Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (2014; dir. James Marsh) is a good film, not a great one.  Its virtue is the acting of Eddie Redmayne, who portrays Stephen Hawking.  The title is misleading—the film is not about Hawking’s work as a physicist.  We learn a bit about his work, but not much.  Nor do we learn, or are we given hints, about the roots of Hawking’s genius.  It’s there when we first meet him.

The film clearly suggests that Hawking’s first wife Jane (Felicity Jones) was a primary factor in his success and fame.  It is based on her book about their marriage, and the book like the film doesn’t have much to say about Hawking the scientist, only Hawking the husband.

When they marry, Jane believes Stephen will live at most two years.  He has just been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis(ALS).  Instead he lives into his 70s (he is alive today), and the focus of her existence becomes increasingly focused on taking care of him and his physical needs, in addition to their three children.  As the disease progresses he loses his ability to walk, is confined to a wheel chair, and ultimately can’t feed himself or even talk without mechanical assistance.  The film makes clear that although Jane loves him this life for her is deadening.  She is attracted to a younger man, Jonathan, a widower and the choir leader for a local church who becomes friends with both Hawking and Jane.  Eventually Hawking in effect gives Jane his approval for her to have a relationship with Jonathan.  He in turn becomes involved with a nurse hired to care for him.

The Theory of Everything is about the arc of a marriage, its beginnings, middle, and end.  The two main characters are wonderfully portrayed--Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking deserved the Academy Award nomination for best actor it received. The film, charming and entertaining, was well made and commonplace.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

William Styron goes further in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Random House, 1990William Styron) in conveying the nature of depression than most writers I have encountered.  His own experience with depression made him an authoritative informer.  His abilities as a highly descriptive writer should have enabled him to give an effective account.  And although I‘m not going to say that he isn’t effective, nonetheless there is a distinctive separation between the depression he describes and our ability as reader to know what he is talking about.  What does it mean for the mind to dissolve?  What kind of emotional pain would leave one completely debilitated?  What does it mean to find in one’s life that circumstances have become so hopeless that the only solution is to end life?  (He notes that in his four novels, three main characters commit suicide).  Styron is convincing in his affirmation of his suffering.  He is not self-pitying.  He does not feel sorry for himself.  He seems to have some awareness of the effects of his suffering on the people around him.  But mostly he describes depression as a lonely, isolating, solipsistic darkness.

A depressed individual might well recognize himself in Styron’s account, though he insists that every episode of depression is different.  He offers no consolation for the depressed person, other than to report the fact that most episodes of depression run their course, the sufferer eventually recovering to go on with life, except for the 20% of the most severely depressed, who choose suicide.  It is unhappy to know that, at least in Styron’s experience, medication did not relieve his pain.  It is disheartening to read that psychoanalysis does not often move one towards recovery.  (One psychiatrist told Styron not to talk about his illness because of the social stigma).  Styron sees depression as the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, but he also connects it to childhood trauma of some type, in his case the early death of his mother.

Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) gives a wrenching account of depression in its opening pages—similar to Styron’s account but more powerfully convincing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNellie

An Irish friend recommended this book to me, the memoir by a Welsh writer and editor Andrew McNellie of his yearlong stay in Inishmore, of the isles of Aran in the late 1960s.  I have yet to figure out the odd and not particularly pertinent title of the memoir--An Aran Keening (2001, Liliput Press).  There’s no real mourning in the book, no deep preoccupation with anything lost, even though the final pages make clear that loss and deep change have occurred.

As a young man the author wants to immerse himself in the Aran culture, to be isolated and cut off from his own life.  Romantic difficulties might be part of the reason.  So he goes to live on Inishmore.  He tells the people he rents a cottage from there that his wife was unable to come with him, when in fact he is not married at all.  I found it interesting and frustrating to read this book.  The author describes the landscape and the small town and most of all the people of the island where he lives.  But for the most part we never get anywhere.  The author’s self-absorption prevents him from engaging more with the islanders around him.  There’s always a sense of distance between the author and the islanders, and even though he says it is ultimately bridged and removed, we never feel that.  The author is immersed in the culture of Aran, and then after a year with little fanfare he abandons it and returns to the mainland and continues his life.  Is there no after-effect?  No point? No significance to it all?  In the epilogue, he returns to visit Inishmore after 30 years to find how things have changed, how the island has lost its isolation and become something of a tourist spot.

The memoir gives a glimpse, incomplete and scattered, of what life for centuries would have been like in the Aran islands—windswept, isolated, under the constant barrage of winter storms, tales of fishermen lost at sea, nights at the pub. The book is too short and superficial.  We’re tantalized but not satisfied when it’s over with the possibility of what a deeper account might provide.  In some ways the epilogue is the best part of the book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

In The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, 1985), Oliver Sacks makes clear how flimsy our hold on reality, on our sense of reality, really is.  Most of us accept the necessity of living with the risk of events that will injure or kill us—automobile accidents, fires, assaults, sudden illness.  I don’t think we are nearly as conscious of the possibility that physical events—stroke, brain infection—will sever or significantly alter our ability to live in and understand the world.

CoverMost of the case studies in this book are of people who were born with brain deficits, or who at an early age suffered a disease such as encephalitis that left their brains damaged.  One man cannot remember events after 1945—he has no short-term memory; a pair of twins are mathematical savants who can calculate 10 digit prime numbers in their heads even though they have IQs of 60; a severely damaged man can draw images with skill; a woman dying from brain cancer is overwhelmed with visions of serenity as the disease slowly eats away at her personality; a woman loses her ability to understand the concept of “left”—she cannot process what she sees with her left eye, she cannot use her left hand, she cannot even turn to the left—the left doesn’t exist for her; another women loses her sense of connection to her own body—to move her limbs, she has to look at and think about moving them—her body becomes in essence a machine that she can control but to which she feels no connection.  The list of afflictions goes on.

