Friday, February 28, 2014

Intellectuals

I have some further reflections on the responsibilities of intellectuals, who, as a group, have been highly disappointing to me. That is because I hold them to a higher standard than artists and academics. This can be confusing, because all three labels may apply to the same person.

Let's start with Bob Dylan. Early in his career, he displayed the characteristics of an artist. He seems to have been someone who always wanted to be a rock star, but lacked the musical ability, voice and physical presence. He overcame these limitations with his natural ability as a lyricist, through which he inadvertently became famous during the antiwar and civil rights protests of early '60's. However, it later became clear that he wasn't much of an ideologue on political issues, and he certainly was not an academic or an intellectual. In hindsight, it appears that he unconsciously channeled his poetic gifts when he needed them but never cared much for politics and never was a thinker. I now see him as a narrowly talented person who is of limited interest once you look beyond some of his intriguing lyrics. It took me several years to figure this out and realize that my expectations should always have been low.

Another person who influenced me early was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here, I think, was an intellectual and an artist who was not an academic, though he held a position at Cambridge. Oddly, much of his writing intrigues me in the same way as Bob Dylan's, because it contains complex and unfathomable ambiguities. Clearly he was uncomfortable as an academic, and he published almost nothing. What we have is mostly lecture notes, often recorded by others. He liked to make things, and was an architect and aeronautical engineer before becoming a philosopher. His interest in philosophy grew out of his interest in logic. I hold it against  him that he did not leave an intelligible body of work behind him. He taught philosophy in an academic context, and ought to have provided greater clarity.  Beyond that, he was not a public intellectual at all, and we don't know his positions outside philosophy. He had some artistic sensibilities, but was not a full-fledged artist.

George Eliot is the kind of intellectual that I admire. She was self-taught in multiple areas and relatively late in life decided to write fiction. Although she was not an academic, she had the breadth of knowledge and discipline of one. There is no dispute that she was an artist, producing stories, novels and poems, though some find her a little heavy-handed as a writer. She was also an editor and contributor to the Westminster Review, which puts her well into the intellectual camp. What I admire about her work is that, through her characters, she shows how people find meaning in life and deal with the issues of their day, all within the context of human progress. The latter detracts somewhat from her artistry, but more than makes up for it in seriousness. If you like seriousness, you probably won't find anyone better. Growing up, she was religious, and she later spent much of her life struggling with Darwinism. If you want to read writers who know important things, you can't do much better than George Eliot. Unfortunately, she's been dead since 1880.

When I think of contemporary intellectuals I think of the contributors to The New York Review of Books, and here I have problems with many. Although I haven't read his historical works, Tony Judt was another kind of intellectual that I admire. There was little artistry there, but he was a solid academic who became a highly effective public intellectual when he was drawn into public issues. His essay, "Bush's Useful Idiots," astounded me. He did not mince words about the Israel Lobby either. He made me think, "Isn't this what intellectuals ought to do when something is seriously wrong?" The fact is, with very few exceptions, they don't. On the contrary, they are more likely, like Christopher Hitchens, to publicly support the Iraq War.

Another NYRB contributor, Paul Krugman, was mentioned in an earlier post. I find him to be a pure academic, with no artistry, implausibly occupying the position of a public intellectual. He doesn't seem to be knowledgeable outside of economics, and his liberal leanings look like something he learned by age 12 and never thought about much. Beyond a narrow range of economic issues, I find him worthless. Moreover, he doesn't write well and has been ineffectual even as a liberal spokesperson.

Finally, there is the NYRB contributor Lorrie Moore, also mentioned earlier. Ostensibly she is an artist, in the sense that her primary vocation is the writing of fiction. Here, as I've said, she has become stale. I particularly liked this review of her most recent book, which appeared in The Globe and Mail: "...looking beyond the cosmetic glimmer of Lorrie Moore’s sentences at times reveals something essentially hollow. If television’s primary goal is to keep us watching television, something similar can be said of Bark: its stories tend to feel like easily consumed entertainments, with intimations at wisdom and meaning just compelling enough to keep us reading." She is also an academic insofar as she has taught in university English departments for 30 years. As an intellectual I consider her a complete failure. I think she is incapable of writing a Judt-like essay. If she speaks out at all, it is usually by awkwardly inserting political views into her stick-figure characters' mouths.

