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Siri Hustvedt – The Shaking Woman, Or a History of My Nerves

Having just reviewed "Sight Unseen" on this site, I just have to add a short note about a much more famous book: "The Shaking Woman" by Siri Hustvedt. For in an overall marvellously insightful, well-written, well-researched, and even suspensful non-fiction book, there is a short passage where I just can't go along with Hustvedts line of argument:

On Page 92 of the hardcover edition, she writes: "Our eyes are directly connected to our brains, which helps explain why we are always looking into the eyes of other people to discover what they mean" and then quotes the American neuropsychologist Allan Shore: "The mother's emotionally expressive face is the most potent source of visuoaffective information [...] and in face to face interactions it serves as a visual imprinting stimulus for the infant's developing nervous system." From this, Hustvedt deduces - back in her own words: "Our lives begin as a wordless dialogue [i.e. eye contact between mother and infant], and without it we won't grow."

At first sight, this would appear to make perfect sense. But only as long as you don't consider babies that were born blind. From Hustvedt's argument it would follow that these children have no chance of "growing" - or would, at the very least, be having a much harder time with it.

It's interesting to compare Hustvedt's quote with a passage from Georgina Kleege's book which I did not quote in my review of "Sight Unseen". At first, she admits to the important role eyes play for humans of all ages: "The eye seems irresistibly drawn to other eyes. There's evidence that certain cortical cells in our brains respond specifically to eyes and eye-shaped patterns. [...] Infants learn to make eye contact with their mothers long before they can see much else." But she also goes on to question if eye contact is really of such singular importance, or if, in fact, much of it is make-believe and bias. As evidence for this, she says that it requires no effort from her side to make sighted people believe they are having eye-contact with her - despite her being blind: "At the precise instant I see them the least, they believe me to be engaged in the most significant visual exchange."

So did the Hustvedt really intend to say that blind babies stand little or no chance of "growing"? Of course she didn't. She just fell into a trap that most popular science books fall into from time to time. She wanted to make things as clear and visually convincing as possible. And thereby put herself at risk of skewing reality just a little bit.

contributed by Claudio (26.08.2013)

Georgina Kleege – Sight Unseen

This book is one of the best I came across in my recent short research on blindness. Georgina Kleege is an American writer who turned "legally blind" at the age of eleven. Her literary wit really makes you "see" blindness from completely new angels.

Here are just a few examples:

- Only 10 % of people who are "legally blind" see absolutely nothing. The pitch dark black most people associate with the word "blindness" applies to an even smaller fraction. Actually, the word "blind" applies to a wide array of severe visual impairment. Some people can distinguish bright and dark. Some have doctors who attest them 10%- vision, 15%-vision and so on. Kleege herself would probably be somewhere around the 10%-mark. Her peripheral vision alright, but the center of her field of vision is sort of like a huge blind spot. This makes seeing such a tedious act that she prefers to rely on her other senses.

- Literature and films are absolutely biased against blindness, associating it with unbearable tragedy and death. Being herself a writer, Kleege devotes an entire chapter to analyzing the theme of blindness in the arts (from ancient "King Oedipus" all the way through to Wim Wender's "Until the end of the World" and "The Scent of a Woman" with Al Pacino).

- Contray to common myth, there is no magical balance system that turns the acuity of your remaining senses up a notch once you go blind. In reality, you just learn to appeciate more what all your other senses have been telling you all along. You'd have noticed earlier if you weren't so fixated on seeing.

To get these ideas across, Kleege points out that: "the funny thing is, of all the things people fear - cancer, murder, rape, torture, loss of limb, loss of loved ones - blindness is the one that anyone can simulate." So she asks the reader to just close his eyes and go through his daily routine without opening them: "Drop your pen on the floor. Even if the floor is carpeted you hear where it falls, you can reach down and find it. It may take you a couple of tries, but each time your aim improves. Gravity acts on objects the same way even when your eyes are closed." What's so great about this mind game is that if you take it seriously, it makes you realize that maybe, just maybe, anyone can adjust to the supposed "tragedy" of going blind: "You will be as resourceful, capable, and intelligent as you ever were."