Sacks’ book makes clear that our connection to reality, our sense of it, and even, in effect, reality itself, is a physiological function, a brain function.  I thought of the James Dickey poem "Pursuit from Under" in which the poet imagines himself walking on the arctic ice, looking down to see the killer whale that is stalking him beneath the ice.  This is a metaphor for the constant presence of the possibility of death, of non-existence.  In Sack’s book it is the brain whose malfunction can dissolve reality, our world, our identity, entirely.

Sacks writes in a style that is somewhat aimed towards the layperson but that is also clearly the prose style of a doctor.  He makes frequent reference to other neurologists and to studies of the brain and employs terms that are specific to the discipline of neurology.  Oddly, he uses terms such as retardate, moron, simpleton, dullard.  I suppose in the field of neurology they have specific meaning while in common parlance they are unacceptable 

Sacks writes with great compassion for his patients even while he regards them in the most clinical and detached way.  In each of his patients, he looks for humanity, and he seems to feel that the health industry and society’s tendency to institutionalize people with extreme brain deficits, or to assume they are incapable of living a normal life, overlooks what they are capable of in many cases—personal fulfillment and satisfaction, even of use to the human community.

The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand

Many portions of this book were interesting.  The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand (Flamingo, 2001), traces the development of key ideas in American intellectual life from just before the Civil War to the first several decades of the 20th century.  I was especially interested in his account of the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on American thinkers, the abolitionist movement, the development of pragmatism (to an extent), and the philosophy of John Dewey.  I found the book most fascinating in its account of the (mostly) men behind these ideas.  Several figures especially emerged—Louis Agassiz, who played a major role in the development of the fields of geology and anthropology and whose ideas on race (he was obsessed with proving African Americans as biologically inferior) were deplorable, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce (more interesting for his lifestyle than for his thought—he is portrayed as brilliant but never quite able to get his ideas down into essays and books in finished and cohesive form).

The Metaphysical Club is well written, wide ranging, willing to wander off on rewarding tangents, and, too often boring, especially in the latter half where we encounter dense discussions of competing philosophical ideas.  (I spent too much time eager to reach the final page).  I credit Menand for not beginning with preconceptions or received wisdom.  Contrary to popular opinion, many abolitionists did not believe in racial equality (a few did; many did not).  He portrays the leading figures in his narrative three dimensionally, not as icons but as thinking men whose ideas develop over time and who could sometimes be wholly wrong headed.  Menand treats these figures as participants in an evolving and developing American intellectual culture, men who gradually moved away from venerated traditions towards a more modern view of the world, of ideas, of philosophy which is contingent and ungrounded in absolutes.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I don’t enjoy stories or films about abusive teachers.  Maybe the fact that I am a teacher makes this a sensitive topic for me.  But I don’t think there is any excuse for tyranny in the teacher-student relationship.  The film Whiplash might be seen to condone such abuse for the cause of higher art.  A despotic teacher tyrannizes an aspiring percussionist—he yells, throws objects, shames, humiliates, and physically abuses.  Members of the band he conducts are terrified by him, yet they put up with him in hopes of being discovered—of getting the big break that will give them entry into the music industry—and their teacher constantly holds up this possibility in front of them.

Fletcher is the teacher—J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for this portrayal.  His student is Andrew, played by Miles Teller.  Fletcher’s abusive nature is equaled, perhaps, by Andrew’s ambition to be a great drummer.  He practices until his hands are bloody.  He breaks up with his girlfriend because, he tells her, she will get in the way of his ambitions.  He does nothing but practice and as Fletcher goads and shames and tempts him with the first position among percussionists in his band, he drives himself towards a breakdown.  When he oversleeps on the day of an important competition, he drives recklessly towards the rehearsal room where he is supposed to be, wrecks the car, arrives injured and bleeding, only to be ejected by Fletcher for his tardiness.  A fight ensues.  It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Andrew, who is headed towards becoming some a version of Fletcher.

This film’s conclusion tempts us to believe that, after all, abusive tyrannizing and hyperactive ambitions are justified in the name of art.  Abuse your students.  Isolate and deny yourself.  Nothing else matters.  Art justifies all.  Not so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Louis Bloom, the main character in Nightcrawler (2014; dir Dan Gilroy), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has the classic traits that I associate with psychopaths. He absolutely lacks in empathy. He's singleminded in pursuit of his ambition to become known, wealthy, and successful. He walks with a curiously stiff gait, in short steps, holding his arms flat against the sides of his body. His state is focused and without emotion. He exploits people without guilt or even awareness that he is exploiting them.  He shows personal interest in one person, the news team leader Nina Romina played by Rene Russo, and part of the reason is that she is much like him.  Another part of the reason is that she is his avenue to success—she can buy the footage he takes of accident scenes throughout the city. Gyllenhaal’s character was not merely unlikeable.  It made me deeply uncomfortable to watch him and his treatment of other human beings.

Louis is entirely self-created.  After watching two videographers film the scene of a car wreck and learning that tv stations will buy video footage for money, he buys equipment with the proceeds of stolen goods and starts filming.  He is fearless and puts himself and his assistant at risk.  To rid himself of a competing team of videographers, he cuts cables in their car so that they have a wreck.  He reaches the point of arranging crime scenes so that he can film them.  In the end, he sets his own assistant up to be shot dead, all so that he can film the event.

Such verminous figures prowl the landscape of our nation in numerous guises and forms.  The idea that they can, as they often do, go free is not encouraging.  It doesn’t make for a rewarding film either.