Books: “Hallucinations”

December 30, 2012

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

I have often had the experience, as I am about to fall asleep, of seeing for a fleeting moment the image of a familiar person and hearing that person speak directly to me. Although I am always aware that the image and the voice are not real, they always seem to be real.

Phenomena of that kind are the subject of a chapter — “On the Threshold of Sleep” — in Hallucinations by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this latest of his many books, Dr. Sacks discusses the wide range of circumstances under which some folks (many folks, as it turns out) see things, hear things, even smell things that do not exist in objective reality. These are not sights, sounds, or aromas that the hallucinator voluntarily conjures up in his or her own mind, but rather the products of extraordinary activity in various parts of the brain.

The hallucinations Dr. Sacks writes about may be associated with medical conditions that include epilepsy, narcolepsy, and partial or total blindness, and they may be associated with the use of certain drugs. What they usually are not associated with, Dr. Sacks writes, is mental illness. In fact, many people who experience hallucinations are aware that what appears real to them is, in fact, not real.

CHARLES BONNET

CHARLES BONNET

The condition Sacks explores first, setting a context for the rest of the book, is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS, which was first identified by an 18th century Swiss naturalist. Persons with CBS have deteriorating or deteriorated eyesight, and they have hallucinations that in a sense fill in the gap of visual sensory input. These hallucinations may be superimposed on the impaired visual field or they may fill in the blind spot of people who have lost sight in half the visual field. Sacks provides this contrast between hallucinations of this kind and dreams:

“Dreamers are wholly enveloped in their dreams, and usually active participants in them, whereas people with CBS retain their normal, critical waking consciousness. CBS hallucinations, even though they are projected into external space, are marked by a lack of interaction; they are always silent and neutral—they rarely convey or evoke any emotion. They are confined to the visual, without sound, smell, or tactile sensation. They are remote, like images on a cinema screen in a theater one has chanced to walk into. The theater is in one’s own mind, and yet the hallucinations seem to have little to do with one in any deeply personal sense.”

waynetownindiana.com

waynetownindiana.com

Dr.Sacks has spent his professional lifetime collecting case histories from his own interactions with patients, from his reading, and from correspondents who have shared their experiences with them. In this book as in most of his previous ones, he uses that knowledge to illuminate the growing understanding of the human brain.

Meanwhile, the subject matter of this book reminded me of the poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

That poem is called Antigonish because it was inspired by a ghost story in the Nova Scotia city of that name. Mearns, an educator who believed deeply in cultivating the creativity of children, wrote the lines for a play called Psyco-ed while he was a student at Harvard. It was published as a poem in 1922.

MAGGIE SMITH

MAGGIE SMITH

I have written in this space about several movies that had time-travel themes, but none so elegant as From Time to Time, a 2009 British production directed by Julian Fellowes.

The story is set in a country estate in England at the end of World War II. A 13-year-old boy named Tolly, played by Alex Etel, is sent to stay at the old house with his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, played by Maggie Smith. Mrs. Oldknow’s son — who is Tolly’s father — has been missing in action, and Tolly is holding onto a conviction that his dad is still alive. Tolly’s mother, who has had a cool relationship with Mrs. Oldknow, is occupied with trying to determine her husband’s fate, and she believes Tolly would be safer in the country until the war is over.

Tolly is very interested in the house and in his ancestors who have lived there, and he is distressed to learn that his grandmother, who has a great affection for her home and loves to tell Tolly stories about its past, can no longer afford to keep the place up and is planning to sell it.

ALEX ETEL

KWAYEDZA KUREYA, ALEX ETEL, and ELIZA BENNETT

As Tolly explores the house and the grounds, he begins slipping from the mid-twentieth century into a time two hundred years before. He enters a room and finds it occupied by his ancestors and their retinue. Chief among these figures is the master of the house, a magnanimous sea captain played by Hugh Bonneville. Most of these shadows are unaware of Tolly, but one who is immediately sensible of his presence is Capt. Oldknow’s blind young daughter, Susan (Eliza Bennett).  Susan is inadvertently the cause of a family crisis when Capt. Oldknow returns from one of his voyages with a black boy, a fugitive American slave named Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). This lad, the captain announces, is to be a companion for Susan, and he is to be treated as a member of the household, not as a servant. This is met by resistance from Capt. Oldknow’s restless wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), his spoiled son Sefton (Douglas Booth), and from a none too disinterested servant named Caxton (Dominic West). The jealousy and antagonism directed at Jacob when the captain is away from home sets off a chain of events that results in a mystery that is not resolved until Tolly, the inquisitive time traveler, sorts it out.

