Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sunday, 27 March 2011

the prescription of happiness

My friend Kostis Kourelis replied to my post about depressing literature (February 16th, Is this funny?) with a link to a Studio 360 program where NYU professor Elayne Tobin and writer Michael Cunningham discuss the diagnosing of literary characters by students of literature today.
Professor Tobin acknowledges the pharmacological and the cultural shift that could account for this tendency. Michael Cunningham defends sorrow as part of the richness of human life. They both agree that it is the job of art to show us humanity. Interestingly, in the same program, psychiatrist Peter Kramer "challenges anyone to read The Sorrows of Young Werther and not think "my goodness, somebody should take care of that. If only he had Prozac".
On February 13 i was blogging on Werther and my second reading of the book, this time as a 40-something year old. My perspective was that i had changed, as an individual and as a reader of literature, having outgrown the youthful yearning for lovesickness and any fascination i had with the Sturm und Drang movement. It never occurred to me that Werther was in need of Prozac. In fact, i felt grateful that Goethe had moved on from his attempts to depict extreme emotion as a perceived opposition to rationalism.
Peter Kramer's comment, however, made a connection with a book I finished reading shortly before i blogged on Werther, Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depression. Greeneberg's study does not address the issue of diagnosing literary characters, but looks, in depth and great historical detail, at the treatment of mental illness and the role of pharmacology. Naturally, such a treatment follows a certain definition of mental illness. The specifics of this definition, as well as the psychiatric jargon are plenty in the book, but the controversy that i find relevant to the depressive literary characters is how dealing with life's problems can be classified under the category/within the range of mental illness. This is huge beef in the medical profession. But the extent to which literary criticism is being drawn into it is a little concerning. While the diagnosis of depression requires the elimination of subjectivity, this is precisely what literature is about, the subjective experience, the human impulse. And the subjective experience says as much about the individual as about his/her environment.
The context in which students of literature diagnose or feel the need to diagnose literary characters has prescriptive implications. We must be happy, so must they. The aesthetic value of works of seems to be of secondary significance. While students are trying to approach the texts using the tools available to them, it is also possible that we are witnessing a case of cultural narcissism that makes interpretations outside our experience unlikely.
What remains open is the issue of romanticizing depression that Peter Kramer argues against. It will definitely be among my reading projects to come; how such a phenomenon can be measured and accounted for is really worth exploring. In the meantime, i will be reading and teaching the poetry of catastrophe and i will be wondering if we can actually diagnose non-depression as well as we can diagnose depression. The context is always available and the experience of transformation invariably relevant.
And of course, three cheers for Michael Cunningham and Elayne Tobin.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

sushi for breakfast

This week we're wrapping up Internal Assessment with my English A1 class. We are slowly crawling to the finish line of the May exam session with the hurdle of mocks on the way. It's the time of the year that students are beginning to show signs of fatigue, ennui and a trail of angst follows them wherever they go. They become fuzzy around the edges and sometimes they stare vacantly at me, making me wonder if the time we have spent together has been just a dream.
So i was DE-very-lighted with the quality of their presentations, the insightful comments and their perspectives as students of literature. It was satisfying for all of us, in more than one respects, to be offered this morning sushi, miso soup and green tea for breakfast by the pair that chose to work on the topic of food and bonding in Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen. The already sleep-deprived presenters got up at 5:30am to prepare the little feast that is shown in the picture. It is definitely a lot more than what i would have accomplished at such an ungodly hour (or at some non-ungodly hour, for that matter...).
40 days to go, guys. Keep calm and have some sushi.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

