Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration

This is a new book by two astronomers, Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, in which the past and future of the exploration of the solar system and beyond is discussed in some detail. As the title suggests, the continued suitability of astronauts for this purpose is a running question throughout the book. Chapters cover projects involving near-earth orbits, the moon, Mars, asteroids, space colonization, the costs of space exploration and space law. No firm conclusions are reached, and the two simply finish by saying that the exploration of Mars is about to become the focus of many groups.

The greatest single obstacle to hands-on space exploration is gravity, because a lot of energy is required to leave the earth's atmosphere. Furthermore, manned space flights are far more expensive than unmanned flights, because the systems necessary to support human life are much heavier than the systems necessary to support robots. Although there have been situations in which a human presence on a space mission has been more efficient than a robotic presence, advances in AI are rapidly closing the gap. One of the disadvantages of human astronauts is their susceptibility to cancer caused by various forms of radiation, which consequently requires heavy shielding on manned flights. Other human requirements in space also increase weight in comparison to robots.

Because of the problem of the earth's gravity, the exploration of other planets and asteroids would be less costly and easier if the missions originated on the moon or other objects with weak gravity. For this reason, there will probably be permanent bases on the moon relatively soon. The far side of the moon would also be an excellent location for telescopes. The authors don't draw distinctions between missions based on scientific advancement, popular enthusiasm, billionaire hubris, commercial interests or geopolitics, so there is no clear perspective defining which activities are appropriate – I found this a little disappointing. They are simply predicting what is likely to happen next. So, in a few years there will be bases on the moon, and in about forty years there may be bases on Mars, the moons of other planets or asteroids. Among the motivators are international competition, the mining of rare elements, curiosity about whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system and the potential development of space habitats for humans. The moon contains helium-3, which could be used to generate energy. The moon, other moons, Mars and some asteroids contain water, which could be useful if bases or colonies are developed. Besides the possibility of human colonies on Mars, some people envision colonies in large, rotating cylinders in space or on the moons of other planets. The authors dutifully mention the hostility of non-earth environments to humans. 

On the whole, I found the book informative about a topic that is likely to become far more important in the future. However, the focus on technical facts omits many of the significant problems associated with non-earth habitation by humans. If the authors had consulted biologists and sociologists, they might have provided a fuller picture of the hazards of space for humans. To me, they have overlooked the fact that, as earth-evolved organisms, humans are unlikely to feel at home anywhere other than on earth or an extremely close simulation of it. I think that living in a Martian colony would probably be like living in a small, remote motel somewhere in Nevada, without the possibility of opening a window or going outside unless protected by a special suit. The authors discuss the terraforming of Mars, i.e., the conversion of Mars to an earth-like habitat. Although that could conceivably occur in the distant future, there is no guarantee that people would be happier there than they are here. Moreover, if humans were to leave earth because it became too crowded, polluted, hot or violent, why would anyone expect that space colonies wouldn't also become too crowded, polluted, hot or violent? If the colonists were trying to escape poor governance on earth, why would they think that they would find better governance in a space colony? I think that, with all the expense and risk associated with human travel to and residence in space, an analysis of what it would take to make living on earth more desirable and sustainable ought to have been made. We have the ability to painlessly reduce the population here by limiting the number of births, and we have the technology to solve the problems of climate change. In particular, it would be far easier to terraform earth, returning it to an earlier state, than Mars or anywhere else, and in this respect the book is extremely shortsighted. In a similar vein, the authors are neutral on speciation. It is true that speciation occurs on its own, as species adapt to changes in their environments, but, speaking for myself, I am perfectly happy being a human. As far as I'm concerned, Elon Musk and his friends can all become cyborgs and move to Mars. Good riddance!

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Diary

I'm behind on my posts because I haven't had much to say. The arrival of spring always prompts changes in my daily activities. I spend less time reading, less time on the Internet, more time preparing for gardening and more time outdoors. I have also been attempting to help my daughter buy a house, which is a nerve-wracking experience at the moment. All of the decent houses in good school districts that come on the market near Lebanon, New Hampshire are sold almost immediately at prices above the asking price. Buyers have no way of knowing whether they have bid high enough, and the houses are overpriced to begin with, usually $100,000 to $200,000 more than they would have cost three years ago. Higher interest rates are starting to reduce demand a little, and one can only hope that the market will stabilize within a few months. In the meantime, my daughter's situation isn't bad. They have a nice apartment, my grandson is being homeschooled, and it takes my son-in-law three minutes to get to work. They also have access to the Dartmouth library for reading material.

As you might expect, I am following the war in Ukraine, which is also a source of unease. After Donald Trump, I'm a little desensitized to idiotic political leaders, but Vladimir Putin is far worse. Like Trump, he is completely out of his depth as a leader, but he is emboldened because he has little fear of being removed. In an ideal world, he would be arrested and charged with war crimes, but that seems unlikely. He might also be assassinated, but he is prepared for that too. All of his propaganda will collapse eventually, because, with the Internet and news coverage, the rest of the world can see in real time what is going on. The Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Donbas have no particular loyalty to Russia, and Putin's arguments are pure fantasy. One Putin expert says that Putin is waging this war only to increase his popularity in Russia, a strategy that has worked for him in the past. He is actually ruining the country by damaging its economy and accelerating the brain drain that has been going on there for decades. It doesn't help that he is using a dated Soviet-style propaganda campaign similar to the one that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I always wish that people like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin would be forced to participate in an interview in which they were required to answer difficult, fact-based questions. Neither of them has ever done that, as far as I know. Though I don't think that Trump is as dangerous as Putin, they have a similar modus operandi in that they remain in power by making a deliberate attempt to appeal, with disingenuous theatrics, to the most ignorant and suggestible inhabitants of their countries. Both Trump and Putin know that their supporters are morons. They both have a peasant-like persona that works in either democracies or autocracies. Putin is worse than Trump because he has no qualms about killing people who get in his way; Trump pretends to emulate mobsters, but I don't think that he has ever ordered a killing. The widespread idealization of democracy in the West fails to take into account the weaknesses of human nature. Frankly, the political models dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are completely obsolete.

Well, I won't bore you with geopolitics. I have a couple of decent books on hand and will read them one of these days.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Diary

I had hoped to start another book by now, but the one I ordered is new and isn't currently available. I am still thinking about Vinod Goel's concept of tethered rationality and find that it could be quite useful. As I've been saying, all of the current major problems in the world are man-made, and it is easy to imagine rectifying them to some extent by taking decisions away from incompetent political leaders and transferring them to new, unbiased science-based evaluation systems. While major political errors seem commonplace these days, Vladimir Putin seems to be topping them all with his barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Whatever Putin thinks he is doing, he is acting not only against the interests of Ukraine, but against the interests of Russia. To be blunt, what Putin needs is counseling: going into this, he could not have accurately foreseen the long-term consequences. He is just a war criminal, not unlike Adolph Hitler, and will be reviled worldwide forever. In my view, the solution to this type of problem is to remove the decision-making role from incompetent dictators like Putin and, in democracies, from incompetent voters who elect incompetent presidents, senators and representatives. Where Goel's model could be helpful is in its drawing attention to the fact that rational behavior is linked to irrational behavior within all human brains. This means that it would be in the interest of humanity to develop impartial systems to evaluate important decisions before they are implemented. At some point, AI will be better at this than humans. I still find it remarkable that Donald Trump ran for office with purely selfish motives and never had any interest in fulfilling the requirements of the job or in understanding any of the issues at hand. Similarly, I think that if you took a deep dive into Vladimir Putin's psyche, you would find that it is full of hubris, misunderstanding and stupidity. Just by using basic aspects of Goel's theory, it would be readily apparent that Putin is stuck in an obsolete Cold War model, because that is what he grew up with.

I am still concerned about Xi Jinping and his implicit support of Putin. If he thinks that he is going to create a sustainable alliance between China and Russia, surely he is mistaken. Putin is no more to be trusted than Donald Trump, and Russia has a historical enmity toward China. It is still possible that Xi will emerge as a peacemaker and scold naughty Vladimir. Besides being the right decision, that would leave China on firmer footing globally.

In the absence of a book to read, I still have Scientific American, Sky and Telescope, the Times Literary Supplement and Consumer Reports magazine. The TLS has a negative review of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, which sounds pretty bad, and I won't read it. Houellebecq is increasingly coming out as a clueless right-wing sympathizer. I also look at 3 Quarks Daily about once a week. I am tired of their philosophy emphasis, but they still have good arts and sciences content. I'm not as enthusiastic about Sean Carroll as I used to be, because, though he is a good physicist, he has some philosophical leanings. I now prefer Sabine Hossenfelder's videos, because I like the way she thinks. She gets right to the point and specifically dislikes philosophy. I will probably read her next book. As I've been saying, I think that philosophy usually does nothing more than add layers of obfuscation to whatever subject it touches. Thus, sophistry, named after the Greek Sophists, now means:

Specious or oversubtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as an art or dialectic exercise.

In my opinion, many of the problems of philosophy are being solved by zoologists, neuroscientists and cosmologists. Today's philosophers are trying to remain relevant, but I think they're fighting a losing battle.

The number of daily views of this blog is still somewhat higher than it used to be. As an example of how Internet users waste their time on silly activities, I am getting redirect hits from quora.com. There is a discussion there about whether Bertrand Russell slept with his daughter-in-law, Susan. This is hardly an important question. From the evidence described by Ray Monk, it is possible but probably unlikely. They did have tête-à-têtes, but she had so many sex partners that even Russell was put off by her, and he helped his son divorce her.

