Monday, September 26, 2005

I don't really know much about Confucius; I think I only finally read The Analects (though I completely forget what that's supposed to mean) when it occurred to me I might use him in a Humanities section on The Good Society. I didn't. So I can't even claim, because I don't know the context, that he's a model for the aphoristic writer. I know Walter Benjamin remarked somewhere that the literature of the future would consist of aphorisms; I'm sure he had reasons for saying so. I'm simply reporting my taste, a personal inclination for pithy statements that open up to contemplation, that are more likely to be sublime than beautiful, that are true without pretending to proclaim a truth.
As I got older, I started to really enjoy writers I avoided when I was young; in fact, generically I still prefer fiction and plays to the pretensions of of the cntemporary market for editorials, opinions and theories. (But who doesn't like biography? It ought to count as a genre of fiction.) I like Wilde, Thoreau, Epictetus, Diogenes, Montaigne, Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson--of course Gertrude Stein, who herself said, "Remarks are not literature," but was awfully good at producing memorable ones. I never would have thought even in grad school, when I was only starting to get over my resentment of canons enough to enjoy reading even books that seemed like monuments in "the tradition," that I would get so much pleasure out of reading Samuel Johnson (well, you have to start with Boswell's Life, because that's where most of the endearing funny remarks are).

Anyway, Confucius said several things that have remained on my list of best pithy remarks ever:

Some are the kind of axioms we put on posters to encourage the right attitude in teachers and administrators:

The gentleman helps others to realize what is good in them; he does not help them realize what is bad in them. The small man does the opposite.

If a man is correct in his own person, then there will be obedience without orders being given; but if he is not correct in his own person, there will not be obedience even though orders are given.

What the gentleman seeks, he seeks within himself; what the small man seeks, he seeks in others.

Some are just wise:

In his errors a man is true to type. Observe his errors and you will know the man.

In his dealings with the world the gentleman is not invariably for or against anything. He is on the side of what is moral.

To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it.

It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue; failure to go more deeply into what I have learned; inability, when I am told what is right, to move where it is; and inability to reform myself when I have defects.

Confucian irony is hilarious:

A man from a village in Ta Hsiang said, "Great indeed is Confucius! He has wide learning but has not made a name for himself in any field." The Master on hearing this said to his disciples, "What should I make myself proficient in? In driving? Or in archery? I think I would prefer driving."

And at least one thing he said is sort of my watchword:

The way out is through the door. Why then does no one use this way?

Confucius. He was righteous. Nice hat, by the way.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I can't help feeling I'm being awfully pedantic here. I was thinking about this last night: I'm keeping a writer's journal because that's what matters to me, but I'm talking about what I do as a teacher--and whatever else is involved in "professional" activities. Since I do spend a lot of my time preparing for classes, and even researching stuff, it's . . . well, my life. But confronting that rather makes me feel that I'm conducting my life as a set of activities I have to get through in order find time to get around to some completely other life. (Is there where the idea of an afterlife comes from? A general recognition that everything one thinks gives life meaning is going to be infinitely deferred? I think it's Yeats' autobiography that ends with a line like, "Life seems a preparation for something that never happens."

So in the spirit of pedantry, I present something I actually wrote: a piece on Secrets of a Soul I wrote as the first of a series on classic cinema and dreaming for DreamTime, the IASD membership magazine. It's relevant for me because we screened the film in my class yesterday.

