Time Out

Marks in the Margin will be taking an indefinite break in order to devote myself to other projects waiting in the wings. I am most grateful to everyone who has read and commented on the blog during the past two years.

During that time I have come to think of blogging as much like a classroom. In the beginning there were only a few students but gradually the class grew larger and became more interesting, especially to me.

Like any new class, it became a learning experience for the teacher who learned far more about literature than he ever had before. And it was fun, as well as a bit of a test for me, an unschooled student of literature, to try to write a page or so each day about a book or article I had read or about an idea that for one reason or another was important to me.

I also came to know a few of my readers who, I hope, will continue to be my friends during the forthcoming hiatus. And I found other literary bloggers who I now regard as friends who gather together in this strange new place to talk about the books they’ve read and what the experience meant to them.

Throughout much of last year I was ensconced in Honolulu, where I had come for what I had hoped would be the rest of my life. At least, that was the plan, a plan soon discarded as the year went by. And I have wondered to what extent simply living in the benign climate of the tropics, where I felt so utterly relaxed, contributed to the outpouring of words that year.

I had worried that I would succumb to surf boarding and sun bathing. But like most of the worries I have, nothing came of it. Does it matter where a writer lives or what the weather is like there? The life that Dostoyevsky led in Russia gave him a subject matter that ultimately led to his masterpieces. But it did not guarantee he would write them.

Would he have written about something else if he had fled wintery Moscow for the tropics? While I not even close to qualifying for Dostoyevsky’s league or have the slightest idea how to write novels, at least I did not altogether loose my stuff among the waving palms and flowering bougainvillea of Oahu. Indeed, as Jonah Lehrer comments in his recent blog, Mood and Cognition, "sometimes being relaxed “promotes a more freewheeling kind of information processing which leads to more creative insights.

Just the other day a Facebook Friend sent me a request to join the fray at Sticky Books. The rules of the game go like this: List 15 books you've read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. And then I was supposed to tag 15 Friends who I thought might like to know my favorites. Tagging remains a mystery to me, but I very quickly came up with the following list arranged in no particular order.

Azar Nafisi Reading Lolita in Tehran
Brian Morton Starting Out in the Evening,
David Denby Great Books
Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls
Michael Cunningham The Hours
Elliot Perlman Seven Types of Ambiguity
Michael Ondaatje The English Patient
J. M. Coetzee Youth
Lawrence Durrell The Alexandrian Quartet
Kai Bird & Martin Sherwin American Prometheus
Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon
Philip Roth Exit Ghost
Rachel Cusk Arlington Park
Ian McEwan Saturday
John Williams Stoner

I believe I have blogged about most of these books and in doing so I came to appreciate the extent to which reading and writing are inseparable. They always will be for me, but for now I am going to turn that undertaking in a slightly different direction.


The Science of Melancholy

Louis Menand is a professor of English at Harvard and “Critic at Large” for the New Yorker. He is also knowledgeable across a wide range of disciplines including psychology and psychiatry. In the March 1st of the New Yorker, he writes about current research on depression, therapy, and antidepressants. His discussion centers around six topics:

Menand claims there is scarcely any agreement on the causes or most effective treatments for depression. Indeed, it may never be known what the source(s) of depression are, largely because it is almost impossible to distinguish a genuine depressive pathology (if there is one) from a sadness or long-lasting melancholy from naturally occurring events.

There is also considerable disagreement about the definition of depression and a very low agreement among trained psychiatrists in diagnosing a mental patient who appears to be suffering from depression.

Psychotherapy for depression has highly variable results with outcomes that are often not significantly different than no-treatment or placebo conditions. There is also little evidence that “…supplementing antidepressant medication with talk therapy improves outcomes.” Further, patients often get better over the course of time without clinical interventions

In spite of the advice--“Take the meds.”--of a number of well known individuals (William Styron in Darkness Visible, Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon, etc), there is also little evidence that antidepressants lead to enduring recovery or that they are superior to placebos

Drug Companies
While the understanding of depression languishes in uncertainty, the drug companies are thriving. “Between 1988, the year after Prozac was approved by the F.D.A, and 2000, adult use of antidepressants almost tripled. By 2005, one out of every ten Americans had a prescription for an antidepressant.”

There is a strain of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic Calvinism in this country that underscores the importance of learning how to cope with adversity. “We think that sucking it up and mastering our fears is a sign of character.” Or that we don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t experience sorrow or distress. These are questions beyond the scope of research and, for Menand, will forever remain matters for philosophy and literature to grapple with.

If the confusion and disarray among those who study and treat depression wasn’t already clear to you, it surely will be after reading Menand’s review. I believe it gives an accurate account of the current state of depression research and analysis. There is scarcely any certainty about what to do if you become depressed and if you are in some way professionally qualified, how to go about treating it.