In other news, I am no longer needed for taking unwanted books from the library to the transfer station, since they've found someone who will attempt to reuse them. Also, I have placed a "We Stand With Ukraine" banner by the road. I usually don't care much about world or national politics, but what is happening in Ukraine now – in full witness to everyone – is atrocious and unacceptable by any measure.


Saturday, March 26, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics IV

I've finished the book and overall find it to be quite good. I'll just sum up my reaction to the last few chapters.

One of the chapters is titled When Failures of Belief Revision Are Less than Motivated Reasoning or Sloppy Reasoning. Goel writes:

In short, what I'm suggesting is that some false beliefs are resistant to rational evidence because the motivating desire is not a cognitive desire. It is a desire propped up by instinctual (and other) low-level subcortical systems....

This is one of the most important ideas in the book and is a good starting point for examining the current political polarization within many Western countries.

The next chapter, Global Belief Revision is Constrained by Neural Maturation, describes how neural systems start out relatively fluid, but once they mature they become less flexible:

If the receptive window of opportunity is missed, no amount of sensory stimulation is going to change the organization of the mature visual or auditory cortex. Once this window passes, the organization of the primary cortex and associated subcortical structures is largely fixed. They cannot be reorganized or repurposed to deal with a radically different environment....These subconscious perceptual biases – even though they may be an accidental feature of the environment – will feed into the In-Group/Out-Group system and infiltrate up into presuppositions and belief systems.

The consequence is this:

If it is indeed the case that the scope for belief revision is limited after neural maturation of the association cortex, it has interesting implications for our standard cognitive and social science Platonic models of mind, where rationality is divorced from biology. Even if in some ideal world the machinery of reason may allow for extensive and perpetual belief revision, the actual biology that supports the machinery may not.

So, in addition to interplay between the different components of a mature brain, neural maturation separately limits change as people age. Goel notes that, according to a survey, young people are generally more receptive to the idea of anthropogenic climate change than older people. This may be because the older people grew up before global warming was a recognized phenomenon, and for this reason their brains do not recognize it as a significant risk.

Goel also includes an interesting personal anecdote that serves as an example. He was born to Indian parents in India. The family moved to Canada when he was young, and he grew up there. Later, when his family returned to India to visit relatives, he found that Indians all looked the same to him, and he could hardly distinguish them. I find this highly amusing, because, in politically correct circles, Goel would typically be described as a racist because of his visual insensitivity to Indians – in this case his own relatives. Obviously, this kind of political correctness is based entirely on biological ignorance. I could relate to this example, because I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. when I was seven and think that it affected my mental development. Since then, I have lived in eight different states, and I always notice that people who have lived only in one location, particularly if it is rural, tend to have very limited worldviews. Education may make a difference, but you can see how the environment affects brain development.

In the final chapter, Goel points out that his tethering model is different from the standard social science and cognitive model, which emphasizes rationality, and the standard evolutionary psychology modularity model, which emphasizes biology and evolution and minimizes the role of reason. I am inclined to agree with his model, because the role of reason is vastly exaggerated in economics and other social sciences, and this significantly reduces its usefulness for public policy. I am sympathetic with the biological/evolutionary approach, but agree with Goel in the sense that some room must be left for reason and its acceptance as a real phenomenon. What I like about Goel's model is that it allows one to speak intelligently about the mountains of cognitive errors that one confronts on a daily basis. As I've been saying, when trapped between right-wing ideology and political correctness, it is disturbing that no one before now has stepped up to address the intense cognitive dissonance that it can cause. This book is the first one that I've read that provides a usable model for that task. It is probably no coincidence that the book was written by a Canadian, who may be less worried about being fired for his views than his cowering American counterparts.

My only criticism of the book is that the subtitle is a little misleading. The main example about food concerns Goel's admission that he is unable to stop eating chocolate cake even though he knows that it makes him overweight and unhealthy. The main example about sex concerns John Edwards, the politician who had an affair while he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination and his wife was dying from cancer. Goel thinks that Edwards was stupid to have an affair at that time. The examples from politics include the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the fishing crisis in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Although I found the examples useful, I initially thought from the subtitle that food, sex and politics would be the central themes of the book, but, as it turned out, they were merely a few examples used to explain his theory. One could write volumes on the subtitle alone, and it is probably just as well that Goel remained focused on his model. Perhaps Goel or his publisher thought that "Sex" on the front cover would increase sales. I don't think it has so far.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics III

This is not a particularly long book, but I am reading it in short segments because it is written primarily for academics, and I've never taken a psychology or anatomy class (behaviorism was popular when I was in college and sounded incredibly boring). Goel's theory is fairly straightforward, and I have no significant objections to his argument, but he is going through all the paces to present his colleagues with a falsifiable theory and is dutifully recounting years of experimental results. He has described in detail the evolution and workings of the human brain and compared it to the brains of other species. Then he says:

Taking this neuroanatomy seriously has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of human behavior. It provides an underlying biological basis for the qualitative differences in autonomic, instinctive, associative, and reasoning behaviors. The biology suggests that the cognitive characterization of rationality as unhindered by more earthly concerns is not rooted in reality. The neuroanatomy paints a picture of hierarchically organized systems but with a clear tethering of newer systems to older ones. 

In the next chapter he makes a case for "feeling" as the mechanism that modulates between the chronologically separated components of human brain anatomy. I am doubtful that this approach will have much influence on his colleagues, but think that it is quite adequate for my purposes. Whether or not he can provide an academically acceptable model for human behavior, I think that it is sufficient as an intuitive model that one can understand through introspection. If you ever analyze your own reactions to different situations, you will notice that they are often based on your feelings about past situations that you experienced in your life. Thus, you are likely to weigh strong feelings that you had over tepid feelings, and in this manner you may make appropriate or inappropriate decisions. In my view, this is about the best that most people can hope to do in most situations, and I think that some of the rationalistic models presented in economics and cognitive science, on close examination, may be little more than status-bestowing presentations to those who are currently successful, wealthy, or both. That is why I was skeptical of the Steven Pinker-Bill Gates alliance celebrating the triumph of reason at this stage in our collective history. I am inclined to think that humans have a limited capacity to understand much of anything, and although science is usually better than the alternatives, we may be incapable of truly understanding many highly complex phenomena.

For my purposes, I am happy that Goel brings up actual cases of public cognitive mistakes. He describes the fishing dilemma in the Canadian Maritime provinces from the 1970's to the 1990's. There was a precipitous drop in cod catches in 1974, and the Canadian government intervened and set limits on cod fishing. The cod fishermen rejected the quotas and applied political pressure to have them raised. As a result, by 1992 the cod population was practically eradicated, and the fisheries accordingly went out of business. This example shows how individual self-interest can backfire when people don't follow rational procedures for the benefit of a group as a whole. Goel uses this example as a parallel to the public's lack of responsiveness to warnings about climate change. I am hoping that he will have more to say about public irrationality in the remaining chapters, because that is probably the greatest problem of our time. The underlying issue is that human nature allows people to act in self-interest even when the long-term consequences of that behavior are extremely negative. In this instance, despite an effort by the government to protect the fishermen, their irrationality sabotaged the actions taken to assist them.

Although, in a practical sense, this is a more complete treatment of human cognitive limitations than that of the other authors I mentioned, I don't think that Goel will be extending the discussion as far as I would like. At the moment we have not only destructive autocrats making the world unsafe for millions of people, but also millions of people in democratic countries making poor choices about political candidates. This isn't a simple case of democracies being better than autocracies, because, as is clear from Goel's examples, either system can result in catastrophic mistakes. We are currently in a situation in which we have to worry not only about deranged autocrats, but also about deranged democratic voters. Faith in democracy is looking pretty misguided at the moment. It's as if we just wasted four years worrying about what the idiot who was elected president of the U.S. would do next, only to waste more time worrying about what the idiot Russian autocrat would do next. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has to be one of the stupidest and most destructive events since World War II.

I am approaching the end of the book and will wrap up on my next post.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics II

While, so far, I am broadly in agreement with Goel's model, I am not particularly enjoying the presentation, which includes a fairly detailed history of cognitive science, going all the way back to William James and covering B.F. Skinner in some detail. In the context of his argument, their ideas apply primarily to the associative aspects of cognition and don't account for reason. He is gradually working from the autonomic to the instinctive to the associative to the reasoning modes, and most of the research is dated. He also rehashes the more recent research of Daniel Kahneman, which I don't find particularly enlightening. And he quotes several philosophers, who, as you might expect, I don't think add much to the discussion. However, unlike Kahneman, he is including research from evolutionary psychology, which I find helpful, and he is open to seeing cognitive science through an evolutionary lens. Above all, more than any other books I've read, he is applying his model to important real-world situations, such as Donald Trump's first impeachment. The Republican "arguments" in support of Trump's innocence were primarily ad hominem attacks on his critics:

None of these responses address the coherence relation between evidence and conclusion, that is, the soundness of the arguments for impeachment. They all commit common reasoning fallacies, but they do so intentionally, consciously, rationally! The official impeachment counteroffensive relied on the calculation that most of the MAGA faithful would fail to accept any evidence of wrongdoing by the President, if universal in-group/out-group instinctual systems could be activated. The group we belong to is always good, pure, innocent, and of course beloved of God; the out-group consists of elites, socialists, Muslims, and others trying to destroy us and our way of life for nefarious purposes....

As straightforward as this analysis is, you don't generally hear it in the news media, which coddles the public to such an extent that popular public figures are rarely criticized. Because of this, the news media is actually encouraging public irrationality.