If I have any conclusion, it is that artists can do what they like and academics can do what they like, but if they choose to enter the arena of public intellectuals, they had better know what they're talking about and they had better say it well. In my opinion, they carry greater social responsibility than mere artists and academics.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Utopia

Since people are more motivated by positive thoughts than negative thoughts, I've decided to write something positive today. The subject is utopia. I have been intrigued by it ever since I was in college and learned about New Harmony, IN. The town was founded in 1814 by a group called the Harmonists, who were led by George Rapp. They were religious Germans skilled in the trades, and in a short period built a thriving town in the wilderness on the Wabash River and sent their goods as far away as New Orleans. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Rapp decided to move the Harmonists to the Pittsburgh area in 1824. In 1825 he sold the entire town and 20,000 acres to the Scottish industrialist, Robert Owen, who wished to establish a utopian community. Owen then invited various intellectuals to live in New Harmony, and several social experiments were attempted. However, the intellectuals were not industrious and disagreed on how to run things. In 1829 New Harmony was dissolved. Many ideas were tested there, some good, some bad. Much of the town is intact today.

During the early 19th century, utopian religious groups flourished in many parts of the U.S. When I lived in Illinois I came across the town of Bishop Hill, which was settled by Swedish Pietists in 1846. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was born in Vermont in 1805 not far from where I live now. I sympathize with the idealism of such groups, but am unable to reconcile myself with their religious views. In short, the leaders tend to be quacks.

I am a late adopter of new technology and am sort of a Luddite. I didn't get my first computer until 2004, and I'm currently typing on my second one. I didn't have a cell phone until 2007 and I acquired my first smartphone a few days ago. Since I'm cheap, I don't have a data package and only pay about $38 per month. Still, I can use the Internet through our wireless router.

My thought for the day is that someone should write a futuristic novel describing how the world is transformed into a utopia by smartphones. Actually, you could argue that it has already started. Low-end models are becoming essential in developing countries such as Kenya, where they make life much easier for millions.

In the novel, everyone eventually owns a smartphone. Depending on the author's preferences, smartphones could, say, be integrated with the body and use holographic projections instead of screens, or, alternatively, be something like Google Glass. Eventually all transactions are done on smartphones. At this future date, there is little need for human labor in the developed world. Robots, computers and software have eliminated most jobs. Most people work part-time in government-subsidized sinecure-like positions. Yet there are still powerful corporations influencing the government to maximize their profits. There are still wars, and global warming has accelerated. After a lengthy battle in Congress, with filibusters and shutdowns, the right to vote on smartphones is passed by both houses, signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court against challenges. Android has become the dominant operating system on smartphones. Then, in a surprise decision, Google announces that it is purchasing Netflix and merging with Wikipedia to form a new non-profit company. One of the free services offered is Wikivote, in which the smartphone owner is guided through the voting process and then votes on his or her smartphone. A couple of election cycles later, Google-Netflix-Wikipedia announces that it has perfected software and hardware for optimizing voting choices. Using new supercomputer technology, advanced software and a gigantic database, voters have the option of filling out a questionnaire and letting this system decide their votes for them. After another protracted battle in Congress and Supreme Court challenges, computer-selected votes are approved.

This turns out to be a crucial step toward making the world a utopia. Automated voting succeeds to such a degree that voters completely lose interest in making autonomous voting decisions. Their lives are going well. As a consequence, Google-Netflix-Wikipedia becomes the de facto government in all countries that adopt its system. For-profit corporations and special interest groups lose what remaining power they had to influence political decisions. Over time, the system steers voters toward impartial, tech-savvy candidates who favor the further automation of government. Eventually, government is almost entirely automated. The Google-Netflix-Wikipedia company develops what comes to be considered the most efficient, effective and fair government system in the history of the world. Without the destructive intrusions of capitalism into government operations, wars and terrorism come to an end, global warming is reversed, and most legal issues disappear. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Indifference

I have been thinking lately that it may be rational to be indifferent to what other people find important. Perhaps this sounds cynical, but I believe that the ideas in circulation don't necessarily provide a path either to a better understanding of the world or to a better understanding of the self. This view comes partly from the observation that every group in the U.S., from politicians to intellectuals, is generally a failure at proposing and advancing ideas that would be beneficial to mankind. It also relates to the fact that when I was growing up I assumed, incorrectly it turns out, that the world was orderly, and that adults have everything figured out. They don't. If you look into it, you will find that your parents, grandparents and great grandparents didn't. Basically, everyone was winging it, and they still are. You are.

