What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Deconstructionist's Vacation

I want to briefly explore a possible connection between Malcolm’s “J’appelle un Chat un Chat” (The New Yorker, April 20 1987; included in Malcolm’s great 1992 essay collection The Purloined Clinic under the title “Dora”) and “Iphigenia In Forest Hills” (The New Yorker, May 3, 2010; published this year in slightly expanded book form using the same title). The texts that I’ll refer to in this discussion are “Dora” and Iphigenia in Forest Hills. They’re linked in my mind by their mention of “vacation.” “Dora” is about “the literary qualities of three of Freud’s case histories, of Dora, the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man” (see the New Yorker abstract of the piece in the magazine’s online archive). In its memorable opening line, Malcolm says:

Today, everyone knows – except possibly a few literary theorists – that the chief subject of the psychoanalytic dialogue is not the patient’s repressed memories but the analyst’s vacation.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is, as its subtitle indicates, an “Anatomy of a Murder Trial.” Chapter 15 begins as follows:

It is time to introduce a subject known as The Judge’s Vacation.

I remember finding both these statements intensely interesting when I first read them. They bring into the open a heretofore hidden element of two supposedly sophisticated, complex processes - psychoanalysis and criminal trials – that is shockingly simplistic and unsophisticated, namely, the vacations of analysts and judges. When I think of psychoanalysis, I think of many things – free association, dream interpretation, transference, etc. One thing I certainly don’t think about is the analyst’s vacation; it just seems too extraneous and mundane to merit consideration. The same goes for the trial process, which I associate with cross-examination, jury selection, final summation, etc. – but certainly not with the judge’s vacation.

But the analyst’s or the judge’s vacation is just the sort of marginal detail that Malcolm delights in seizing on to show, in the case of the analytic encounter, its “absurdity” [“Out of this absurdist collaboration – the tireless joint scrutiny of the patient’s reactions and overreactions to the analyst’s limited repertoire of activity in the sphere of fees, hours, waiting-room etiquette, and, above all, absences – come small, stray self-recognitions that no other human relationship yields, brought forward under conditions of frustration (and gratification) that no other human relationship could survive”], and, in the case of trial work, its “artificiality” and “inhuman character” (“Ezra’s refusal to play – his continued protests against being questioned in a way that people aren’t questioned in life outside the courtroom – brought into sharp relief the artificial and, you might even say, inhuman character of courtroom discourse”).

Using the entirely familiar and understandable notion of vacations as a way of comprehending what transpires in the often bizarre proceedings of courtrooms and analyst’s offices may strike some as gross oversimplification.

But vacations are just one vulnerable node among many that Malcolm prods in her anatomizations. And, in the case of Mazoltuv Borukhova, the matter of the judge’s vacation may actually turn out to be legally significant. Geoffrey O’Brien, in his excellent review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills (“The Trial,” The New York Review of Books, April 28, 2011), says:

The simmering hostility evoked by the judge’s first entrance in these pages persists as part of the book’s permanent atmosphere, flaring up from time to time, and taking on fresh importance when Hanophy, in the closing days of the trial, forces the defense to deliver its summation with very little preparation time in order not to delay his vacation: “This trial is going to be over on March 17th because I’m going to be sipping piña coladas on the beach in St. Martin.” (This and other such remarks have helped form the basis of an appeal to overturn the verdict currently being brought by the lawyer Alan Dershowitz.)

I hope Dershowitz succeeds. Regardless of whether Borukhova is guilty, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

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