I won't attempt to rehash all of the details of the book as I read it, and I'll just throw out whatever thoughts occur to me. There is the omission of Kant among the philosophers whom he quotes, and I think that at the moment one of Kant's ideas is at the vanguard of biological research into cognition. In Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge, by Giorgio Vallortigara, the argument is made that chicks perform more sophisticated cognitive tasks than one would expect with a neural configuration based on a sort of template of the world, which they have acquired through evolution. In all likelihood, all animals have such templates, and the template of one species is likely to be similar to the template of another. What is interesting is that these templates probably originated through an evolutionary process in which natural selection permitted organisms to survive when they had a template that triggered behavior that was appropriate for real-world situations. In the case of mathematics, even chicks were able to make calculations without the use of language or symbols. 

Where Kant comes in is with his distinction between phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the things that organisms perceive, and noumena are the reality behind their perceptions. The sensing organs of animals create perceptions, but animals have no direct access to the objects that cause them. Thus, animals, including us, behave as if the environment follows mathematical rules, but, since we lack direct access to reality, we can only know what our perceptions, which are produced by neural systems, tell us. According to Vallortigara, evolution is what caused these neural systems to exist, so it cannot be said, for example, that the world itself follows mathematical rules. We can only say that organisms with particular neurological arrangements survive, while others do not. Although this position does not contradict anything that Goel says, it places rationality in a humbler position than he seems to advocate.

Another area that Goel hasn't brought up yet in the book is the development of language in humans, as discussed in the books by Gaia Vince and Nichola Raihani that I covered earlier. I think that the existence of language alone explains most of what counts as human rationality and sets us apart from other species. Although language probably evolved for the dissemination of knowledge, it is probably the only biological feature available for engaging in the analyses which, on this planet, only humans are capable of making. So, in addition to the kinds of analyses that animals are able to perform in order to evaluate situations, the development of language, along with increases in brain size, allowed humans to engage abstract reasoning.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics I

I'm now underway on this new book by Vinod Goel, and will be discussing it for a few weeks. Goel is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at York University, Toronto. This is the first book that I've come across that offers a comprehensive perspective on human cognition over a wide range of areas and addresses some of the associated real-world problems. My other readings have covered the same territory, but usually with a narrower focus: Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler tell us that we don't always think clearly and can improve ourselves with the help of libertarian paternalism; Steven Sloman tells us that we don't know much, but that we can get around that by cooperating with others; Robert Plomin tells us that our life outcomes are largely determined by our genes; Frans de Waal tells us that we're not much smarter than animals; and Robert Sapolsky chimes in to tell us that we're sort of stuck with our animal brains. Goel's view covers most of this territory, but his objective is specifically to develop a multidisciplinary model of how human reason is modulated by our evolutionary history, and how we can give reason the upper hand in real-world situations in which we behave irrationally to our own detriment. Because this book was not intended to be a bestseller and is more specifically academic, I am finding the discussion somewhat more interesting and theoretically useful than the others mentioned.

Goel's model is called tethered rationality and he describes it as follows:

The "animal passions," or nonreasoning behaviors in technical parlance, include autonomic behaviors, instinctive behaviors, and associative learning behaviors. These behaviors and their underlying mechanisms have been studied extensively over the past hundred years. They differ not only from reasoned behavior but also from each other. They are hierarchically organized in terms of appearance on the evolutionary tree, are integrated, and are widely available across species, including humans. Humans also exhibit reasoning or rational behavior, which (I will argue) is unique to us. However, it does not supplant the evolutionarily older behaviors. Reason evolved on top of them, but it does not "float" untethered above them; it is tightly integrated with both bottom-up and top-down connections. This means that human behavior is a blended function of all these systems, not just reason (or any other individual system). Humans have a reasoning mind, but it is tethered to and modulated by evolutionarily older associative, instinctive, and autonomic minds. 

I find this model more appealing than any others that I'm aware of. The System 1 and System 2 model used by Kahneman and Thaler is too oversimplified to be of much use, and it seems to me that, by advocating libertarian paternalism, they are inadvertently promoting a social hierarchy which favors the economically successful over the economically unsuccessful, and as a result they may actually be endorsing a two-tier social structure which, in the end, would become nothing more than a new measure of social status, i.e., rich = smart, poor = stupid. Sloman emphasizes human ignorance, but does not offer much of a solution. Plomin is primarily a genetic determinist, but also has little to say about the social implications of his work. De Waal is mainly an apologist for animals, and does not address human cognitive limitations. Sapolsky is well aware of the haphazard evolutionary construction of the human brain, but isn't interested in how this bears out in our political or other institutions.

Goel's objective in this book is broader, and he hopes to address some of the serious cognitive errors that turn up routinely in public life. He uses examples of persistent, scientifically confirmed errors, such as climate change denial and opposition to inexpensive healthcare systems, to show how unreason overpowers reason in our brains. However, in his defense of rationalism, he may not have answers to deterministic positions that Sapolsky and others may hold. He is operating roughly from the psychology/sociology/cognitive science group of fields, which generally hold that humans are the only truly rational species, despite somewhat intractable intrusions of irrationality. Although, in the end, he may only come up with a slightly more complete description of the modules of cognitive dysfunction than Kahneman was able to, of all the authors I've mentioned, he is the only one who seems interested in countering the ridiculous statements that pass for normal in national and world politics. 

To his credit, Goel also seems willing to take on some of the false precepts of political correctness. So far, like Robert Sapolsky, he has explained in detail why gender is not a social construct and is in fact determined by known biological processes. He also backs E.O. Wilson regarding the unfair attacks that he experienced with the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. As I've often said, liberals and politically correct people, then and now, have been unable to accept biological determinism as playing a role in our species – thus, ignorance still holds sway in leading universities. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Diary

I am currently going through another rethink on what to read and discuss on this blog. In the absence of any feedback, I am inclined to just do what I feel like doing. The main problem that I've encountered is finding a type of writing that doesn't become tiresome after a few years. I was already tired of fiction when I began this blog, and I have resigned myself to just dabbling in it occasionally. On the whole, I've had greater success with nonfiction, but while I have hardly exhausted the field, it is still difficult to find good writing in it. The main lesson for me is that if something is a bestseller, the chances of my liking it are nearly zero. I think I've had above-average success with biographies, but have already reached a point where there are few remaining biographical candidates who might interest me. I was stretching it to read about Diderot and Voltaire, and, at the moment, I'm drawing a blank about whose biography I might read next. I considered E.O. Wilson, who died recently, but decided against it. Prior to starting this blog, I read biographies of George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft and D.H. Lawrence, which I found informative, but I don't want to return to them. I have considered reading more memoirs, but so far I have found them to be more problematic than biographies. Most people lack the ability to write objectively about themselves, and, in my experience, a good biography usually provides a fuller and more accurate picture of a person – if the author is competent. For example, I now think that I understand Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell far better than I would have if I had relied exclusively on their autobiographies. Also, after reading parts of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, I think that she started out extremely well with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, but that her later memoirs declined significantly. In particular, she needed an impartial biographer to analyze the complexities of her later life. Her explanations of her adult relationships are extremely lacking, in my opinion. To my knowledge, a good biography of her doesn't exist, or I would read that. 

Speaking of biographies, I should mention that I don't read them the same way that many people do. I am not inclined to hero-worship, and I try to imagine what it would be like to be that person or to know him or her intimately. The circumstances of a person's life are evanescent, and it may therefore be pointless to attempt to emulate someone else, especially if they lived in a different era or on a different continent. What I usually notice is the opposite of a "destined for greatness" narrative, because many factors completely beyond the control of an individual determine the actual course of their life. You can see this in every biography that I've read, though it is more conspicuous in some cases than in others. Charles Darwin in particular might have had a completely different life. As I said, under slightly different circumstances, we might now be talking about Wallaceism instead of Darwinism. Although both Wallace and Darwin were quite able, Darwin's social standing gave him a significant advantage: without it, he may never have attended college, sailed on the Beagle or conducted any scientific research. Darwin was also extremely shy, and if he had never found others to perform the extroverted requirements of his career, Thomas Henry Huxley in particular, he could easily have languished in obscurity. While it is true that Darwin had considerable motivation not to be seen as a failure, which was probably due to his father's low opinion of his abilities, it seems very doubtful that he would have succeeded if he had grown up under Wallace's circumstances.

After reading several long books, shorter ones are beginning to look more attractive to me. I thought that Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge was very good, and would like to find more books like that. However, in order to locate that one, I had to rummage through several university press websites, which is a haphazard process. I've decided to resubscribe to The Times Literary Supplement, which, though it may not end up being useful, covers a very wide range of topics. I currently have a temporary subscription to the online New York Review of Books, which I don't intend to renew, since I still don't find their articles interesting or like many of their writers. In the current issue, they have articles by Paul Krugman and Martha Nussbaum, two writers whom I prefer to avoid. In any case, I will be trying to read slightly academic essays and short books instead of long biographies, such as Ray Monk's biography of Bertrand Russell, which took over six months to complete and probably brought my readers to tears in more ways than one. It is possible that more biographies, novels and poems will pop up here, but perhaps not often. If you have any preferences or recommendations, feel free to communicate them to me.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Anarchic Trends in Political Evolution

When I began this blog eight years ago, the impetus was my frustration with online publications and Internet discussion generally. I had noticed that American intellectuals had no influence on domestic or international policy and had merely been scribbling away during the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and the Tea Party movement without solving any problems and, quite rightly, being ignored. Since then, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Capitol attack of 2021and the anti-vax movement of today, a much broader failure of traditional media is evident. Not only are American intellectuals irrelevant, but so are most newspapers, magazines and television news programs. This turn of events in the U.S., Canada and much of Europe is making the political order seem more unstable than it has been in decades.

