Monday, February 25, 2013

Carl Jung

I have been drawn to Carl Jung for years because of his work with dream analysis, archetypes, literature, and philosophy.  In the last year of studying religions of the world, he has become even more valuable.  So, when I was browsing one of my favorite bookstores up in the Santa Barbara region of California, Chaucer’s Books, I stumbled across a recent publication of Jung’s The Red Book (Liber Novus):  A Reader’s Edition (Norton, 2009).  However, I had no sooner come home on that rainy evening and curled up on my couch than I found I needed some more background reading of Jung to fully understand the placement of The Red Book within the Jungian bibliography.  Specifically, I had used Jung’s work as background to my studying and teaching of literature.  For a few years now, I have had his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (the Vintage Books edition of 1965) sitting on my shelf.  I had not read it through in its entirety, so I figured before launching into The Red Book, the time was now to absorb Jung’s own words about his life.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections did not start life as memoir, or even autobiography.  Aniela Jaffe, the editor of the book, found herself hired in the summer of 1956 to be the official biographer of Jung with the full cooperation of the subject and his family.  Jung had a well-known abhorrence for personal revelations and was not keen on having someone delve into his life.  He took his time giving permission for Jaffe to come inside his inner circle.  She says Jung “allotted to me an entire afternoon once a week for our work together.”  For someone as influential as Jung, then in his 80s, one afternoon would hardly suffice.  However, the good doctor warmed to the task, and soon began writing a lot of material himself.  Thus, Memories, Dreams, Reflections makes the transition from biography to memoir.

Throughout his life, Jung struggled with writing.  “A book of mine is always a matter of fate,” he says in Jaffe’s Introduction.  “There is something unpredictable about the process of writing, and I cannot prescribe for myself any predetermined course.  Thus this ‘autobiography’ is now taking a direction quite different from what I had imagined at the beginning.  It has become a necessity to write down my early memories.  If I neglect to do so for a single day, unpleasant physical symptoms immediately follow.  As soon as I set to work they vanish and my head feels perfectly clear.”

Jung moves gracefully among so many subjects—psychiatry, religion, philosophy, literature, history, and of course anecdotal stories of patients he has treated in the course of his practice.  In this book, Jung attempts to sum up his life as “a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.”  The book is so much more.  In Jung’s view, human beings are mythological creatures, not in the sense of who they are, but in the way they understand the world.  “Myth,” according to Jung, “is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.”  He believes that his life—any life—can only be told through story utilizing the tools of literature:  symbolism, theme, narrative.  Psychology is as much a story of the patient as it is the science or pathology of the affliction.  “The life of man…it is so fleeting, so insufficient, that it is literally a miracle that anything can exist and develop at all…When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity.  Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux.”

The book is organized chronologically starting with the first years of his life moving through his schooling and student years.  He includes interesting chapters on his meetings (confrontations?) with Sigmund Freud, and my edition also adds their correspondence in an appendix.  He writes in depth about his travels and goes on to discuss visions and the afterlife, including chapters entitled “Late Thoughts” and “Reflections.”

In school, Jung finds himself bored and largely misunderstood.  “It took up far too much time which I would rather have spent drawing battles and playing with fire.”  He craves solitude and the life of the mind, and this leads early on to his feeling that even at this young age, he is two persons, a duality, of school boy and a full-grown man.  He quite literally believes he is two spirits dwelling within the body of a single entity, and this causes some interesting hallucinations and surreal occurrences.  He confuses the date—writing 1786 instead of 1886—and feels an “inexplicable nostalgia” for a time he should not have known.  He has conflict with his religious father.  “You always want to think,” his father tells him.  “One ought not to think but believe.”  Jung put his faith in experiencing and knowing.  As he progresses as a student, his grades eventually improve.  However, school work still plagues him, but he connects with his Latin teacher, possibly because his own father made him learn Latin from an early age.  So this particular teacher, knowing Jung to be ahead of the class, would send him to the university library to get books and he would “joyfully dip into them while prolonging the walk back as much as possible.”

