Monday, February 26, 2007

Separating the idiots from the morons

An interesting look at the way our language usage changes over time can be found in You and Heredity, by Adam Scheinfeld, published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company in New York, 1939.

Chapter XXIV of this volume is titled Sick Minds. It begins with a look at mental illness, as it relates to heredity, and segues from manic-depressives and schizophrenia into feeble-mindedness and subnormal intelligence: "It is the very large class of the higher type of feeble-minded, the morons, which concerns us most. Only by an intelligence test can they be distinguished from persons of normal intelligence."

For the IQ test, persons who scored below 90 were considered below average. For them, there was a scale used to further classify the levels of subnormal intelligence. And this is where we get into archaic usage and how that usage has evolved (devolved?). Apparently, the terms used on this scale were acceptable and without the insulting connotations they carry today. They are, in descending order: Dull, Feeble-minded, Moron, Imbecile, and Idiot. Morons had the distinction of being further defined as either High-grade, Mid-grade, or Low-grade Morons.

We all know how these terms are used today. Insulting as they are in their current-day slang usage, they once constituted valid terminology among mental health professionals. Modern-day equivalents include Borderline Intellectual Functioning, Mild Mental Retardation, Moderate Retardation, Severe Mental Retardation, and Profound Mental Retardation.

Fifty to a hundred years from now, it would be interesting to see if these words hold up in the context of intelligence descriptors. Likely they won’t. Language is, and always has been, constantly changing and evolving in various ways. No reason to believe that process would exclude the IQ scale.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Steinbeck's journal

A few weeks ago, while out book hunting, I came across a copy of Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck, published posthumously by the Viking Press, 1969. The jacket cover features a box that Steinbeck hand-carved for his journal, which was presented to his editor upon completion of the novel. On the box, he carved the title of the novel and the Hebrew characters for the word timshel, which appears in a key scene of the novel.

The price was $16 and I started to put it back, as it looked like a $15 book, for resale, at best. But I decided to read just a bit of it--journals and diaries usually catch my attention. Plus Steinbeck was someone whose works I read in high school, maybe college--I don't remember. And I had not read East of Eden. I was hooked by the first page or two and and quickly put it in my basket, thankful I had taken a second look at it.

This journal not only offers an interesting look at the creative process at work for writing the novel, but also offers some interesting autobiographical insights. I'm no Steinbeck scholar, so most of it is new to me. But I'd bet that any Steinbeck aficionado would find something of interest here.

Steinbeck wrote in this journal every day that he worked on East of Eden, from January 29 to November 1, 1951. The actual journal was a gift from his editor, Pascal Covici, whom he addressed as Pat in his journal. Each entry was written in the form of a letter to his editor, and contained information about the work in progress on the novel, thoughts, ideas, and debates about the course of the novel. He also let personal information seep in, such as this entry early on in the writing:

I must get into the book again at least try to even though my mind is badly cut up in all directions. Very hard to concentrate today. But I must try for my own safety.Take things in stride and particularly don't anticipate trouble before it happens. One of my very worst habits is the anticipation of difficulties and vicariously to go through them in advance. Then, if they do happen I have to do it twice, and if they don't happen I have done them unnecessarily. I know this is my habit... but not to o it requires constant watchfulness on my part. I have the recurring tendency. I guess I am what is called a worrier.

Sounds like he suffered through bouts of anxiety from time-to-time. And in a single paragraph of another entry, we learn about his recent struggle with depression and excessive drinking, and he even offers a glimpse of his sex life:

My health is generally good. I have been drinking too much, I think, and a few times in the last months I have had depressions. But it does not seem to me that the depressions are as awful as they used to be. Perhaps some acid juice is drying up. My sexual drive is, if anything, stronger than ever but that may be because it is all in one direction now and not scattered. I don't know about my thinking. It will take this book to determine if that is any good. My mind seems to me to be young and elastic but perhaps everyone thinks that always.

He is self-critical at times, very sensitive toward his young boys, dedicated to his work and getting it just right (which obviously he did). An interesting man, Steinbeck provides insight into his creative mind and his personal life through this brief journal at a time in his life when he seemed to be relatively content and on top of his game. More on the journal later, as certain entries might warrant...