If you look closely at the major opinion leaders in society, they generally don't know what they're talking about. Did Barack Obama have the slightest idea what he was doing when he ran for president? I don't think so. Do Paul Ryan or Rand Paul have a deeper understanding of the world than you do? No. Extend this thought out to people who are supposed to be smart. In reality, they're not much better.

Let's take Paul Krugman, the economist, as an example. Economists play a significant role in the formation of government policy. Krugman is an intelligent, well-educated person. However, even if he is right about certain aspects of economic thinking, such as using the government to provide economic stimulus when the economy is very weak (which, by the way, is a no-brainer), he doesn't understand the ways in which capitalism is inherently a destructive force that is designed to create winners and losers, such that the more capitalism succeeds, the more wealth inequality there will be. Furthermore, he has no objections to consumerism, which I happen to consider one of the banes of mankind.

Another group of intellectuals consists of the literary types. Unfortunately, after observing them for more than 20 years, I've concluded that they have nothing to offer. When was the last time you read an American novel or poem that provided you with a better understanding of how people, individually or collectively, might live better lives? I would sum up by saying that fiction and poetry are written primarily for entertainment. It's obvious in the case of bestsellers, but I don't think literary fiction or poetry are fundamentally different. They are simply written for a subset of the consumer market that consists mainly of upper-middle-class people who seek to differentiate themselves by purchasing upscale products. I see no evidence that this group is truly aesthetically discerning, and they're just being duped into buying upscale name brands - the Armanis of fiction. The writers who cater to them are carefully disguised hacks.

My most recent foray has been into the world of science and philosophy. One would think that, with an emphasis on objectivity and clarity, this group would be better than all the others.  I haven't given up on them yet, but I've noticed a few problems. After a brief exposure, it appears that scientists tend to be either small thinkers who like accurate measurements and have a weak understanding of humanity, or big thinkers who get carried away with their own visions and become futurologists. Unsurprisingly, some futurologists foresee a future with new products in which they have a stake. Somewhere in the mix there are the philosophers, but there isn't such a thing as a philosopher anymore. Philosophy is now an obscure academic subject that is of no interest to anyone, though a few academic philosophers like to pose as wise men - without actually gaining public credibility.

The conclusion that I draw from these observations is that I am better off ignoring most of what goes on in the world.  If there is something that I find interesting, I will pursue it. Beyond that, the world will go on in its merry way, regardless of what I think.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vermont

Two and a half years ago we moved from Illinois to Vermont. I'm still learning about the state, but will relate some of my current thoughts to you. Vermont has a combination of characteristics that make it a desirable place to live.

As the only landlocked state in New England, it was the last one settled. By 1749, Massachusetts and Connecticut were becoming crowded, and farmers were looking for new places to live. The colonial governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, accommodated them by illegally selling land grants in what is now Vermont. The sales were illegal because, at the time, the land belonged to New York. Settlers in the New Hampshire Grants, led by Ethan Allen, formed a militia, known as the Green Mountain Boys, to protect their property from New York authorities who attempted to seize it. Allen developed an intense dislike for New York landowners. They typically were well-connected Englishmen who had been granted enormous estates of thousands of acres, on which tenant farmers lived much as in England. In contrast, the New Hampshire Grants went mainly to small farmers who owned their land outright.

The settlement of the region was slow from 1754 until the end of the the American Revolution in 1783. The French and Indian War placed Vermont in a vulnerable position between the English colonies to the south and the French colony to the north, with Lake Champlain providing free access to marauding French soldiers and their Native American allies. In 1777, Vermont became an independent republic and was initially called New Connecticut. Because of property disputes, it did not become the 14th state until 1791, at which time Vermont paid $30,000 to New York State to resolve the issue of  land ownership. By then, settlers were moving in in larger numbers.

Many of the early settlers didn't stay here for long. Better farmland became available in the Midwest and drew them away. Although some small pockets of industry developed, the state never became industrialized, and the population has always been small. Because of this, much of Vermont that existed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is still intact. Beyond the Burlington area, there has been minimal development.