It is clear that Jung’s first patient is himself.  He studies his intuitive understanding of what others think and feel.  He understands a person before even knowing his name.  Much later, he comes to the realization that humans empathize with one another because of shared mythological experiences, that human beings have a collective consciousness that allows connections to be formed.  This clearly creates the basis for his life’s work.  Along the way, something transforms in the young student, and he develops a ravenous appetite for learning, even pushing through setbacks like being accused, without foundation, of plagiarism.  He becomes a brilliant student, almost in spite of his somewhat narrow-minded teachers.

A major mid-life health crisis leads to Jung’s realization of his destiny.  He comes to understand particular visions he has of his future and people he has encountered.  The doctor who brings him back from the brink of death engenders strong feelings in Jung.  He knows his doctor will die soon and Jung cannot convey the seriousness to the man adequately.  However, Jung is correct, and he is the doctor’s last patient.  Jung writes:  “Something else, too, came to me from my illness.  I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are:  an unconditional ‘yes’ to that which is, without subjective protests—acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.”  It is a powerful moment in Jung’s life.

Although some might dismiss Jung’s interest in the afterlife and ghosts as a tangent, Jung believes otherwise.  “Parapsychology holds it to be a scientifically valid proof of an afterlife that the dead manifest themselves—either as ghosts, or through a medium—and communicate things which they alone could possibly know…the question remains whether the ghost or the voice is identical with the dead person or is a psychic projection, and whether the things said really derive from the deceased or from knowledge which may be present in the unconscious.”  Interesting ideas and questions, to be sure, and Jung does not discriminate in his inquiry.  He does not dismiss such apparitions as fantasy but seeks to understand them.  He delves further into whether the ghosts might say more about the people who see them.  All of this, I found interesting and enlightening.

Jung’s philosophy of life-long learning has roots in his chosen discipline.  “I also think of the possibility,” he writes, “that through the achievement of an individual a question enters the world, to which he must provide some kind of answer.”  So it is incumbent on us to seek our own answers to existence, and not simply accept the supposed prevailing wisdom of a religion or philosophy, or even a science.  Some things cannot be explained away by science and faith.  “In old age one begins to let memories unroll before the mind’s eye and, musing, to recognize oneself in the inner and outer images of the past,” says Jung.  “This is like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter, just as, in Plato’s view, philosophy is a preparation for death.”

Memories, Dreams, Reflections is essential reading.  It’s very thesis and themes are the understanding of who we are as entities in this existence.  It is not dry science or objectification of the commonplace; it is an exploration of a man’s life leading to a validation of the ephemeral joy of being alive.  Jung argues that we must live—experience and understand—in order to comprehend why we are here and what this all means.  His writing opened up areas for me that I thought were fully explored, and he will influence my teaching of literature and writing going forward.  He revels in the paradox—mythology as truth—and we realize that in this paradox is freedom.  Life goes on after us, with us, within us.  Carl Jung demands that we think and feel our lives, demonstrating the technique for us.  It is in our memories, dreams and reflections that we find our true natures, our destinies, our transcendence.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teacher Fails

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) Working Sketch of the Mastodon

Sam was a skateboard aficionado in my seventh grade literature class.  He wore his blue uniform shorts without a belt, and did not ditch his blue Vans even when they had holes and had seen better days.  Sandy brown hair and blue eyes capped him off.  He was the stereotypical San Fernando Valley teenager, but he was not apathetic nor a daydreamer.  He had a brain and was not afraid to use it.

During class, Sam kept his head down, drawing furiously in a notebook.  From my position in the room, he sat front and center.  I could see figures, cartoons, speech bubbles, and ray guns.  Meanwhile, I took the class through Night and Tom Sawyer and a host of other novels.

When I called on him, Sam always had a ready and correct answer.  His work was thoughtful and full of insights.  All the while, he kept drawing in his notebook.  When I thought he was lost in his art, I’d call on him again.  Same result:  a good answer.  When I asked him to read a passage aloud, he would push the notebook aside and do the job in a clear, articulate voice.  His tests were all Bs and As.

What was this kid doing?  Why wasn’t he taking notes?  And how was he pulling off the good work?

I let it go for a while because he was paying attention.  It was obvious in his work and in his answers when I called on him.  However, as a seventh grade English teacher, it was also incumbent upon me to make sure students knew how to take notes, and practiced the skill daily, so I was forced to take a closer look at what Sam was doing during every class period.

