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January 8, 2008

Allen Wheelis, M.D. — 'A Neurotic's Neurotic'


I read one of his novels many years ago and was enchanted by the raw emotion in what was, after all, a work by a practicing psychoanalyst.

I hadn't thought about him for a long time until I happened to read an appreciation by Daphne Merkin in the December 30, 2007 New York Times magazine.

The nonfiction work pictured up top I found remarkable.

Strange indeed, the work of man.

Here's the Times piece.

    A Neurotic’s Neurotic

    Given that words are the bread and butter of psychoanalytic work, it would seem strange on the face of it that very few practitioners have written elegant or even lucid prose. Indeed, they amount to no more than a handful: Freud himself; his daughter, Anna; the British analyst D. W. Winnicott; the much-neglected Leslie Farber; Robert Stoller; Irvin Yalom; Adam Phillips. The field, suffering as it does from an inferiority complex about its relevance to the larger culture, has immured itself behind the high walls of jargon — terms like “introjective identification,” “countercathexis” and “unintegrated superego nuclei.” This emphasis on opacity is in part an effort to preserve psychoanalysis’s waning mystique. Paradoxically, it also underscores the discipline’s attempt to validate its much-disputed conjectures about human behavior by appropriating the clinical vocabulary of hard science. Yet for those of us who remain interested in what the talking cure may have to offer (the number dwindles almost daily), the lack of an accessible dialogue between clergy and laity remains a woeful reality.

    Allen Wheelis stands out in this fallow field for the elegiac sinuousness of his prose, his tonic grimness (“Life is unmanageable, escapes reason”) and his willingness to drop the therapist’s cloaked persona for a literary one that is more authentic and less elevated. (“We analysts are very defensive about our theory,” he wrote in “The Doctor of Desire,” a novel about an analyst who falls in love with a female patient. “As well we might be. Conjectural excess has always been our method.”) One of his writing’s more compelling aspects, which can be felt in all of the 14 books he wrote — the best known of which is “How People Change” — is the seeming ease with which he divulges his own unrequited needs, implacable fears and unacceptable impulses in the name of illuminating his patients’ and readers’ neurotic quandaries.

    Wheelis’s propensity for self-incriminating and ruthless candor is unmistakeable: his writing, scattered with shards of autobiographical and even confessional material, would be courageous in an ordinary writer. Coming as it does from someone trained in the art and ethos of assuming a veil, a posture of neutrality, the better for his patients to unveil their dodgy inner selves, it verges on the heroic. In “The Listener: A Psychoanalyst Examines His Life,” published when Wheelis was 84 and characterized by him as a “self-sketch” rather than an all-out memoir, he identifies sex and death (“these difficult two”) together with love (“that impossible third”) as making up “the text of my life, this unruly trio.” Lest we think he is exaggerating, distancing himself from the clamor of these realities by glossing over them in poetic language, Wheelis opens the book on a brazen note: “When I pick up a novel, I look first for the sexual passages. I want to know what this author thinks can happen between a man and a woman. I discover the girl undressing, examine her undergarments, see her twisting and moaning under her lover. . . . I go right to the limit, the far edge. Before learning whether it’s safe for her even to have coffee with this guy or to go for a walk, I have her skirt up, her legs spread wide.”

    Wheelis, who was married twice and had three children, achieved renown as a psychoanalyst in San Francisco, where he saw patients for more than five decades. He never really became part of the orthodox psychoanalytic establishment — largely, it would seem, by choice. He trafficked in existential despair, unceasingly questioning the purposes and limitations of putting people on the couch — in “a room of listening, of longing” — even as he continued working in his chosen field. “I have not found in pyschoanalysis the meaning I sought. I function as guide to the lost, but do not myself know the way.”