So everything is looking great, right? No, because Kleege has not reached the actual point of her argument yet. She only unleashes it now that the reader's optimism about blindness has reached its climax: "But suddenly you're not dancing anymore. The fear creeps back and overtakes you. It occurs to you slowly that you will not be alone in this. [...] You worry that well-meaning loved ones will start doing everything for you, that they will refer to your condition as tragic, use hushed tones when they think you can't hear, display exaggerated cheerfulness when you can. [...] You wonder if your employers value you enough to purchase equipment or hire staff to assist you, and if they will do so grudgingly and only because the law obliges them. [...] Face it. What you fear is not your inablitly to adapt to the loss of sight, it is the inablility of people around you to see you the same way. It's not you, it's them."

It was this point of argument (reached fairly early into the book) that made me question much of what I thought I knew about blindness. What's more, it even got me thinking about whether the argument applies to a whole range of problems. How often do we say - directly or indirectly - that diseases are at the core of a problem - instead of holding ourselves as a part of society accountable for a large part of the pain the afflicted must endure?

What if, despite the shift in context, Sarte was right, and hell is other people after all?

contributed by Claudio (03.07.2013)

Louis Breger – Freud. Darkness in the Midst of Vision

All in all, this was one of the most personally insightful books I've read in recent years. This is mostly due to the fact that for me, Freud was one of those "heros of adolescence" (there, I've admitted it - but I'm sure everyone has them). Along with Kafka, Einstein, Kubrik, Dali, Nietzsche, and yes: Douglas Adams, I saw him as one of those few true geniuses, capable of creating a whole new vantage-point from which to view the world.

That's not to say I believed all of his theories to be monolithically true. I remember reading quite a few contemporary assessments of his contributions which pretty much came to the conclusion that Freud's only viable achievement was pointing us to the importance of unconscious thought-processes. But that, to me, was alread more than enough: a decisive cut, dividing history - and even more certainly: the arts - into a before and an after.

The trouble is this: that's exactly what Freud's main aim in life was. Beginning in early childhood, he wanted Newton's apple to fall on his own head and offer him a profound insight that would change how we view the world. Contrary o what we have come to believe about Freud, this goal was paramout to actually helping his patients.

That's Breger's main thesis, and he makes a good case for it.

One of the great ironies of this biography is that Breger, himself a psychoanalyst, uses one of Freud's main discoveries (i.e. importance of childhood for human development) to uncover what "went wrong" in Freud's own first years of life. Freud had a weak, financially ill-equiped father, whom young Freud regarded as a disgrace. To "compensate" for this (a term coined by Freud's desciple Alfred Adler - one Freud himself was NOT at all fond of), he looked for strong father-figures - and found them in books on Alexander the Great, King Oedipus, Hannibal and the like. He came to idealize these "heros of adolescence", which in turn insinuated him to become a "hero" as well.

As a result, Freud had, on the one hand, a great motivation to uncover an insight that would turn the world on its head. And on the other hand, he had a great motivation to turn a blind eye to everything that could possibly call this unique insight into question. In order to match the likes of Newton and Darwin, it would have to be one single unifying principle. What philosophers would call a monoism. And what Douglas Adams would call an "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything."

So Freud spent his first 40 years or so as an industrious neurologist until he finally hit upon his one unheard-of idea: sexuality as the root of all human behaviour.

By attributing a whole bunch of hithereto unexplained psychological phenomena to sexuality, he was able to conquer a whole new territoy: the vast expanses of the unconscious. But after this decisive battle was won, Freud spent the next 40 years defending this single notion against any invader - i.e. anyone who would try to discover more about unconscious processes by taking non-sexual factors into account - trauma, for example. This explains why, throughout his life, Freud kept true to the pattern of finding "followers" like Jung and Adler and Rank - and then harshly expelling them from his "realm" as soon as they came up with any new theories to augment or even question his own.

Put objectionably simple: Failing to defend his theory of the "pleasure principle" would mean giving up on his own compensation for his weak father. It would mean disbandening his own life-story which he put so much effort into creating. It simply could not be done. This is how Freud's personal psychological shortcomings came to influence the entire history of psychology for decades to come.