Where I live, I get a deep sense of continuity with the past. We live on the corner of one of the original hundred-acre lots of a New Hampshire Grant chartered in 1761. The stone marker is still there. Our immediate neighborhood was first settled by the Severance family, which moved here in about 1793 from Northfield, MA.  Except for a few additional houses, it probably looks about the same now as it did then. Three of the four Severance houses, including ours, are still standing. Our house was built in about 1797 and has the original foundation and frame, and the upstairs floor is mostly the original pine planks, some of which are 22" wide. In the Town Clerk's office, you can find copies of the original hand-written deeds.

The Severances were all farmers. They cleared the flat lands along the creek. Our house was built by Enos Severance, who was a beekeeper and kept an orchard. One of his apple trees is still alive. Enos's father, Ebenezer, lived about 300 yards down the road, and his house is also intact, though it was remodeled in the 1800's. Enos's younger brother, Moses, lived there and took care of Ebenezer when he grew old. The eldest son, Samuel, who first came to the area in 1786 and had another farm, moved and built a house at the end of the road. That one is gone, but the Severances built a new one next door which is intact.

I like the fact that so little has changed here. The worn mountains across the fields have been there for 450 million years, longer than the Atlantic Ocean or even land animals. The lack of overpopulation and the natural setting are more agreeable to the instincts than the urban and suburban environments that most people inhabit. Moreover, the outdoors and locally grown food are popular here: the natural life is part of the culture.

There are some negatives here too, just as anywhere. Having a tourism-based economy and being in New England, with wealthy states nearby, makes it a little expensive. The people tend to be relaxed, which is characteristic of many rural areas. However, the mix of people includes descendants of New England's early religious fanatics, which perhaps makes them a little taciturn and closed compared to rural people elsewhere. And rural life means that some goods and services can be hard to find.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Lorrie Moore

Since Lorrie Moore has released a new collection of short stories, Bark, I'll discuss her today in the hope of getting a few things off my chest. This may be boring to most. Feel free to skip it.

I first came across her writing in a bookstore in Louisville, KY in 1986. I was so struck by one story, "How to Be an Other Woman," that I immediately wrote her a fan letter.  The rest of that collection, Self-Help, was not as good, but I enjoyed it. I continued to read all of her work up until late 1998, at which point I stopped buying her books.  I sent her letters for many years, and I think I got a total of three replies, none of which said much. In one letter I sent her a puzzle that I had written that had been published in Mensa Bulletin, and she wrote back to see if she had the right answer. I met her twice in 1990 when she was promoting her book Like Life in Chicago. The first time was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she seemed avoidant. The second time was a few weeks later at Barbara's Bookstore on North Wells Street, and she acted friendly but had brought her husband along and introduced me to him. I continued to write letters to her but never heard from her again.

There was a period when I lived in Dixon, IL that I got a lot of hangup calls. Sometimes the phone would ring and there would be no one there, and whoever it was would hang up after a few seconds. There were also incidents when the phone would ring just once very early in the morning and stop before I had a chance to answer it. At the time I thought it could be Lorrie Moore, because I couldn't think of anyone else who might do that. I had no social life, no correspondence, and no reason to believe that anyone I knew in Dixon might do that. Telemarketers sometimes hang up, but at that time I wasn't getting any telemarketing calls. I was also struck by the fact that there is a recurring theme of hangup calls throughout Lorrie Moore's fiction that runs right up to the present. I have told people about this, and they usually think I'm delusional, but I still have no better explanation for those calls.

Without going into a detailed description of her work, which I'm sick of now anyway, let me broadly describe what I liked and disliked about it. She can be very witty and quite good at expressing some of the private pains that sensitive people experience in their lives. On the other hand, her characters tend to be stick figures who never develop as people and always remain mired in gigantic ruts. Over the years, she's transitioned from single women who have bad relationships with men to married women who are unhappy with their marriages to divorced women who are unhappy with everything. Her characters never engage each other or solve any of their problems. In addition, she has a love of wordplay and recklessly inserts it into her stories in a manner that further detracts from the believability of her characters. In the real world people rarely make puns. If you look at her work as an oeuvre, which is probably too generous a term, she has beaten a dead horse to such a pulp that it now looks like the skeleton of a mustang that has been dead for fifty years.

