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Monday, January 28, 2013

Death

There is no other word for the title. Just heard today that someone I knew died a week ago. I didn't know her very well. It was no more than casual acquaintance. Perhaps what bothers me so much is how similar we are --- about the same age, both Chinese women, similar background and education. We read similar books and went to the same Web sites and talked about the same subjects. And now she's dead. So sudden. So unexpected. So utterly senseless. The footsteps of Death have never sounded so near and loud.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Finland

"Since you claim you're sane, I have to ask you to leave."

芬兰文化实在太古怪了,太好笑了。他们说话很少,面冷心热,在人生中的各种荒谬中找乐子。

很多年前看了一部电视剧 RAID,到现在还念念不忘。There is nothing like it in the world. 现在看的侦探系列剧 Vares 其实是很典型的 hard boiled 私人侦探小说典型,只是里面添加了很多芬兰成分。不少观众大呼受不了,我看的津津有味。

从这些神神叨叨的电视剧里就学会一个词儿: Perkele。 "Most likely the most powerful curseword ever created by mankind. Cannot be translated without loss. Versatile word that can be used alone or repeated indefinitely. Originally name of the thunder god. In the christian era used as a name of the Satan. Perkele is such a powerful word, because it includes both of these connotations and in addition is very often associated with 'sisu', the attitude of never ever giving up." 也就是说,神奇到没法翻译的程度。笑死人了。

Friday, January 25, 2013

Radio Free Albemuth

Philip K. Dick
这本书读了一半,终于发现其出奇之处。别的科幻小说么,读者知道是小说,读者知道作者也知道这是小说,fiction,假的,虚构的,不是真的。但是 Philip K. Dick 的小说就没那么让人心知肚明,越看越让我疑心他是认真的。

小说里描写一个直接接受外星人/上帝(一回事)脑电波控制的人拯救世界(其实就是美国而已)。开头三分之一仿佛是作者刻意跟自己拉开距离,保持客观和“正常”的角度,然而换到主角视角的时候就开始了奇思怪想,而且搬出一套言之凿凿密不透风的理论证明外星人脑电波的来龙去脉,还融合进古罗马和基督教史。当然我知道这是虚构的,但是他自己呢?虚虚实实真真假假,给人的感觉就是他是认真的,并没把这当成幻想小说来写。

Dick 的精神分裂症历史是众所周知的了。如果事先不知道他有 schizophrenia,我会不会还有这样的印象呢?可是,L Ron Hubbard 也相信自己写出来的小说和构筑出的神话,有什么差别呢?

Dick 是那种智力弥补型的疯子:脑子里一半是幻觉臆想,一半又特聪明,对正常人的那一套了解得特别清楚。或许在跟自己的不停思辨中,跟世界的对比争论中,把某些事情看得比正常人还清楚 --- 例如将美帝比做罗马帝国。但是,他的臆想和幻觉又特别典型。外星人要拯救整个世界(美国),谁都不挑,就专挑他一人发信号,而西方的精神分裂症患者里最多的臆想就是自己是基督,第二多是拿破仑(想必都是讲法语的病患),很少有病人臆想自己是邻家的那个平凡的胖子,倒是有人臆想自己是一只狗、猫、鱼什么的。又例如,情报机构盯上了自己,政府阴谋和密探无处不在,这也是教科书上的症状。话说回来,写这书时正是尼克松时代,一连串的政治暗杀事件,别说精神分裂症了,连健康人都会相信巨大阴谋论的。这就是 Philip K. Dick 让人迷惑的地方,他让读者面对一个很不舒服的现实:疯狂与清醒之间只有一线之隔,而这条线本身还挺模糊的,看不清到底在哪儿。

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civil War in American Arts

A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty by Winslow Homer
A benefit of working from home is strolling out in the middle of a Monday and have lunch with a retired friend at American Art Museum. At the moment they are putting on an amazing exhibit of The Civil War and American Art.

Alongside paintings of Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson are photographs (a new medium at the time) of the battlefield of Gettysburg and ditches full of dead bodies. The contrast of unflinching, dark realism in the photographs and the softer allegorical, psychological representation in paintings is striking. All the paintings avoid direct depiction of death. That is not to say the paintings are necessarily inferior to photographs, but the photographs pack a punch to the gut that one cannot easily forget. Perhaps it was unbearable to put death itself directly on the canvas when the war was still going on. Painting the quiet moments between deaths might be the only way to think about war without thinking too much about death. 

I whispered to my friend that we don't see this kind of war photographs any more --- though not for lack of wars. No major newspaper or magazine prints images of limp, lifeless bodies with dead eyes staring at the sky. Fifty years ago, they did at least print some unpleasant photos from the Vietnam War. Now, nothing, just words on paper, but people are spared of the horrors of blood and gore, broken limps and dead eyes. The more civilized we become, the more we sanitize and obliterate death from our mind. I wondered aloud whether we would have less war if the public saw more pictures of real death staring at them in their pudgy face.

