Friday, February 15, 2008

Emotional Pain

On Thursday’s NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross talked with Martha Weinman Lear, author of Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When and Why of Normal Memory Loss. [An excerpt from her book is found here.] Lear talked about some of the latest findings regarding memory and aging. I was particularly interested in Lear’s comment that memory of physical pain is not retained while emotional pain can remain as fresh as when it first happened.

Lear talked about the death of her husband and how the pain of his loss was still with her—that she could easily recall the emotions she felt. In contrast she states that it is probably important that we not remember physical pain—remembering a broken arm she points out could be debilitating.

Lear’s comments make a lot of sense. I have little memory of the actual physical pain involved with my triple bypass operation. I can intellectually recall the experience, but I can’t reproduce what I felt. On the other hand, I can intensely recall the emotional pain I felt with my call from my uncle telling me that my father had committed suicide.

I’ve been wondering how her discussion ties into a theory we studied in drama called the
James-Lange theory. William James and Carl Lange basically suggest that our physiological reactions, such as panting, heart rate, muscular tension, lead us to then experience what we call emotions. According to the two of them, our physical reactions come first; we interpret these motor responses as emotions. One of my acting teachers stressed how the theory played out in terms of theatre. According to him, if an actor knows that his response interpreted as anger involves more concentrated and faster breathing, faster heart rate, clinched fists, wrinkling of the forehead, then by reproducing those responses, the actor will find he is angry.

So is our memory of emotional pain tied into physiological reactions to a situation?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Recognizing The Face of Evil

Can we recognize the face of evil when we see it? We are conditioned to recognize the evil nature of a Hitler or a Ben Laden or a Caligula or a Nero, but can we pick hidden evil when we encounter it? In Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's main character's evil transformed a painting while hiding the character's true nature from others. So if we come face to face with the basest nature of man, can we pick out those people by sight? Unfortunately not.

Today I discovered two photo albums on the
Holocaust museum website. One album, called Auschwitz album, contains 192 photographs from 1944, picturing Jews from Subcarpathian Rus, many picturing men, women and children moments before being herded to their deaths into the gas chambers. There they stand or sit, bewildered, in shock, perhaps unaware of their immediate fate.

In grim contrast is a 1944
photo album created by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker [alternately spelled Hoecker], the adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Sturmbannführer Richard Baer. In a neat grid of two columns with neat handwriting, the 116 pictures include images of a Nazi officers’ hunting retreat, Höcker playing with his dog, SS officers relaxing with women and a baby, members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) and men enjoying cups of blueberries and accordion music, Höcker lighting Christmas tree candles, and officers socializing together. Among the men in the pictures is a smiling, benign-looking Dr. Joseph Mengele, who history has nicknamed “The Angel of Death.”

History tells us that
Mengele was responsible for the selection of who lived and who died and enforcing horrendous atrocities —sterilization, freezing, infecting people with malaria and typhus, giving them mustard gas, sea water, phosphorus, and poison. But as pictured in the album, Mengele stands laughing and enjoying the company of the people he knew, while train loads of humans were being systematically catalogued, selected and sent to their deaths. Monster that he was, he appears almost friendly—death hiding behind a smile.Did he use his charming smile to lull his victims into a sense of security?

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock understood that everyone has a propensity for evil—we all carry dark secrets. Speaking in a filmed interview, he once talked of enjoying using seeming cultured, harmless people threatening the safety of ordinary people in seemly “safe” situations. In these two Holocaust albums, we can see through the impartial eyes of the camera lens that seemingly ordinary evil.

I found viewing the albums a truly chilling experience.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revealing our inner selves

During the last couple of weeks, my juniors have been reading from the diaries of Samuel Pepys. While we have easily discussed Pepys’ social life, his descriptions of the Black Plague of 1665 and the Great London Fire of 1666, one issue we had doubts about was whether Pepys intended them to be read. Our final consensus was that since he wrote in his own private shorthand that most of his contemporaries couldn’t read, he must not have intended them to be for an audience.
Pepys does not, for example, shy away from showing his flaws. In one entry he talks about his violent and jealous temper, which leads him to destroy his love letters which his young wife cherishes. In another he beats her:

Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I coying —[stroking or caressing]— with her made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently one with another, and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it. [Pepys]

Thoughout, as a Restoration playboy, Pepys details his sexual conquests with a pride.