Secrets of a Soul – G. W. Pabst, 1926, silent, b&w, Germany.
Early in his career, the great German director G. W. Pabst conceived the project of presenting the new science of psychoanalysis to the masses through cinematic narrative, in a film demonstrating how the Freudian "talking cure" miraculously dispelled neurotic symptoms. The pseudo-documentary form of the film would thus be a case study—a form that had surprisingly secured Freud himself a place on best-seller lists—and the plot would be the process and progress of therapy. "Health films"—didactic treatments of marital counseling and family planning, even the importance of diet and exercise—were all the rage among a public embracing modern and forward-looking ways of life in the post-war Germany of the 1920s. It was in this context that two of Freud’s inner circle, Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs, agreed in to act as advisors in the production of the 1926 silent film Secrets of a Soul. Pabst was a director of the highest artistic reputation, and the project offered him tempting opportunities to fuse two contrasting idioms at which he excelled: an almost unrivalled naturalism in his frank films of urban life, along with his mastery of pioneering expressionist techniques, which proved so powerful in the cinematic depiction of dream, memory, and troubled states of mind.
Freud himself, however, was not impressed. (It is one of the many fascinating paradoxes of the history of psychoanalysis that it succeeded largely through public-relations work while its originator consistently disdained popular culture.) Despite the master’s disavowal, however, Secrets of a Soul has great historical importance: Its appearance in the United States was instrumental in spreading psychoanalysis in Hollywood and thus throughout the world, and it set the tone and conventions for almost all subsequent cinematic depictions of both psychoanalysis and dreams. If the dream of Irma’s Injection in Chapter Two of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is the "specimen dream of psychoanalysis," Martin Fellman’s dream in Secrets of a Soul is the specimen dream of cinematic psychoanalysis—or of psychoanalytic cinema. It’s still one of the most complex and fascinating depictions of a dream available on film, but what remains most interesting about it is its means of fulfilling its original intention as a kind of advertisement for the psychoanalytic method.

The plot itself is daring, and one of the great virtues of the film is that it conveys so much through hints, indirection, and symbolism. (Through the ages, countless artworks have benefited from repression, prudishness, and censorship to the extent that they encourage ingenuity in getting across a prohibited insight.) It is, for example, largely through images of planted seedlings and empty rooms that we realize that the precipitating problem of the story is the protagonist’s failure to father a child. And in a real masterstroke, the psychoanalyst who happens upon the hero in a tavern follows him because he has left behind his housekey—which even the non-initiated can instantly recognize as the "key" to his relations with his wife, the key to his sexual complexes and neurotic behavior, and thus the key to the mysteries of his soul. But it is the extended dream sequence, of course, that is the most celebrated aspect of the production. Replete with trains approaching tunnels, babies floating upon water, and what is now widely recognized as phallic symbolism (in the form of cupolas, church bells, and yes, even a pith helmet), it served as a virtual compendium of imagery and techniques for later filmmakers—most importantly, Alfred Hitchcock, who always acknowledged the profound influence of Pabst and the German expressionists on his psychologically-inflected cinematic practice, including his own, better-known psychoanalytic mystery, Spellbound (1941).

The course of psychoanalytic therapy creates an engrossing and multi-leveled plot: in Secrets of a Soul, as the doctor encourages the patient to free-associate, fantasies and memories arise, leading to still more extravagant scenes. This bravura performance, however, grinds to a screeching halt when the neurosis is resolved: in a silent film, the only way for the doctor to reveal the hidden origin of the patient’s symptoms in—of course—childhood trauma is through the painfully slow crawl of text from the bottom to the top of the screen. Fears, hopes, dreams and memories are brilliantly communicated solely through the uniquely cinematic language of the moving image, but psychoanalytic explanation requires the sudden, jarring, and distinctly non-cinematic incursion of theories and pronouncements, abstract formulations rendered in confident, well-formed declarations. It may be satisfying within the realm of theory, but in the realm of cinema, it feels like an attempt to force a triumph of pedantry over art.

