Asylum Mind [Lyric]

my mind snapped
with attention rapt
staring out into the world

i'd hoped for the best
devoid of sweet rest,
despite being fetally-curled

where was the shore?
or the thirteenth floor?
they were absent in life & in dream

i searched all about,
calling names out, 
but all I heard was a burbling stream

but with no water -
just someone's dear daughter
wading out on bone-bleached rocks

she seemed to know all
like how we all fall,
and who keeps the keys to the locks

but I was tied down
screaming at clowns,
too far gone to see her wind-blown hair

what pulled me out?
not a shake or a shout,
but some stuttered nonsense of prayer

BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Phaedrus by Plato

PhaedrusPhaedrus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Phaedrus” is one of the middle Socratic dialogues of Plato (experts propose that the middle dialogues increasingly contain Plato’s own ideas [versus those of Socrates, himself.]) The subject of the dialogue is love and whether it is worth pursuing. Phaedrus has a speech by Lysias that he’s is quite excited about, one which claims that it’s better to have a “platonic” relationship than a loving one. As Phaedrus and Socrates walk, they debate about the speech. Phaedrus presses Socrates to deliver his own speech on the subject. Socrates delivers two; the first aligns with Lysias’ view and the second takes the opposing side.

Socrates concludes that, while love is a form of madness, it’s not the madness of human infirmity. Instead, it’s a form of divine madness, and – as such – should not be poo-poo’d too quickly. Socrates proposes that there are four varieties of divine madness (theia mania): prophetic, ritual, poetic, and erotic, and – of these – the latter is best and (again) shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After Socrates’ second speech and conversation that summarizes and clarifies it, the philosopher discusses how one can be led astray by elegantly formulated words, and how a philosopher should evaluate what is said to determine whether the speaker is wise or whether he (or she) just sounds sage by virtue of his (/her) poeticism.

While this dialogue can be a bit ethereal and mystic for my taste, it has some fascinating things to say. While I don’t necessarily believe in the “divine” part of divine madness, I do see that there are some people who are able to become unyoked from custom and convention, and to do so in a way that is not anxiety-riddled. I think this is a useful state to understand, and this dialogue is an excellent place to start.

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BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

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POEM: Sacred River

Sitting on the ghat,

folded legs

&

spine straight.

Gazing at the flowing river,

&

thinking that sacred waters

must answer sacred questions.

But they recoil from the answer.

From being shown that they are the river–

a river which forgets that which happened,

while remembering events that never did.

They crave a gift of clarity.

But the only path to understanding

is a backwards plunge into an abyss

in a moment of sacrificial madness.