One day, as the  class filed out of the room, I asked Sam to stay.  He looked at me with curiosity.  I’d never made such a request of him before.

“Sam, I need to see your notes for English,” I said.  I thought I saw a hint of a blush, possibly of embarrassment as he unzipped his backpack and withdrew three large spiral notebooks.  “Just for English,” I said.

“These are my notes for English.”

“All three of those notebooks are for English?”

“Yeah.”  He opened the first one and handed it to me.  “This is from September.”

It was February.  “You keep your notes from September with you?” I asked, shocked.

“Oh yeah.  Just in case I want to add to them.”

Across the page sprawled the most amazing set of drawings and sketches and interconnected swirls and arrows and crisscrossing lines.  Speech bubbles floated above pictorial representations of characters filled with lines from the stories and novels we had read.  Every inch of every page was covered in minute detail.  Here before me was a graphic history of everything we had covered in class, including literary devices and vocabulary.  I had never seen anything like it.  I paged through the other notebooks and found the same remarkable sketches and drawings.  Many times, students take great notes at the start of semester but trail off into a disorganized mess as the days progress until nothing is coherent or legible.  Not Sam.  His drawings caught every nuance and stayed true to the end.

“I’m sorry my notes aren’t, you know, notes,” Sam offered.

“You are quite an artist,” I replied.

“It’s the way I understand things.  I have to see them.  Otherwise, I can’t remember.”

I closed the notebook, stacked it on top of the others and handed him the pile.  “Keep up the good work,” I said.

Sam smiled and bounded out of the room.  The next day, and every day thereafter, I let him draw as we marched through adolescent literature.

About a month later, I came to the faculty room during break and heard loud voices, the loudest of which belonged to a teacher named Reynolds.  Mr. Reynolds started teaching the year I entered kindergarten.  He was an institution, the longest serving teacher the school had known.  His tenure made him bold and outspoken, and he was really the only teacher who would challenge the administration.  I respected his longevity, but he was definitely old school in a moribund and staid tradition.  He could be exciting and dynamic in his delivery, but if a kid did not respond to lecture or the “sage on the stage” style of teaching, he or she was out of luck in Mr. Reynolds’ class.

“I’d had enough,” Reynolds said.  Several other teachers were gathered around him as he gesticulated.  “I told him that he needed to take notes and get the information down.”

I felt a sick tightening in my stomach.  “What happened, Mr. Reynolds?” I asked.

“That kid Sam is always drawing in my class and I was tired of it.  He wasn’t paying attention and he wasn’t taking notes.  So I grabbed his art book and tore it up.”  The triumph was clear in his voice.  “Now his mommy is up there bitching to the administration.”

“He was taking notes,” I said.  It was difficult to control my voice.  “He takes notes by drawing.”

“What?!  He’s messing around.  You believed that?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.  I asked to see his notes when I saw him drawing in class.  He draws diagrams, cartoons, story panels, and visual representations of concepts and vocabulary.  He covers the whole range, and he does it in pictures.  That’s how he learns.  He is what is known as a visual learner.”

“Yeah, yeah.  He’s got you snowed.”

“You tore up his notebook.”

“Yeah, and if I see another one tomorrow, I’ll do it again.”

“You destroyed his notes going back months.  I don’t know if he can reproduce all that work.”

“I don’t care.”  Reynolds grabbed his chipped mug of coffee and marched out of the faculty room.  We were left with an uncomfortable silence.

The next day, Sam approached my desk after class.  “Did you hear what happened?” he asked.

“I did, Sam, and I’m sorry.  Some teachers aren’t used to students doing things different.”

He looked at me with his clear blue eyes.  “How is what I do different?  It is the way I learn.”

“It is unconventional, outside the box.”  He hung his head.  “What are you going to do?”

“My parents say I only have one more year, so they don’t want to pull me out of here, but I don’t want to be in his class anymore.”

“Look, Sam, you need to learn the way that’s best for you.  Maybe in Mr. Reynolds’ class you can take notes the way he wants and convert them to pictures when you get home.”

“It doesn’t work that way.  I do it best as I’m hearing it in class.”