As one who has spent much of my life observing and studying depression, as well as spending many long hours thinking about the depressed people I have known and loved, I wonder if we will ever be able to understand and effectively overcome what has become an increasingly common problem for all too many individuals


Medicine and Literature

John Updike once wrote, “Life is a very strange thing, in a way, compared to life in a novel. People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.”

Virginia Woolf also expresses this view in her well-known essay “Short of Breath” that has been reprinted as a slim volume On Being Ill. It begins with a memorable paragraph.

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous, the spiritual change that is brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, …when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed, that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Even though she spent most of her life battling depression and debilitating physical symptoms, she never wrote about them. She wonders why illness has not been as popular a subject for literature as love. Why has the “daily drama of the body” not been recognized by writers?

She admits it might simply be due to the poverty of language. “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” Her essay was written in 1926; in the eighty-four years since then, much has changed.

Late last year the first Wellcome Trust book prize was awarded for “outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction on the theme of health, illness or medicine.” The winning book was Keeper, Andrea Gillies memoir of caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s that apparently had not been publically reviewed. In writing about this award Chris Powers discusses other works of literature that treat medical themes.

He discusses Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. He mentions writers who were trained as doctors—Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Somerset Maugham, Walker Percy, a topic about which I have previously blogged.

I think of books I’ve read about individuals with Alzheimer’s, a topic that is being written about with increasing frequency these days. There is Still Alice by Lisa Genova a novel that describes the experience from the point of view of an individual diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Much earlier there was Elegy for Iris, John Bayley’s moving account his wife, Iris Murdock’s, descent into Alzheimer’s.

…Iris’s inability to summon the words she seemed to want. Her delivery had always been slow and thoughtful and a little hesitant, and at first I was not perturbed, sure that she would recover in a few minutes, when she got the feel of the gather. It was hard to say how conscious she was of her own difficulty, but the effect soon became paralyzing, for the listener as well as for her.

Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists. First, we saw our own friendly, harassed GP, who asked Iris who the prime minister was. She had no idea but said to him with a smile that it surely didn’t matter.

More and more fiction and non-fiction books are being written about old age and the infirmities of growing old. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir that documents the author’s struggle to cope with the effects of a massive stroke that left him totally paralyzed with the exception of his left eye-lid that allowed him to communicate. I think David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death about his mother, Susan Sontag that portrays her persistent, but always painful, struggles to overcome three bouts of cancer. And then there are two recent works of Philip Roth, Everyman and Exist Ghost that depict in agonizing detail the “massacre” that is old age.

It is clearly no longer correct to say, as Virginia Woolf and John Updike did, that literature has ignored illness and matters of health. To the contrary, it now appears we are being inundated with more and more volumes of literary works that treat these issues in considerable detail. I sense we have only seen the beginning.


Econ 101

The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is growing increasingly pessimistic about the chances for recovery from the current recession. In her March 1st New Yorker profile Larissa MacFarquhar states that Krugman “pulled out of the stock market ten years ago never went back.”

Krugman believes that stocks at their current price earnings ratios are currently overpriced. “They were a good deal when the average price earnings ratio …was thirteen or fourteen, but now, except at the very bottoms of recent swings, its been over twenty.”

The stock market is a fairly reliable, although imperfect, predictor of future economic conditions. So any investor might want to take his views seriously. The same holds for anyone planning a major expenditure based on their current financial condition or that of the economy.

Should I buy a house now? Will interests rates continue to be so low? Are we about to see another bust in the housing market? Krugman also believes that being a highly developed industrial country is no guarantee against the forces that give rise to major economic downturns. “Finland and Sweden…suffered slumps as long as Indonesia’s.” So did Japan the long recession of the 90s.

Yet he is the first to admit he doesn’t always get it right. “The extent of corporate fraud, the financial malfeasance, the sheer viciousness of the political scene—those are all things that, ten years ago, I didn’t see.”

As Krugman has noted over and over again in his column in the New York Times, the Obama administration bailout plan does not go far enough. He believes much more needs to be injected into the economy to produce a sustained, stable return to better economic times and avoid a much more serious recession with the potential to develop into major depression-like crisis. (Reflecting an increasingly heard concern, David Leonhardt, in yesterday’s Times, asks, “Could the economy be at risk of a double-dip?)

Krugman is a busy man. He writes for the Times, teaches at Princeton, has conducted several landmark research studies, and written a good many books, and in collaboration with his wife, Robin Wells, also an economist, an introductory economic textbook.

Krugman also faults Obama for not being as forceful in moving forward on his agenda, particularly on health care. (Perhaps he would think otherwise in light of Obama’s latest proposals.) He believes given the current political makeup of Congress, it is hopeless to expect there will ever be any consensus on the difficult issues that the nation confronts today. Anyone who expects he can “…achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.”

