Nabokov and Freud

Nabokov and Freud

From Strong Opinions, Interview: 6

“Strong Opinions” is a collection of interviews with Nabokov. I have blogged before about rediscovering my love of Nabokov in recent years, following falling a little out of love. I suspect Strong Opinions may have contributed to the falling out of love.

Evidently Freud was a bigger deal culturally in the 1960s and many of the interviewers seem to be more than a little incredulous that Nabokov dares to mock and deride his input. Therefore this features quite a bit in these interviews. I recall a book called “Freud and Nobokov” (or was it “Nabokov and Freud” ) – ah here, it is:


which essentially argued that Nabokov’s derision masked some interesting parallels in thought.

My own take is that Nabokov’s suspicion of Freud-as-guru and indeed Freud-as-literary-critic is justified; the more narrowly focused approach of Freud the clinician is perhaps a little missed in his critique.

“Ample food and sleep” : A thought on retrospective diagnosis, visions and full bellies

From Geoffrey Moorhouse’s fine bookSun Dancing

A clinical diagnosis of Aedh’s erotic and other visions would doubtless have concluded that , whatever shaped them in his psyche, they were triggered by his reckless fasting. Hallucination as a result of extreme exhaustion, including that which has resulted from semi-starvation, is a well-established condition, though many more centuries would pass after Aedh’s time before this was recognised. But visionaries of every father at all stages of history have tended to be people whose lives are marked by exceptional austerity, and it is difficult to think of a single instance in which a holy man or woman has reported tempting, fearsome or inspiring manifestations, on a regime of ample food and sleep.

On one level there is nothing objectionable about the above. Moorhouse, whose book I greatly admire, is careful not the ascribed the visions to starvation per se, but as a triggering factor. I I am suspicious of retrospective diagnosis and also of transporting the clinical worldview outside its natural habitat But reading this passage, a brief thought occurs. For the vast majority of the time homo sapiens has been in existence “ample food and sleep” have not been the common condition of humanity. Indeed, a regime of ample food and sleep could be said to be as anomalous as complex societies themselves- as Tainter points out

“The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”

Reblogging this here as the message of this paper – that “digital natives” and the ability to “multitask” are both myths, with potentially harmful consequences – is of wide importance, beyond education (or healthcare)

A Medical Education

One common rhetorical device heard in technology circles – including eHealth circles – is the idea that those born after 1980, or maybe 1984, or maybe 1993, or maybe 2000, or maybe 2010 (you get the picture) are “digital natives” – everyone else is “digital immigrant” In the current edition of Teaching and Teacher Education, Kirscner and de Bruyckere have an excellent paper on this myth, and the related myth of multitasking.

The “highlights” of the paper (I am not sure if these are selected by the authors or by the editors are pretty to the point:


Information-savvy digital natives do not exist.

Learners cannot multitask; they task switch which negatively impacts learning.

Educational design assuming these myths hinders rather than helps learning.

The full article is via subscription/library online, and this recent post on the blog of Nature discusses this paper and others on this…

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“Genius is a much abused word” – piece on Goethe and the “Great Man” school of history for Eurotimes, 2008

“Genius is a much abused word” – piece on Goethe and the “Great Man” school of history for Eurotimes, 2008

Goethe’s Colour Wheel (source: Wikipedia)

On my other blog I have very occasionally posted copies of reviews I did for Eurotimes, the journal of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons. Such gems of popular appeal as “Femtosecond laser – Principles and Applications in Ophthalmology.” and “Corneal Ulcers – Diagnosis and Management.” As I wrote on A Medical Education:

OK, undoubtedly the writing I have been paid the most for over the years – the writing that has been the closest I have been to earning some kind of living via the pen – were the book reviews I wrote for Eurotimes, the publication of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, from 2004 until 2010. With a payment by the word, and a brief essentially to write a piece about a book that would include a physical description of the size, cover design and proportions of the book, this was an assignment that ultimately became too much “for the money” rather than any great emotional investment on my part. Perhaps that was all to the good. Generally I would hold forth for some paragraphs about some wider issue inspired by the book, and this is fairly typical of my efforts

I was upfront with the magazine about my lack of specialist knowledge of ophthalmology (although it has always been an interest and even quite far into psychiatric training I thought of changing specialties…. occasionally I think of it still) but that didn’t matter – the ability to write serviceable prose on a reliable schedule was the important thing. I tried to make these pieces interesting. I am not sure I always succeeded. Payment by the word may have engendered a certain long windedness.

