Tuesday Nov. 4, 2014

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Book Group

We read a book ostensibly
about the Holocaust in which
six million were killed, babies
had their skulls bashed against
the wall, an entire culture
was wiped out, leaving only
the vaudeville Jews of America
and the critic in the group says
the theme is survival and
everyone cries paradox! paradox!

"Book Group" by Harvey Shapiro, from A Momentary Glory. © Wesleyan University Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet C.K. Williams (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that's where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn't write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn't know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: "It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness." He went back and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and started publishing books of poetry, books like Tar (1983), Flesh and Blood (1987), and The Singing (2003), which won the National Book Award.

Sigmund Freud's book The Interpretation of Dreams was first published on this date in 1899 (books by this author). Freud, a neurologist by training, had noticed in treating his patients that they often ended up talking about their dreams during their sessions with him. He came up with the theory of the unconscious mind, and believed that dreams can reveal important things about the mental state and motivations of an individual. We're all familiar with that concept now, but it was a revolutionary leap in Freud's time; most people thought dreams were just nonsense. After analyzing his own dreams, and the dreams of his patients, he came to believe that they represented a way for the unconscious to work out conflicts.

In Freud's theory, the personality is composed of three elements — the id, the superego, and the ego — that work together to shape our behavior. The id is driven by what Freud called the "pleasure principle," and it wants instant gratification for all primal urges. The ego operates on the "reality principle," and it translates the demands of the id in socially acceptable ways. And the superego is, in short, the conscience. It spends most of its time trying to suppress the id. But the id must express itself somehow, and so it does this in dreams, when the conscious mind is inactive. Because the id is unconcerned with propriety, the dream images generated would be shocking and disturbing to the conscious mind, so a "censor" steps in to translate the id's wishes into symbols. By unlocking those symbols, the psychoanalyst and the patient can begin to unravel any buried impulses and conflicts.

Freud was a prolific and vivid dreamer himself, so he spent a couple of years interpreting his own dreams as a test of his theory. The most famous of these has come to be known as "Irma's injection." In it, Freud dreamed he was examining "Irma," a patient he had just met with the day before. In the dream, Irma was complaining of intense pain. He had thought her illness was psychosomatic, but began to question whether he had missed a physical cause. He determined that she was suffering from an infection due to an injection with a dirty needle. Freud decided that the dream meant — among other things — that he felt guilty about failing his patients, and that he wished he were treating one of Irma's more intelligent friends instead.

Although it's now considered one of Freud's most important works, the book didn't sell well at the time. The first print run of 600 copies took eight years to sell out. Scientific journals all ignored it, with the exception of psychology journals — and they lambasted it. Six months after it was published, Freud wrote to a friend that "not a leaf has stirred to reveal that The Interpretation of Dreams has had any impact on anyone." On the contrary, the book changed the way we think about the mind. Freud's theories have — for better or worse — influenced movies, art, literature, philosophy, and advertising. Of this, he wrote: "I am a scientist by necessity, and not by vocation. I am really by nature an artist ... And of this there lies an irrefutable proof: which is that ... psychoanalysis ... has been better understood and applied by writers and artists than by doctors. My books, in fact, more resemble works of imagination than treatises on pathology ... I have been able to win my destiny in an indirect way, and have attained my dream: to remain a man of letters, though still in appearance a doctor."

Today is the birthday of cowboy poet and humorist Will Rogers (1879) (books by this author). He was born on a ranch near Oologah, Oklahoma, although Oklahoma was still the Cherokee Nation at that time. Since he grew up on a cattle ranch, it's not too surprising that he learned how to throw a lasso, but Rogers took it a step further. He made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once to rope a galloping horse and rider: one rope went around the horse's neck, the second went around the rider, and the third captured the horse's legs. His trick roping skills are featured in a movie, The Ropin' Fool (1922), and he was popular in Wild West shows and on the vaudeville circuit. He also had a knack for wisecracks, and soon those became part of his act as well. He appeared in several Broadway shows and about 70 movies. He also wrote six books and a popular syndicated newspaper column, "Will Rogers Says," which reached 40 million readers.

It was on this day in 1918 that British war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in World War I, at the age of 25 (books by this author). In the days before his death, Owen had been excited because he knew the war was almost over. The Germans were retreating and the French had joyfully welcomed the British troops. In his last letter to his mother, Owens wrote: "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." A few days later, he was trying to get his men across a canal in the early morning hours when they were attacked by enemy fire, and Owen was fatally wounded. The war ended the following week.

It was on this day in 1922 that a British man named Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen. At that time, most of the tombs in Egypt had been emptied of anything of value, but Carter had found references to a little-known pharaoh whose tomb had never been found. So he got funds for a series of excavations, and on this day in 1922, one of the site workers needed to set down his water jar, so he kicked some rocks off a flat spot on the ground and noticed that it looked like part of a staircase. By the end of the day, Carter had uncovered a series of steps that led to a sealed door. He waited three weeks to enter the tomb with his patron, Lord Carnarvon. When they finally went inside, Carter said, "At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold ... everywhere the glint of gold."

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