Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unsinkable John Milton

Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism (Norton Critical Editions)Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism by John Milton

Harold Bloom on Paradise Lost:

"What makes Paradise Lost unique is its startling blend of Shakespearean tragedy, Virgilian epic, and Biblical prophecy.  The terrible pathos of Macbeth joins itself to the Aeneid's sense of nightmare and to the Hebrew Bible's assertion of authority.  That combination should have sunk any literary work nine fathoms deep, but John Milton, blind and battered by political defeat, was unsinkable.  There may be no larger triumph of the visionary will in Western literature." (The Western Canon, p. 160)

I love Milton's ambition.  I love his opening note in which he declares his intention to be the first in English to restore the "ancient liberty" of the heroic poem, delivering it "from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming."  Then in ll. 12-16 of the poem itself he writes: "I thence / Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous song, / That with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme."  And while you may not be able to tell from those somewhat abstract lines, Milton to my mind achieved all the greatness he sought after.  Paradise Lost has stuck in my mind more firmly over the last twenty years than anything I've read other than Hamlet and Ulysses.

Paradise Lost is peopled with specifically rendered, touching human characters as in Shakespeare, but it's more epic than anything in Shakespeare (even more than the Henry tetralogy, which is quite an epic in itself).  Paradise Lost is more epic in fact than anything since the ancients.  It's a poem and a story, but it's also a comprehensive worldview.  Accordingly, it has a more formal, Virgilic, stately syntax, than Shakespeare's plays do, but it looks as deeply into the human heart and, like Shakespeare's work, it overflows with fine metaphor and subtilitas naturae.

Milton appeared to be conscious of writing in the shadow of Shakespeare, to whom the younger poet dedicated his first published poem (called "On Shakespeare").  Milton's father, according to The Milton Reading Room (hosted by Prof. Thomas Luxon at Dartmouth), was a trustee of the Blackfriars Theater, where Shakespeare's King's Men performed in the last decade of Shak's life.  John Milton Sr.'s commendation was printed in the opening pages of the First Folio, and Milton Jr.'s "On Shakespeare" appears in the first pages of the Second Folio.  (That must be the most awesome blurb in history.)  Milton was 7 years old when Shakespeare died.  Prof. Luxon speculates that if Milton had ever met Shakespeare, he would probably have let us know about it himself, but given his father's ties to the King's Men, I like to imagine Milton in Shakespeare's presence and literally looking up at him.

Link to Prof. Luxon's Milton Reading Room: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading...
I liked the Scott Elledge annotations in the Norton Critical edition.    

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Friday, September 24, 2010

The Relevance of Psychoanalysis

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Freud Library)Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud

Neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his research on the neurochemistry of the Aplysia sea slug, wrote in 1999 that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.”

That may come as a surprise to people who think of Freud as a relic or a quack, and there are many who feel that way, and with a passion; I've learned that Sigmund Freud, like politics and religion, is a dangerous topic of conversation.  But Eric Kandel’s 1999 paper, “Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis: A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry Revisited,” ought to give some pause at least to anyone who despises Freud without having carefully read and considered his ideas.  Kandel’s paper opens like this:

“During the first half of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis revolutionized our understanding of mental life.  It provided a remarkable set of new insights about unconscious mental processes, psychic determinism, infantile sexuality, and, perhaps most important of all, about the irrationality of human motivation.”  Kandel, American Journal of Psychiatry 1999; 156:505.  Or, to put it more simply, it provided insights into the relation between what you feel now and what happened in your childhood, even if you can't remember it clearly, and insights into dynamic relationships in the mind between desire, love, anger, loss, guilt, fear, and the lies we tell to ourselves to make it all feel better.  Finally it made the point that talking about it (aka psychotherapy), and in so doing coming to look at yourself truthfully, is a real help.  These ideas are so deeply subsumed into our culture that they're almost clich├ęs at this point.

Yet canards, misconceptions, and prejudices against Freud abound, and many could be cured if Freud-haters actually read the brilliant and brilliantly written Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis from beginning to end, carefully, and with an open mind.

The British empiricist Karl Popper (who Ludwig Wittgenstein famously threatened with a fire poker) believed that psychoanalytic ideas were not only unproven but unprovable; he thought there was no way to evaluate the truth or falsity of a psychoanalytic proposition because psychoanalysts interpreted data in such a way that any and every possible finding would be consistent with their theories.  (Some physicists have said as much about "string theory," by the way.)  Popper's view is a common one, partly because Freud and the psychoanalysts who followed have sometimes treated doubters as patients and doubt of Freudian theory as a symptom (called "resistance").  While emotional "denial" and "resistance" are real phenomena, worthy of study and recognition, it seems like a bad strategy to forestall healthy intellectual skepticism in this way.  Kandel argues that despite the tricky nature of the emotional and cognitive phenomena that psychoanalysts study, they have to do a better job demonstrating the validity of their findings in the methodological terms with which most scientists are familiar.  He's right.  If not, psychoanalysis insulates itself, prevents others from reaping its benefits, and prevents itself from reaping the benefits of advances in other fields of study, like psychopharmacology.

Psychoanalysts do, of course, base their theories on close observation, and their interpretations are no different in syllogistic form from other scientific interpretations.  For example, we know the core of the earth is made of iron and nickel even though no one has ever seen the core of the earth directly; scientists have interpreted seismic wave patterns as signs of the presence of iron and nickel, just as psychoanalysts identify conscious and unconscious ideations by signs--mainly, words.  You might say to a psychoanalyst, "I feel worried but I don't know why."  You are conscious of part of the contents of your own psyche, but perhaps not all of them.  You talk more and in the raw material generated by your talking you discover clues--signs--of the full nature of your worries.  You find yourself talking about your health a lot.  You are worried about your health, you've been having chest pains...  It occurs to you that you are turning 52 years old this month...  50 was the bigger milestone, but you had no worries at the time of your birthday two years ago...  You read an obituary about a famous lawyer.  Your father was a lawyer who died, it occurs to you, of a heart attack at age 52...

Maybe you could care less about your own inner life.  If you can get away without examining yourself, then you're lucky.  For the rest of us, there's Sigmund Freud.

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