Breger does not, however, aim at dismantling Freud. He simply offers his own psychological explanation for why Freud came to be the kind of man he was. By doing this, Breger accomplishes something certain people might regard as trivial and others (like me) consider fundamental: He gets Freud to step down from his platform labeled "genius", and forces him to sit down here with the rest of us. At least that's what this biography did for me.

contributed by Claudio (31.10.2012)


It's not easy for me to come to a fully thought-through opinion of this novel. After a failed attempt of putting all my thoughts into one single review, I came to the conclusion that it would be much more interesting to have a discussion on the novel, McEwan, and story-telling in general on this site - especially, since dad has been reading the novel as well, and maybe more family members are to follow.

Right now, I can think of five points that to me deserve to be discussed:

1) The first 70 pages: to me, the low point of my McEwan reading experience

2) The protagonist Michael Beard: a little too 'Rothian', a little too unconvincing / contrived

3) The 'show-don't-tell' debate: Has McEwan gone one step too far?

4) The 'Unwitting Thief' episode: As in 'Saturday', McEwan seems to fight a preemptive war on accusations of plagiarism. Plus: What, exactly, is McEwan's stand on postmodernism?

5) What, to me, still makes McEwan stand out amongst other novelists.

So, for now, let me just try to explain point number 1) and maybe a little bit of 2):

I had been anticipating it eagerly for two reasons: first, as all Winters know, I cherish McEwan more than any other contemporary writer (ever since I got my hands on "Saturday"). Secondly, I feel that climate-change is probably one of the hardest issues to tackle in a novel: So much has been said about it, but there's really not much controversy on what's to be done - so what's a novelist to add? The problem is rather how to get a global initiative going - but all the political seesaw doesn't make for a particularly satisfying plot.

The news that this was to be McEwan's first real satire seemed, to me, to supply,on one hand, an answer to this puzzle (sure enough, a satirical take on climate-change is a road less frequently travelled), while creating new problems and questions on the other (was McEwan, to me one of the most serious-minded and even political writers of our time, really going to pull this one off - was he really trying to make us laugh at the very serious issue of climate-change, of all things?)

After the first 70 pages, I was pretty sure that most of my hopes had been dashed and most of my fears, in return, warranted (is that the right word?): McEwan was trying to make me sympathize (I know this probably isn't the right word for a satire) with his anti-hero Michael Beard. He is a nobel-laureate for physics who, after being "sprinkled with Stockholm's magic dust" for the only real contribution he ever made to science, has slowly deteriorated into a bureaucrat (meaning that universities and institutions simply require his name on a project in order to get its founding secured - certainly some truth to this...), marrying and cheating on his 5 wives as many times as possible along the way. I really have no way of judging the way great physicists behave or think, but Beard was not of a particularly believable type to me. Sure, he makes for a good anti-hero, but to me, McEwan was just pushing the Rothian (and thus not very innovative) elements too far. And sure, the world is full of people who have just one grand idea/moment of success and then try to live off of it for the rest of their lives (especially artists seem to face this kind of problem, though...)

But, in the face of what's to come, this is still the least of it. After the first 50 pages the reader is forced to see his way through a bunch of scenes of the slap-stick kind near the North Pole. Thinking back to it now, I still haven't figured out what, exactly, happened to Beard's penis after he (a man of physics!) attempted to urinate in the Arctic snow - or, for that matter, why these scenes were necessary at all. The section is full of episodes that are probably supposed to be funny but simply aren't (e.g. the attack of the polar bear). All of the 'poking fun at solipsistic artists' stuff (one of McEwan's favorite themes, cf. 'Amsterdam' and 'Saturday' for example) lacks depth and realism. I know it seems stupid to ask for realism in a satire - but I feel that the good parts of this novel (and there are, thankfully, many to come) work precisely because they're totally absurd but nonetheless could have taken place. But here, I just don't buy it...

