Lisa Appignanesi is Chair of the Royal Society of Literature. She is the author of Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors and Losing the Dead. Her most recent book is Everyday Madness. (May 2019)
A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger
by Joshua Sperling
Landscapes: John Berger on Art
edited and with an introduction by Tom Overton
When Joshua Sperling’s biography of John Berger arrived at my door, I approached it with trepidation. I’d known Berger for more than forty years, and biographers, having amassed reams of information about a life, may render it in ways that make it unrecognizable to friends or family. Upon his death in January 2017, many of Berger’s British obituarists, on both the right and the left, engaged in settling decades-old political or art world scores. Berger had not only escaped the confines of his British island but he had had the audacity to rise to fame before doing so. From his French mountainside he denounced injustices that were everywhere visible, even in his native land. He was read in a multiplicity of languages. None of this could altogether be forgiven.
Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna
by Edith Sheffer
The historian Edith Sheffer’s book Asperger’s Children is an impassioned indictment, one that glows with the heat of a prosecution motivated by an ethical imperative. She charges Hans Asperger, the Viennese pediatrician whose name has since the 1980s designated a syndrome that forms part of the wider autism spectrum, with a heinous medical crime: sending at least thirty-seven of his child patients to their deaths. Accused with Asperger is the whole of the Nazi ideological apparatus that converted a diagnosis—a highly personal form of human assessment—into the first rung of a routine killing machine.
an exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, October 20, 2017–March 25, 2018
Life? or Theatre?
by Charlotte Salomon
A woman walks down the red stairs of a tall roofless building. Her dress is almost black. Her hair is pulled back, her arms crossed against the cold, her face melancholy. She walks past denuded trees up a darkened street, curves into another, and another. The wind seems to be propelling her, tugging at her, so that at one point her hair tumbles free, her dress whirls. Lamplight turns pavement and road a stormy sea blue. As she comes closer her path is outlined in blood red, until red takes her over to transform her into a drowning figure in a blackened lake.
In his book The White Road (2015), Edmund De Waal recounted his love affair with porcelain and the long, fascinating history of the material’s travels and fashioning. It was to Venice that Marco Polo brought the earliest porcelain vessel in the Western hemisphere—and De Waal chased it down here for that book. Porcelain of the purest white remains the primary material out of which he fashions his fragile, luminous vessels, the central components of his installations. To me, these vessels, as well as the square or rectangular shapes of marble and gold leaf in his work, suggest musical notation—setting up a contrapuntal dialogue with the light and the space they inhabit, providing comment or argument, yet invoking a meditative silence, a call to attentiveness.
Kathy Acker was nothing if not a mistress of the contradictions of being woman, a post-punk amalgam of de Sade’s masochistic Justine, virtuous in her enforced prostitution, and his triumphant libertine Juliette. Her transgressiveness and frank avowal of desire was radical at the time, but in ways that don’t necessarily track comfortably with contemporary feminisms. It may well be that the current interest in her work is as much to do with her emphatic use of the first person—even though that person is ever the artist: a shape-shifter whose identity and sexual desires don’t fall neatly into prescribed or given locations.
The irony of Trump now suggesting that his former chief strategist Steve Bannon “has lost his mind” is evident. But laudable as their call may be, psychiatrists can do little more than trumpet danger—unless Twenty-Fifth Amendment proceedings determining the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” are set in motion. At that point, the vice president or the Cabinet or Congress can call for a full mental health test and diagnostic assessment. But what will guard against the president’s excesses and remove him from office is more likely to be politics than the mind doctors.