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Book Review: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Most people probably don’t start pondering the power of art after seeing the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But then author James Morrow isn’t your average person. After all, he spent the 1990s “killing God” in The Godhead Trilogy. A self-described “scientific humanist,” Morrow’s last several novels explored the scientific worldview through the perspectives of the struggle between science and superstition in the early 17th century, genetic engineering and ethics, and evolutionary theory.

With his new book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, Morrow unmistakably moves from science to the humanities aspect of the definition of humanist. Morrow, who made 8mm and 16mm films in high school and college, uses the 1920 German silent horror film as inspiration and a foundation for the book. The movie is about a sideshow hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist (Cesare) to commit murder and kidnap the narrator’s fiancee. When the narrator later follows Dr. Caligari, the hypnotist appears to be the director of an insane asylum. While some consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first true horror film, it’s best known for its visual style, one which has led many to proclaim it the quintessential cinematic example of German Expressionism.

The movie’s sets and objects deliberately and bizarrely distort perspective, scale and proportion. Sharp-pointed forms, such as grass that looks like knives, and oblique and curving lines dominate. Streets are narrow and spiraling while buildings and landscapes lean and twist in unusual angles. Some of the landscape is painted on canvas and shadows and streaks of light also are painted directly onto the sets, imbuing the film with a two dimensional aspect. While Dr. Caligari is central to Morrow’s book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is built around and focused on the extensive expressionist art motifs in the film. In fact, art is both a centerpiece and the vehicle of the book’s antiwar theme.

The story is told from the perspective of American artist Francis Wyndham, whose first name is also that of the film’s narrator. Through him, Morrow introduces art from the outset. Wyndham attends what is known as the Armory Show, a 1913 modern art exhibition in midtown Manhattan that introduced the American public to European avant-garde paintings and sculpture. Wyndham is so enthralled with what he sees there, he ends up setting out for France shortly before the outbreak of World War I. He dreams of being an apprentice to Pablo Picasso, who promptly throws him and his portfolio down a flight of stairs. Wyndham refers to his encounter as “Rube Descending a Staircase,” a takeoff on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” displayed at the Armory Show. Undeterred, Wyndham seeks out other cubist artists, such as Duchamp, Georges Braque and André Derain.

When Wyndham meets Derain, the artist is being mobilized into the French military. He asks Wyndham to undertake Derain’s new position as art therapist at Träumenchen, an insane asylum. Located in the neutral fictional country of Weizenstaat abutting Luxembourg and the German Empire, Träumenchen is run by Dr. Alessandro Caligari. Echoing the film, Caligari is a former sideshow hypnotist and now an alienist who considers Freud a charlatan. Caligari believes hypnosis is the future of psychiatry and all treatment at Träumenchen on is based on the theory of heteropathy, in which a patient’s mental condition is treated by inducing an opposite disorder. (Cesare also resides at the asylum but in Morrow’s tale he is a black cat. Caligari’s sideshow somnambulist here is Conrad Röhrig, now his private secretary.)

Caligari also dabbles in painting, completing his magnum opus the night Wyndham arrives. Called “Ecstatic Wisdom” based on a chance remark by Friedrich Nietzsche when he was a patient at Träumenchen, the work is some 30 feet long and 15 feet high. Looking forward to the war’s “aesthetic intensity” and believing it “transcendentally meaningless,” Caligari created the painting with alchemical pigments. The alchemy enables “Ecstatic Wisdom” to brainwash men into kreigslust (“war lust”).

Here, the book shares a common analysis of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Dr. Caligari represented the militarist German government during World War I and Cesare symbolized how, upon becoming a soldier, the common man is conditioned to kill. Seeing the painting as financial security for his asylum, Caligari charges each warring nation as they send a constant procession of troop trains to Träumenchen. The soldiers march by the painting and afterwards “radiated a boundless desire to find a battle, any battle, and hurl themselves into the maw.” This artistic war machine doesn’t just create the fodder. Within a month, the asylum is full of soldiers suffering from shell shock,

Throughout, Wyndham is teaching art therapy to a paranoid, a former chess grandmaster constantly narrating classic matches, a man who says he’s traveled the solar system in his private spaceship, and Ilona Wessels, who hails from Holstenwall, the fictional town that is the setting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She believes she is the Spider Queen of Ogygia, the island in Homer’s Odyssey, and she and Wyndham are immediately attracted to each other. Caligari encourages them to live together to provide Wessels “la cura amore” treatment. Knowing of Caligari’s painting and its effect, they form a cabal with other patients and employees to sabotage the scheme.