As I've often said, it is appalling that Donald Trump was elected president. Of course, this was merely symptomatic of deeper social ills which have since then more clearly manifested themselves. First, it was greedy small business owners and disenfranchised blue-collar workers, and now it's also truck drivers and poorly-educated people in general. It has been dispiriting to observe the stodgy, pro-business Republican Party of 1950 evolve into an unhinged far-right organization that openly suppresses the democratic process and is supporting dishonest opportunists in order to gain political power. To be clear, I am not primarily in favor of democracy, and my preference is for rational laws based on the concepts of equality, human wellbeing and the preservation of the environment, along with the impartial enforcement of these laws. At heart, I'm a law-and-order advocate, and to me it is simply a matter of having the right laws and enforcing them. Currently, in the U.S. we are witnessing both the absence of necessary laws and a reduced emphasis on supporting the public good.

I am almost old enough to remember the privations that people suffered in England during and after World War II. When there were food shortages, people accepted rationing and grew their own vegetables when possible, without making a fuss. In the U.S. during the Great Depression, people met with privations far more severe than they have in recent years, and there was little sign of a revolt. This has caused me to think of modern Westerners as whiny spoiled brats. The phenomenon is currently showing up in the anti-vax movement. It is difficult for me to imagine a convincing justification for their actions. We have a situation in which a pandemic is killing people and adversely affecting world economies, and people are facing greater economic hardship. There are free vaccines that have been proven effective and are available to everyone. The anti-vaxers are both encouraging the spread of the coronavirus and disrupting their economies, and they are not offering an intelligible rationale for their behavior. In my view, the anti-vaxers who riot and block bridges ought to be arrested, because they are acting against the public interest without any mitigating circumstances.

Actually, in a sense I am an advocate of totalitarian regimes, and, for me, we are going through an interesting period in which we have an opportunity to compare and assess the efficacy of both totalitarian and democratic regimes. In the West, I think that the Internet, along with ineffectual political leadership, have already seriously damaged a system that was once capable of sustaining and protecting the inhabitants. The Internet itself is rather innocuous, and the difficulties that it has created result mainly from the fact that it transmits multiple ideologies and worldviews, which have not been filtered or edited, resulting in a large assortment of incompatible worldviews within the population of each country. When you consider that humans are fundamentally irrational, this is a perfect scenario for the breakdown of society into cult-like groups which understand neither themselves nor other groups and may even inhabit fantasy worlds (see "Pizzagate"). The existing totalitarian regimes now have a significant advantage if they can both sidestep democratic processes and filter alternate worldviews from their Internet services, while also meeting the needs of their citizens.

Although I'm obviously not an expert on Russia, I don't think that its political model is sustainable. Vladimir Putin is essentially a dictator backed up by a powerful group of oligarchs. Russia's economy is not diverse compared to that of Europe, which means that it can never generate comparable wealth. Add to this the fact that Putin and the oligarchs are probably hoarding much of the wealth, and that the Internet also works against them, Putin's days seem numbered. At the moment, he is reflexively bullying his neighbors because of political weakness in both Europe and the U.S., but he has no discernible end game and no suitable replacement for himself. If he doesn't trigger a nuclear war, history will see him as an insignificant Cold War carryover.

I am also not a sinologist, but I think that the outcome in China will be far more consequential. Xi Jinping resembles a dictator, but he is operating in a political system that is quite different from that of Russia. If he is corrupt at all, it is at a much lower level than that of Vladimir Putin. He has also led a campaign to root out corruption. As I said earlier, I don't think that Western individualism ever caught on in China, and it is possible that Xi is actually working for the good of the people. Westerners collectively get upset about China's treatment of the Uyghurs, but Xi's strategy for dealing with them may be justifiable. In China "the people" is a meaningful concept, unlike the U.S., where it has never been more than part of convenient political slogans. I'll allow that Xi and his government may be overreacting to the problems that Islamic groups have caused elsewhere over the last few decades. In any case, the main advantage of totalitarian regimes is that they can use brute force and take immediate actions to correct perceived risks. The question is whether an action is appropriate and whether it entails corruption of any kind. My view is that "the people" are paramount, and that it is the duty of the government to protect them, even when that requires the curtailment of a minority group. Also, I might note that the Uyghurs as a group are not universally discriminated against in China; we know a Chinese Uyghur who is a student at Middlebury College and whose father is a successful executive in the oil industry. 

My impression of China is that it is more amenable to a cooperative mindset than most Western countries. This is partly the result of ancient social conditioning and partly the result of exposure to decades of communist propaganda. As in the West, China is vulnerable to ideological intrusions from the Internet, but there is little sign, except in Hong Kong, that protest is widespread. The potential problem for Xi Jinping would be to make missteps that cause dissent in pockets of Chinese society. At this stage, protest is hardly evident, and Xi could be given credit for controlling the COVID-19 outbreak better than any Western country. If Xi is also able to maintain economic stability over the next few years, he could become more respected than any Western leaders have been since World War II. I am a little suspicious of his current alliance with Vladimir Putin, but it is possible that it is merely a case of short-term political expediency. As a new phase in my interest in governance by artificial general intelligence, I am imagining Xi as a robot that is controlled by AGI and becomes the world leader without anyone suspecting that it isn't human.

Regardless of my speculations on China, I think that the political situation in the West is beginning to look dire. Political leaders here are increasingly forced to solicit campaign money from corporations, which don't generally act in the public interest, while at the same time soliciting votes from an uninformed public that is being barraged with misinformation. It is possible that Western governments will address the divisive effects of the Internet, but it seems unlikely that that will occur soon, because, in the U.S., Congress currently can barely even agree to continue funding the government. 

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Diary

We're having a more normal Vermont winter this year, which is what I prefer. If there isn't at least a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature never hits -20, something feels wrong. The only problem is that, with COVID-19, you get sort of a double-cabin-fever effect. Fortunately, we are able to socialize a little and had someone over for dinner last night. COVID is declining rapidly here, and it looks as if this spring will be similar to last spring, with activities widening again. The winter is a problem for William, though. He doesn't spend much time outdoors hunting when the snow is deep and, because he is wilder than most cats, he gets restless indoors. He doesn't lounge around, look at birds through the window or play with cat toys. He eats too much and gets fat. The first winter that we had him, he was incautious and spent so much time outdoors that his ears froze, but now he is more careful. He has to be locked in the basement for much of the day because he can be a real pest. I've cleared away the snow from his cat exit, and he goes out on his own when he likes. I don't think he's caught a mouse since November or December, whereas he often catches two or three a day during the summer. They are still out there, and you can see their tracks in the snow.

Over the last few winters I've usually had longer books to read. Now that I'm finished with Voltaire, I'm also getting tired of the Enlightenment. When you look closely at the past, you can clearly see how historians have oversimplified and idealized it: they like to create national myths with heroic figures and, especially in the U.S., to congratulate their forebears on their wisdom. A more thorough investigation usually indicates that there was actually little wisdom to be found, and, if there was any, it may already have been forgotten. This is why I have always found it difficult to take historians seriously. The French Revolution occurred not because the philosophes enlightened the public, but because the monarchy and the Catholic Church governed very poorly. The problem of poor governance has never been solved, and many of the same risks exist today. While the separation of church and state is still technically holding up in some countries, if you broaden the definition of "church" to "baseless ideology," practically nothing has changed in three hundred years. France was like a medieval kingdom until 1789, and, though I often prefer French culture to English culture, at least the English were able to remove both the monarchy and the church with less violence. What we are witnessing now are overpopulation, climate change and increased wealth inequality, and, among the competing ideologies, there is no frontrunner. There are still monarchies, theocracies, dictatorships and oligarchies, and although some of the democracies are wealthy, wealth inequality is causing political instability. I find it embarrassing to live in a country led by an inarticulate Catholic president, with a demonstrably corrupt and incompetent figure dominating the other major political party. If this were a rational country, presidents would never attend church services and Donald Trump would be in jail. Meanwhile, the masters of the universe in high-tech industries are either getting divorces, making ridiculous plans to colonize Mars or creating products for consumers to live in fantasy worlds full-time.

I have some books on hand to read, but at the moment most of them don't appeal to me. I just started on The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, because I still like her writing a lot. This book includes The Garden Party and Other Stories, which I read and discussed earlier, and I may discuss other stories after I've read them.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Voltaire: A Life IV

When Voltaire's reputation in Geneva declined among the patricians, he moved out permanently from Les Délices. Ferney became his primary residence for the remainder of his life. He continued to write and stage plays in the theaters that he built there, and he gradually became a tourist attraction. In 1760 he took in Marie-Françoise Corneille, an impoverished girl whom he thought was a granddaughter of the playwright. He later learned that she was a more distant relative. He adopted her, educated her, married her off and provided her with a dowry with the returns from a popular book that he wrote on Corneille. He was able to feed and entertain hundreds of visitors at a time and still work for several hours per day on new plays. 

A major change occurred in Voltaire's life when he decided to become an advocate of criminal justice reform. This was prompted by the publicity surrounding the torture and execution in 1762 of Jean Calas, a Toulouse cloth merchant. Calas, a Protestant, was charged with a crime which he did not commit, and for which there was no evidence of his guilt. At the time, the Seven Years' War with England was underway, and French Catholics viewed Protestants with suspicion. Apparently, one of Calas's sons was despondent, in part because of discrimination against Protestants, and committed suicide. Since the church frowned upon suicides, the family initially covered it up. Although Calas had done nothing wrong, a judge found him guilty of murder, and his execution left the family destitute. Voltaire managed to get the verdict reversed, and this was only the first of several cases with which he became involved. There really wasn't much change made to the criminal justice system until after the French Revolution, but these actions made Voltaire, symbolically at least, more of an Enlightenment figure than he would have been otherwise. In fact, most of his life had been devoted to writing uncontroversial plays and historical works, and he generally behaved obsequiously whenever he had cause to believe that he had upset someone in authority.