Freud would have approved, to the extent that he could approve of popular film at all: Irrational imagery is finally supplanted, even dispelled, by the cool reasoning available in an orderly text. But the fact that the explanation is by far the least interesting part of the film—in fact, that it interrupts the film in a way that seems bizarrely forced—points to some interesting questions about the use of cinema as propaganda for the psychoanalytic approach to the psyche in general and dreams in particular. Like the dream of Irma’s injection and the other dreams that follow in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Martin Fellman’s dream in Secrets of a Soul is not actually offered as a case study, but is produced and presented rhetorically—as a pseudo-argument to show the incontestable validity of psychoanalytic technique. And like those dreams, it doesn’t in fact bear out the psychoanalytic theory of dreams at all. For one thing, just as in the Interpretation, the dream is not traced to the unfulfilled infantile erotic wish that, in Freud’s scheme, is the only psychic content capable of generating a dream. I leave the further details for you to work out on your own viewing, but the film is much richer than its own internal interpretation admits: for example, the imagery strongly suggests that the hero harbors womb envy and birth fantasies, made evident through distinctly mythic motifs that are better understood through a Jungian exploration of archetypal themes than a Freudian reduction of the dream to repressed wishes.
Yet Secrets of a Soul proved to be very effective propaganda for the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, despite Freud’s fears that it would dilute its message. What ultimately convinced the film’s original audience of the efficacy of psychoanalytic therapy is not the dream interpretation itself but the placement of the interpretation (presented through sophisticated narrative technique) within the plot of the film, as an appealing myth of self-discovery that psychoanalysis ultimately derives from Oedipus: the laborious struggle to discover who we are by searching fearlessly in the depths of the soul. It succeeds as popular cinema by presenting the viewer with a mystery whose solution elicits a satisfying "Aha!" response—not a cogent argument but a flashy piece of artistic legerdemain. Within scientific study of the mind, not only Freudians may be charged with this error; most theories of dream interpretation have always counted upon aesthetic response to a tidy, well-spun dream interpretation to provide conviction without presenting real evidence for the theory. But the cinema is a different matter: As an art form, it’s supposed to try out ideas through invoking universal concerns and establishing complex emotional resonance. So many of our best films are built upon highly questionable ideas that it seems almost a prerequisite for doing really interesting work.
In a series of columns for DreamTime, I hope to explore this issue in more detail, through examples derived from screen classics featuring great dream sequences and dream-centered plots, and to offer some suggestions for your own home viewing. We’re all accustomed to noting that dreams and movies seem to operate in similar ways, yield to similar tactics of analysis and interpretation, and "feel" the same in obscure ways. We’ve observed that often, both dreams and film ultimately appear more meaningful—at least more urgently convincing—than actual experience as a foundation for our basic beliefs about the world. But I believe that by examining examples in detail, we may go much farther, and perhaps come to understand why so much of our culture’s creativity, imagination, and even economy are invested in the collective dream factory of international cinema.
Secrets of a Soul (VHS only) is not currently available but can be found in many libraries, and may be available for rental from Good sources for hard to find titles are:,,, and of course, Basic information you may want about any film, actor, director, etc., along with useful lists of dream-based films, can always be found at

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I wrote this for my notes on introducing Freud to my class on Dreams and Cinema tomorrow:

If we really learned from Freud, we would pursue the unconscious motivations of our most counter-productive and destructive impulses. We would look for the real roots of personal and political violence instead of following hackneyed, hopeless, and archaic models of right and wrong, good and evil, the conquest of a bad ideology by a good one. We would attempt to understand our own drives and desires and perhaps inoculate ourselves against the manipulations that prompt us to destroy each other in pursuit of entirely illusory symbolic gratifications, that hold up the laughable fantasy of eradicating evil. We would try to understand our own sexuality instead of projecting it as an apocalyptic battleground.

There's nothing there I wouldn't endorse. But I've always been suspicious of my own tendency to create an oracular (more often than academic) voice in my writing for publication (or public consumption). It bothers me, but I'm not sure how to write more spontaneously, with less rhetorical flashiness, fewer tricks (less parallelism? clunkier rhythms?).
Then there's just the whole business of offering an opinion. That's why I favor poetry, stories, plays. It's not that I don't want to get caught actually holding an opinion (though it is a little bit that I don't want to have to argue in defense of one). I just mistrust the role of opinions in contemporary life, from the tendency to take people seriously according to how violently they believe things to all the trappings of the whole horrible opinion industry.
Including blogging.
I should really try to say something more interesting here soon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Same deal today, and likely for most days to come. I'd like to tell you about this story I have in mind about two 14-year-old boys who jack off together and the insane things that happen in their community more or less as a consequence, but I've had too much to do to think about it. Instead, I have been proposing a strategy to get Washington-area theaters to "create partnerships" to get their productions digitally archived; I've been preparing to teach sections from the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh; I'm putting my notes on Freud together for my film class; I've been working on the proposal for a new course we could suddenly propose for next semester. I can't believe I'm doing this, or talking this way. If I continue to feel fraudulent and out of place in my daily work when I've been at it this long, does that suggest that I am somehow "staying young" (just because I'm staying insecure)? Or am I just treating my actual life as not quite real while clinging to a fantasy life? These really do seem like a much younger person's questions.