HUGH BONNEVILLE and CARICE van HOUTEN

HUGH BONNEVILLE and CARISE van HOUTEN

This movie gets only fair to middlin’ reviews, but we found it entertaining and engaging. The quirky characters, including Pauline Collins as the latter-day household’s outspoken cook, Mrs. Tweedle, and Timothy Spall as the gruff Dickensian handyman whose bloodline has a critical place in the Oldknow family history.

Like a lot of  people, I suspect, I have been fascinated by the idea of time travel since I was a kid and have fantasized about the day when I myself could visit the past. According to a physics book I read not long ago, time travel to the future is possible, but time travel to the past is out of the question. It’s not  out of the question in the movies, though, so that’s where I do it, and it has never been more fun than in this film.

Time to Time 3

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

This was my homily for Christmas Day:

Flags at half staff.

Moments of silence.

Tolling church bells.

Internet blackouts.

These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.

And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.

Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all

And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.

Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.

Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.

It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.

It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?

What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?

There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”

“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”

But Christmas says otherwise.

What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.

We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.

We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.

But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.

On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.

 In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.

God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.

Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.

He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.

Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.

But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”

And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.

Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.

But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.

 Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”

        

SAM JAEGER

SAM JAEGER

If you’re not in love with Sam and Amanda Jaeger after watching Take Me Home, promise me you’ll get professional help.

This 2011 film was written and directed by Sam Jaeger, who also plays the male lead. That character is Thom, a photographer who hasn’t been able to make a living with his art. He scrapes out a mean existence by illegally driving a New York City cab he bought at an auction, but even that is not enough to pay his rent, and he is evicted.

At this low point in his life, Thom meets Claire (Amanda Jaeger), a competent exec at a non-profit organization who discovers that her husband has been having an affair. This occurs almost simultaneously with news that her estranged father is seriously ill in California.

AMANDA JAEGER

AMANDA JAEGER

With her head spinning, Claire hails Thom’s cab, tells him to drive without a destination and then is surprised to find herself in eastern Pennsylvania.  After the shock wears off, she tells Thom to take her to California, but stops in Las Vegas to visit her quirky but amiable mother, Jill, played by Lin Shaye.

Claire eventually learns that Thom is penniless and that being a legitimate cab driver isn’t the only thing he has lied about. And since she left home without plan or preparation, her own resources are dwindling. Stuck with each other, they more or less claw their way to their destination despite several delays, a potential felony, and one real disaster. The experience inspires both of them to think again about how they have been living.

As outrageous as the odyssey seems, this is a believable and visually interesting story, amusing and thought-provoking at the same time. All of the performances are subtle and effective, and the Jaegers are irresistable.

Home - 3

WILLIAM H. SEWARD

WILLIAM H. SEWARD

If the Chicago Tribune had it right, William H. Seward was the prince of darkness.

In 1862, when Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the Civil War seemed as likely as not to permanently destroy the federal union, the “world’s greatest newspaper” knew whom to blame. Seward, the Tribune said, was “Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been president de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except one or two brief spells.” The Boston Commonwealth was about as delicate in its assessment of Seward: “he has a right to be idiotic, undoubtedly, but he has no right to carry his idiocy into the conduct of affairs, and mislead men and nations about ‘ending the war in sixty days.’ ”

This demonic imbecile, as some editors would have it, is the subject of Walter Stahr’s comprehensive and engaging biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. Stahr has a somewhat different take than the Tribune’s Joseph Medill. While Stahr acknowledges that Seward was overly optimistic about prospects for the federal government to prevail over the seceding states, and while he acknowledges that Seward sometimes turned to political chicanery and downright dishonesty, he also regards Seward as second in importance during the Civil War era only to Lincoln himself.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Seward, a former governor of New York and United States Senator, was by Stahr’s account, very close to Lincoln personally, which probably contributed to the rancor directed at Seward from others in the government who wanted the president’s attention. Their relationship was interesting in a way that is analogous to the relationship between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in the sense that Seward was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Seward’s presidential ambitions, which were advanced by fits and starts by the political instigator Thurlow Weed of New York, are well documented in this book. But, as Stahr makes clear, Seward’s disappointment at losing the nomination to Lincoln did not prevent him from agreeing to serve with Lincoln at one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history nor from serving him loyally.

As important an office as secretary of state is now, it was even more so in the 19th century, because its reach wasn’t confined to foreign affairs. It wasn’t uncommon for the secretary of state to be referred to as “the premier.” At first, Seward’s view of the office might have exceeded even the reality; he seems to have thought at first that he would make and execute policy and Lincoln provide the face of the administration. Lincoln soon made it clear who was in charge, and he and Seward worked well together from then on.

LEWIS PAYNE

LEWIS PAYNE

Seward’s service in Lincoln’s administration nearly cost him his life on the night that Lincoln himself was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. One of Booth’s accomplices, Lewis Payne, forced his way into the house where Seward was lying in bed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in a serious carriage accident. Payne, who was a wild man, tore through the place, cutting anyone who tried to stop him, and he attacked Seward, slashing his face. Payne fled the house — he eventually hanged for his crime — and Seward survived.