I did a couple of forays into non-book review pieces for Eurotimes, one on the Venetian ophthalmologist Giuseppe Gradenigo (which was actually quite interesting, might dig it up if I can) and one on the optic work of Goethe, which incorporated some digressions on the overuse of the word “genius”:

Genius is a much abused word. Its connotations of exceptional ability have been lost when every talented fashion designer, or computer game programmer, or even every high school student who does well in their exams, is dubbed a genius. Even ophthalmologists use the word to describe gifted categories, yet an interesting after-dinner game at a conference might be to make a list of the true geniuses of eye doctoring.

My own view is that the word “genius” should be reserved for those few figures whose influence on culture in the widest sense is so profound that that influence in unquantifiable. And a remarkable number of the figures who have a claim on the title had ophthalmological, or at least optic, interests. In the era that straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an age of towering figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) towers above all, and is one of those historical figures no one can dispute was a genius. His major fame now rests on literary achievements, and these alone beggar belief. He managed to be one of the founding fathers of romanticism and yet maintain a classical distance from the overheated romantic world that helps prevent his work from becoming dated and keep it fresh.

As well as this, he did considerable work in a variety of scientific and philosophical fields. Ironically, it was for his work in optics that Goethe himself thought he would be remembered. Another over-used term, “polymath”, equally applies.

In the Anglo-Centric world, it is hard to get a grasp of just how towering Goethe was to his contemporaries. Most English-speaking general readers will have heard at least of Goethe’s version of Faust, and perhaps his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Yet Goethe, for instance, played an integral part in creating the modern celebrations of Christmas – his adoption of a Christmas tree, traditional only in Alsace, lead to its population in the German-speaking world and thereby internationally.

This of course was an age during which the distinction between the humanities and the sciences was not as sharp as it is now. Indeed, the term “natural philosopher” was used to describe scientists, and the overlap between scientific, political, literary and artistic interests was considerable.

Of course, the advent of specialisation, and the current trend to micro-specialisation, have lead to far greater efficiency in science at any rate. One could argue too that mass literacy in Western societies has made this an age where towering figures are less likely to emerge, and perhaps this is no loss. Certainly academic historians tend to dismissive of the “Great Man” school of history., Nevertheless, with the academic unfashionability of the Great Man school of the history in general and history of science in particular, there is a concomitant popular interest in the lives of the scientists. In many ways this is analogous to the popularity of books and television programmes about battles and royalty – the “maps and chaps” approach history that is frowned on in teaching and academia. Children (and undergraduates) are supposed to be interested in how the Romans made porridge, not Julius Caesar.

Since the success of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, there has been a mini-boom in books about the personalities of the history of science. Lively biographies of the names best known as units or constants proliferate. The titles alone demonstrate the popular resistance to the death of the “Great Man” school of history of science – with the likes of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla. The success of these books must be, in part, due to a yearning for exactly those tales of exemplary lives that we have allegedly grown out of.

And in considering figures like Goethe, it is hard not to feel that we have lost something in the drive to specialisation and the drive to depersonalise intellectual history. As well as his more purely literary work, Goethe did lasting work in mineralogy, in the developing theory of evolution, linguistics, philosophy, and many other fields.

