“Rationality is at a premium, and fantasies abound.”

Freu10338 2d: Inventor of the Modern Mind, Peter D. Kramer (2006)

The Harper Perennial “Eminent Lives” series offers biographies that aim to be  “succinct, essayistic, and enlivened by a strong point of view….great writers on great figures.”  Kramer on Freud does the trick and more. This book aims to bring critical historical biography where hagiography or its opposite the “hatchet job” have held much of our attention.  Is Freud a “savant or charlatan?” was a question in Vienna and beyond as early as the 1920s. Kramer answers affirmatively that he was both  “inventor of modern mind” and a “false saint.”

A “continent of knowledge” is the phrase a professor of mine once used to describe the open legacies of thinkers like Newton, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, who, now shown to be limited and often wrong, established methods, concepts, and vocabularies that continue to foundationally, tectonically, structure  the fields of physics, biology, history, and psychology. 

“We may feel saddened and depleted— I do— at the loss of a hero. But then, the gradual revelation of a less straightforward, less competent, less lovable Freud contains an affirmation of Freudian precepts.  What Freud believed of humankind applies to his own life. We live at the mercy of our drives, shaped in childhood. What is hidden in people may not be admirable….. Our leaders— the embodiments of our ego-ideal— are our own constructions, arising from our needs….[R]ationality is at a premium, and fantasies abound.”

Think Freud and think of complexes, drives, conflicts, repression, sublimation, transference, projection; of psychoanalysis, of mapping the unconscious by id-ego-superego, of dream interpretations; of infantile sexuality, of cigars.   Saintly, it remains to be for one’s present critics to use the updated work of trailblazers. We don’t throw rocks at img_1500sainted Newton for not seeing  quantum mechanics while resting in the apple orchard.  But Freud.. well he was wacky wrong about, say , why boys fidget in shoe stores as they anticipate their ffreud8 2oot entering the new shoe— “Where is it? Mommy! What have you let this man do to me?”— as castration anxiety. But still, even this— and his “Dora”, “Little Hans”, “Rat Man” and “Wolf Man”—evoke saintly attributes of his case studies as contributions to early modernist literature— James Joyce and T.S. Eliot so many
more— meaning and metaphor, aesthetics and decadence, in the fin-de-siècle Vienna of art for arts sake and wilting Victorianism.  This is the water Freud swam in and stirred up vigorously. 
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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012)

13648678 3The comparison with Catch-22 is warranted by the farcical outsized overdrawn dizzying exertions of a cast of warriors we observe together while out of combat and hoping to stay that way. Fug yes; now fuck yes. Yossarian’s days on ground, forlorn and scheming,  between the always extended number of bombing runs over Germany he must total up for one war takes him about as far away as the heroic showcased star spangled bannering of Billy Lynn’s ccartooncatch22rew of Iraq War infantry during the halftime show, before Beyonce, at Cowboy stadium for the annual Dallas Thanksgiving Day Game, sixty years after Dresden, even as America’s Team, stoic executers— Landry of stone face, Staubach of the Navy sacrifice gone, has decayed. Like a Mission Accomplished or an Errand in the Wilderness. Did I say comparison? The template is there as well. Ben Fountain, a combat veteran of Iraq, if not of tom-landry-1979-ji 2the rumble with Beyonce’s roadies and a near, quite innocently hot secret romantic tumble with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader makes his nod to Joseph Heller— this love and theft— perfectly evident in the gut of the book.  Billy’s sister— “what do you mean they are sending you back tomorrow!!??” She takes the lead and plays right up close to the “Catch” as she endeavors to keep her bro— he’s a 19 year old west Texas hill kid, home now, thank you very much. Billy does take some long walks — from the Cowboy’s owner and his flak-catchers, the stink of oilmen and their wives (think of Fountain thinking of Wolfe first then Mailer here) in a  skybox hell to the half-tiBartleby-the-Scrivener-copy 2me show to Hollywood producer pitches— the film version of the 3 minute iPhone captured attempt to save his platoon mate- KIA- and the White House meet and greet in between to wheels up 0500 back to country.  Or maybe not.. read the book. My sense is that Billy Lynn’s walks, over a brief time— a flash in the field of fire… the three minute video a life time in comparison brought him the distance of Melville’s scribe Bartleby ready to take it all on in his own terms: “I would prefer not to.”  We can’t be sure if Billy returns, gets on the plane,  and following Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried and all the rest, as Fountain must,  war stories are always true and never true.