Another act of generosity to the public occurred in the early 1770's, just after Geneva had undergone a period of political turmoil. Voltaire decided to assist Genevan refugees by setting up a watch manufacturing industry in Ferney and was remarkably successful. He contacted potential watch buyers across Europe and as far off as Constantinople in order to create a market. I think that his skills as an impresario, along with his skills as a money manager, made this possible. Simply because of Voltaire's presence in Ferney, it gradually became a sizeable town.

Although Voltaire was generally happy with Mme Denis as his partner in Ferney, she obviously was not ideal for him. In 1760 he wrote:

Mme Denis is a fat pig, Sir, like most of your Parisiennes; they get up at midday; the day passes, they do not know how; they have no time to write, and when they want to write, they can find neither paper, pen, nor ink, so then they have to come and ask me, but now the desire to write disappears. For every ten women, nine are like this. Forgive, Sir, Mme Denis for her extreme laziness....

It appears to me that he was not at all a romantic figure and simply recognized, in a purely practical sense, that he needed female companionship.

As the 1770's progressed, Voltaire gradually became more ill, though this had little effect on his work output. He made his final trip to Paris in 1778 in order to see a performance of his last play and died there on May 30. Though he was initially buried in Champagne for technical reasons, his body was moved to the Panthéon after the revolution.

My overall assessment of Voltaire is that he was a multitalented person. However, he was not to any extent what one might call a revolutionary or even a thinker. The works that made him popular were most often satirical, and satire is not the best tool for distilling serious ideas. In contemporary terms, he could reasonably be compared to Carl Reiner or Norman Lear, since television has essentially replaced the theater as the dominant public art form, though, as a class-conscious person, Voltaire would wince at the comparison. He liked theatrical hustle and bustle, and the main difference would be that there weren't mass audiences in those days. What impress me the most are his work ethic and financial savvy. I have no desire to read much of his oeuvre, because I'm sure that I would find his plays dated. They were even dated while he was still alive, and he was incensed by the fact that some of Shakespeare's plays became popular in Paris. Although Voltaire was loosely connected with the buildup to the French Revolution, most of his views came from the generation before the philosophes. Certainly, he was outraged by the abuses of the monarchy and the Catholic Church, but he was in fact quite well adapted to them and would have done well even if a revolution hadn't been imminent.

In this vein, it is of some value to compare Voltaire to Rousseau, Diderot and d'Alembert. The three were each quite unlike Voltaire. Rousseau had the disadvantages of abandonment by his father at the age of ten, little formal education and an inability to navigate complex social situations. Being a philosophe was never his ambition, and he fell into that role mainly because it became the only option available to him after he failed to succeed in the opera and the theater. In fact, his accidental entry into the 1750 Dijon essay contest determined the remainder of his career. He wrote an unnecessarily harsh letter to Voltaire in 1760 which alienated one of the few people who might have assisted him. Nevertheless, I think, from reading Confessions, that he was an extremely talented writer. But because of his psychological makeup and background, he was unable to capitalize on the options that presented themselves to him – quite the opposite of Voltaire. Diderot was primarily a man of his times, and he was excited by the dissemination of new ideas, which is what he is best known for, though I don't think that he had many interesting ideas of his own. I am less familiar with d'Alembert, who was a talented mathematician, and he seems to have fallen somewhere between Diderot and Voltaire in his ability to navigate complex social situations. 

While there is much to criticize about Rousseau, as a personal matter I still prefer him to Voltaire and Diderot, because he was a fellow introvert, and we both had unpropitious backgrounds. Neither Voltaire nor Diderot left recollections of their life experiences, and I consider Confessions, though an imperfect account of Rousseau's life, one of the finest works of the eighteenth century. I had considered reading Candide, but, because I don't think that I would like it at all, I'm going to move on to something else.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Voltaire: A Life III

Voltaire stayed with Émilie du Châtelet for several more years, but kept Marie Louise Denis as a backup. The latter was about eighteen years younger than Voltaire and still had other options for male companions. She and Voltaire had a sexual relationship, though it was hardly a strong romance, and not much changed until 1749, when Émilie died. Mme Denis fit Voltaire's lifestyle to some extent, since she enjoyed participating in amateur productions of his plays, but I don't think that she was an ideal partner for him because, besides the fact that she was his niece, which forced them to pretend that they were not sexually involved, she was not an aristocrat. There were some intellectual female aristocrats whom Voltaire may have preferred, but if he made an attempt to seduce them he failed. The opinion that I've formed is that, while Voltaire was quite intelligent, he was essentially a social climber who sought the same social status as the aristocrats, while allowing himself the opportunity to pursue his interest in the theater. Émilie began an affair in about 1747 with Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, a marquis whom she met through aristocratic circles, and she later became pregnant by him; she died from an infection in 1749, a few days after the birth. The baby died later. Coincidentally, the same Saint-Lambert began an affair with Sophie d'Houdetot in 1752; Rousseau was smitten with her in 1757 and she became the subject of his novel, Julie; or The New Heloise, a bestseller, though their relationship didn't last long.

Leading up to this, Voltaire was getting tired of court life in France. He and Émilie had three residences: the Château de Cirey, an apartment in Versailles and an apartment in Paris. He had avoided visiting Frederick in Potsdam, the capital of Prussia, because the French court frowned upon it, but, after Émilie died, he lived there for a time. However, when he was brought to trial for making an illegal investment, Frederick grew irritated with him, and he left Prussia on bad terms in 1753. He was initially uncertain about what to do next, since he was no longer welcome in Paris, and in 1755 he finally settled on moving to a property in Geneva just outside of town, which he renamed Les Délices, and he made extensive improvements to it. He also obtained a country house near Lausanne. As he had done elsewhere, he ingratiated himself with those in power, particularly Théodore Tronchin, the doctor who later became one of Rousseau's enemies. 

Up to this point in his life, Voltaire, who was now in his early sixties, had not been much of an Enlightenment figure, like Denis Diderot or Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, the mathematician, who together had started the Encyclopédie in Paris. Some of the Parisian philosophes were outright atheists, whereas Voltaire was a deist. They solicited written contributions from him, and he befriended d'Alembert, who visited him in Geneva and wrote an essay about the town. However, this essay scandalized d'Alembert because of its religious references, and it was opposed by both the Catholic censors in Paris and the Calvinists in Geneva. Consequently, d'Alembert withdrew from the Encyclopédie, and Diderot took charge. Voltaire also became controversial in Geneva due to his interest in plays, because Calvinists thought that they led to vices. At the time, Geneva was a city-state, and Voltaire elected to buy properties just across the border in France, where he could do as he pleased. Beginning in 1758, he went on another spending spree and purchased two châteaus, Ferney and Tournay, along with surrounding lands, while retaining Les Délices. This time, besides the usual improvements, Voltaire made investments in farming and built up an enormous staff. According to Davidson, Voltaire then acquired, for the first time, a genuine interest in "the common man," which put him in closer alignment with Diderot, d'Alembert and Rousseau.

I am gradually piecing together Voltaire's character from the information provided. He seems to have had an extremely good memory, a talent for languages and an extroverted personality. Intellectually, though he produced many witty one-liners, they were often sophisticated put-downs and did not demonstrate much intellectual depth. He may have been similar to some extroverted people I've known who were impressive in social situations but at heart were a little superficial. There is still some mystery regarding how he remained so wealthy after 1728. Some of his income came from loans to aristocrats and some of it came from foreign investments. He was living during the heyday of exploitative French colonialism, which may have helped. Davidson notes that Voltaire was anti-Semitic, and this makes me think that his enmity may have derived from years of competition with Jewish moneylenders. There is evidence that some of his transactions were not aboveboard, and this inclines me to think that his wealth was not all acquired honestly. In 1759 he published Candide, which became a runaway bestseller and was probably the only truly profitable work of his literary career. I may read that after I finish this book. I am nearing the end and will have one more post before then.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Voltaire: A Life II

I am plugging away slowly, as usual, and am about halfway through the book. Voltaire had such an active public life that it becomes exhausting to follow all of the details. It doesn't help that I have little interest in his poetic, theatrical or historical writings, and that most of his work is not about ideas per se. He became a major philosophe primarily due to the range of his works and his stature in France at the time.

Émilie du Châtelet was married to an aristocrat who worked in the military. She had dutifully produced three children, and was free to pursue an independent life. She was highly intelligent and interested in mathematics and science, whereas her husband was completely unintellectual and didn't mind if she had affairs. Prior to meeting Voltaire, she had moved to Paris and already had two affairs. While seeing Voltaire, she was initially engaged in another affair with her math tutor, but she eventually settled on Voltaire. Davidson thinks that her difficulty in judging people may have been a symptom of autism, and she was certainly promiscuous and occasionally exercised poor judgment.

When Émilie and Voltaire finally settled on each other, they renovated her husband's dilapidated château, called Cirey, which is located in the country about midway between Paris and Basel, Switzerland. At the time, Voltaire was trying to understand science, and they purchased equipment to conduct experiments. Bizarrely, they separately submitted scientific papers in a competition, which neither of them won. They also staged theatrical performances, participating themselves and including the staff. This was an ideal environment for both of them for a time, but Voltaire didn't really care about science and was more interested in writing and advancing his career. He received overtures from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who probably sought him as a trophy for his court. He continued to get himself into trouble with his writings, which were usually condemned by censors, even though they would be considered innocuous today. Sometimes his letters were copied and circulated without his knowledge. On top of this, it was impossible to control the printing and distribution of his works, which often appeared in pirated editions and got him into legal trouble, putting him at risk of being jailed again. As in any period, his financial manager was robbing him blind and had to be replaced.