After the double trauma of Lincoln’s death and Seward’s own ordeal, it would have been understandable if Seward had withdrawn from public life. Seward wasn’t cut of ordinary cloth, however, and he agreed to remain at his post in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was an outstanding American in many respects—he was the only southern member to remain in his U.S. Senate seat after secession, and he gave up the relative safety of the capital and took his life in his hands when Lincoln asked him to serve as military governor of Tennessee — but he was not suited for the role that was thrust on him by Booth.

ANDREW JOHNSON

ANDREW JOHNSON

Stahr explores the question of why Seward stayed on during the troubled years of Johnson’s tenure. He infers,  for one thing, that Seward agreed with Johnson’s idea that the southern states should be quickly restored to their place in the Union without the tests that the Republican majority in Congress, and especially the “radical” wing of the party, wanted to impose. Stahr also writes that Seward believed that if Congress succeeded in removing Johnson on impeachment charges that were politically motivated it would upset the balance of power in the federal government for decades to come.

I mentioned Seward to a co-worker today, and she said, “of the folly?” She was referring to the purchase of Alaska, which Seward completed during Johnson’s administration. Stahr writes that much of the press supported the purchase of “Russian American” at first, and although the term “folly” was tossed about later, prompted in part by Seward’s further ambitions for expansion, the epithet was never widely used.

FRANCES SEWARD

FRANCES SEWARD

Alaska was only one of Seward’s achievements. He was a skillful diplomat who was equipped to play the dangerous game that kept Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America. Although he may have underestimated the threat of secession and the prospects for a protracted war, he was at Lincoln’s side every step of the way—playing a direct role, for instance, in the suspension of habeas corpus and the incarceration of suspected spies without trial. He was not an abolitionist—and in that respect he disagreed with his outspoken wife, Frances— but Seward was passionate about preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. He believed that black Americans should be educated. He did not support fugitive slave laws and even illegally sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Auburn, N.Y.

Seward was a complicated character who stuck to high moral and ethical standards much of the time, but was capable of chicanery, deceit, and maybe even bribery if it would advance what he thought was a worthy purpose.

A world traveler, he was one of Washington’s leading hosts, known for his engaging manner, and yet with his omnipresent cigar and well-worn clothes he appeared to all the world as something akin to an unmade bed. Henry Adams, who admired Seward, described him as “the old fellow with his big nose and his wire hair and grizzled eyebrows and miserable dress” who nevertheless was “rolling out his grand, broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language.”

“The Best of Enemies”

December 2, 2012

ANN ATWATER and C.P. ELLIS

ANN ATWATER and C.P. ELLIS

During a group discussion in our parish last month, we touched on the question of whether anyone is beyond redemption. We had in mind folks like the terrorists who carry out mass murders and suicide missions for what they perceive to be good or necessary causes. The question might have answered itself if any of us that night had thought of C.P. Ellis. I, for one, had never heard of him.

More recently, I learned about Ellis while I was writing about a play by Mark St. Germain entitled “The Best of Enemies.” The play, in turn, is based on a book by that title, written by Osha Gray Davidson. The enemies were Ellis, who in 1971 was the grand cyclops of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina, and Ann Atwater, who was a black civil rights activist in the same city.

ANN ATWATER

ANN ATWATER

Durham was late coming to the school desegregation party, and a community organizer named Bill Riddick arrived in town to get a public dialogue going. He proposed to conduct a series of town meetings, and he chose Atwater and Ellis — who couldn’t stand the sight of each other — as co-chairs. As the process unfolded, the unlikely pair gradually realized that as economically marginalized members of the community, and as parents who were concerned about the quality of their children’s education, they had more in common than they had thought. The experience also inspired Ellis to examine the reasons for his membership in the Klan. Ultimately, Ellis quit the Klan by tearing up his membership card at a public gathering; as a result, he was ostracized by his former friends and threatened with death.

C.P. ELLIS

C.P. Ellis

Ellis became a union leader, representing constituencies of mostly black workers. He and Atwater were friends until his death in 2005.

Mark St. Germain’s play was introduced at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts and is currently on stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

You can read Studs Terkel’s interview with Ellis, in which Ellis talks about the reasons for his membership in the Klan and describes his encounter with Ann Atwater, by clicking THIS LINK.

AISHA HINDS as Ann Atwater and JOHN BEDFORD LLOYD as C.P. Ellis in Mark St. Germain's play, "The Best of Enemies"

AISHA HINDS as Ann Atwater and JOHN BEDFORD LLOYD as C.P. Ellis in Mark St. Germain’s play, “The Best of Enemies”