    Wheelis grew up in genteel poverty in rural Texas under the rule of a failed, humorless sadist of a father. When, as a young boy, Wheelis came home with a poor grade for conduct, he was made to spend the entire summer cutting the grass with a razor; this punishment is chillingly depicted again and again in his books. His self-effacing mother (who agreed, on her dying husband’s insistence, never to remarry) became ever more emotionally dependent on her son after his father died a drawn-out death from tuberculosis at the age of 43, when Wheelis was 9. (In another memoir, “The Life and Death of My Mother,” he explores his charged, almost incestuous relationship with her with a quiet and discomfiting directness.) He recalls in “The Path Not Taken: Reflections on Power and Fear” how, as a bullied child, there was a sole encounter in which he had the courage to fight back against an “archtormentor,” delivering “a rain of blows.” He then immediately goes on to note that this was not the beginning of a triumphant ascension over an instilled timidity: “I did not fight again. . . . I went the other way, found my place and my work among those who are afraid. I understand them better. I help them be less afraid.”

    Wheelis’s credentials as a healer were sterling: after graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1943, he served as a Navy medical officer in the Pacific Theater. He went on to study at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kan., worked at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., and underwent further training at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute before moving in 1954 to San Francisco. He published his first book, “The Quest for Identity,” in 1959 and went right on publishing until the end. His last book, “The Way We Are” — a spare inquiry into his preoccupying theme of how to live with unfulfillment lurking on one side and death beckoning on the other — was published more than a month after he died. Despite his prolifigacy, he rarely wrote for analytic journals; one of the few exceptions was a paper published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis in the mid-’50s titled, tellingly enough, “The Vocational Hazards of Psychoanalysis.”

    Wheelis was a maverick — a resilient pessimist obsessed with the idea, as T. S. Eliot put it, that “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality,” while at the same time believing in the value of bringing light to the shadowy corners where psychic cobwebs lurk. He was haunted by the specter of mortality and unpersuaded by attempts to render death as a meaningful conclusion rather than a fated, inescapable end. “A symphony has a climax,” he observed in “The Listener”: “a poem builds to a burst of meaning, but we are unfinished business. No coming together of strands. The game is called because of darkness.” Glen Gabbard, a psychoanalyst at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who considered Wheelis a friend and a mentor, describes him as “the Samuel Beckett of psychoanalysis — one of the few analysts who wrote about the presence of the gravedigger as he toiled behind the couch.” Wheelis’s death is a loss to his profession — and to all those who look to his unflinching perceptions to help make sense of the necessary illusions and tenuous self-delusions with which we make our way and carve out bearable lives.



Wheelis (above, in 1975) died last year at the age of 91.

January 8, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper


What a useful tool.

It takes me forever to strip wires using a knife or my hand-adjustable stripper, and even then I mess up a couple times minimum before getting it right.

From the website:

    Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper

    Nothing is easier for stripping wire insulation than these cutters. Squeezing the handles grips the wire under one jaw while the other jaw cleanly cuts and pulls the insulation free.

    Unlike other strippers, the risk of breakage is eliminated because the wire is clamped securely. The tool self-adjusts between 24 and 10 American Wire Gauge and has an adjustable stop to leave up to 3/4" of exposed wire. The handles have a series of crimping notches for insulated, non-insulated, and ignition terminals.

    Often considered a specialty tool, this stripper should be part of any basic household tool set.

    Available while quantities last.




January 8, 2008 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack



Take a vocabulary test.

For every word you get right 20 grains of rice are donated through the United Nations to help end world hunger.

Since the site went up last October some 9,481,828,970 English language vocabulary questions have been answered correctly by people around the globe.

[via Nell Boeschenstein and C-Ville Weekly]

January 8, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

James Gleick channels Philip K. Dick on historicity


"... the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel 'The Man in the High Castle,' calls historicity, which is 'when a thing has history in it.'"

Gleick's essay in this past Sunday's New York Times magazine, about how information has simultaneously become cheaper than ever and at the same time exorbitantly expensive, offers much food for thought — namely, how it is that we come to value what we do and, in fact, the very meaning of "worth."

Here's your big chance.

    Keeping It Real

    What is Magna Carta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York just before Christmas. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive.

    Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable?

    Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, enshrine it and then get it out to the countryside. In 13th-century England this required the soaking, stretching, scraping and drying of sheepskin to make vellum, the preparation of ink from oak galls and painstaking penmanship by professional quill-wielding scribes. Then copies had to be made the same way — there was no other — for dispatch to county seats and churches, where they were read aloud.

