Republican candidate Donald Trump’s recent controversial remarks on how he would deal with Muslims were he to be the next president of the US, prompted Muhammad Ali to issue a statement on December 9th. Although the statement did not name Trump, it was titled Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States. In it Ali declared :
Despite the echo it received in the press –where it was described as a “punch”, a “jab”, a “swing” or “knock-out response”-, Ali’s reply did not, in fact, feel like anything like a knock-out. Donald Trump did not go down in the first, or even 5th round (as did Sonny Liston or Henry Cooper in their time). A few days later, Trump was still doing great in the polls, unscathed by the so-called “punch”1.
“Boxing was just something he did”
In his heyday, Ali’s tongue was as fast as his fists. He was a boxer who spoke. And, according to his coach, Angelo Dundee, at times, Ali even « talked too much ». Clare Lewins’s 2014 film I am Ali makes the fact crystal clear: Muhammad Ali was much more than a boxer. The point is made over and over again in the film and George Foreman, Ali’s one-time opponent who became a pastor, wraps it up neatly : « boxing was just something he did ». Muhammad Ali was a voice just as much as he was a remarkable athlete. He spoke up for causes such as the fight against segregation and the war in Vietnam2. But Ali’s voice went beyond political statement. It had a dimension Clare Lewins managed to capture in her film.
The film relies quite heavily on a series of tapes handed down to Lewin by Maryum and Hana Ali, 2 of the boxing champion’s 9 children. We learn that Ali taped most of his phone conversations with his children and his entourage as if to capture the fleeting moment. We hear him declare in one of these conversations that “history is so beautiful that the time we’re living it we don’t realize it”, a poignant statement that rings particularly true in retrospect given the fact Ali has spent the last 3 decades struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
A voice that has faded away
By broadcasting Ali’s auto-diary for the first time, Lewins brings back the champ’s “rich, Deep South voice” which was, indeed, “as beautiful as his Adonis physique”3. It is a voice filled with tenderness and love for his children. A voice that has unfortunately faded away as Parkinson’s disease has taken hold of his body.
By bringing this voice to the fore, Lewins’s film testifies to a deeply moving paradox: Ali is still alive yet it feels as though he is longer among us. Dundee, Gene Kilroy (his manager) and Foreman all speak of him in the past tense. The champ’s statements today –however appropriate- lack the enunciation that made them feel like the “jabs”, “swings” and “punches” he delivered in the ring. They testify to the fact that a human being doesn’t amount to the photographs we have of him/her or to the statements he/she made during his/her lifetime. A subject is a voice. I am Ali makes it painfully clear.
1 See Vanity Fair’s December 11th Cocktail Hour edition and Tina Nguyen’s article in which she quoted a recent Bloomberg poll that showed 2/3rds of Republicans supported the proposed ban:
http://www.vanityfair.com 1 Ali was drafted in 1967 but his refusal to enlist led the New York State Athletic Commission to suspend his boxing license and the World Boxing Association to strip him of his title 1 David Jones in the Daily Mail.
One individual, one genome, one brain. The assumption has always been that the genome within every individual is identical, and that his/her brain is unique.
But today, unicity must give way to multiplicity. A recent study , based on the complete genome sequencing of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of healthy individuals, is upsetting this assumption. It’s not just that each individual can claim a unique brain, a specific genome: the study shows that for different neurons, there is a specific genomic variation. After completing a cell by cell analysis (a true technological achievement), it seems the genomic components of neurons, in one individual, vary considerably.
Surprisingly, the study shows that thousands of mutations take place in the genome of each neuron: one by one, mutations occur within genes, between genes, fragments of DNA are gained or lost, as are the functions that have been identified –or not- as playing a part in certain illnesses. It seems these mutations occur by accident during embryonic development within cells that will not divide after birth.
The implications are that of a multiple brain in its genetic makeup. A brain that is not only diverse but heterogeneous. The authors of the study believe that any neuron in the prefrontal cortex has more in common with a heart-cell than it has with its neighbouring cells. What we assumed was unique is in fact manifold. A mosaic that reveals that the brain, which constitutes an individual, is in fact an assemblage of cells made up of different and unpredictable (in their differences) genetic components. No one, therefore, can say exactly what an individual is made of.
The individual himself is heterogeneous. To the point that we wonder how a feeling of unicity, of a "self" could emerge from such diversity.
How can all this hold together and lead to something we call a subject? Could it be, precisely, because it has to do with what goes on beyond genetic bases? In this case, the subject could be considered as response to the diversity it is made up of.
1 Lodato et al., Science, October 2015
London-based IPA psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz also teaches psychoanalytic technique at the London Institute and theory of psychoanalysis at University College London. He has published in the Financial Times and Granta. This book, the only work by Stephen Grosz that I have read, is a collection of brief and pithy individual case studies.
The Examined Life chronicles the cases of thirty-one patients who, we are told, have collectively spent more than 50,000 hours in analysis with Grosz. These are not really case studies, at least not in the classical style of psychoanalysis or even psychiatry. The comparison that comes to mind, and may well have served as a model for Grosz, is with the author Oliver Sacks, particularly his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat with its study of bizarre cases from the world of neurological disorders. But while with Sacks’s work we never quite escape the sense of being voyeurs to the freakish world of the neurologically afflicted, with Grosz we “meet” people at grips with the ordinary issues of ordinary people – we enter the loves and lies, the griefs and triumphs of everyday neurosis, we might say.
It is an engaging work. When published in the UK it spent the first three months in the top ten on the Sunday Times nonfiction bestseller list, and many consider it an insight into the very human struggles that analyst and analysand respectively find themselves caught up in. And while it might be harsh to say this, since the book is intended for a popular audience, it is also true that it fails as a set of clinical studies. What I found is that many of the cases read like synopses of a novel, which might explain both why it has been popular and what is wrong with it as a work of psychoanalysis. The genre of the novel takes over the recounting of the studies and what we get is not the surprise of the clinic and the idiosyncrasy of human desire but rather the comforting familiarity of novelistic expectations.
The tropes are familiar. The book opens with an illustration of the analyst as hero. He sets himself up in humble, workman-like surroundings, and we would be excused for thinking him inadequate to the task of treating bulimics, cutters, attempted suicides, and more – the “industrial waste”, the bottom of the heap, that in the clinical world end up being referred to the novice analyst. But since this is the opening chapter, the novelistic form demands that there is hope for our “narrator”. And we are not disappointed. Freud of course famously wrote that his case studies read like novels, but this is not really true. We can now say what for obvious reasons Freud could not: they read like Freudian case studies. Freud invented the genre and if it has evolved and changed, for better or worse, it is still not the genre of the novel.
1 Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves, New York: Norton, 2013, 240pp.