May 6, 2011

In the Museum of Your Last Day

by Patrick Phillips

there is a coat on a coat hook in a hall. Work-gloves
in the pockets, pliers and bent nails.

There is a case of Quaker State for the Ford.
Two cans of spray paint in a crisp brown bag.

A mug on a book by the hi-fi.
A disk that starts on its own: Boccherini.

There is a dent in the soap the shape of your thumb.
A swirl in the glass when it fogs.

And a gray hair that twines
through the tines of a little black comb.

There is a watch laid smooth on a wallet.
And pairs of your shoes everywhere.

A phone no one answers. A note that says Friday.
Your voice on the tape talking softly.

"In the Museum of Your Last Day" by Patrick Phillips, from Chattahoochee. © University of Arkansas Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (books by this author), born in 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). He’s usually associated with Vienna, where he lived from the age of four until the Germans occupied it in 1938. He moved to London, where he died of throat cancer in 1939.

People tend to hold very strong opinions on Freud, pro or con, but most agree that his theories completely transformed the study of psychology. He had many pupils in the early 20th century; notable among them were Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, and both of them eventually broke with Freud. Adler believed that aggression, rather than sex, was the primary motivator of the human animal, and insecurity over their perceived failings is what caused people to act out; Adler, not Freud, coined the term “inferiority complex.”

While he wasn’t too upset by the loss of Adler, Freud viewed Carl Jung as his natural successor, his “crown prince.” He was bright, ambitious, and Protestant, which eased Freud’s worries that psychoanalysis would be seen as a “Jewish matter.” But ultimately Freud, an atheist, couldn’t go along with Jung’s increasing focus on myth, mysticism, and the “collective unconscious” that he believed was common to all humans. Freud, trained in neurology, was a believer only in the tenets of scientific inquiry, with its mechanisms to check for reliability and validity. Religion had none of these mechanisms, and therefore he saw it as completely useless. Their letters to each other became tense, even hostile. Jung wrote to Freud: “Your technique of treating your pupils like patients is a blunder. In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies. ... I am objective enough to see through your little trick.” Freud reacted to the break with his star pupil by becoming increasingly protective of his work.

In 1933, Albert Einstein was invited by the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation to exchange ideas about war with a “thinker of his choice,” and although he didn’t believe in psychoanalysis, he chose Freud, opening his letter with “I greatly admire your passion to ascertain the truth — a passion that has come to dominate all else in your thinking. You have shown with irresistible lucidity how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life.”

Freud responded: “I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable, as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me — what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace? — took me by surprise. ... But then I realized that you did not raise the question in your capacity of scientist or physicist, but as a lover of his fellow men.” After a long discussion of aggression, he concluded: “How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors — man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take — may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or byways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.”

Their exchange was published as a pamphlet, “Why War?” in 1933, but by then, Hitler had risen to power, and the first German edition only numbered 2,000 copies.

Freud wrote several books, including The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

It’s the birthday of French journalist and novelist Gaston Leroux (books by this author), born in Paris in 1868. He started his career as a court reporter and theater critic, and then covered the Russian Revolution as an international correspondent. He quit journalism to take up fiction in 1907.

He was fascinated with the Paris Opera House, which sits above a series of catacombs and jail cells, and in one of his news reports he had covered the death of a patron who had been struck by a falling chandelier. He studied the blueprints of the building and knew it inside and out, and when a skeleton was discovered in the cellars, he began a novel of obsession, murder, and music.

The result, Beauty and the Beast fable The Phantom of the Opera (1910), is his best-known work in the English-speaking world, and he maintained until his death that the Opera Ghost was real. In France, his detective novels, featuring amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille, are as famous as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

It’s also the birthday of filmmaker Orson Welles, born George Orson Welles in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915. He was hired by John Houseman to direct a production of Macbeth in 1936. The production was part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project, which put unemployed theater people to work. Welles, 20 years old, set the play in Haiti, and substituted witch doctors for the weird sisters; he was hailed as a prodigy.

He shifted to radio plays in 1937, and he was quite popular, but it was the 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds that made him internationally famous. Reports of widespread panic were exaggerated, but it caused a sensation nevertheless, and offers started coming in from Hollywood. His first feature, originally titled The American, was released in 1941; Citizen Kane didn’t make much at the box office, but is now considered one of the greatest films in history, not a bad first effort for the movie’s 25-year-old writer, producer, director, and star. He went on to make several more box office failures in the 1940s (The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, Journey Into Fear in 1943, and The Lady in Shanghai in 1947 — most of which suffered mostly from studio interference). Though he once said, “I started at the top and worked my way down,” his reputation has grown with time.

He was also an accomplished magician, and member of both the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians. He never let his sleight-of-hand skills get rusty, in case he ever needed to make his living by them.

Morbidly obese later in life, his favorite meal was two rare steaks and a pint of scotch. He died of a heart attack in 1985.

And on this day in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s largest and most ambitious agency. During its run, which ended in 1943 and cost about $11 billion, the WPA employed 8.5 million out-of-work people on 1.4 million individual projects; it built 651,000 miles of roads, streets, and highways; constructed or repaired 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings, more than 8,000 parks, and nearly 900 airport runways. The projects had to provide a real and lasting contribution, and could not take business away from private companies.

It wasn’t always the most efficient operation, however, and its critics gave it nicknames like “We Poke Along,” “We Play Around,” “We Piddle Around,” and “Working Piss Ants.” WPA employees were derided as “shovel-leaners,” an accusation John Steinbeck addressed in his essay “A Primer on the ‘30s”: “It was the fixation of businessmen that the WPA did nothing but lean on shovels. I had an uncle who was particularly irritated at shovel-leaning. When he pooh-poohed my contention that shovel-leaning was necessary, I bet him five dollars, which I didn’t have, that he couldn’t shovel sand for fifteen timed minutes without stopping. He said a man should give a good day’s work and grabbed a shovel. At the end of three minutes his face was red, at six he was staggering and before eight minutes were up his wife stopped him to save him from apoplexy. And he never mentioned shovel-leaning again.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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