Morrow uses language consistent with a story being told by someone living in that period (‘batwinged incarnations of melancholia, catatonia, paranoia, and dementia praecox swirled all about me”), helping set the book’s narrative tone. A variety of Latin, French and German phrases dot the text so an online translator will aid readers. Likewise, due to the numerous art references, a reader is well-advised to have handy access to art history sources (or even Wikipedia). Surprisingly, though, Morrow’s pursuit of verisimilitude is undercut by either “artistic license” or an error in the first chapter. It has Wyndham meeting artist Henri Rousseau in Paris in the summer of 1914. Rousseau, though, died in September 1910.

That aside, the book is generally well-paced through Caligari’s discovery of the cabal, except for the space allotted to depicting the sexual adventures of Wyndham and Wessels. The last third of the book, however, feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped considering the cabal ends up on the Western Front and Wyndham, for example, doesn’t return for a month. The hurried feel is bolstered by the fact the run-up to and the ultimate denouement feel chimerical and even more fantastic than Caligari and his creation.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is an inventive homage to and extrapolation of concepts in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a pithy commentary on the power of art and the folly and hysteria of war. Ultimately, though, despite being a thoughtful read, the book does not wholly realize its aims.


Man does not live by bread alone, but it’s a good idea to start with the bread.

James Morrow, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari

Weekend Edition: 5-27

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Everyone needs a spiritual guide: a minister, rabbi, counselor, wise friend, or therapist. My own wise friend is my dog.

Gary Kowalski, Yoga Journal (May-June 1993)

Weekend Edition: 5-20

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  • We need ecstasy and cocaine in place of Prozac and Xanax (“We’d rather stick to antidepressants of minimal therapeutic impact, not because they guard against addiction – they don’t – but because of a puritanical aversion to supplying unearned happiness and, along with it, a deep-seated belief that people who suffer emotionally should just get over it.”)
  • What Has Become of American Healthcare? (“Even if Obamacare remains the law of the land there will still be millions uninsured, still many families that will face abject poverty and no medical care in a country where $1.5 trillion dollars can be spent on a plane that doesn’t fly.”)

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Practicing Law 101

  • Fucking bullshit” shouldn’t be uttered aloud when a judge overrules your objection

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History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.

John W. Campbell, Jr. (1965)

Book Review: The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone

It will be easy for Trumpists and conservatives to ignore Brooke Gladstone’s new book. Not only is she a member of the mainstream media, she’s spent the last 30 years working for two bastions of biased liberal media, WNYC and NPR. They’ll justify their dismissal of the book with fleeting perusals, its reviews or perhaps the subtitle. And even if they took the time to read it, they’ll dislike it because it invokes writers such as Hannah Arendt and discussions of demagogues, totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Yet such a lapse is indicative of what she believes is happening today.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time is a succinct consideration of an era in which reality is the core of an “epic existential battle.” In assessing why this battle exists, Gladstone doesn’t lay blame entirely at the feet of Trump and his supporters (although they are assigned plenty). She builds her analysis using diverse sources, including Arendt, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, journalist Walter Lippmann, Thomas Jefferson, Philip K. Dick, Oliver Swift and 17th century poet John Milton. She believes human nature helped create our confused reality.

We mistakenly believe facts are reality, she says. Even when two people are presented with the same facts, though, they filter, arrange, prioritize and view them through their own values and traditions. Ultimately, reality “is not necessarily the world we would like it to be, … it is simply the kind of world we expect it to be.” Yet another part of the problem is that just as we sift facts, other elements of our political system affect what we sift.

As part of career spent covering the media, Gladstone has spent nearly 20 years co-hosting On The Media for years, a weekly radio program billed as examining how the “shapes our world view.” In the last election, the media fell victim to what she calls Trump’s “canny use of the demagogue’s playbook.” Using a number of Trump’s campaign statements and an analyzing his use of Twitter to “embed his realities,” The Trouble with Reality suggests the media’s approach to an unprecedented campaign style made things worse. Gladstone argues that the Trump campaign’s methods left the media “darting this way and that after shiny objects, too frantic to cull the crucial from the trivial, never pausing for the big picture that, in any case, they would not have recognized.”

Yet The Trouble with Reality may reinforce the growing lack of trust in the mainstream media. Gladstone correctly notes, for example, that “reporters should have laughed less and reported more” during the campaign. Perhaps more concerning is the suggestion that Trump’s hostility toward the press has created an animus that will create a new golden age of journalism. Trump’s election, Gladstone says, has “blocked the appearance of objectivity at all costs” and turned Washington reporters into war reporters. Yet one of Trump’s core arguments against the press is that it lacks objectivity. (Actually canceling press briefings would be a miscalculation as it would not only heighten the animus, but give “war reporters” more time to work on their marksmanship.) Perhaps it is just her phrasing that causes concern. It’s crucial the media change its conspicuous tendency to accept statements at face value and fail to fact check. Yet any hint that the press is discarding objectivity has significant ramifications for media credibility.

