Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Art of Distraction

Photo: Brett Weinstein
Hanif Kureishi’s profound and provocative essay, “The Art of Distraction” in the Sunday Review section of the Times (NYT, 2/18/12) will undoubtedly prove very troubling to some readers whose children are suffering from learning disorders and who have experienced success using drugs like Ritalin. Here is Kureishi, the brilliant director of My Beautiful Laundrette, “You could say that attention needs to be paid to intuition; that one can learn to attend to the hidden self, and there might be something there worth listening to. If the Ritalin boy prefers obedience to creativity, he may be sacrificing his best interests in a way that might infuriate him later. A flighty mind might be going somewhere.” The essay is loaded with gems like this. Kureishi had trouble learning as does one of his sons and in the throes of his adolescence he went through a particularly wretched period. “I was suffering from a form of intellectual anorexia—the refusal to be given anything, to take anything in. As a result of that self-stymieing, I lost hope and believed I’d never catch up or achieve anything.” Many jeremiads about those suffering from symptoms like the ones Kureishi describes point to the consequences of not using drugs. Kureishi points to the consequences of using them, but the path he charts out is one that is not free of things like pain, disappointment and ostracism. He freely admits that he dreamt frequently of the rewards of possessing what one would suppose to be a typical high functioning analytic intelligence and of the feelings of belonging such a gift can produce. But he obviously believes that the pain he endured was justified—if sensibility itself is a just reward. “Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent’s good.” Undoubtedly there will be lots of irate letters to the Times about this piece, and that itself is a good thing. Those who come out on either side of this issue might recall Baudelaire’s famous words, “hypocrite lecteur,--mon semblable,--mon frère!”

1 comment:

  1. Hanif should have have tried it out before knocking it! I've been taking Ritalin daily for 18 years -- starting at age 20. It does not in anyway inhibit my imagination. I write and publish stories, compose music, enjoy a very active imagination and experience "inspiration" on a daily basis, all while under the effect of the medication. The difference is that the medication makes it possible to organize my thoughts into a coherent, structured plan. But never in my life have I felt that the drug was coercing me into social or artistic conformity.

    The problem is that Ritalin and other stimulants are over-prescribed to children, and/or administered in doses that are far too large for them. This is a problem with a practical solution, not a moral conundrum.


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