So much for now, I hope this will get a discussion going (anyone besides Richard ready to step in?)...

contributed by Claudio (09.04.2010)



The thing about good books is that they can make you feel like you have wasted a lot of time on seminars, lectures, projects or simply other books that, in comparison, all failed at getting to the heart of the problem. And even though Mament's book (which I received from Roland as a Christmas present) is only 100 pages long and as such aims at being not much more than an introduction to this director's approach to making film, there are some insights to be found which I completely missed out on in my first semester at the HFF Potsdam.

To name just one example, we did, of course, in both „Filmgeschichte“ (lecture & seminar) and „Filmästhetik“ (seminar) touch upon Eisenstein and how his technique of montage differs from the way Hollywood likes to tell it. We did not, how ever, get to the core of why he chose to do so and how his techniques really served to fundamentally change the way people thought about telling stories for the screen. Mamet, however, in the first chapter of this book, explains it in most simple terms: „Now, if the film is a record of what the protagonist does, it had better be interesting. That is to say, this approach puts the director in a position of shooting the film a novel way, an interesting way, and he or she is constantly wondering 'what's the most interesting place to put the camera to film this love scene? What's the most interesting way I can shoot it plainly? What's the most interesting way that I can allow the actor to behave in the scene in which, for example, she proposes to him?' That's the way most American films are made, as a supposed record of what people really did. There's another way to make a movie, which is the way Eisenstein suggested a movie should be made. This method has nothing to do with following the protagonist around but rather is a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience. This is a fairly succinct rendition of Eisenstein's theory of montage; it is also the first thing I know about film directing, virtually the only thing I know about film directing. You always want to tell the story in cuts.“ Now, while this is certainly a simplification of Eisenstein's theories (and additionally, he was certainly not the first director to tell stories this way), it finally helped me understand why this step was so important in the history of film.

In the following chapters, which are basically overhauled transcripts of a short series of lectures he gave in 1987, he walks the reader (and his students) through a step-by-step example of how to tell a story in pictures. This, of course, is not entirely new or ingenious stuff, but it certainly allows for a lot of worth insights into the everyday decision-making-processes involved in shooting a film. The key statements being:

  • „The work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on set is stay awake, follow your plans, help actors be simple, and keep your sense of humor.“
  • the course of planning, the director has to make sure that for every sequence, scene, beat, and shot of the movie, he knows exactly what the goal of that particular segment is. A scene will have an overall goal (e.g. „to earn the instructor's respect“) and every beat should aim at getting us one step closer to it (e.g. beat one: show up early for the instructor's class; beat two: prepare for the class; beat three: pay homage as the instructor is coming into the classroom etc. etc.) Finally, every shot has to be scrutinously reduced to what it does for the beat: images have to be found that express the main idea, the motivation, the goal, in the simplest and clearest way. If every single small segment of the movie serves, respectivly, the bigger segments, one will end up with a film that's well told in cinematical terms.
  • It is from this conviction that Mamets resentment for, well, he calls them „performance arts“, originates. In his opinion, many 'avantgarde' filmmakers choose their shots not because they will serve the story but simply because they seem original, whacky, or 'out-there'. He draws a particularly grim picture of the consequences of this kind of filmmaking: „The end of this is obscenity. Let's really see their genitals, let's really endanger the actor through stunts, let's really set the building on fire. Over the course of a movie, it forces the filmmaker to get more and more bizarre. Over the course of a career, it forces the filmmaker to get more and more outrè; over the course of a culture, it forces the culture to degenerate into depravity, which is what we have now.“ (Van Trier's „Antichrist“ comes to my mind right now...but certainly he's also referring to a lot of action movies and the like)
  • Movies, by their very medium, are not fit for selling ideologies, morale, or politics. All they're really good for is telling stories: „People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn't work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn't. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.“ Certainly, this calls to mind our short debate on this site about political thrillers. And again, I can only agree to a certain degree with this point of view: I do admit changing a person's life or even his perspective is very hard to do – and estimating the direction in which this change will take place is harder still – I do not agree that it's entirely impossible. First of all, for all the hundreds of movies people watch in the course of their lives, I would bet that mostly every one of them could name at least a handful of movies that had a particularly strong influence on how they see the world. Secondly, it seems very plausible to me that what I think about the world is to a very large extend influenced by the input I receive about the world (well, duh, where else should it be coming from?!) and a huge portion of this input comes either directly or indirectly from what I see on TV and in movie theaters. And thirdly, the history of drama has certainly shown that if one really thinks things through, one can come up with innovative ideas that really do end up influencing the way people think about current or abstract problems – just take Brecht, for example...

