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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Heartbeats

Dixon, Melvin

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Melvin Dixon’s poem, “Heartbeats,” portrays the steady atrophy of someone suffering a fatal disease. The anonymous narrator first appears as healthy and vigorous:

“Work out. Ten Laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room.
Dress warm.
Call home.
Fresh air.
Eat right.
Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.”

An undisclosed illness takes hold and the narrator copes with the impacts of a life-threatening disease:

“Test blood.
Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.”

S/he calls home, diets, tries to calmly recuperate, and focuses on maintaining peace of mind, “Breathe in. Breathe out.” The reality of death, or “It,” cannot be ignored, “Today? Tonight? / It waits. For me.” Dixon uses wordplay for “sweetheart” to bookend the poem.
In the third stanza, the narrator affectionately addresses his/her lover as “Sweetheart”; but, through battling the illness and experiencing its withering effects, Dixon cleaves the word in two in the final stanza, imploring the body to withstand the disease: “Sweet heart. / Don’t stop.”

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Catullus 101

Catullus, Gaius Valerius

Last Updated: Feb-27-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Latin

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

(See reference)


English

Brother, I come o'er many seas and lands
To the sad rite which pious love ordains, 
To pay thee the last gift that death demands ;
And oft, though vain, invoke thy mute remains : 
Since death has ravish'd half myself in thee,
Oh wretched brother, sadly torn from me ! 

And now ere fate our souls shall re-unite,
To give me back all it hath snatch'd away, 
Receive the gifts, our fathers' ancient rite
To shades departed still was wont to pay ;
Gifts wet with tears of heartfelt grief that tell,
And ever, brother, bless thee, and farewell!

Catullus, G. V., & Lamb, G. (1821). The poems of Caius Valerius Catullus. London: J. Murray. Vol. II: page 94.

Catullus 101 is a 10 line elegy that Catullus, a Roman lyric poet (84 - 54? BCE), wrote upon the occasion of his visiting the tomb (probably as part of his trip to Bithynia in 57 BCE) of his brother, who had recently died in the Troad. We do not know much about his brother, whom he mentions several times (also in poems 65 and 68) in his 116 poems, but it is clear from this beautiful threnody that he loved him a great deal.

Written in elegiac couplets (comprising a two line sequence of a 6 foot line followed by a 5 foot one), this poem has justly become famous for its depth of emotion and its stylistic elegance, all neatly fitting into a 10 line jewel of poetry. Unlike the bulk of Catullus's oeuvre, which has for its most common subjects love and sex, in all their heights and depths - from marriage hymns to scurrilous poems more appropriately adorning subway walls as graffiti - this poem simply expresses the poet's sadness in profoundly solemn tones, invoking, in almost ritualistic manner, the Roman funeral rites ("inferias" in the original) due the dead by family. Some scholars feel that it might have been inscribed on the tomb. The gifts mentioned would have been modest ones, e.g., wine, lentils, honey and flowers.

Although the translation above is antiquated, it nicely renders the Latin. Others abound, including the three I also prefer, listed below.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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The Black Monk

Tibaldo-Bongiorno, Marylou

Last Updated: Feb-20-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

As the film opens, George Anderson tells us he has been advised to treat his anxiety by going “to some island to rest.” We see him arrive by ferry in Staten Island where he has arranged to spend several weeks at the beautiful home of his father’s best friend.  There, he renews his friendship with the friend’s daughter, Maggie.  We discover that George, a filmmaker, dropped out of medical school, and that Maggie is now a doctor.  We learn from the start that, though they have not seen each other for ten years, there is a longstanding mutual romantic attraction.   

One day, while walking around the house’s lush gardens, George suddenly and improbably sees a monk.  We are made to understand this is not the first time this has occurred, although at this stage George still recognizes it as a “mirage.” However, when the monk foretells a “grand brilliant future” for George and entrusts him with a divine mission, George is inspired.  He becomes obsessed with attending church, and we learn he has not been sleeping.  In his religious fervor he calls Maggie “disgusting” because she performs abortions.
 