Nowadays people don't talk much about the Civil War. That's my observation as an immigrant and observer. Yet the ghost of Civil War looms over America. It's never left. It would be impossible to understand this nation and its collective psyche without seeing this long, invisible thread of slavery connecting the "All men are created equal" declaration to this day and dividing the people and their mind (yes, even those who have come after the Civil War cannot escape its shadow in one way or another).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Invisible Plague


You know it is a book by a non-professional writer when, by the end, you get no "closure." Dr. Torrey has made a pretty convincing case for his theory that the prevalence of insanity --- namely severe mental illnesses involving psychosis, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorders with psychotic features --- has been rising slowly but steadily in the past three centuries. Chapter after chapter, he cited historical evidence ranging from hospital records and case documents to artistic depiction and public fascination with insanity to prove that, in four countries with fairly credible historical records (England, Ireland, Canada, US), the rate of insanity has risen from about 1 in 1,000 adults, equivalent to about 0.5 per 1,000 total population, in early eighteenth century to about 5 per 1,000 total population now.

I had never heard of this claim until I met him recently for the story about toxoplasma. OK, so I'm neither a physician nor a historian, but I consider myself better read in medicine and psychiatry than most lay people. This smells like fringe stuff. Yet, he certainly does not sound like a fringe-minded person. In fact, the book is extensively and meticulously referenced and appears to lack over-generalization and over-arching conclusions that I've become sensitized to in recent years (thanks to some very popular "scientific" writers).

One of the deductions that sort of convinced me is this: We all know that certain diseases can cause psychosis ---- syphilis, leprosy, and various other infections that enter the brain; malnutrition (especially severe vitamin B deficiency); traumatic brain injury (e.g., James Hadfield who attempted to assassinate King George III got his brain injury in a war); brain tumors; etc. Even an idiot (another word forbidden not only by psychiatrists but also by respectable media) knows that infections, malnutrition, and brain injury from wars have significantly declined in the past 300 years, certainly in the past 60 years. Yet, the incidence and prevalence of insanity have not benefited from the general improvement in our living condition. Hmm.

Torrey noted only in an appendix that the rise of the insanity epidemic since mid-eighteenth century coincides with the widespread practice of adopting cats as pets. He fully acknowledged that this epidemic temporally aligns with industrialization and urbanization (except in Ireland). A decade after the book's publication, he seems more convinced now that cats have something to do with it after all.

So what's the answer? What the hell causes insanity and continues to cause insanity to this day? All I can say is nobody knows. The availability of drugs to treat this and that mental disorder might give the public a feeling that doctors know what they are doing, but in reality ...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Insane

A funny thing happened, which I must record.

Last week I wrote a piece for a newspaper with psychiatrists as the intended readers. I suggested a title of "infectious insanity," which, I admit, was a bit tongue in cheek. I was informed that the editor would never allow such irreverence. Apparently, the field of psychiatry is squeamish about words like insane or mad.

Of course, psychiatrists have reasons to artificially restrict their vocabulary, just like lawyers and computer programmers have their own. To a writer, however, the self-imposed limitation seems amusing.

The underlying assumption is that, by controlling and changing public vocabulary, one can manipulate how people think. This theory is undoubtedly widely held by not only psychiatrists. For governments and other propagandists, I think the effect of language manipulation has long been proven.

Nevertheless, it's ironic that psychiatrists should be as tight-assed and stiff-upper-lipped as the office of propaganda. What is a better means to loosen people's fear and hatred (in another word, "stigma") of lunacy? To illustrate and convince them that insanity is but a disease and has nothing to do with morality? Or to subliminally distance the thought of mental illness from a negative instinct or feeling?

Of all people, one would expect psychiatrists to have more courage than the average Joe to stare the truth in the face and not fear words or feeling and to have more sense than to exact change through avoidance and suppression. At least, that is the theory. Reality, however, is no theory. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Beginners



坚持了40分钟,受不了关掉了。难看死了,too cute for its own good. 小布尔乔亚格调。

Notes on The Antidote

A theme began to emerge as Burkeman goes through Stoicism, Buddhist meditation, obsession with goals, self identity, sense of security, failure, and death.

1. We are disturbed by a pause in the endless chatters of our thoughts.
2. We are terrified of uncertainty and try to avoid it more strenuously than the thought of death.
3. We are terrified of insecurity and try to quash it more strenuously than the thought of death.
4. We are so afraid of failures that our brain filters them out when they happen.

The brain is basically fighting and fighting and fighting with reality all the time. It's kind of funny.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Antidote


The subtitle is "Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking." I think a better subtitle would be: "This is not a self-help book, especially not an American self-help book."

I'm half way through it and have to say it's kind of riveting, quite possibly because Burkeman's temperament --- introverted, self-conscious, skeptical, a bit cynical --- is close to mine. I am sure this stuff isn't for everyone, but it is pretty informative to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Visit From the Goon Squad


假期中看完的。我很喜欢这种打乱时间顺序的写法,好炫!看完了想,不知道可不可以改变书中的某些章节的顺序,而不影响效果和理解。也不知道作者是怎么决定章节们的顺序,为什么现在这个顺序最好。 中年时读这本小说特别有感慨。

新年

总算从洛杉矶回来了。冷飕飕的反而让人觉得精神一爽。

时差很严重,最近都习惯了东岸时间两三点才睡觉,一把老骨头不知几星期才能倒过来。

新年伊始,有大把大把的事要做起来。人生过了一半,也算个新起点吧。

Petyr Baelish of Sichuan: Echoes of the 3 Kingdoms

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