Asylums as Refuge: Dispersing the Gloom

musicophiliaI associate neurologist and author Oliver Sacks with serene-laughter. Don’t ask me to define the term. The best I can say is: look at the image of him that appears on the cover of his book Musicophilia.

I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a long time ago, so I do not remember whether he employed magnificent figures of speech, or merely decent ones. But I do remember that his case-studies were not oppressive, despite the seriousness of the conditions he described. The New York Times called him the poet laureate of medicine for a reason.

After two heavy books, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House, I decided to find a fresh, uplifting voice on a similar topic. I settled for Asylum : Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitalsby photographer and architect Christopher Payne, and with an introduction by—you guessed it!—Oliver Sacks. It was published as an essay in the New York Review of Books, under the title The Lost Virtues of the Asylum. 

You see where the title is going.

Ideally, I would quote the introductory paragraphs here, then dissect their arguments below, but the post would become too cumbersome. Instead, I urge you to read the first few paragraphs of the NYR page  to feel the power of his argument, before having me ruin its effect.

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To Be Sane Amongst the Insane

Nellie Bly, portrait

Nellie Bly (Wikipedia)

New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.

It proves to be easier than she thought.

Here is an excerpt from her report Ten Days in a Mad-House (my emphasis).

Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

Just to be clear: this is non-fiction.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Fear of the paradox.

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Hiding Behind Hyperbole

A hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis or humour that beats you over the head with its meaning.

(Unless, like in the previous sentence, it’s been worn trite.)

glowing green plants

Colours that stab you in the eye, photo by Christian Bisbo Johnson

 

Consider the following Quote taken from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). It describes the Big Nurse, Mrs Ratched, preparing to punish three black orderlies in the mental institution where she works. The narrative is provided by Ol’ Chief “Broom” Bromden, a huge half Indian, who has been a Chronic patient on her ward since the Second World War.

Quote: She goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a huddle at the end of the corridor. … She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from lib, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. … she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.

Just when you think that’s it, you’re brought back to the image.

…all the patients start coming out of the dorms to check on what’s the hullabaloo, and she has to change back before she’s caught in the shape of her hideous real self.

After about two pages, you realise the language of the Quote is there to stay. The psychedelic descriptions, as well as, the motif of size—whether of the nurse, of the narrator, or of any other patient—repeat throughout the book.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Unapologetic, prolonged exaggeration.

It swings the mood between hallucinogenic and macabre, showing the reader both the insanity of mental illness and the insanity of the proposed cure.

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To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

arms spread wide, sky

Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

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T. S. Eliot and the Extended Chiasmus

Today’s Quote is a short poem by T. S. Eliot. It is the closest I have come to finding an embodiment of internal mirroring, or of the so called chiasmus.

A chiasmus, pronounced /kʌɪˈazməs/, from the Greek word meaning crossing or diagonal arrangement, is a figure of speech that repeats two ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order.

At its simplest and silliest it adds no meaning:

He dreams of success, and of success he dreams.

(Although, there are examples where this special case of chiasmus, also sometimes called antimetabole, is made to work to splendid effect; an oft-cited example is John F. Kennedy’s United Nations Speech in 1961, when he said: Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind. It’s clever, and it’s not something you come up with on the spot.)

Beyond the simplest inversion, chiasmus can use parallel word pairs to add meaning:

Loving is a celebration of life, just as living is a celebration of love.

Or it can pun on different meanings of a word:

The novel must be written, but also the writing must be novel.

At its most advanced, an extended chiasmus can invert ideas and images on a larger scale. Here is the poem; see if you can spot a chiasmus or two.

Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears by T. S. Eliot

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Clever, imperfect symmetry that allows for a sense of progression from one side to the other.

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The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

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Writing: Quirks and Perks

It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
— E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White

 

bird

Fly free

 

In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.

A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Elements of Style, by William I. Strunk and E. B. White. 
  2.  Essays of E. B. White, by E. B. White.
  3. My other two blog posts on White’s work: Avian Black Humour and Rosebuds Bow Courteously.

The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

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Seabluegreen Eyes

 

An outlier brooks no terse introduction. Nevertheless, give me five hundred words to try. Meet Keri Hulme’s novel, The Bone PeopleBooker Prize winner for 1985.

New Zealand, nineteen eighties, a cruel, vibrant, love story between three unrelated people: a woman, a child, and a man; a mystery infused with Maori myths, soaked with Maori language, suspended between poetry and prose, written unconventionally but with effusive, effortless erudition.

The emotional ride — having recently finished the book — I would describe as explosive disbelief, followed by heartwarming realisation that not all conventional wisdom is sound, not all differences are differences, and that there is hope for us human beings, whichever way we are wrought and then brought together. You, no doubt, would express yourself in other words: there is great latitude for interpretation.

The book is unique, in style and in substance.

The following quote illustrates a few unusual aspects of the writing. The typographic features, indentation and spacing, are deliberate. (The quote is given as an image, to ensure that all browsers preserve the typography.)

Quote from

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How to: Find a Book You’ll Enjoy

Which book should you read next?

You already have a reading list for the next few years, ah, excuse me, please skip this blog post.

You’re still here? Good, let me explain myself. WordPress bloggers regularly ask strangers on the internet for reading advice. And assuming bloggers aren’t an entirely exceptional race, it’s a dilemma pressing on a nontrivial percentage of human minds.

Unless you’re entirely inexperienced with books (in which case you should say so), or you’re asking advice on choosing between specific books, for a specific reason, where you can expect a reasonable, meaningful, non-random answer: why ask anyone at all? Sure, you could ask your childhood librarian friend who knows you better than you know yourself. But the librarian internet is not to be trusted to bounce back friendly answers every time. Better search for the answer yourself, trust me.

Indeed, here’s my proposed method to narrow down the book universe to your next literary companion.

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