By 1740, Voltaire was tiring of Émilie, whom he increasingly perceived as too controlling of him. He spent time with Frederick the Great and also attempted to improve his reputation in Paris by being nominated to the Académie Français. His first attempt failed, but later, with the help of Mme de Pompadour, whose friendship he had cultivated, he was elected. This meant that he was in good graces with Louis XV and received a pension. As of 1746, Voltaire's relationship with Émilie is continuing to unravel, and she is running up debts gambling in Fontainebleau. Voltaire has set his sights on a niece, Marie Louise Denis, who is the daughter of his sister, who died earlier, and whose husband has recently died.

There are samples of Voltaire's writing interspersed throughout the text, and I particularly like his witticisms, of which this is an example:

The whole of metaphysics, to my taste, contains just two things: first, what is known by all men of good sense; and second, what they will never know.

This statement not only explains Voltaire's disinterest in philosophy, but may even be correct.

I was pleased to see that Davidson is willing to discuss psychiatric issues. This has been rare in the biographies that I've read, and I would be glad to see more of it. It seems that depression and autism may be common among intellectuals and could be a key to understanding them. Possibly a dysfunction in one aspect of the brain frees up neurons for another aspect. This seems to be what happens with autism, where high competence in rote learning and information processing is accompanied by incompetence in social situations. One might even argue that there is currently an evolutionary pressure favoring autism. Then there are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy and ADHD. There is some evidence that schizophrenia may be associated with mathematical skills in some cases. Since these conditions could be genetically linked, it will be no easy matter sorting them out. 

As for myself, the only disorder that I'll admit to is a mild form of dyslexia. This made it difficult for me to read, write and learn other languages, but there seems to be a benefit in the sense that I form opinions more on the basis of observation than on written words. I'm not really sure that dyslexia is a true disorder, since, in theory, all humans were dyslexic a few thousand years ago, before writing was invented. It is possible that dyslexia is beneficial in some of the sciences: Charles Darwin was a poor student and needed help writing his books, and Richard Feynman, though mathematically talented, was bad at reading and writing.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Voltaire: A Life I

I finally got around to starting this biography by Ian Davidson. Davidson is not a scholar of French intellectual history, and this was written mainly to provide a new English biography of Voltaire, since one had not been written for several years. My interest in the French Enlightenment began with Rousseau, and I followed up with Diderot. From my readings so far, I'm not terribly impressed by the ideas that germinated during this period, and I have become more interested in the biographical details of the people who participated in it. Rousseau wrote on a variety of topics, but, by modern standards, he did not do real research, and what he had to say on practical matters hardly seems relevant today. The primary backdrop for the French Enlightenment was the collapse of the ancien régime, which was unbelievably repressive by our standards, and Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and others simply helped precipitate the downfall. I find it absurd that contemporary writers like David Graeber and David Wengrow write books such as The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity and refer to Rousseau as if his ideas still have to be taken into account. I am often amazed that ludicrous books become popular among so-called educated people. There are plenty of good books out now, some of which I've reviewed, that cover human evolution quite well without mentioning the Enlightenment at all. The Enlightenment occurred about three hundred years ago, and science has moved on considerably since then, even rendering Newtonian physics obsolete.

Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, a few years before Rousseau in Geneva, and died in the same year, 1778. His original name was François Marie Arouet, which he changed as an adult, as was not uncommon in those days. He was educated in a Jesuit school, where he learned Latin, but not Greek. His father was a bourgeois lawyer and pressured him intensely to study law, but Voltaire resisted him and initially pursued a career as a poet and a dramatist instead. He had a brother who was nine years older with whom he was not close, and a sister who was eight years older with whom he was quite close. His mother died when he was approaching seven. Because of his career disagreement with his father, he was cut out of his father's will until he reached the age of thirty-five. This proved to be a significant setback during his early adult life. 

One of the few reliable ways to make money as a writer in Paris at the time was to write tragedies and then stage them at the Comédie Français. Voltaire had a hit, but also a few flops, while trying to establish himself as a poet and a wit. Although he had friends and mistresses, some of whom were aristocrats, he often found himself trapped in Paris trying to earn a living under abject conditions, and he became ill from smallpox, scabies and other diseases, while his aristocratic friends were away at their châteaus in the country. With the severe censorship dominant at the time and the ability of aristocrats to crush commoners for any reason, Voltaire, by 1726, had been imprisoned in the Bastille twice and was exiled to England, almost penniless. 

He spent about two years in England, and the contrast with France became a transformative experience for him. The openness of discussion among intellectuals was startling, and there was no religious oppression. There is much uncertainty about how he spent all his time, and Davidson speculates that he may have suffered from depression. Nevertheless, starting with no knowledge of English, Voltaire remarkably became fluent in written and spoken English within a year and a half and developed friendships with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, along with Lord Bolingbroke, whom he had met previously in France. He was particularly taken by Gulliver's Travels, which he compared favorably to Rabelais. He also attended several Shakespeare plays, and, while he was shocked by the lack of formality, he later used Julius Caesar as a basis for his own play. In addition, Voltaire became aware of Isaac Newton and John Locke, two Enlightenment thinkers who were not widely known in France at the time, and this expanded his intellectual horizons. There is some uncertainty about why he left England, and it is possible that he had engaged in some illicit activity, but, upon his return to France, he had a fresh outlook that enabled him to become a major public figure.

As far as I've read, Voltaire has managed to become extremely wealthy. This occurred in 1728 largely because he and some of his friends noticed a flaw in a state lottery that allowed them to easily win by buying many tickets. They did this several times and split the proceeds. Also, in 1729, he became eligible to receive his inheritance from his father, who had died seven years earlier. From this time onward, Voltaire, with the cash in hand and shrewd investments, never again faced financial hardship. To make matters even better, in 1733, he met "the love of his life," Émilie du Châtelet, who was then twenty-seven, while he was thirty-nine.

In my mind, as I read, I am making comparisons with Rousseau. I like Rousseau, but I prefer Voltaire as a person. The problem with Rousseau, I think, was psychiatric in nature. It is telling how Rousseau's experience of England in 1766 differed from that of Voltaire in 1726. Rousseau left in a panic in order to escape an imagined conspiracy, whereas Voltaire made new friends and absorbed the culture. Rousseau had a history of broken friendships, and his choice of an ascetic lifestyle is puzzling in light of the fact that he could easily have found a sufficient income. He spent most of his life in near-poverty with Thérèse Levasseur, an illiterate peasant, rather than broadening his horizons by circulating among other intellectuals and enjoying the company of an intelligent, aristocratic woman, which he clearly would have preferred. The question then becomes which psychiatric condition might have afflicted Rousseau. It is possible that, since he enjoyed repetitive work such as music-copying and often misunderstood people, he suffered from some form of autism. He also at times seemed ridiculously self-important and condescending, not unlike Wittgenstein or another autistic male I know. More tenuously, one might argue that Rousseau's preference for rules and dislike of commerce and investment, which are generally chaotic, could be indicative of autistic tendencies. Alternatively, his paranoia may have been a symptom of schizophrenia. A close study of Rousseau reveals how the course of his life was probably quite different from what he would have liked. In this respect, Voltaire comparatively seems to have been quite a success. He lived as he chose and found a suitable companion. He loved the theatre, and, by managing the practical aspects of his life effectively, he was able to pursue it. While some of the differences between Rousseau and Voltaire can be explained by Rousseau's introversion and Voltaire's extroversion, I find it difficult not to conclude that Rousseau was more likely to make poor choices. It is true that Voltaire had the advantage of a bourgeois upbringing in Paris, unlike Rousseau and Diderot, and had several lifelong friends there to assist him, but I don't see any of Rousseau's particular pathology in either Voltaire or Diderot.

I'm only up to 1733 and will continue on my next post.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov

Before starting on Voltaire, I decided to read this short volume by Mark Pawlak. Pawlak is a poet and math professor, and the book is a memoir about his relationship with Denise Levertov, beginning in 1969 and ending with her death in 1997. I would never have known of the existence of the book if Pawlak hadn't read my review of Dana Greene's biography of Levertov and contacted me regarding the publication of his book. I mentioned Pawlak earlier on this blog when I found an online post about Levertov's view of the New York Times. The same anecdote appears in this book.

Several aspects of the memoir are interesting to me, others less so. Pawlak is two years older than I am and attended M.I.T. as an undergraduate, majoring in physics. During his senior year, starting in 1969, he used one of his few electives to enroll in a poetry workshop taught by Levertov, who was teaching there at the time. The part that interests me the most concerns their milieu as it developed, and particularly how Levertov lived her life. Pawlak got to know Levertov and her family quite well and visited them frequently at their summer home in Maine. A lot of this material is covered in Greene's biography, but Pawlak offers a more intimate portrait of Levertov's daily life.

She was a passionate person and also quite opinionated. Her personality was much stronger than that of her husband, Mitch Goodman, and she was the main breadwinner up to the time of their divorce. I think that she benefited from an early focus on poetry as her vocation, whereas Mitch fumbled around for decades without really establishing himself in any field. Some of this appeals to me because, while Levertov was the same age as Pawlak's mother, she was also the same age as my father, who grew up not far from where she did in the London area. Although my mother was not in the least bit literary, she had a strength similar to Levertov's that allowed her to compensate for my father's inadequacies.