“Sometimes we must do things we don’t want to do, but to survive, that’s the way it goes.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “All that work destroyed.  I had some good notes there, even though I don’t like his class.”

I had an idea.  “Can you show me your notes for my class again?”  His eyes lit up and he pulled his notebooks from his backpack.

“Where do you want to start?”

“Start from the beginning.”

“Okay, when we were reading Tom Sawyer, I was trying to imagine what Injun Joe looked like, because he would have to be really scary for Tom to be so afraid of him…”

Sam took me through his notes on Twain’s novel, and periodically for the remainder of the year, I’d have him show the class how to take visual notes on the overhead projector.  In Mr. Reynolds’ class, he kept a tidy notebook of words and sentences copied directly from the horse’s mouth, or possibly from the other end of the animal.  In Sam’s mind, it was all the same.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cemetery Weather

Today is cemetery weather.

Many of my family members are buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery at the north end of the valley.  On days like today, we leave mass and travel a few miles up the 405 to visit graves and say a few prayers in memory of loved ones long and recently departed.  My mother is buried there, right next to my paternal grandparents.  About fifty yards away are my mother’s parents, side-by-side as well, even though my grandmother lived on to marry my second grandfather, who was cremated and scattered at sea.

Vibrant blue skies and a fresh breeze always seem to accompany our time in the cemetery.  The grass is green from winter rains.  I smell the earth and trees.  We clean the grave markers, carefully cutting away the shoots of St. Augustine grass that have encroached on the margins of stone.  I fill the iron vases with water so we can place new cut flowers.  Once the grave is clean and the flowers in place, we kneel and say a few “Hail Marys” and the standard Catholic funeral refrain:  “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.”

Together, we gather the tools and flower wrappings and walk back to our car.

I always want to stay a little longer.  It is so peaceful, so quiet, just the wind through the trees and the call of a lonely bird.  It is comforting.

The strange thing is that I do not feel the presence of those we’ve lost.  My connections to the dead come from places other than the final repose beneath our bended knees.  I feel my mother, unexpectedly, while writing in my study, or when I am lost in reflection.  I sense my grandmother’s presence in the chapel at the college where she received her education, and where I now spend my days working with young student-writers.  I have strong memories of fishing with my grandfather in the first light of morning.  And I think of my maternal grandmother who lived long enough to see her great-great grandchild.

I do not feel sadness or a sense of loss at all.  What I feel is the promise of spring, the hint of summer to come.  I intuit the possibilities, the great mystery of life, itself.  Death is not the end, just as life does not extinguish in the frosts of winter.  We wait for the wind to carry us on.  We ride the crest of the coming change of seasons, the sky forever blue and endless.  We hold our breath and wait to burst forth, like the blossoms on barren trees, to move forward in our lives.

I send a prayer aloft into the blue sky for those who have journeyed on.  I enjoy the peace and tranquility of a late winter Sunday in the grave yard.  Rain is coming, I am sure, and the cold will return for another pass before leaving town.  But for now, in this moment, I have blue sky and wind and voices from long ago.

Today was cemetery weather.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Daniel Mendelsohn

Photo credit:  Matt Mendelsohn

Lately, I’ve been reading Daniel Mendelsohn, a cultural and literary critic.  His books have ample essayistic criticism, but also personal history and metaphor.  He brings sharp, intelligent, and often witty writing that is always insightful and interesting to read.

Two particularly interesting pieces I found recently, one written by Mendelsohn himself, and the other, an interview with him posted December 25th, 2012 at Lambda Literary:  Celebrating Excellence in LGBT Literature Since 1989, demand careful examination.

“A Critic’s Manifesto” posted August 28th, 2012 on The New Yorker website, gives us both some personal history and Mendelsohn’s view of the role of the critic.  He learned his craft, he tells us, through reading.  Mendelsohn dreamed of being not a novelist or poet, but a critic, and he began his journey on the pages of publications like The New Yorker reading not just literary critiques, but those written about dance and opera and Mozart.  He loved Pauline Kael the most and saved her for last as he pored over the magazine before his father came home.  It was his subscription that young Mendelsohn borrowed.  “I thought of these writers above all as teachers,” he writes, “and like all good teachers they taught by example.”  He was impressed with the way these critics not only addressed the current work, but how the artist’s entire oeuvre fit into the humanistic body of art and the scope of history.  Good criticism resulted not from academic degrees, but from “a great love of the subject…taste, or sensibility.”  It was at the feet of these distinguished writers that he learned, for instance, that poetry was written to show us how to live.  His reading of these teacher-critics taught him how to think critically, “how to judge things” for himself.  “To think is to make judgments based on knowledge:  period,” he writes.