Maggie becomes aware that something is not quite right.  We learn too that George enlisted in the army and resigned under suspicious circumstances. Other details about his past are mysterious.  The relationship between George and Maggie intensifies. Meanwhile, a friend warns Maggie that she has witnessed George saying peculiar things about a monk and smiling inappropriately.  Finally, in Maggie’s bedroom, George has a full-fledged psychotic episode as he hallucinates the monk in front of her.  She accuses him of “becoming schizophrenic,” and begs him to see a psychiatrist.  He responds by accusing her of trying to drain him of his inspiration, packs up his belongings, and, despite her entreaties, leaves.    

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The narrator tracks a hypothetical week in the life and work of a psychiatrist in a major Canadian hospital through the stories of individual patients, some of whom were willing to be identified by name.   

The book opens with “they are us” and the shocking discovery that a patient whose life has been ruined by mental illness is a medical school classmate.  

Other patients have been followed for many years—a woman with eating disorder, a man with bipolar disease, another with schizophrenia. A new patient with intractable depression finally agrees to electroshock therapy, and the first treatment is described. The painful duty of making an involuntary admission pales in contrast to the devastation of losing a patient to suicide.  

Goldbloom’s personal life, opinions, and worries are woven throughout with frank honesty. His mother’s metastatic brain tumor sparks the associated intimations of his own advancing age and mortality.  His genuine fascination with and appreciation of the effective modalities now available are matched by his frustration over how they are beyond reach of far too many because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness and the lack of resources and political will to make them available.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing

Ward, Jesmyn

Last Updated: Feb-12-2018
Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A family epic set in rural Mississippi and spanning several generations. Often described as a road novel by reviewers, the story centers on Jojo, a 13-year-old boy struggling to protect his younger sister Kayla from the disarray of his parents' influence: one Black, one White; one in prison; both addicted to meth. These forces contend with Jojo's stoic yet caring grandfather, his mystical-spiritual grandmother, his bigoted grandparents on the other side, and the strange passenger they collect while on the road.  

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I Have a Rendezvous with Death

Seeger, Alan

Last Updated: Feb-12-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

A short war poem of 24 lines in three verses, in the voice of a soldier who expects to die, “at some disputed barricade” in the spring, when “apple blossoms fill the air.”

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In Flanders Fields

McCrae, John

Last Updated: Feb-06-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

A short war poem of 15 lines in three verses, in the voice of dead soldiers who lie under the poppies that grow in the fields of Flanders.

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Human Voices Wake Us

Winakur, Jerald

Last Updated: Feb-06-2018
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The 55 poems in Human Voices Wake Us fall primarily into 3 categories: biographical poems, poems about the natural world, and poems about the worldly travels and travails of a man learning and practicing medicine. As I began to read this book, I started checking off all the poems that I thought might merit comment, but stopped early on since almost all called to me--each in their own voice. Thankfully—and skillfully--the poems were often placed in ways that, although drawing from the different aspects of the author’s life, they complemented each other. For example, “The Tyranny of Aging,” a poem about caring for a half paralyzed 95 year old whose last living child has died, is followed by “Redbud,” where the speaker of the poem walks “the ravines, the treed/windbreaks, the creek bottom/all the wooded places//searching for redbuds” (p.49). Another example is the poem “Shock and Awe in Comfort, Texas,” where a solitary walker confronts dive-bombing dragonflies and birds of prey doing what they need to do to stay alive followed by “What I Remember in Embryology,” a poem about being created and born: “Tethered/we are all waiting/fetuses suckling/our way//to heart and hair/teeth and bone/reaching grasping/limb buds into fingers” (p.25).  Winakur came to poetry after realizing that "coming and going in the rooms on daily rounds was not enough to sustain a life"(xiv). What the reader experiences in this book is Winakur’s inspired attempt of seeking—and then delivering through poetry-- more. 

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