Of course, Gladstone also sees Trump as a significant source of “our reality trouble.” She seeks to explain what allowed Trump to so resonate with voters during the campaign. At the same time, the book regularly quotes and applies guidelines used to assess totalitarianism and demagoguery, suggesting Trump is both. As for what helps create reality for Trump supporters, she says he struck a “classic authoritarian deal” with them.

You can bask in my favor and recognition, in the promises I make and the license I bestow, and all I ask in return is that you believe whatever I say, whenever I say it. Even if it is false.

This certainly evinces a basis for people accepting the “fake news” and “alternative facts” motifs apparent since Trump’s inauguration. It also helps explain why she suggests that the path toward repairing reality isn’t agreeing on what it is.

Given that we each view identical facts from different perspectives, it is difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the truth, on reality. While Gladstone suggests that activism is a route for those so inclined, she believes gathering more facts from people and places with which we are unfamiliar is important. Even if those facts don’t change our minds, it may allow us to comprehend how or what another person accepts as reality. Whether she’s right or not, the suggestion is certainly better than viciously berating and maligning each other, whether publicly or online.


The laws of human nature do not provide for the triumph of reason.

Brooke Gladstone, The Trouble with Reality

Weekend Edition: 5-13

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Being insanely busy all the time is not only bad for you; it also prevents you from discovering the human being you were meant to be.

Andrew Smart, Autopilot

Book Review: Beyond Bedlam’s Door by Mark Rubinstein

Although case studies are a well-recognized form of scholarship, in the nonfiction aisles of retail bookstores it can become a sobriquet for “war stories.” Their presence and popularity grew immensely with the popularity of books by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Many authors, though, have difficulty equalling his prowess.

Mark Rubinstein deftly avoids the many pitfalls of the genre in Beyond Bedlam’s Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom, his second book of vignettes from his four decades as a psychiatrist. It follows the same format of his first such book, last year’s Bedlam’s Door:True Tales of Madness and Hope. Both tell the stories of a variety of patients, each followed by an “Afterword” addressing the particular issues or conditions at play. In this way Rubinstein seeks to not only make each patient’s story personal and relatable but to explain psychiatric conditions and their ramifications for the individual, their family and society.

Bedlam’s Door, a term used when an emergency room becomes “a revolving carousel of psychosis,” portrays patients Rubinstein encountered at various medical facilities. Beyond Bedlam’s Door is just what its title and subtitle suggest: accounts of his work outside the institutional setting, whether treating someone in private practice or as a forensic psychiatrist.

Rubinstein uses an almost parable-like approach in the 21 stories in Beyond Bedlam’s Door to illustrate the diversity of psychiatric issues and what psychiatrists do. Among the topics he explores are professional malpractice, the difficulty of treating adolescents, the importance of doctor-patient boundaries and the difference between crossing those boundaries and violating them. His method of recounting patient histories in the form of reconstructed conversations provides a foundation by which Beyond Bedlam’s Door intelligibly explains and demystifies a variety of mental health issues, from panic attacks to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. More important, Rubinstein shows that the stories of his patients really weave “a tapestry of human thinking, feeling and behavior” in which “we see reflections of ourselves.”

Rubinstein’s background as a forensic psychiatrist — a psychiatrist who works with attorneys, courts, or other parties involved in actual or potential litigation — also allows him to provide an inside view of the interplay between law and psychiatry. He furnishes easy to understand explanations of various psychiatric issues in the law. For example, Beyond Bedlam’s Door concisely and coherently spells out the recurring question in workers’ compensation cases of “physical-mental” and “mental-mental” injuries. Likewise, he describes the job of an expert witness, the so-called “gunslinger” expert and how forensic evaluations differ from evaluating a patient for treatment.

Beyond Bedlam’s Door sporadically repeats information from Rubinstein’s prior book, at times verbatim. To be fair, that likely is simply the nature of the beast when it comes to describing and explaining mental health conditions. Some may also be put off by the fact that while the reconstructed dialogue makes the book more literary, it can also feel artificial. That said, Beyond Bedlam’s Door is a top-notch look at the reality and relevance of psychiatry in today’s America.


Where money and the law intersect, truth can sometimes be the victim.

Mark Rubinstein, Beyond Bedlam’s Door