    At that point the value of Magna Carta resided in its words: their meaning and their very real political force, beginning with King John’s greetings in 1215 to “his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and to all his officials and loyal subjects” and continuing with a message never before heard — a setting of limits on the power of the state. It made a grant of rights and liberties to all free men, irrevocably and forever, at least in theory. The document didn’t just express that grant or represent it or certify it. The document was the grant — “given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede.”

    The value of the particular item sold at Sotheby’s [below]


    eight centuries later is entirely different. It’s a kind of illusion. We can call it magical value as opposed to meaningful value. It’s like the value acquired by one baseball when Bobby Thomson batted it out of the Polo Grounds. A physical object becomes desirable, precious, almost holy, by common consensus, on account of a history — a story — that is attached to it. (If it turns out you’ve got the wrong baseball, the value vanishes just as magically.)

    The $21 million Magna Carta is actually a copy, made in 1297. In fact, it is surely a copy of a copy, with errors and emendations introduced along the way. And yet it is also an original: issued officially and afresh in the name of King Edward I. Sotheby’s reckons that 17 “original exemplars” from the 13th century survive today, most preserved in England’s libraries and cathedrals. Hundreds more have been lost — to rats, fire and reuse as scrap paper.

    Even as a copy, it’s one of a kind. “It was like someone said ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” explained the previous purchaser (Ross Perot, 1984, $1.5 million). In advance of the sale, Sotheby’s called Magna Carta “a lamp in the darkness, a glowing talisman of our human condition, a sacred icon of our human history.” Just so. It’s magic. Religious relics, like the Shroud of Turin, gleam invisibly with the same magic. On a smaller scale so do autographs, coins, rare photographs, Stradivari violins (unless you think you can recognize the tonal quality of 300-year-old wood) and clothing off the backs of celebrities, like the spare wedding dress (ivory silk taffeta) that Diana might have worn but didn’t (2005, $175,000).

    All these artifacts share the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle,” calls historicity, which is “when a thing has history in it.” In the book, a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: “One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? ... You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”

    Back in the real world, in 1996, Sotheby’s sold a humidor that had belonged to John F. Kennedy for $574,500. It had historicity.

    Of course, more people can afford rarities — rarities are a bigger business than ever — now that being a billionaire doesn’t even guarantee a spot in the Forbes 400. Magna Carta’s buyer, David M. Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, was No. 165 last year with a reported fortune of $2.5 billion. He plans to return the document to public view at the National Archives, which has had it on display, along with other iconic texts like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Marshall Plan and the Apollo 11 flight plan.

    But the growth in the ranks of the superrich does not explain the hypertrophy in magical value. Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.


I don't know which of these two extraordinary books — "The Man in the High Castle" or "Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money" — I'd recommend more highly.


"When in doubt, do both," has always worked for me.

Try it, you might like it.

January 8, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Meet James Altucher


My favorite Financial Times columnist (above) — whose stature is only enhanced by his resolute refusal to acknowledge my emails — will meet and greet his fans today at Zen Burger (465 Lexington Avenue near 45th Street in New York City) at 12 noon Eastern time.

Wrote Altucher in this morning's FT, "They serve 'chicken, beef, tuna,' etc. but none of it is real. It's all vegetarian and tastes excellent. The grand opening is today and I'll be holding 'office hours' at 12 pm if anyone wants to try out this place with me and talk stocks for a while."

January 8, 2008 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Constable-Maxwell Cage Cup


Pictured above, it is the most expensive piece of glass ever sold, having brought £2.6 million at Bonham's in 2004.

"Once part of the British Rail Pension Fund ancient glass collection, the third century A.D. bowl was made according to the cage-cutting technique where blank, mould-cast glass is cooled and then laboriously carved into a lattice design," wrote Rachel Spence of this singular piece in the January 5, 2006 Financial Times "How To Spend It" magazine.

The 8" x 10" cup is believed to have once been a lamp.

January 8, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Geek Girls Gone Wild — Episode 2: Swarovski/Philips Active Crystal USB Drive Lockets in Pink and Black


No question Version 1.0 was a smash hit.


Just introduced, pink and black iterations.

[via Naveen and bornrich.org and engadget]

January 8, 2008 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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