Reading, Looking, and Listening / May 6, 2016

“I don’t think I’ve read more than a few pages of anything in months.” This confession to a student of mine sums things up pretty well. I expected some of this. Having a kid changes things. The first months turn sleep into the most precious commodity. Of course. But what I was not ready for was the great blanking of my mind. I’ve found it hard to turn information into complete thoughts, let alone compelling conversation.

As an added bit of luck, I blew out my knee playing soccer when the baby was a month old, and, especially after the surgery, I’ve been learning the ways the immediacy of the body in pain makes the freedom necessary for thinking hard to achieve. 

I’m hoping the great blanking is over as the following few things have taken root in my mind. In my more ambitious moments, I imagine having a good old-fashioned conversation about them.

Richard W Orange, “Did Rousseau Have ADHD?” I’m wary of the anachronistic diagnosis because psychological conditions are always both something real in the body and mind and an artifact of culture. There’s no condition before we recognize that constellation of behaviors as problematic in a specific way. Many of our previous psychological “conditions”—such as homosexuality—are no longer understood to be things in need of therapy or curing. So, with that caveat, I think this article is great. In a certain way, Rousseau presents himself as a thoroughly modern individual, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he manifests many of the behaviors of the very modern ADHD. Spurred by his own recent later-in-life diagnosis and his enduring sympathy for Rousseau, Orange does great detective work, using Rousseau’s Confessions to gather information about the way he worked, acted, and was perceived by others. The article made me start thinking about my own work habits in a new light. I’m not ready to self-diagnose, but I don’t have to try too hard to see myself in Rousseau’s portrait. Orange ends the article reflecting on the primary issue at the heart of modern psychology: Today we would medicate a young Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We’re obsessed with conforming today because you appear happier when you don’t cause social friction. Rousseau’s restless mind could not conform, and he suffered a lot for it, but in the process, he also fundamentally changed several fields of knowledge.

Robert H Frank, “Luck Matters More Than You Might Think.” My friend, Adam, and I wrote a paper a few years ago about gratitude. It changed my attitude toward life. Since then gratitude has become culturally hot. Frank’s piece in the Atlantic focuses on the related concepts of luck and chance in our lives. The article is a thinly veiled swipe at the attitude of those on the American right who maintain the childish notion that they are “self-made.” Frank concludes, as Adam and I did, that gratitude for the ways that luck and chance shape your life—the things you receive that you don’t deserve—lead you to be more generous in your politics and everyday interactions. Frank rightly concludes, “Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn’t always hold up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy.”

David Whyte’s “House of Belonging.” April was National Poetry Month. Every April I make daily visits to Live in the Layers, a blog run by a friend’s friend. She posts a new poem each day of the month, and I always learn a lot about poetry and am often deeply moved by the verses she chooses. This year, I was struck just right by David Whyte’s “House of Belonging.” I’ve been thinking a lot about being alone recently, but not in the sad way—more like in the way Whyte suggests here. I recommend his interview at On Being. There’s wisdom there.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid VI. I have not yet read this; my copy arrived two days ago, and I’m excited to check it out. This review from the London Review of Books is exactly what you’d expect from them: erudite, generally positive, but unable to love (why end on the sour note?). I suppose I normally worry about the accuracy of a translation when I assign it, but I don’t think that’s what this is about. We get a rare glimpse into the way that a poet transforms worlds. There is the text of Virgil, and then there is what Heaney sees and feels when he reads Virgil. The latter is Heaney’s gift to us. I was explaining the premise of the Aeneid to my son (I know he’s only two months old, but if we’re going to read it together, he needs to understand the story), and I already felt Heaney working on my understanding of the epic. Aeneas arrives in the underworld in Book VI to confront the ghosts that haunt him—his past that’s weighing him down—so that he can move forward and be the person that he’s already becoming. That is, Aeneas must accept himself.

Radiohead, “Burn the Witch.” The return of Radiohead matters to me. I was surprised by this when over the weekend, Radiohead started dropping clues that their new album was approaching (out on Sunday!). There were strange mailed leaflets. Clues about witches and the dawn chorus that suggested May 1 was significant. Then silence for 24 hours before the release of this new song and video. I love the way it sounds. The strings are stunning. I haven’t put my thoughts together about how to connect all the pieces, but the song seems to be a warning against the destructive tendency to want to out the “witches” among us. In the present, we see this struggle play out in the anti-refugee sentiment in Europe and America that sees in every Muslim a possible terrorist.


Also listen to The Range’s Potential  (there will be a documentary on its making) and Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw.

*Photo is Seamus Heaney