The part that intrigues me the most is the atmosphere in Cambridge, Massachusetts and environs in 1969 that caused Pawlak to diverge from physics to poetry. At the time, there was a strange zeitgeist across the country that existed primarily on college campuses. In a matter of months, Pawlak was transformed from a geeky physics major into an aspiring poet and a political activist, and Levertov was there to facilitate him. My take is that Levertov came from an exotic background that would be impossible to replicate today. She had little formal education and had grown up home-schooled almost exclusively in the arts. Then she moved with her husband to Greenwich Village in the late 1940's and inhabited what was perhaps the only sustained bohemian community ever to exist in the U.S. Her ideas about poetry and social justice have never been popular here, and with her forceful presentation of them to Pawlak, he was clearly smitten. Pawlak himself came from a working-class Polish background, and this would all have been quite new to him.

One thing that intrigues me is that the environment in Cambridge in 1969 was similar to that of Bloomington, Indiana at the time. In the summer of 1970, I briefly lived a bohemian life among potential artists and writers whose attitudes were probably quite similar to those of people in Cambridge. The difference was that in the Midwest this was an ephemeral condition that pretty much evaporated by 1972, while it lived on in places like Cambridge and Berkeley. The aspiring writer I knew joined an ashram and then went to law school. The two artists never had artistic careers. Whatever utopian elements were present in 1970 in Indiana were short-lived. Bloomington is now better known as the birthplace of the smug, reactionary and intellectually third-rate publication, The American Spectator, in 1967. You might say that Pawlak was either blessed or cursed by living in the Boston area when he did.

A lot of the book is devoted to what I would call poetry shop talk. Levertov was quite good at that and was probably a good teacher for aspiring poets. For me, this is of limited interest, because I am not a poet and have no desire to become one. Years ago, I wrote a small number of poems, and, at the time, I found the process interesting. Since then, I have decided that the short essay is a better format for me, and in fact this blog fits me almost perfectly. I am more interested in the development of ideas and the presentation of them in an intelligible manner. Whatever my readers may think, this format fulfills my idea of free speech, which is actually quite important to me.

As far as poets and poetry are concerned, I can only go by how I react to particular poems. I like several of Levertov's poems, which is probably enough to make her my favorite poet. Then there are other individual poems by other poets that I've posted on this blog that I also like. I'm not interested in all the parsing and discussion that poets engage in with the aim of developing their craft, because, whatever they do, there are too few good poems to go around. I may be a poetry snob, or perhaps I'm just poetically illiterate, but I have enough reading experience to know that no one is going persuade me to like a poem if I don't like it after a careful reading. 

Pawlak also mentions that his poetry apprenticeship with Levertov occurred before M.F.A. programs became popular. I would think that that would have been a better time to learn poetry, especially with Levertov, because, besides being a good poet herself, her pedagogic style required a sort of communality that would be nearly impossible to replicate today. She really cared about her students and made sacrifices in order to support them. On the other hand, I am in no position to say whether or not that turned out to be worthwhile. I don't think that I've ever read a poem by any of her students. Nevertheless, that era isn't completely dead, because Levertov's publisher, New Directions, is still around in New York City and publishing authors such as László Krasznahorkai, who seem like a mirage of the exotic bohemians of yesterday.

From the foregoing, you can judge for yourself whether you would want to read this book. I think that it would appeal mainly to poetry historians and poetry students and to people like me who appreciate Levertov, who still isn't all that popular.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Diary

As previously, I'm not enjoying the pandemic much. Though I feel fairly safe, having had my booster shot and wearing a mask when appropriate, I feel constrained. As mentioned earlier, being limited in activities tends to weaken relationships. When things aren't going well, which currently also includes the political state of the country, I automatically start thinking about Plan B options. At my age, inertia is usually the best choice. I think it usually takes several years to develop a good relationship, and, when you have perhaps only twenty years left to live, relationship changes are a big gamble. Then there is the question of where to live if political conditions continue to deteriorate. I keep thinking about Flaubert, whose character, Pécuchet, said "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." This reminds me of the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6. If conditions got really bad, Scotland would be an option for me, but I'm not sure that it would be much of an improvement over the U.S. Theoretically, Scotland could split from the U.K. and become part of the E.U., which is generally more civilized than the U.S., but I may be dead by then. Another factor is the location of family members. Although my family has always been geographically spread out, like many people, I value it more as I grow older. Of course, my theory is that there is a genetic basis for being able to relate better to close relatives than to others, even those with whom you have a similar cultural background. One of my pet peeves about political correctness is that, not only are most people significantly different from others, but that it is common to dislike or underappreciate human characteristics that are different from your own. I currently have only ten close living relatives, including their spouses and children, and six of them live within 250 miles of here. Though there are always some family conflicts, those pale in comparison to the problems that arise when interacting with people who have different family predispositions from yours and who actually prefer their families to you. However, one of the advantages of being old is that you don't have to plan very far into the future. The idea that dying will allow me to escape future unpleasantness is becoming more appealing.

Under these circumstances, I tend to go into more of an escapist mode than usual. I have three new nonfiction books on hand, but I don't feel at all like reading any of them at the moment. I don't actually like the state of the contemporary world and would rather not think about it. For this reason, I'm going to delve into the Enlightenment again. I very much enjoyed reading about Rousseau, Diderot somewhat less so, but, as of yet, I haven't read much about Voltaire. As with Rousseau and Diderot, I'm not particularly interested in his writings, but he was a key figure during that period, and knowing more about him would help me understand that environment better. In many respects Voltaire had a sharper mind than Rousseau or Diderot, so it is possible that he had greater insights into the period. To this end, I will be reading a Voltaire biography next. It is refreshing to me to delve into a period during which intellectuals were important contributors to the conceptual schemas of their societies. There are no equivalents today, and what you get is a collection of academic hacks who know far less than they think they do and are generally ignored anyway. I still give credit to writers such as E.O. Wilson and Robert Sapolsky, but in the end they are primarily academic researchers and are not really equipped to address many of the issues of our times. To me, Wilson's main message currently is that we're ruining the planet for all life forms, and Sapolsky's main message, to the extent that there is one in Behave, is that we are nothing more than biological entities who are trapped within the web of our evolutionary past. Although these are important, actionable scientific findings, scientists are generally not well-suited to effect policy changes. Influential thinkers tend to be the ones who come up with slightly ridiculous but appealing phrases such as "liberty," which are effective in the same manner as advertising campaigns. Rousseau would have done well at an advertising agency, and he could even have written the jingles. In my view, the world might have been a better place if no one had ever paid attention to popular authors. The best ideas are usually ones of scientific origin, and they tend to be unpopular. "You are a stupid animal" – which sums up many of the findings that I've discussed on this blog – hasn't caught on.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Diary

 As we move into December, COVID-19 is breaking records in Vermont, though, fortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic Vermont is still the second-to-last state in the number of cases per hundred thousand, with Hawaii retaining the best state record. As in other states, the most conservative counties have the highest rates of cases, and they are driving the numbers up. Although cases have also increased in Addison County, it still has one of the best records of any county in the country. Like everyone else, we are waiting to see how the situation develops with the Omicron variant. During the spring, summer and fall, life was beginning to return to normal, and I ate at restaurants three times, but now we are reverting to the earlier protocol. The governor, Phil Scott, a Republican, is looking less exceptional currently. The previous success in the state may have had little to do with him, and, like most politicians, he is reluctant to introduce mask mandates, because they are unpopular and unenforceable. In this and many situations, a fair, science-based authoritarian regime could produce far better results than what we've seen in the U.S. and Europe. It is too early to tell, but I think it is possible that Asia may emerge as the world power within a few years.

We have reached the point at which the federal government has become so transparently inept that it is difficult for me to take it seriously anymore. While the pandemic was broadly mismanaged under Trump in 2020, Biden seems only marginally more effective. Of greater concern are Congress and the Supreme Court. Congress is unwilling and unable to pass necessary and basic laws, usually as a result of political ideology rather than reason. As time passes, the Republican Party is evolving into one that supports anarchy and the elimination of taxation, along with an incoherent form of Christian fundamentalism that would be unrecognizable to Jesus Christ. Strangely, their political ascent coincides with a decline in the popularity of their ideas in the majority of the population of the country; the Republicans have been far more skilled than the Democrats at exercising unscrupulous methods. On top of this, the Supreme Court is now controlled by Republican fantasists who are denying that women have the right to control their bodies and are declaring that fetuses are people. These views can only be supported by an assortment of religious biases that have no place in a government that was specifically designed to separate church from state. Moreover, the Supreme Court is unwittingly displaying its intellectual bankruptcy by failing to recognize that by encouraging unwanted births they are supporting the growth of an underclass which will inevitably increase suffering and social costs for future generations. In my understanding, judicial proceedings are meant to weigh evidence, and the majority of the current justices seem to believe that their positions are supported by a being that does not exist and whose existence can never be proven. In the current situation, with intellectually incoherent Republicans dominating Congress and embarrassingly ignorant conservatives dominating the Supreme Court, the future of the U.S. is looking increasingly dire as time passes. Things could change, but perhaps not without a fear-inducing collapse of some nature.

On a more positive note, family members who had been living in Bellingham, Washington have moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, a short drive from here.  I will be seeing a lot more of them, and, besides generally enjoying their company, I will have additional opportunities to discuss issues that interest me with a like-minded person. Often, I have been constrained to write what I think in raw form on this blog, because I have lacked the opportunities to develop my views in the course of routine conversations. The visitors, who came in two waves, have all departed, along with their cats. We had to keep the three cats apart from William in order to prevent fights. In one instance, a cat got loose, and, within moments, the fur was flying, literally. Fortunately there were no injuries. William doesn't like having his routines changed by visiting cats and is pleased that they are gone. As an outdoor cat, he generally eschews fights: it is the indoor male cats that are the instigators.

