Grass grows in the night
and early the mockingbirds begin
their fleet courtships over puddles,
upon wires, in the new green
of the Spanish limes.
Their white-striped wings flash
as they flirt and dive.
Wind in the chimes pulls music
from the air, the sky’s cleared
of its vast complications.
In the pause before summer,
the wild sprouting of absolutely
everything: hair, nails, the mango’s
pale rose pennants, tongues of birds
Words, even, and sudden embraces,
surprising dreams and things I’d never
imagined, in all these years of living,
one more astonished awakening.
"Morning in May” by Rosalind Brackenbury from Bonnard’s Dog. © Hanging Loose Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Sigmund Freud (books by this author), born in Freiburg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), in 1856. He’s usually associated with Vienna, where he lived from the age of four until the Germans occupied it in 1938. He then moved to London, where he died of throat cancer in 1939. Freud wrote several books, including The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
Freud started his professional life as a medical doctor, but as a Jew, he knew his prospects in medicine were probably limited. He became interested in psychology, especially in a mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to observe the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then one of Freud’s colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling “the talking cure.”
Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn’t just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself.
People tend to hold very strong opinions about Freud, pro or con. He had many pupils in the early 20th century; notable among them were Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, but both of them eventually broke with Freud. Though some versions of talk therapy are still used, most psychologists and psychiatrists have rejected his theories: only about 1 per cent of people in therapy are being treated using Freudian methods. Though he’s fallen out of favor in the scientific community, many of his revolutionary concepts — like the idea of the unconscious, the interpretation of dreams, and the idea of repressed feelings causing harm — have entered our culture and our literature. And even though they haven’t read his books, most people are still familiar with his concepts, like the Oedipus complex, the ego, the phallic symbol, and the Freudian slip.
W.H. Auden wrote a long poem called “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” which captures how deeply Freud and his ideas have permeated culture. He wrote:
If some traces of the autocratic pose, the paternal strictness he distrusted, still clung to his utterance and features, it was a protective coloration for one who’d lived among enemies so long: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a personnow but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives: Like weather he can only hinder or help.
It’s the birthday of French journalist and novelist Gaston Leroux, born in Paris in 1868. He started his career as a court reporter and theater critic, and then covered the Russian revolution as an international correspondent. He quit journalism to take up fiction in 1907.
He was fascinated with the Paris Opera House, which sits above a series of catacombs and jail cells, and in one of his news reports he had covered the death of a patron who had been struck by a falling chandelier. He studied the blueprints of the building and knew it inside and out, and when a skeleton was discovered in the cellars, he began a novel of obsession, murder, and music.
The result, Beauty and the Beast fable The Phantom of the Opera (1910), is his best-known work in the English-speaking world, and he maintained until his death that the Opera Ghost was real.
It’s the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell (books by this author), born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). He wrote many collections of poetry in his lifetime, but he was also considered one of the greatest literary critics of his generation. In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. He was also one of the first critics to notice the work of Elizabeth Bishop. In a review of her first book of poems, Jarrell wrote, “[Bishop understands that] morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions, the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore.”
Randall Jarrell said: “It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.”
It’s the birthday of Orson Welles, Kenosha, Wisconsin (1915). He made his Broadway debut in Romeo and Juliet at the age of 19. He founded the Mercury Theatre when he was 22. When he was 23, he came out with his famous broadcast of War of the Worlds, which caused great hysteria on the East Coast. And when he was 26, he made his masterpiece, the movie Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane didn’t make much at the box office, but is now considered one of the greatest films in history.
Welles said: “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”