Updated: Mar 3
So there I was years ago, in 2005 to be exact, a former journalist standing before a group of scientists to talk about psychiatry.
Months earlier my friend Prof. Gerard Hutchingon, Head of the UWI Psychiatry Department, Mt. Hope, had asked me to introduce a book at its launch and I'd agreed. Edited by Prof. Freddie Hickling, Head of Psychiatry at UWI Mona, it was a collection of essays on psychiatry in the Caribbean. Why not? Might be fun, like a book review. After all, I'd loved Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. And I had all the time in the world, months (which is how I've got myself into much hot water many times). But the weeks drifted by and I forgot, my memory loss condition being assisted by never receiving the book until days before the event, by which time I was too busy to do more than flick through it. And on top of that it was very academic, kinda boring. Or might have been so if I'd tried to read it.
So what? There'd be a few people and I'd say a few kind things, list subjects covered in the chapters and bow out.
But UWI had meetings of their medical faculty at the time so now I confronted a room packed with scientists from all three campuses and perhaps even a few external examiners from outside the region. Sitting behind were the bright-eyed, young graduate students.
I can't recall how I was introduced because my mind was focused on what to say. It was the razor-like concentration generated by my panic from the moment I arrived at the conference room. What could I say that wouldn't embarass Gerard and, worse, myself? How to talk to experts about a book I hadn't read in a subject I was but a mild tourist?
I stepped to the lectern took my pen out of my pocket and placed in the centre. Freddie Hickling, an enormous bear of a man with a large smooth walnut-brown head and a long, white beard fixed me with his piercing black eyes. Discreetly clipped to my pen was a tiny folded piece of paper with the "notes" I'd scribbled - four points of about three words each, summarising how I planned to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Actually, the first line had just one word: "1905". So I started at the very beginning, which is always a very good place to start.
Ok, that's it folks. Sorry if this writer's life isn't very exciting but now we must move on to the boring background in which I’ve been laboring on and off, considerably more off than on, through too many years, trying to write a short book on the importance of popular music for life in the modern world. Many years of starting and stopping, and putting it aside for a few years, then starting over again and stopping again. Every haitus allowed me to change my ideas a bit so now I’m a lot more cloudy about what I want to say than when I started. Today, nearly 20 years after that lecture, I'm starting once again, using this blog to clarify the matter, yet again, and that by recreating what I said on that nerve-racking evening in the Courtyard Hotel.
I opened with a subtle touch of flattery. Always do that: the dopamine brings them on your side. "This year marks a very important centeniary," I began and then, without even the faintest bat of an eye, administered the drug: "As I expect most of you already know."
Of course they hadn't a clue, I was sure of it, I could see it in their faces. Some might have figured it out given time but I continued without a pause: "A hundred years ago Albert Einstein published four papers on four very different topics, any one of which would have won him the Nobel prize. One was on special relativity; one on the thermonuclear effect, which introduced quantum physics and earned him the prize in 1921; one on brownian motion, which proved the existence of atoms; and the fourth on something I can't remember." (Actually, that was the most famous - his equation of energy and matter.
Thus, I continued, he laid out the agenda which would define the main frontier of science for the twentieth century. Because of that, it could be considered, scientifically, the century of matter.
And now, this twenty-first century, I proposed, will be the century of mind.
It was a tiny sleight of hand, those sweeping generalizations always are. After all, Freud, who dominated psychology in the twentieth century, also published his profoundly influential "Three Essays on Sexuality" in 1905. But no one noticed, I was moving too fast. When you're on thin ice, move fast.
Besides, it wasn't that far-fetched that the twenty-first century saw the big questions to be about the mind, partly because it was also big business. Drug companies had successfully turned all sorts of social, economic, political, cultural problems into mental issues to be treated with drugs. Prozac for sad women; Viagra for scared men and Ritalin for mischevious boys. Depression was foretold by the WHO to be the number one epidemic of the century. (That was long before arrived to Covid-19 upset the coconut cart.)
Anyway, back to the century of the mind, which, I claimed, placed the drug pushers - oops! sorry, I meant the psychiatrists - in the vanguard. Actually, it was all of of the neuroscientists, encouraged by huge advances in the measurement of brain activity and even the development of artificial intelligence. Even philosophers joined the act, talking about the easy problem (why are we conscious?) and the hard one (what does that even mean?). Perhaps the most famous was the professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, Oliver Sacks, who has written more, and more profoundly, on the subject of my interest, music, than anyone else, perhaps because it once, quite literally, saved his life.
Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, illustrated by Austin Kleon.
But, I argued (moving even faster because the empirical ice below me was even thinner here): psychiatrists had their heads in the clouds of abstract theory, and their feet firmly planted on the practical issues surrounding the alleviation of suffering of the mentally ill.
After that I was on the solid ground of what I knew in my bones, whew! And what I comfortably explained thereafter was as follows:
We in the Caribbean, indeed throughout the Americas (Yankees should be reminded that we islanders were the first peoples to be called "Americans"), we developed what's still the best therapy for mental healing. For example:
If I have a headache, even a mild one, because my pain threshold is very low, I'd take two painkillers, which work like magic. But if I have a heartache, that is, I'm depressed, anxious, preoccupied, worried (it happened occasionally in those days before I attained the Zen state of DGF - Don't Give a Fuck) then I turn to a different drug. I simply find something mechanical to do, washing dishes for instance, or walking, and listen to some loud music. Bob Marley, or whatever I'm into at that moment, and I shuffle around to the beat. If I'm driving, I'd sing at the top of my stentorian voice. And in no time I'm good to go. Works like magic.
The music of the African diaspora, kaiso and pan, reggae and dancehall, rock-n-roll, blues, hip-hop, soul and jazz, samba and bossa nova, salsa and meringue and all of the others, was and is the greatest medicine for the spirit ever invented. It heals the soul through joy. It was created in the hellfire of slavery and colonialism by Africans for sustenance. Because of it they endured physically and psychically. That is, they were able to retain their self-respect and their ability to laugh and love.
When I was a child there it was fashionable among doctors to remove children's tonsils for the slightest reason. I never had mine removed but sometimes I wished I did, because the patients were allowed to eat lots of ice cream for the post-surgery discomfort. Similarly, the music of the diaspora healed through pleasure. That is why popular music is the dominant art form of the twentieth century, that and cinema, the two art forms pioneered by the two great diasporas, the African and the Jewish. That's also why, because of their self-affirming, pleasure-giving power, they have been commercially and politically exploited as opiates.
The talk was received with as much enthusiasm as academics are allowed, especially by Prof. Hickling, the book's editor, who was a character of vast eccentricities, a brilliant man who some thought was madder than his patients. He was mildly disappointed when he asked to see, and I gave him, the "notes" he'd spotted me glancing at, but still he invited me dine with the doctors afterwards and to contribute to a collection of essays on neurology and Caribbean phenomenology.
Only Gerard, who'd set me up in the first place, seemed less impressed. "I noticed," he said with his characteristic laugh, "You didn't say anything about the book."