As far as reading is concerned, I do have a couple of books on hand, but I'm not as yet terribly excited to read them. I may start one soon.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Chasing Homer

For a diversion, I read this short novel, which is almost short-story length, by László Krasznahorkai. As with his other writings, it is difficult to make out what he is trying to achieve. I like Krasznahorkai because, while usually obscure, he represents what I think of as the last vestige of the avant-garde, which otherwise was dead by the seventies. This book fills that requirement, not only with his typical frenetic sentences and ambiguity, but with a musical score and illustrations. Of course, as in classic Krasznahorkai, the text itself is enough to baffle most readers, but the music and illustrations are also bizarre.

The story itself concerns the flight of an unidentified individual, presumably male, who is convinced that some unidentified group is devoted to killing him and is actively pursuing him. His strategy is to travel constantly and make spur-of the-moment changes in his travel plans in order to evade them. The story isn't really plausible in the sense that there is no explanation of how he funds his travels, other than by being frugal. The character apparently never sleeps and hardly ever eats. There is no explanation as to why he feels pursued, so the story ends up seeming like an exercise in paranoia and anxiety. In terms of literary precedents, I was reminded of the unfinished Kafka's story, "The Burrow," about a burrowing animal that is obsessed with its safety and is worried about the imminent invasion of its burrow. Kafka wrote that story just before he died from tuberculosis, so one might speculate that Krasznahorkai, himself now sixty-seven, is approaching death. Alternatively, one might surmise that the protagonist is being pursued by a cabal of jealous fiction writers: many must envy his literary success. In the case of Kafka, the paranoia and anxiety in his stories are most likely a reflection of his psychological state. This would explain why he found his works unacceptable and hoped that they would be destroyed upon his death. Krasznahorkai, on the other hand, has adopted this genre as a literary style, and, without more biographical information, it is difficult to tell whether or not his psychological profile matches Kafka's at all. As in some of Krasznahorkai's novels, there is also the possibility that the pursuers are state agents.

At the end of the story, the protagonist travels by ferry to a remote Croatian island, where he overhears a local travel guide attempting to explain to two Japanese tourists the myth of Calypso and Odysseus, from the Odyssey. The suggestion is that the events occurred on that particular island in the Adriatic Sea. Odysseus was held captive, wished to return home to Ithaca, and was eventually released. Finally, the protagonist hikes through the woods to a high point above the sea and observes some divers emerging from an underwater grotto. They notice something dead nearby, suggesting that perhaps the protagonist has fallen to his death. In classic Krasznahorkai style, it turns out to be a large rat, and the protagonist survives.

I am sympathetic with Krasznahorkai because, even though he doesn't fulfill my literary ideals, he is original and challenging, and also a talented writer. I think that he fits poorly within the Western literary canon, but has not made artistic compromises in order to ensure economic success. Probably his writings about isolated and paranoid travelers reflect his poor reception globally, despite having spent time in the U.S., Japan and Germany. Think for a moment what a talented Hungarian writer would experience if he traveled to New York City now and attempted to enter the local literary ecosystem. My impression is that not only do Americans or most Europeans generally not understand art, but that, because of the infiltration of the art world by commercial interests, new art in the traditional sense has been almost nonexistent for decades. If one were a true artist living today, death might be preferable.

Another factor, on which I lack sufficient information to reach a conclusion, is the oppressive feeling that an artist living in Hungary today might feel: conditions were bad through the Soviet era and haven’t improved much since. Thus, Krasznahorkai's writing may be a cry in the dark for artists and intellectuals who are living under oppressive regimes. The latter, unfortunately, now includes the U.S., if you understand the current level of political polarization here and the propaganda that has caused it.

I hesitate to recommend Krasznahorkai to my readers, because I doubt that many of them would share my aesthetic sensibilities. However, if you want to try reading him, I think that "The Last Wolf" would be sufficiently short and accessible and is generally representative of his work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Absurdist Social Criticism

After reading a long string of nonfiction books, I usually begin to crave some good fiction, and, as you know, I always have trouble finding it. I thought that I would attempt to explain how I came to develop my particular literary taste, because I don't actually know anyone whose taste is the same as mine. I was extremely late to develop any literary preferences and only began to when I was most of the way through college. I was more affected by film, and the film that had the greatest impact on me was Dr. Strangelove (1964); this was followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In the interim, I came across some early Soviet fiction and was impressed by Mikhail Bulgakov in "The Fatal Eggs" and his novel, The Master and Magarita. When I was thirty-six, I read Lorrie Moore's short story, "How to Be an Other Woman" and thought that was good. Later, when I was about forty, I read Middlemarch and thought that it was the best novel I'd ever read. Through these works, I think you can get a sense of what interests me.

Dr. Strangelove, in addition to falling clearly within the absurdist tradition, contains a critique of government, and it finishes with an explicit statement of where its ineptitude can lead. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features the antics of a funny subversive and the horrific incompetence of a mental hospital. This is probably Jack Nicholson's best performance, which helps, but I think it is a significant fact that the film was directed by Miloš Forman, a Czech. I read the novel, by Ken Kesey, and didn't find it nearly as good. The Master and Margarita is evidence of a talented writer living under a totalitarian regime and making fun of it as a consolation, while weaving in deeper human themes. "How to Be an Other Woman" describes in humorous terms how a woman might come to understand her relationship with a man who is engaged in a series of infidelities, and, as part of the collection, Self-Help, parodies advice books. Compared to the others, Middlemarch seems more like a  straightforward novel, but it contains much subtlety, and, because it was written in the English tradition, it skewers English society in ways that some readers may not recognize. While George Eliot always maintains sympathy for her characters, Edward Casaubon is clearly a foolish, self-centered intellectual who wastes time on an implausible grand theory; Rosamond Vincy is a fatuous bourgeois; Nicholas Bulstrode is a pious hypocrite – etc. This novel portrays English society in the Midlands of the 1830's and dissects it, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses, and does this with a delicate touch, while at the same time highlighting the relevant human foibles. The novel was written well before absurdism became a genre, but there is some unobtrusive social criticism. 

What I think you find in these works is astute social observation, and in most of them a critique of the reigning powers. In Dr. Strangelove, the American government, in effect, brings the world to an end. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the hero is lobotomized. In "How to Be an Other Woman," the narrator leaves you with the feeling that male-female relationships are like an infinite regress stacked against the female. In Middlemarch, humanity is seen to exist on a fragile basis over which people have little control, thus, in the end, the central characters, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, go on to lead unexceptional lives, in contrast to Dorothea's high aspirations. 

In these works, I generally found close social observation and brainy critiques, and I don't often find comparable ones. Since I wasn't born in the U.S., I have always been skeptical of American ideology, and it is rarely questioned here. The early Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Poland, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, were better environments for the flourishing of intellectual dissidents. Although Czeslaw Milosz's literary works were hardly radical, in his book, The Captive Mind, he outlined the rather intense psychological pressures that intellectuals were forced to endure. Comparatively, American intellectuals have never experienced any duress, and they have lived their lives in obscure corners of this capitalist utopia, hardly making a dissenting peep. Most American novels, as far as I know, consist only of basic storytelling, and, these days, are often about the experiences of groups adapting to the prevailing culture, without questioning it much. The literary atmosphere, rather than being energized by angry dissidents, is mellowed by M.F.A. programs that groom writers for the publishing industry. If a novel were actually interesting, it probably wouldn't be a bestseller.

As far as American fiction is concerned, I'm tired of trying the latest wunderkinds, such as John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, George Saunders and Lauren Groff, but I suppose I'll keep an open mind and attempt to read some future ones. As it is, I think I've wasted enough time on them already. It is ironic that with so much material readily available in the U.S. – a completely corrupt and incompetent president, a seriously dysfunctional federal government, rampant gerrymandering, unaddressed climate change and the botched handling of the coronavirus – writers can't do a better job. 

In recent years, I've been making stabs at Michel Houellebecq and László Krasznahorkai. Houellebecq has some of the characteristics that I like, but he has too many flaws. Foremost, he doesn't write perceptively about people, and his plots are always a little harebrained. The Map and the Territory, when read carefully, is a critique of the art market. However, because Houellebecq's writing is sloppy and his style is deadpan, many readers may not realize this. Submission was obviously the result of Houellebecq's desire to exploit fears that Islamic forces are affecting life in France. As in his other novels, all of the characters lack psychological nuance. It is easy for me to differentiate Houellebecq from works by people whom I think are good. I would guess that, though possessing some talent, he is in this for the money. Krasznahorkai is a better bet, because he hasn't sold out completely in order to make as much money as possible. In his case, he is one of the best writers ever to capture some of the complex psychological aspects of being human. For most readers, he would be too obscure, and they would be unable to appreciate his Kafkaesque qualities. Krasznahorkai's limitations are related to the fact that what he really knows well is Hungary, which, at this point, is hardly representative of most of the developed world. What I find is that he is one of the most psychologically astute writers, and that he, more than any other that I know, understands what it feels like to live in a repressive ideological state, which, frankly, is what the U.S. is, once you understand the nature of capitalist institutions. For this reason, I have chosen to read Krasznahorkai's latest book, Chasing Homer. I thought that his short story, "The Last Wolf," was one of the best I've ever read, so this is worth a try. Of course, Krasznahorkai is virtually unknown in the U.S. For example, Satantango, one of his best-known novels, currently has163 reviews on Amazon.com, whereas Lauren Groff's latest novel, Matrix, has 1171. Apparently, deciding whose fiction to read depends on your social media. Needless to say, I don't and never will have Facebook or Twitter accounts.