Having been primed for the topic of diaries and the private self we reveal though them, I listened with interest when NPR’s
Fresh Air reaired Terry Gross’ 1995 interview with author William Maxwell. In the conversation, they talked about his 1992 short story “What He Was Like” (found in All the Days and Nights: the collected stories). The story, according to the author, deals with the disparity of one’s interior life and public life. I had not read the story but was intrigued enough by the discussion that I bought the book to read it.

The four-page story deals with an unnamed protagonist. “He kept a diary, for his own pleasure. …” begins the story. In it the man writes all he feels, who he hates, his sexual fantasies, his dark inner soul. He writes, “To be able to do in your mind what it is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated.”

After the man’s death, his daughter determines that she wants to read the diaries. Her mother (who has never read them) cautions her against it, saying, “They’re private and he didn’t mean anybody to read them.” Ignoring her mother’s advice, the younger woman reads some of the diaries. She is devastated. To her husband she laments,

“He wasn’t the person I thought he was. He had all sorts of secret desires. A lot of it is very dirty. And some of it is more unkind than I could have believed possible. And just not like him—except that it was him. It makes me feel I can never trust anyone ever again.”

So the story and the discussion have led me to question whether we really want to know the interior life of anyone we know.

In a 1976
Playboy interview, Jimmy Carter raised many eyebrows by admitting that he had committed adultery in his heart many times—and had been forgiven by God for it. I don’t think I agree. I don’t believe we will be punished for our thoughts; I feel it is our actions that make us who we are.

One of my favorite authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, investigates that sense of guilt for the unspoken life in “
The Minister’s Black Veil." The author describes how the minister suddenly assumes a black crepe mask:

Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate.

The story deals with others’ perceptions of and reactions to what the veil hides. Tbe minister’s preaching seems to change.

“The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them.”

Mr. Hooper’s parishioners find the crepe veil alternately distressing, mysterious, threatening. The love of his life leaves him when she cannot convince him that other’s feel the veil represents an inner hideous sin.

After a long life, still wearing the veil, Mr. Hooper reaches his death bed. Another minister tells him that since he has led a blameless life in deed and thought that he should now discard the veil.

“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?” …

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried [Mr. Hooper], turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his
best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"

When the Good Father Hooper dies, his veiled corpse is buried. The grave decays his body but the thought of the black veil remains. Hawthorne is a master at describing guilt.

So should we avoid revealing the dark landscape of our inner soul? Or should we all acknowledge that we all have secrets that are better kept private? Maybe we need to trust that it is our actions that truly define us.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Just a Cup of Tea

Currently my freshmen are reading Art Speiglman's graphic novel, Maus. As part of their learning about graphic novels, they are going to create a small comic of their own. They will either interview someone or listen to someone's conversation and write a script of dialogue of approximately three pages. Then they will create a five-page comic based on that dialogue. In anticipation of understanding the difficulty they would have in doing the assignment, this weekend I created my sample.

"Just a Cup of Tea" grew out a real conversation I overhead one day at Starbucks. I found the two ladies so facinating I ended up writing down their conversation instead of grading papers. In drama we talk about subtext as being the dialog that continues unsaid throughout any scene. Here in one sentence glimpses we can see the lives these two women lead. Playwright Anton
Chekhov once described the kind of naturalistic play he wanted to write:
"After all, in real life," he observed, "people don't spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves, and making confessions of love. They don't spend all the time saying clever things. They're more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are.… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up."
I used Spiegelman's design grid of two panels by four panels to create my mini-drama.

Click on the following images to read this five page mini-play.