Euphoria, Lily King (2014)

“You’d seen the pattern before?”
“No, A different leaf pattern each time. But I can’t find the pattern to the patterns.”
“Age, sex, social status, mode of death, shape of the moon, position of the stars, birth order, role in the family.”
“No, they keep telling  me there is no pattern.”
“Perhaps there isn’t.”03bfa7184443f261149b777472e2ff8e 2

Novelist Lily King brings us three dialoging anthropologists in the Papua New Guinea bush circa 1930s as they endeavor to both understand what they are observing and each other.

King’s fictional anthropologists, Nell Stone, Andrew Bankson, and Schuyler Fenwick  are stand-ins for the ethnographic trailblazers Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Reo Fortune. In life as in fiction these three are as interested in the people they come to know and “write up” as they are in finding their ways separatedited001ely and together in danger and in love.  The love triangle’s complexity, and uncertainty, is ench79ab2b9bbf012161192edc37f6604065anted further by the distant powerful presence of Helen Benjamin as Ruth Benedict. The three are treated to an early draft for field review of her masterwork theorizing of  “cultural relativism”:  Arc of Culture as Patterns of Culture. Mind, body, and soul are stirred for Nell as her attraction to the slightly older, slightly more favored, other women of Franz Boas as Father Franz Boas of Columbia University— the “cultural determinist”— shapes the flavor of her memories, and what she will come to write about “her people.”

“I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested  in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilization, right and wrong.”

As I read Euphoria and appreciated the overlapping genre innovations of King’s fiction, history, memoir, adventure, travel, geography, more..  jacket blurb offers so much on the “love story” that my bright teen daughter said “this is not a book for you!” “Well,” I said to her, “I think that the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty lurks in the pre-war pacific jungles of Lily King’s mind! That’s exciting right?”

Ethnography may not pay off but is worth the effort. So is writing novels.  Rorty can speak for himself.  We need narratives that are “persuasive about” not “demonstrative of” truths about society.  “Re-descriptions” not “inferences” and “vocabularies” not “propositions” are these “units of persuasion.” Rorty famously concludes in “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity” that “novels and ethnographies not philosophical and religious treatises are the intellectual route to moral progress.” Continue reading

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, Thomas Mallon (2015)

Engrossing page-turner novel of contemporary political fiction allowing vivid insight to the critical sequence of recent history that unfolded on the world stage mid way through Reagan’s second term: Reykjavik, Gorbachev, Star Wars, Iran, Contras, AIDS, mid term electio23995211ns.  Ronny and Nancy and the movie stars by their sides, in their past, and in the astrologer’s sky. Sulking brilliant sideshow observations and manipulation by Richard Nixon. Terry Dolan and gay insiders of NCPAC, the NSA, the federal prison, and death by virus. Outsize roles, indeed part of Mallon’s method for character actors like Merv Griffin, Pamela Harriman, many many others. Christopher Hitchens.  Hitch— Mallon’s and our authorial muse here—he swaggered in wherever he pleased and got the story.  Who doesn’t remember following these events by his lights — “Minority Report” in The Nation every two weeks earning his pay in the “high two figures” for Victor Navasky and in the glossy rather more highly compensated scribing he did for Tina Brown every couple months for Vanity Fair , and other high brow mags in USA and UK.  Mallon’s earlier book Watergate (2012) offered the same kind of appealing human level, simplifying pitch on events that have had so much written, and so much will remain to be written. Mallon’s project is that of an imaginative synthesizer. One can see that his research and writing agenda was to spend days with his own memory and journalistic timeframe of 1985-86 and the stacks and stacks of the mostly pathetic, limited, haunted published memoirs of each of these many hundreds of characters.  Think of the related, but absolutely inferior, “real time” narratives that pass as and are sold in large number Continue reading