The Woods Hole Cantata

Weissmann’s essays reveal a mind that defies C. P. Snow’s diagnosis of the “Two Cultures,” for his discussions range with ease over the whole map of creative thought. His favorite structural device is to take two apparently unrelated topics, and then to exploit each in terms of the other. Quite commonly (as in his essay “Auden and the Liposome”), one of the foci of his attention will come from the humanities and the other from his readings in science.

Thus, in “Foucault and the Bag Lady” Weissman describes the plight of one of New York City’s “bag ladies,” a fifty-six-year-old woman suffering from scleroderma. She represents to Weissmann the many “deinstitutionalized” mental patients in American cities, victims of what he sees as fashions in the treatment of the mentally ill. He points to the psychiatrist R. D. Laing for his role in shaping modern attitudes toward the mentally ill, but he is most severe with Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher-historian. Weissman sees in Foucault an absolutely destructive anti-institutionalism, a yearning for the golden age, when “fools and madmen added to the richness of everyday life by their unique insights and startling behavior.”

Weissmann’s open compassion for the bag lady, humiliated by disease and society, characterizes all of his writing. The diversity of these essays can only be suggested here, but they are always stimulating meditations from a remarkably well-informed mind. His essay on “No Ideas but in Things” takes that motto from the American poet-physician William Carlos Williams and celebrates the gusto with which Williams approached life in both the pediatric ward and the broader arena engaged by his poetry.

Whether he is writing on “Golems and Chimeras,” “Poussin and the Bomb,” or “Cholera at the Harvey,” Weissmann always illuminates his subject in a graceful, allusive style. He reveals a social liberalism compounded with a cultural conservatism, a sensibility that is sympathetic to legalized abortion but commonly gruff about the modern novel in some of its forms.