Mendelsohn is not impressed with the broadening out of criticism these days to include blogs and websites, which feature people with strong opinions but lack “the wider erudition…taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority.”  He includes academic scholars in this group, pointing out that they are “no good at reviewing for a mainstream audience.”  Is Mendelsohn’s stance sour grapes?  The market possibilities for professional critics have dwindled in recent years, and criticism is more democratic with the rise of online opinionating found at the bottom of every Amazon page.  However, there are excellent critics who don’t write for The New York Times and The New Yorker.  There is an immense value to reading writers like Mendelsohn and James Wood, another critic from The New Yorker, but it is also important to recognize that reading and books are still of interest to common folk.

Mendelsohn is not all negative on the citizen critic and the transformation of reviewing and criticism.  He makes it clear that two phenomena bear the responsibility for this sea-change.  One, the internet has made criticism of all stripes, short blurb to long-form, available to a mass audience.  Second, the “vacuous promotional exchanges of likes, links, and ‘favorites’ on social media like Facebook has led people to follow these digital bread crumbs to popular fare like Fifty Shades of Grey, God help us.

He goes on to talk extensively about giving a bad review, and why a critic should not just be a cheerleader for his subject.  Serious criticism demands serious intent.  The audience who reads criticism wants truth and clarity; it is the critic’s job to guide readers to what is important, not just popular.  He bemoans the rise of the false memoir, the exaggerated stories written by authors who pass themselves off as creative nonfiction composers but whose books belong shelved in fiction.  He attributes this “unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood)” to online outlets like websites and blogs; and then there are the comment forums “where there are no editors and fact-checkers.”  It all balances out in the end.  How many of these fictional memoirs have been exposed for what they are over the last few years?  Many times, the unmasking of the fabulists comes at the hand of a blogger.  These online journalists working anonymously from their suburban bedrooms in the middle of the night for no pay have also broken some fairly large news stories.

In his interview in Lambda, Mendelsohn reveals what might be the root of his prejudice against online forums.  “I never feel like I’m publishing something if I’m publishing it online,” he writes.  “It doesn’t feel published to me…print feels more real to me.”  Mendelsohn needs to prepare himself for a future—actually it is a today—where online publishing will be the method of getting an essay into print and out to a wider audience, and magazines will be the niche market for a few thousand subscribers who like to collect paper.

Two other interesting notes from the Mendelsohn interview:  criticism, he believes, is being taken away from academia, and that academics are “people talking to themselves”; second, he believes the novel is over—“It’s so clear to me that the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages,” he writes.

On the first note, writing is created to be read.  Academic publishing of papers and journal articles has become a kind of Freudian envy of the other.  Why would a writer compose a piece in such esoteric and obtuse language to be read by the four other people in the world who have an interest, and the patience, to hack through the thicket of verbiage?  Academic editors and publishers wonder why audiences have dwindled?  The answer might be the writing itself.  I am not talking about “dumbing” a topic down—although that has certainly happened in this new paradigm—but what kind of effort goes into reaching an audience.  Most of the writing I read in the academic sphere seems more intent on trumpeting the author’s credentials and promoting the most extreme research topic, not on reaching real readers.

As for the novel, it is difficult to get behind fictional characters and events when real life has become so much more intense and interesting.  I do not think the novel will die, just as poetry has not disappeared and words for the stage have not been vanquished by television or movies.  It seems our culture is always announcing the death of something, but these art forms and literary genres continue.  Photography did not kill painting; movies did not kill stage craft; and the novel will go on.

So will Fifty Shades of Grey, but that, as they say, is another story altogether.

Books by Daniel Mendelsohn include:

Waiting For The Barbarians (New York Review of Books, 2012)
The Lost:  A Search For Six Million (Harper Perennial, 2007)