However, I also have the feeling that a lot of the views Mamet expresses in the course of this book are a little overstated for educational purposes. And maybe it is precisely these pointed and incisive, if something exaggerated, statements which make the 'aha-effect' of his lectures surpass some of the ones I've been taking at the HFF Potsdam.

contributed by Claudio

Nick Davies:
Flat Earth News (2008)

contributed by Claudio


Written in 2008, Nick Davies takes a close and very discomforting look at the current state of journalism. He declares that its main function, i.e. finding and telling the truth, has deteriorated to an alarming extend. His analysis exposes that at the heart of the problem lies the inadequate application of the free-market doctrine to the realm of media. The focus has shifted from fact-checking and critical thinking to profit-maximization. While both the number of newspapers and the number staff they employ have been in steady decline, journalists are under pressure to churn out more stories than ever before. Thus, there is less and less time for fact-checking and thorough research. This opens the doors for mere rumors, to find their way from the tabloid press all the way into well-respected flag-ships of British dailies like the "Guardian", the "Observer", or the "Sunday Times". Journalism has become mere "churnalism", as Davies calls it.

Each of the book's chapters is dedicated to a certain wheel in the man-eating machine of modern journalism: The journalists on the street who are being pressured into churning out story after story; the "wire agencies" (Reuters, AP, PA) which are being over-stretched to keep up the illusion of global coverage (which is in truth greatly distorted towards Western concerns and celebrities); the PR industry which, in turn, is growing more powerful with every minute a journalist is distracted from fact-checking; and last but certainly not least organized propaganda by powerful governments which, after 9/11 have practically restarted and updated their cold-war strategies.

True to the tradition of proper journalism, Davies illustrates each of his chapters and arguments with a bunch of intriguing and startling case studies. For example, he exposes how the millennium bug was turned from a minor glitch into a major threat of global proportions which got everybody talking except for the computer experts who were actually qualified to judge the likelihood of the many unfounded scenarios. In the chapters concerning PR, we learn of a very clever maneuver Bell Yard (a self-entitled "Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Consultancy") pulled to get three British clients who were involved in the Enron scandal off the hook: they persuaded Fleet Street to "focus [...] on a single aspect of their case, the new Extradition Act under whose terms the three men now faced trail in Texas", meaning that what was originally a case of fraud was successfully turned into a threat to British sovereignty. On the propaganda-end of the spectrum, we learn surprisingly (at least to me), that the alleged connection between Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was entirely manufactured by certain departments of the American government - as part of the well-known larger scheme to interlink al-Quaida with the Iraqi regime. Ironically, this fiction, backed by the global media, eventually gathered enough momentum to actually be turned into fact when Bin Laden decided to get al-Zarqawi on his team - a decision based entirely on Zarqawis growing reputation he received thanks to the global media.

In the last part of the book, Davies takes a very close look at the "Sunday Times", the "Observer" and the "Daily Mail" - giving telling insights into the demise of each of these papers as well as exposing some of the illegal tactics these papers use to get their hands on confidential information.

For his research he has focused mainly on Britain and on daily newspapers, but bets are that the mechanisms he exposes apply to most western democracies.

(Rather random) comments: I do find this book to be of vital importance and would recommend it to anyone who reads newspapers even occasionally. It's also very interesting to see how the British dailies have reviewed this book. Tellingly, the Guardian ( www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/feb/03/society) does praise Davie's analysis as "fair, meticulously researched and fascinating, if gloomy" but later goes on to challenge and refute some of the passages on insights into the "Observer". Of course, Davies makes himself very vulnerable to attack, especially if certain accounts of his own work should turn out to not the be the entire truth. However, as Davies himself points out, no journalist can be right all of the time. What he can do, though, is to fact-check and second-guess as much material as he.

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