Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The picture is of Andrew Solomon. The photo comes from The Moth Radio Hour site, all right reserved. I am asserting a fair use of a small version of the photo for commentary purposes.

I must be crazy, but I've never quite found a list that seems to match my particular ways of crazy. I mean "crazy" with the connotation of mental illness as well as in the metaphorical sense of cracks and flaws as in pottery. Certainly I'm full of flaws. And sometimes I'm depressed, but I've never suffered major depressive illness. I know people who suffer from clinical depression and know that among people I admire some have had major depression. Depression is very serious condition.

Recently I was talking in a relaxed family setting. In the conversation was a psychiatrist and a mental health counselor. While the general tenor was social chit-chat there was a strong current of shop talk going on too. I wanted to relate the story that Andrew Solomon had told on The Moth. The podcast is about 18 minutes long and can be heard here.

Perhaps Solomon's most well-known book is A Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. None of my interlocutors had heard of it before. I haven't read the book myself. But we get the New Yorker at home and I think that I had read Solomon's article Anatomy of melancholy.

Damn it. This set-up sounds so depressing and that's sad because Solomon's podcast about undergoing an aboriginal healing strategy in Mali for his depression and is quite cheerful. The photo was taken mid-way through the ritual. Ignoring the blood on his face, he certainly doesn't look depressed in the photo. I wanted to tell the story precisely because the conversation had become a little too heavy.

I'm not an awfully good storyteller so I didn't presume that I could tell the story all that well; just enough to get the gist of it. I began by saying who Solomon is and then placed the action in Mali. Opps, that's when I realized it was going to be hard to get even the gist across. I've never been to Mali but it was clear to me from the start that the story would suffer from a typically American mental map of Africa. Chris Blattman recently shared a couple of maps dealing with perceptions of the continent. I'm thinking of the second one, a GraphJam with the outline of Africa and a legend with four categories: Nelson Mandela, Sudan, Pyramids, Tigers, each a different color. Sudan is a red square and misplaced, Mandela blue at the southern tip, the pyramids yellow located where Egypt ought to be on the map. All the rest is green, tigers everywhere.

This morning when I came online a friend in Kampala had sent a link to a Time Magazine article Uganda: Debating God in a God-Fearing Country. It's pretty cool because the article mentions James Onen. Onen has the blog Freethought Kampala. Onen is well-known in the city. The Sanyu Breakfast Club at Facebook has over 4,500 members including me. While I don't hear the radio program I do sometime check in on the conversation at Facebook. When Onen first started Freethought Kampala I think I must have left an over-long comment there. He was nice enough to send me an email to introduce himself and check me out. Onen has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese. He's one cosmopolitan dude.

I know that Uganda isn't Mali. But I don't see how to understand Solomon's story properly with a mental map of Africa with tigers everywhere. There are no tigers in Africa, but there are many cities.

It so happens that my history with with Onen overlaps with the prolific Ugandan blogger The 27th Comrade. The 27th may be banned from commenting at Freethought, but his blog is certainly a part of the broader conversation about faith in Uganda. So the next thing I read was at Comrade 27th's blog You-Genics and Ed-You-Cation which was prompted by an earlier comment I'd left there. I was at a loss as to what to say in the comments and this post serves as something as a response.

Next I read a post by Aaron Bady at Zunguzungu, Johann Hari, V.S. Naipaul, and bigotry which takes on British journalist, and atheist, Johann Hari's review of V.S. Naipaul's new book The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief. Bady is a good writer and I'm tempted to copy snippets here; better to just go there and read. A basic point he makes is how obnoxious the tired old script is when it come to writing about Africa. By this time my head was aching so I went out and mowed some grass.

James Onen writes cogently from the perspective of "A loud and proud freethinker, skeptic and atheist." The 27th Comrade's Christian apologetics is really quite extraordinary. I'm only a very casual reader of philosophy, even so his philosophical sophistication is evident. Usually when writing I begin with a title something near what I suspect I'll write about and then most often stray way off course. In psychology hypothetical constructs are explanatory variables which are not directly observable. Recently The 27th Comrade has written extensively about faith. He's presented how so many of the constructs people tend to agree on are like faith.

I tend to think more along the lines of James Onen than Comrade 27. So I try to argue with Comrade 27, but he's a more careful thinker than I am so he keeps pointing out holes in my arguments. What's surprised me is following his comments at blogs frequented by much more learned people than I and so often it seems they miss seeing the holes and gaps he's pointing to. It's quite frustrating because I want some help with my arguments. Oh, that's only one side of it. I so enjoy the palaver. I'm curious about what's true and it seems to me most of the time people can only come to what's true from multiple perspectives.

Thinking tonight about constructs, I'm reminded of a "metalogue" written by Gregory Bateson, "Metalogue: What Is an Instinct." Bateson over his career employed the invention of a metalogue as a discussion between he and his young daughter. Seven of his metalogues are published in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. "What Is an Instinct" was first published in 1969 in Approaches to Animal Communication edited by Thomas Sebeok. The piece is well-known enough that I suspect it's posted somewhere on the Internet. All I found tonight was Steps at Scribid. But I often have trouble getting files there even with a fairly fast connection. I also found a 45 minute long audio file with Bateson himself playing Daddie. It's really worth hearing if you can find the time and can get the file.

In the Time piece James Onen is quoted:
"Why should one difference in our beliefs make [believers and nonbelievers] not be friends?"
People being people, of course we come up with all sorts of reasons not to be friends. Still, in following various Ugandan blogs, and not just about subjects about beliefs, I've rather consistently found the presumption that we can be friends unless shown otherwise. It's a quality I find strangely lacking too often among Americans. I'm not sure why, it may have to do with our constructs and tired old scripts about Africa.

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