic, on a biography of philosopher R. G. Collingwood, he writes:

...the passage shows Collingwood pouncing on a vitally important point, and the one which gave him perhaps his life's central insight: you cannot tell what someone meant by looking at his artistic, or verbal, productions alone. You must "also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer."...You understand someone, according to Collingwood, not in the way you might come to understand a piece of machinery or any other mechanical or causal process, but by "re-enacting" in your own mind the problem they were addressing and the solution they were proposing.

The best way I know to come to grips with puzzling or frustrating behaviors or states of mind, whether in myself or others, is to ask what needs are pressing their demands, with greater or lesser success. For we are propelled by questions insisting on answers and needs calling for satisfaction. As individuals we are not confined in tunnels or locked into tractor beams, but we are beneficiaries--and victims--of a great and persistent push, comprising both general and idiosyncratic factors, through existence.

In this respect perhaps no metaphor is more misleading than "boot-strapping." It is more correct to say that we make use of our ancient species and individual momentum more or less adeptly. We generate no power per se, rather, we perceive our personal trajectories more or less well, and choose to resist or yield to particular biological, social, or intellectual forces. Life is interesting because these forces are fated to collide, and needs are inevitably frustrated. Or perhaps it is desire that is inevitably frustrated. But how to distinguish need from desire? That is wisdom.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


In another in a seemingly endless series of elegies for the culture of reading, Sven Birkerts contrasts the experience of the novel with that of the Internet. He opposes analytical reason, which is the means to an end (usually information), to contemplative reason:

This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes--that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.

Perhaps fiction-reading (not unlike aesthetic experience generally) is analogous to meditation: both are modes of both managing and exercising consciousness. But whereas meditation is all about process, even embracing emptiness and eschewing the demand for content, reading revels in content, but in a disciplined and focused way. In meditation consciousness steps back to observe and to accept its own dynamic instability; in art we step back to observe and to accept the world's dynamic instability--and our own part in it.

I have never been able to enjoy the experience of meditation, even though--or perhaps because--a contemplative state of mind comes naturally to me. That does not somehow make me a Zen natural. I find Zen to be a bracing philosophy, just as I enjoy a splash of water on a stifling day, but it is easily taken too far, into a zone of absolute zero. The mind that needs nothing outside of itself, that is affected by nothing outside of itself, is dead. In fiction, by contrast, we may pleasurably luxuriate in the productions of consciousness. In art we realize the hope that our own minds may produce that which we need, and not by denying that need.