Shuffle Function
"Silence is the Question," The Bad Plus
"Lithium," Nirvana

"Daun Pulus Keser Bojong," the sublime Idjah Hadidjah (best entertainer name in universe)
"Cactus Tree," Joni Mitchell (That's the weird one.)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

I thought--I'd like very much to think--that the rhythms of my life as a writer would derive from whatever project I was devoting myself to. There'd be times I'd be doing research and notes, other times I'd be immersed in the imaginative world of a play or novel (working at my country retreat, of course, or an artist's colony), still others when I'd be obsessing for weeks about the fine points of revision. It's never really turned out that way. As I will probably be saying again and again, I don't write that much, I don't finish that much, I don't publish that much. Yet I know that a lot of people who get done a lot more than I do are, like me, spending relatively little of their time on writing and a whole lot more on jobs, on committees, on business. I like teaching very much (although I do not exactly like having a job; I think it might be nice to be an itinerant, free-lance kind of a teacher, if anyone could make a living that way), but I seem to spend all of my time on it; I like working with the organizations I work with, but I seem to spend all of my time on them; and I am spending no time at all writing a very interesting story I have rolling around in my head a lot lately--I'll just have to tell you about it another time--and all the writing I am doing seems to be instructions for assignments, reviews of curricular development proposals, reports to boards. (I am, very improbably, on the board of two organizations, both of which are in rapid change, and, like everybody else these days, looking to "get to the next level.")
What an appallingly boring thing to complain about, as an obstacle to writing. It makes alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, obsessive love affairs, religious mania all seem so refreshing, so practically wholesome in comparison.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My house is full of people from Art's office, here for a cook-out. (I made potato salad, corn salad, bean salad, fruit salad, and a fig and goat cheese salad I'm anxious about--but I don't think I'll start offering recipes in this space, even if I feel it necessary to mention that I'm a really good cook.) I figure when I can't get the time to write in this journal I'll fall back on stuff I've already got on hand, like:


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is my Elvis.
--Jeff Buckley
Judy Garland is my heavy metal.
--Jake Shears
I was thinking about those two quotes a lot yesterday, I don't know why; I suppose because I like people who substitute an eccentric influence for a mainstream one and do something that isn't absolutely radical but more off-center, not shocking but odd.

Friday, September 16, 2005

When Gary Kornblau was putting Mythomania together for publication, he caught me unawares with a request for an author photo. I wasn't crazy about the idea, and we had kind of a fight about it before I consented to use a photo Colby'd taken from the Jeopardy broadcast. I'd always resisted the notion of having whatever it was I was doing in my writing tied to an image the reader would have of me. For a long time, I sincerely hoped to publish in different genres under a variety of names and avoid developing a persona as a writer at all; instead, I have managed to remain obscure through the more straightforward strategy of simply writing and publishing very little. Now I feel more like, hmmm, pictures of me just don't matter; they're beside the point, that's all. I wish I were better-looking; I wish I were slimmer; I wish I had even the slightest talent for turning wishes into reality---but lately, even though it may sound like an excuse and probably is, I'm a lot more suspicious of the role of this "I" that wants all this control over my looks, my habits, and my destiny. I like this picture because of the relation of the subject in the distance to the lotuses in the foreground. If I start wondering whether I look hot in that red shirt, it becomes an invitation to a really distracting bout of self-reproach.