It has been many years since he has been able to do the kind of serious research that led to his Nobel Prize. Yet he worries that “I guess doing the really creative academic work does require a state of mind that’s hard to maintain throughout your whole life. When I was younger, when I figured something out there was this sense of the heavens parting and the choirs singing that I don’t get now. And that’s life.”

The increase in financial inequality in the US is one of the problems Krugman would like to look more deeply into now. “…he believes that the increase in inequality in the U.S. since the sixties is a product less of economic factors—the development of technology, say, leading to the greater importance of skills and education—than of political decisions about taxation and unions.”

He is also interested in problems associated with economic geography, why for instance “…were cars produced in Detroit, carpets in Dalton, Georgia, jewelry in Providence, and chips in Silicon Valley.” Chance, history, geography, or something else?

MacFarquhar concludes her profile with a sentence that I think would characterize most, if not all scholars who devote themselves to a life of research and study. “If there is a sadness in him at all, I think it is a tiny core of profound sadness of the kind that the Buddha understood—that we probably can’t use human rationality to make the world all better and it would be really nice if we were able to.”


A Cento

A cento is a form of writing that is created from the works of other writers. It can be a poem, series of statements, an interview and, in principle, a book-length volume. The word cento is based on the Latin word for patches, as in a patchwork quilt or collage.

In its purest form it consists entirely of lines from other works of literature. I first encountered the term in doing research on commonplace books that are also a remix of quotations from other books, periodicals, poems, speeches, etc. It is said that early examples of centos can be found in the works of Homer and Virgil and other writings from antiquity.

The staff of the American Academy of American Poets has composed the following cento composed of lines written by Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett:

"In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden."

Does that make any sense? I suppose about as much as many contemporary works of poetry. Patrick Kurp once wrote a cento on his blog Anecdotal Evidence, “A Noble Part of the Joy of Life,” in the form of a Q and A about the relationship between life and literature. I found it quite amusing.

In its less pure forms the cento has recently become an extremely controversial subject. The issue concerns the extent to which it is legitimate for a writer to use the work of other writers in their own work. It ranges on the one hand from outright plagiarism, to occasional appropriation from other sources, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, to a subtle blending of quotations into a larger body of writing.

Consider the following examples: David Shields has written a novel, Reality Hunger, that presents a collage of ideas and quotations deliberately drawn from other writers that according to one reviewer “casts new light on ideas of ownership, appropriation, and reality.”

Helene Hegermann, a teenage German novelist, is embroiled in a controversy over her novel about the Berlin club scene that she admits incorporates a fair amount of writing from another novelist’s work. She says it was her plan all along to incorporate passages from other books in her own work. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she said.

Andre Aciman acknowledges he has done a little bit of remixing in his recent novel, Eight White Nights. In a letter responding to a brief review in The New Yorker, Aciman admits that, “…quotations frequently crop up in my novel whenever the narrator tries to grasp what is happening to him. Because this is more or less standard procedure in my novel, I wouldn’t want knowledgeable readers of your magazine to be under any misguided impressions about my work when they pick up snatches s from William Wordsworth, Paul Verlaine, Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, or Stevie Smith.”

However, it is unclear from Aciman’s letter if these passages are acknowledged or not, whereas in Shield’s novel, the quotations from other works are apparently cited in a detailed Appendix.

Isn’t this remixing much like the commonplace books of antiquity where individuals collected the notable writings of others into a manuscript that they could use in their own speeches, writings, and instruction? Indeed, isn’t this collage-like practice also necessary for investigators in any discipline that builds upon the work of previous writers and researchers and draws upon it in guiding their own inquires, as well as supporting its findings? Quoting Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Try writing a cento sometime. It is a bit like playing Scrabble, only instead of letters, a sentence or series of short passages from other authors are combined to create a poem or paragraph(s) of your own. It isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do and I am confident it isn’t going to replace Scrabble as the board game of choice for the linguistically nimble.


On Depression

Could depression be an adaptive response to painful life stressors? You might wonder how anyone might think anything as unpleasant could be the least bit adaptive. However, if you think the question makes little sense, consider the fact that 1 in 18 or 14.4 million people in USA are estimated to become seriously depressed during their life.

What possible function could such distress or even mild suffering have? This is the question Jonah Lehrer considers in his article “Depression’s Upside” in this week’s New York Times Magazine. The question emerges within an evolutionary psychology framework that tries to account for human thought and action in terms of natural selection processes.

Darwin himself suffered from periodic bouts of depression that he came to believe allowed him to focus on his work. Lehrer quotes Darwin: “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me.” And later sadness “…leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” “The darkness was a kind of light.”

