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26 February 2010


Matins: "Can psychiatry be a science?" asks Louis Menand in the current New Yorker. The welter of conflicting conclusions that he proceeds to lay out for us seems to require, at a minimum, an answer of "Not yet!" By the end of the piece, however, Mr Menand is wondering if science can ever be enough for psychiatry.

The decision to handle mental conditions biologically is as moral a decision as any other. It is a time-honored one, too. Human beings have always tried to cure psychological disorders through the body. In the Hippocratic tradition, melancholics were advised to drink white wine, in order to counteract the black bile. (This remains an option.) Some people feel an instinctive aversion to treating psychological states with pills, but no one would think it inappropriate to advise a depressed or anxious person to try exercise or meditation.

The recommendation from people who have written about their own depression is, overwhelmingly, Take the meds! It’s the position of Andrew Solomon, in “The Noonday Demon” (2001), a wise and humane book. It’s the position of many of the contributors to “Unholy Ghost” (2001) and “Poets on Prozac” (2008), anthologies of essays by writers about depression. The ones who took medication say that they write much better than they did when they were depressed. William Styron, in his widely read memoir “Darkness Visible” (1990), says that his experience in talk therapy was a damaging waste of time, and that he wishes he had gone straight to the hospital when his depression became severe.

What if your sadness was grief, though? And what if there were a pill that relieved you of the physical pain of bereavement—sleeplessness, weeping, loss of appetite—without diluting your love for or memory of the dead? Assuming that bereavement “naturally” remits after six months, would you take a pill today that will allow you to feel the way you will be feeling six months from now anyway? Probably most people would say no.

Lauds: If the American embassy proposed for Battersea has any friends, they're keeping mum. (Evening Standard)

Malcolm Reading, a London-based architect whose consultancy has worked on British embassies in Syria and Hong Kong, said: “It's a piece of contemporary architecture. I don't think it will last but it will probably do the job quite well.” Martin Linton, the Labour MP for Battersea, said: “I'm trying, and I may succeed, in coming to like it, but so far it just looks a bit too much like a sugar cube.”

In an interesting kink, the LRB's Inigo Thomas felt prompted to discuss the Benedict Arnold window at nearby St Mary's

Prime: At 24/7, Douglas McIntyre expresses boilerplate outrage at the fees charged by lawyers and others to wind up Lehman Brothers — $642 million — but counsels against claw-back. (via Felix Salmon)

Lehman’s handlers got lucky in a way that comes when good timing delivers luck. The $642 million has already been paid to the companies that worked on this bankruptcy. No authority existed to evaluate their fees. There may be some suggestion that Congress should review these extraordinary costs. The debate about what should be done with overall bank regulation now is too important to allow politicians to turn their attention to events that occurred one-and-a-half years ago.  This was a lifetime ago, at least in the way that time has been marked during the recession.

We're not convinced that this is a very good reason for leaving those hundreds of millions in already fat pockets, and we disagree that the collapse of Lehman happened "a lifetime ago." The names and addresses of the lucky beneficiaries ought to be noted, so that, next time...

Tierce: Is this the journalistic equivalent of coitus interruptus, or is there a really big story smouldering in Governor Paterson's lap? A few weeks ago, the jungle drums promised a big Times story that might require the Mr Paterson to resign. ! Then, not so much. Now it's hard to tell whose seat is hotter, the governor's or the newspaper's. From The Nytpicker:

We've supported, from the beginning, the NYT's investigation into the behavior of Paterson aide David Johnson towards women. And we admired the bulk of this morning's page-one story, in its look at the efforts of New York State Police to improperly influence the latest case against Johnson. Frankly, we think Johnson should have been fired long ago; Paterson's decision to suspend him, only yesterday, might be reason enough for the governor to resign.

But despite that, we continue to question the NYT's reporting on Paterson's role in the influence-peddling aspect of the story. Until the NYT gets that story straight -- and right -- we'll be carefully policing its handling of the facts of the phone call in question.

Choire Sicha's header proclaims his implacability.

Sext: Kevin Hartnett wonders how much longer young people will get to know their parents through old bookshelves. (The Millions)

Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential.  The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up.  When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf.  The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves.  In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.

Mr Hartnett is so nostalgic that he quite overlooks the fact that his mother has left all of these books behind.

Nones: At The Economist, closing notes on a roundtable on the viability and desirability of a European Monetary Fund. By and large, the commenters don't see the need for a new institution.

But maybe the EMF would do a better job than the IMF? Edwin Truman was sceptical, saying that "if the EMF were tougher than the IMF is on average in terms of its economic and financial conditions, then Euro area countries would prefer to go to the IMF for assistance".

Tyler Cowen argued that the "underlying problems of European multilateral governance" are unlikely to "be solved by creating an entirely new and different institution". He would rather the ECB were reformed by broadening its focus beyond price stability, than an EMF set up. Carmen Reinhart worried about the ECB and the EMF (if one were indeed to be set up) butting heads.

Vespers: In an excellent piece on the faith of Flannery O'Connor, Terry Teachout illuminates the orienting role that O'Connor's Catholicism played in her ongoing study of the Protestants all around her. (Commentary; via 3 Quarks Daily)

Roman Catholicism has long been viewed with suspicion in the South, where evangelical Protestantism in all its myriad varieties is woven into the fabric of a culture that is, in O’Connor’s oft-quoted phrase, “Christ-haunted.” O’Connor, on the other hand, was both a Catholic and an intellectual, a pair of traits that set her as far apart from the common life of rural Georgia as did the chronic illness that forced her to lead the reclusive existence of a semi-invalid.3

Yet O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.

Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

Compline: Ron Rosenbaum waxes rapturous about the — Dickensian? Dostoevskian? — moral tone of crime stories in the New York Post. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

Tabloid stories are our equivalent of Old Testament admonitory allegories. Which may explain why liberal tabloids are rarely successful in the long term. Because, it seems, successful tabloids believe in sin. Ineradicable, original sin. The best tabloid stories are about original ways of being sinful. And most liberals believe less in sin than in psychology: Everyone's a victim. I'm not saying either side has the whole truth. But sin often makes a better story.

That's why I read the Post. It give you both Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Yes, the Post's mainstay is MLNCBB. But every once in a while, it gives you a glimpse of the abyss beneath the $177 bagel. A glimpse of the smoking fuels of hell.

"MLNCBB" stands for "mid-level non-celebrity bad behavior" — think "$177 bagel." Mr Rosenbaum's story stands for the proposition that conservatives tell better stories.

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