Movies and Dreams
Yesterday showed The Wizard of Oz to my Dream Screen class at the Corcoran. (The title of the course is a phrase I probably would have chosen spontaneously, but it does happen to be the title of one of the better of the few existing books on dream and cinema--though one I don't agree with about much.) I wrote about Oz in Mythomania; in that essay, I followed the trail of Dorothy into Victor Fleming's version of Joan of Arc, suggesting that he carried the traces of the plot of his earlier film into the later one, and using the parallel to sort of question Joseph Campbell's universal myth stuff. (Do girls get to be heroes? Aren't hero myths just as much about the heroes' counter-social elements as all that following of their bliss? And so on.) My favorite thing about that essay was the opportunity to print the image of Dorothy with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion next to one of Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc with her three generals, one of whom looks an awful lot like the tin man in his 15th-century armor.
I'm asking the students to write about the use of the dream in Oz, Sherlock, Jr., or Living in Oblivion. My own take on the movie has always centered on the paradox of Dorothy's rather grimly determined insistence that "There's no place like home"; that's always seemed to me a good example of how the transparently ideological purposes of cinema (and art in general) aren't nearly as neat as critics like to make them out to be. In movies, mixed messages expose their own contradictions to create the flavor and excitement of the medium; their messiness isn't just an opportunity to point out how terribly, terribly wrong these ideas are--that they're biased and inconsistent and serve commercial purposes isn't exactly news--but the very most appropriate form that art can take in order to create a dynamic relation among the art producers, the world, and the audience.
The particular issue I usually focus on is Dorothy's relation to the men (or males; they aren't exactly human) in the film, who are defined by their deficiencies. But every time I see the movie, I think about something else. This time it was the issue of influence. It looked to me like the Wizard's chamber had interesting echoes of Rottwang's workshop in Metropolis and the city in The Shape of Things to Come; the Wicked Witch started to look to me a lot like Nosferatu. The Wizard's scenes seemed derived from both Prospero's and Ariel's speeches to the Neapolitans in The Tempest, so I started to think about whether Oz isn't really very much the same in its use of magic (and stage magic) as a way of thinking about the experiences that are supposed to transform lives and lead characters to discover their essential selves. Is this just a convention I'm too undereducated to recognize? Something about the nature of masques as a way, kind of separate from traditional plots in drama, of representing ideas? And would that be just as important in thinking about fantasy in film as any dream stuff I'm pursuing?
And how about those flying monkeys? They seem like an eruption of the genuinely, horrifically scary into the merely bizarre and fantastic. Does everyone who sees the film find them as incredibly disturbing as I do? (That's an idea: things that actually scared the shit out of me so much I don't like to think about it--Ice-Nine in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which I probably read at 15, pops into my head.)

I think I can promise not to be quite as pretentious as this most of the time in my online journal. (Though I may often be this long-winded.) The biggest project I'm thinking about these days is a book on dreams and cinema, projected title Over the Rainbow. I had been thinking about soliciting for a collection of essays, bringing film critics and dream theorists together. But the first few people I ran it by suggested I just write it myself. I realized I had the outline for the whole thing, and the substance of a lot of the essays from my notes for the Dream and Cinema classes and the presentations I've been doing at conferences of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I realized I actually like writing about the topic. I also realized, quite frankly, that getting a book together was pretty much a necessity if I'm going to have any flexibility about my job as a teacher, any prospects of moving on if I decide I want to.
The issue's always been that I see myself as a creative writer, and now a writer of fiction and drama more than poetry, with essays as a sideline. But my publications have been almost all in essays (or fictions taken as essays as they appear in art catalogues). With notes for four novels going, and seven stories, and three plays--those are the things with substantial notes, not concepts--all saved up over twenty years (twenty years!!), I have to decide what I really mean to be giving my time to. The same theme brought up by my picture is pursuing me here: There isn't much point in worrying about who or what I am. (Am I a fiction writer if I'm often working on fiction but never finish or publish any? It ends up being a silly question. I may or may not be. What I certainly am is a fuck-up, but you know, it would be incredibly wrong-headed--in a way so very, very typical of what's wrong with ideas about art these days--to imagine that has anything to do with a person's qualifications as an artist.)
I know I need to set aside some projects I've wanted to get to in order to work on the book. I'm just hoping that, as with this blog, getting more done will help me to get more done.