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History off the press (August ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Literature, Politics, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on September 18, 2011

New history books, August 2011

Have your relatives ever told you stories about your ancestors that made you reevaluate your own identity? My grandmother once told me that her father (my great-grandfather) possessed a mellifluous voice and staged concerts for his fellow Allied soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp during World War I. Hearing this story, it made me question how genetic quality could dissipate so quickly, for my vocal chords can’t produce a single melodic note if my family’s honor depended on it.

Like talking to our grandparents about departed relatives, reading history can change our perspective about our own selves or our community. I selected the books for August (remember, these are previews, not reviews: I have not read these books yet) that drew me in either because they addressed a need for self-knowledge or promised to inform me about the world around me. As a result, almost of them, I noticed later, have to do with U.S. history. But I think our subjectivity is what lights our interest afire. Our bias is our personality, and without it history narratives wither before us like dehydrated fruit.

New York City roots

For several months, I’ve had an itch to discover “literary” neighborhoods in Chicago. Seeking counsel, I asked fellow Chicagoans (full disclosure: I live in the suburbs, not the city proper) where writers live or congregate in the Windy City. No one had an answer, which made me despair that the only destination for writers in the United States was prohibitively-expensive Manhattan. (more…)

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Checking the stove, checking it twice

Posted in Psychology, Stories by Alex L. on June 26, 2011

Image of wood-fired oven courtesy of Vinny Burgoo on WikipediaNo matter how late I’m running for an appointment or how urgently I need to put my shoes on and exit the house now, I always have time before I leave to check the stove… twice.

No, there’s nothing wrong with the appliance. The stove/oven range sits snuggly embedded inside of a curving pathway of granite countertop and contends favorably with the dishwasher for the title of swankiest object in the kitchen. It has no known malfunctions.

What I’m interested in is making sure that, before I leave the house, I haven’t left the stove “on”. It just takes two (on rare occasions, three) separate trips within the span of about two minutes for me to be really convinced of the stove’s neutrality.

I’ve grown used to this habit, but the irrationality of repeating this rite at least once a day has its own consequences. The Stove has acquired powers of awful proportions. One burner left carelessly open during the course of a workday, and the entire house – my laptop, my Kindle, my papers, my books, my musical instruments, my pets, my paperwork – will be licked away by property-destroying flames (or so I think). The stove represents a solitary seed of chaos-potential in the otherwise predictable routine of life.

So it must be monitored with the care that one reserves for an errant child with a bent toward pyromania. And if one has to swing through the kitchen an extra time because one wasn’t convinced that one sufficiently scrutinized the status of every burner knob (including the slow-cooker’s) the first time, then it’s a necessary evil. (more…)

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Symbolic reactions

Posted in Middle Eastern, Psychology, Reading, Travel by Alex L. on June 19, 2011

Hanging Gardens of Babylon engravingIn the deserts of the Middle East, goatskin seems to have been the material of choice for transporting water. This seemed strange to me when I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his travels in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula with the Bedouins. The way he described it, it seemed these goatskins had a tendency to sweat in the blistering sun and tear and leak their irreplaceable cargo as the nomads traveled from well to well.

Thesiger’s narrative formed images in my mind: the goatskin containers bulging with water and bouncing on a camel’s back; moisture congealing on the skins and falling in small droplets to sizzle on the sand; the Bedouins (and Thesiger with them) drinking gladly the animal-scented liquid at the end of a long day’s ride. Soon these water-bearing goatskins became for me part of a larger symbolism that I had affixed to the Bedouin lifestyle.

The nomadic Arabs were a complex people in Thesiger’s account. Ready to drive a knife through the chest of a child from a competing tribe if the customs of a blood-feud demanded it, the same Bedouin man would literally give the last shirt off his back or the last swigs of camel’s milk to a stranger who happened upon his camp. To me, reading and re-reading Thesiger’s book, Bedouins came to represent a love of freedom, a fraternal devotion to clan, and a proud contentedness with simple living.

But I have never met any real Bedouins (I’m not counting the hospitable entertainers of Bedouin descent who served coffee and rice for our Birthright Israel group before returning to their mansion in the desert for the night). Bedouins, along with their goatskin water bottles that I have never actually seen, exist only in my mind as symbol and metaphor. (more…)

World War I and the unconscious

Posted in Culture, European, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on April 9, 2011

Photo of an iceberg (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg_Antarctica.jpg)I was in Barnes & Noble earlier today and, intrigued by the cover of the latest Time magazine (which oddly featured a full-page photograph of Abraham Lincoln), I realized that the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is coming up in three days (April 12, 2011). Such numerically-significant anniversaries are rare occasions for the national discourse to turn and (briefly) examine the significance of history to contemporary life. I always seem to miss these kinds of precious discussions. Currently, I’m working through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and am still on the early-20th-century wavelength (oh! where was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter when I was reading Paul Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was on my Civil War “kick”?).

Fussell’s book, though, is yielding too much nutritious food for thought to put aside. In the chapter titled “Adversary Proceedings”, Fussell quotes 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung for whom the First World War was such a such a strong influence that it crept into his dreams after (and, if we are to believe his enigmatic Red Book, even before) the war:

[Jung] dreamed that he was ‘driving back from the front line with a little man, a peasant, in his horse-drawn wagon. All around us were shells exploding, and I knew that we had to push on as quickly as possible, for it was very dangerous [. . .] The shells falling from the sky were, interpreted psychologically, missiles coming from the “other side.” They were, therefore, effects emanating from the unconscious, from the shadow side of the mind [. . .] The happenings in the dream suggested that the war, which in the outer world had taken place some years before, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.’

Reading this quote by Jung made me think of something that has fascinated me about psychology for some years. Specifically, it’s been a mystery to me how widely the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an iconic figure, were taken up by the Western world and how deeply ingrained some of them have become even though many of his theories were not very scientific. (more…)