As mentioned above, Goethe himself believed his contributions to optics would win enduring fame. His 1810 treatise “A Theory Of Colours” outlines this. It comprises three sections – one observational, one polemical against the theory of Newton, and one historical. Despite the title, it lacks a theoretical structure, but describes various optical phenomena. Both wave and particle theories are rejected because they not directly perceived by the senses. From looking at light through a prism, Goethe observed that the spectrum was not discretely divided into seven colours, but that there were borderline zones between each colour. Therefore colour was a compound phenomenon – “Colours arise at the borders, where light and dark flow together” – and there were only two pure colours, yellow and blue. Darkness held a pivotal role in Goethe’s optical theory. It was not simply the absence of light, but a positive entity, polar to light. Colour derived from the relation between darkness and light.

While the theory as such has been effectively demolished, it retains a power as Goethe’s descriptions of the phenomenology of colour have not been equalled. The philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the “Theory of Colour” was not really a theory, but a vague schematic outline, and it is an outline that has inspired thinkers and philosophers up to the present day.

Goethe’s lasting contribution to medical science is an indirect one – “the Werther effect”, named after his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. This tale of adolescent passion – the original bildungsroman or coming-of-age tale, caused a sensation upon its publication, and was held responsible for a wave of young male suicides throughout Europe.

Ironically, given the thoughts on the overuse of the word “genius” with which this piece begins, it was German authors of the eighteenth century who began to use it in its current sense, although largely to distinguish innate great abilities from those derived from study or effort. Classically, “genius” referred to “tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world; also, the tutelary and controlling spirit similarly connected with a place, an institution” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other meanings (thus readers coming across the word “genius” in pre-eighteenth century literature should be cautious about its meaning) Thus during a time when genius in its true sense was perhaps more evident than any other in history, the power of the word began to be diluted.

Information underload – Mike Caulfied on the limits of #Watson, #AI and #BigData

The piece linked to here has applications well beyond medicine and the specific diagnostic issues with Watson – some much of the hype of Big Data is predicated on the quality of the Big Data itself being unquestionable.

A Medical Education

From Mike Caufield, a piece that reminds me of the adage Garbage In, Garbage Out:

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson…

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Happy World Listening Day!

It is World Listening Day.

I am a bit leery of too many confected “Days”

However, anything that encourages listening is itself to be encouraged.

From the World Listening Project Site:

This year’s theme is “Listening to the Ground”

“Sometimes we walk on the ground, sometimes on sidewalks or asphalt, or other surfaces. Can we find ground to walk on and can we listen for the sound or sounds of ground? Are we losing ground? Can we find new ground by listening for it?”—Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

Some of my own posts on sound and silence:

Thoughts on Silence From Augustinian Abbey, Fethard, Tipperary

Josef Pieper on silence and leisure

A Question of Silence: review of “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Numbers Station”, Nthposition, early 2014

An eerie silence in the garden.

From “Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong” Simon Barnes“sound as a way of sense-making”

Gordon Hempton, One Square Inch of Silence, and the Philosophy of Silence

A note on whales and silence from The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin

Another note on whales and silence from Tim Severin

Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes

Silence – A Fragment. Nthposition, March 2013

Review of “The Broken Boy”, Patrick Cockburn, Guardian, 9th July 2005

While this book has an ostensibly medical subject matter, as I pointed out in its review it is a curiously detached account of the 1956 Cork polio outbreak.

A Medical Education

My other Guardian piece,  from over a decade ago. I would end up knowing Cork a lot better in subsequent years.

It is generally OK, although I find myself cringing at some awkward phrases – like “resign on marriage” or “ engaging and witty book itself has a vigorous personality.” Perhaps I am oversensitive.

Too many of my reviews feature terms like “engaging” without real justification. I am not specifically talking about Cockburn, but a tic I have in general. Part of it is an ingrained respect for the Book, so that an enthusiasm comes too early. I really should justify whjat is engaging about a specific work.

The Broken Boy
by Patrick Cockburn
320pp, Cape, £15.99

Writing about the house in which he grew up in Youghal, east Cork, Patrick Cockburn says it “owed its vigorous personality to our lack of money, which ensured that it never saw…

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