my cat in Sarajevo

My cat passed away on March 11. I was not with her. I miss her to the point of breathlessness. She had been with me almost every day for the last 18 years. She passed away between my reading of Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. My feeling of loss has been fused with the experience of reading Hemon, an experience resonant of the political education provided by my father, my identification (bordering on obssession) with dispossession and displacement and, of course, the appreciation of Hemon's narrative.
I'd like to share Hemon with my students. My motivation is that of a reader's; as a teacher of literature, how is my personal perspective relevant, if at all?
My godfather fought as a volunteer in the first Balkan war, i marveled at the task of reconciling images of war with the demeanor of the sweet man that gave me christmas presents. When i was a child, my family and i vacationed twice in southern Yugoslavia; these vacations were more like a series of lectures on history and geography, interrupted by bland meals served at our hotel. General Tito was alive and well. In my teens, my Serbo-Croatian friends introduced me to Balašević. To this day, i remember the phrases they taught me and the ones i picked up from songs from the cassette tape of Balašević that i still own. I remember the endless conversations during the war, the helplessness that we felt, watching the train being derailed, knowing that the crash was imminent and not being able to do anything about it. Emotions and ideologies were running high. My father and Pinter had nightmares about the war. Pinter argued with his wife about war criminals. On one occasion my father went for my mother in his sleep. Catastrophe was in the air and we were the chorus in this tragedy. Our warning that "this is the Balkans, this is not fun and games," borrowed from our own contemporary bard, was not heeded. We found our friends again after the war and they are alive and well. We found them on facebook.
In 2005 i visited Sarajevo for a conference. The United World Colleges invited us to attend the conference for the opening/founding of a UWC in Mostar. I spent three days in Sarajevo, feeling displaced inside a displaced universe. After all, this was the first time in my life that i could have had my picture taken under a sign with skulls and bones that read "NATO demining project." I didn't. I didn't take a single picture while i was in Sarajevo. I was going to let memory invent my experience at a future date. We were invited to support the founding of the UWC in Mostar, we had an idea for a fundraiser and significant people willing to help. The school administration decided against our involvement.
Six years later, i live away from home (i have displaced myself from home, wherever that may be), i read Hemon and i wonder if the reworkings of memory can really defend me against the appalling timelessness of the unconscious. There is definitely very little that can defend us from the mechanics of our conscious reality.
I have been talking about Hemon's writing to everyone i know; on a couple of occasions, somewhere in my rambling, stream-of-consciousness, literary-criticism-improvisation narrative i interjected "my cat passed away." I have no cat. "There are no cats in Sarajevo." This is where my no-cat lives.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


either or
Today, on the second day of my holiday, i decided to devote some time to my new area of research interest, social and educational research. The course does not start until September, but the resources are out there and so is my intention and curiosity. I printed a couple of articles from the online library on self-stereotyping, a topic that had been on my list for a while, for professional and personal reasons. In this very limited bibliography i read that one attributes ingroup characteristics to the self or one may generalize self-characteristics to the ingroup. In the first case, "i am like my group" and in the second, "my group is like me." Obviously, the directionality issue is crucial in determining self-stereotyping; the authors concluded that both processes are at play and prevalence of one over the other depends on the relative status of the group one belongs to. I read the article, i followed the argument and understood the conclusion; i do not possess the knowledge and the skills to critique this type of research. But it left me wondering how i would define my ingroup, in my current social setting, and whether i use a deduction-to-the-self or induction-to-the-ingroup process of self-stereotyping. I concluded that i could very well be an ingroup of one, were i to factor in differentiations that could break up the starting ingroup of, for example, women. In other words, i am my group.
neither here nor there
It struck me as a sad and dangerous conclusion, sad because it sounded lonely and dangerous because it sounded schizophrenic. I discussed it with my better half and i pondered; i mulled it over and i lamented the fuzziness of it all. And i concluded that if i am indeed my group, it is an advantageous position, offering me a perspective that better people might envy. Lack of an ingroup entails a lack of loyalty that binds and deductively or inductively, stereotypes. Maybe this came, very conveniently, after a discussion i had this morning whose subtext read as, yet again, a binary opposition that can be resolved only in hierarchical terms, only after a certain power and status struggle is involved. Native or non-native, X or Y, black or white, with us or against us. Mental constructs or constructed reality? False perception or self-serving representation? Binaries, i believe, serve a very basic interpretational purpose that educators should strive to steer away from. If our students are to be open-minded, reflective, caring, knowledgeable communicators and thinkers, we should be aware of the plurality and diversity of ingroups, as well as the possibility of emerging ingroups or, potentially, groups of one or two. Shifting ingroups, as well as the variability and versatility of ingroups depending on context. This will develop their "sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern" as Susan Sontag described her own engagement with literature.
so what?
As a group of one, i am the other. A departure point and a destination, in my book.