The light it might shed has been taken up by a psychiatrist, Paul Andrews and an evolutionary psychologist, J. Thomson in their controversial paper “The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” According to Lehrer they began by focusing on rumination, one of the dominant thought processes of a depressed person. They wondered what purpose rumination might serve.

Andrews and Thomson claim there are real benefits to be derived from ruminative thinking even though it occurs while a person is suffering. They are the insights gained in thinking analytically about their depression. They call their view the “Analytic Rumination Hypothesis.

“The analytical rumination (AR) hypothesis proposes that depression is an adaptation that evolved as a response to complex problems and whose function is to minimize disruption of rumination and sustain analysis of complex problems.”

Andrews and Thomson respond to the many critics of their view by admitting depression cannot be so easily encapsulated into a single formulation, that it is a highly variable phenomena that takes many forms, often without any discernable benefits and that it has numerous alternative theoretical accounts. “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful.”

I am sympathetic to Thomson’s view of the critical test for the AR Hypothesis, namely, “Do these ideas help me in my practice?” To find out he began cutting back on anti-depressive medications in the belief that they were actually making it harder for individuals to resolve their dilemmas. He relates the response of one patient who, when asked if her anti-depressants were working, said, “Yes their working great. I feel much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.”

Lehrer proceeds to discuss the mounting evidence that anti-depressants do not lead to lasting improvement and that the relapse rates for those on them is as high as 76 percent, whereas for those receiving the increasingly popular cognitive therapy it is 36 percent. In addition, he discusses recent research on the effects of negative moods (a sad video, gray/rainy days, negative performance feedback, etc.) that often lead to better decision-making and improved writing.

In one study he showed that unhappy writers write better than happy ones. This is consistent with the large body of research assembled by Kay Redfield Jamison in Touched with Fire that creative achievement in the arts is often associated with depression or manic-depressive illness.

The relationship between depression and improved writing skills seems like a paradoxical quirk of evolution. In an experiment he conducted on abstract-reasoning Andrews found that, “Depressed affect made people think better.” At least it did for some depressed individuals. A seriously ill depressed psychotic is clearly not going to think better or show any benefit from ruminating about their misery.

Lehrer concludes, “The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness….even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.”

Telling someone then to embrace the tonic of their despair is easy. Getting them to do that is another matter. Perhaps one way writers try to escape from their despair is by writing about it. Since that rarely works for very long, is it any wonder our bookshelves are filled with so many unhappy novels and memoirs.


William Styron

Soon after it began publishing, the Paris Review interviewed William Styron who was then living in Paris. The interview was conducted in early autumn on a sunny afternoon at a cafe on the boulevard du Montparnasse—parfait. The interviewer begins by asking Styron if he enjoys writing.

“I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.” This is spoken by the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness that describes Styron’s battle to overcome depression.

Styron’s account of his struggle to write should give some consolation to all those aspiring writers who are about to abandon ship. But like Roth, who said every writer needs his “poisons,” Styron also thought of writing as somewhat therapeutic for “people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time.”

While admitting his work has been influenced by the notables—Joyce, Flaubert, Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, “the strongest influences are out of the past—the Bible, Marlow, Blake, Shakespeare.” Again, this leaves unanswered the question of how the work of one writer can influence another. No doubt, it is a matter of considerable subtlety and may be nothing very specific, but rather a vague, indefinite form of learning without awareness.

Styron is then asked about his view of the critics, of which he had many. He replies, “From the writers point of view, critics should be ignored, although it’s hard not to do what they suggest.” He then notes how hard it is to have critics who are also your friends. He reads their reviews…but they don’t really help him much, at least in ways that he can pinpoint.

“Look there’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay attention to. It’s not any dam critic. It’s the reader….The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I’m getting along all right.”

What do I expect to learn or find in reading a critics review of a book? It is really one and only one thing—I want to find out if I might enjoy reading the book. I am far less interested in placing the book in the context of other works by the writer or much of anything about his or her life.

Nor am I the least bit interested in what the book reviewer thought about its literary excellence—its structural or post-modern features. Rather, I want to know what the book meant to the critic and how it might have affected him. I look for the experience the reviewer had in reading the book, what insights it gave him, if it led him to identify with any of the characters or their situations and the significance that might have had for the reviewer.

In short, I want to know if it is worth my time to read the novel and head down to the bookstore to buy it. I confess, I rarely get this kind of information from most reviewers. Like Styron, I have to start reading the book and if I like what I read in the beginning, it is likely that I’ll enjoy the rest of it.

As a totally unrelated but profoundly relevant footnote, I would like to cite a passage from the interview with Paul Auster that is also included in Volume IV of the Paris Review Interviews. It was conducted in 2003 when Auster was then 56. Even at that relatively young age he could say,

“Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.”