Part of my irritation with Lorrie Moore is fundamentally an irritation with the entire American literary establishment that has made her career possible. Negative assessments of her work are rare, and this may have contributed to her sloppy work habits and decline as a writer. She has been an admired and sought-after teacher of fiction for thirty years, even as the quality of her work deteriorated. In addition to her fiction, she writes articles for high-profile publications, where she is paid handsomely to write elliptical reviews of nonsense such as second-rate television programs. I have never benefited from any of her reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, or elsewhere.

It appears that the tide may be turning now. Michiko Kakutani, the well-known reviewer for The New York Times, has given Bark a decisively negative review. I happen to have read five of the eight stories in Bark (only because, for unknown reasons, I have a free online subscription to The New Yorker) and concur with Kakutani, though my judgment would be more severe.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music

My girlfriend is away visiting her son, which has given me an opportunity to do something that she doesn't like: listen to loud music on speakers. This has got me thinking about music, and I decided to write about it.

When I was growing up, my father liked Eartha Kitt and my mother liked classical music, Tchaikovsky in particular. At home we usually heard classical music on WQXR, and my mother would take us to see The Nutcracker in Manhattan during the Christmas season. I listened to popular music, starting with doo-wop in the early '60s and then the Kinks, Beatles and Rolling Stones. My sister bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, and I liked it. The groups multiplied, and by 1968 I liked the Animals, the Zombies and the Doors. I could have gone to Woodstock in 1969 but didn't bother. In college there were even more groups, but I didn't follow them much. By 1973 I was interested in bluegrass and went to see Bill Monroe in Bean Blossom, IN (during a vacation I borrowed my sister's Vega and drove there from Connecticut). For many years I didn't have a stereo and listened to my car radio for music. I had a girlfriend for three years who was a soprano and sang a cappella early music, which I came to appreciate and still do. Finally, in 2000, I got another stereo and listened exclusively to classical music. I now prefer piano sonatas and piano concertos.  My current favorite composers are, in descending order, Beethoven, Debussy and Satie. I also had many opportunities to hear a variety of good live music for several years, since I lived near the Ravinia Festival north of Chicago.

Popular American music has always been problematic for me. Although I'm a far cry from a musicologist and never received any musical training, I'm selective about what I'll listen to. The lyrics are usually awful, except in rare cases such as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.  Most of the instrumentals aren't interesting.  Looking back, I think the Beatles were overrated, and the public simply succumbed to one of the most assiduous and effective product promotions of the 1960's.  They were the first group to make the highly polished albums that then became the commercial standard within the music industry. Nevertheless, the U.S. happens to have a rich tradition of vernacular music that is worth looking into and can be found in bluegrass, jazz and the blues. These elements have been present in popular music for many decades now and add richness and authenticity to it.

As a '60s male, I'm a sucker for long instrumentals, and you don't hear those any more. They became common when "Light My Fire" was a hit in 1967, and up until about Pink Floyd. I liked guitar instrumentals in particular, and those seem to have died off.  I confess that I even like Lynyrd Skynyrd and have been listening to "Sweet Home Alabama" recently.  There was a brief return to the popularity of guitar instrumentals with Stevie Ray Vaughan in the late 1980's, but that seems to have ended when he died in 1990.

What I've been listening to recently and what prompted me to write this is some popular music that I didn't listen to at the time it came out.  In particular, I find At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band astounding. My favorites are "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "You Don't Love Me." In my opinion, these performances represent the best art that America has been able to produce. The talent is raw and palpable and still stands out without the refinement of the best European art. It's such a shame that Duane Allman died in 1971 at age 24.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Footnote

As a footnote to my last post on mental illness, I would like to mention that one of my frustrations with contemporary literary fiction is that it tends to exclude the psychological and sociological aspects that would better explain the behavior of fictional characters. For example, some of the stories I've read focus on male-female relationships that have gone awry, with no description that allows the reader to see how a relationship went off course. A couple breaks up, and you never find out why.  There may be innuendos about the man seeing other women, a child may be causing tension, etc., but the schism is a given, and the text doesn't give you a chance to understand it in any depth.

I'll speculate here that this style is partly due to the infiltration of political correctness into American literature: the author is not allowed to state explicitly that any character has made bad choices or engages in unacceptable behavior.  Political correctness demands that everyone remain neutral on cultural background, race, religion, personal habits, etc., and maintain silence on these aspects of a person.  In my opinion, this drains the life from writing. Paradoxically, I am left with the impression that the author is not qualified to write about people, yet she is held up by the literary community as a paragon of fiction.

My favorite novel, Middlemarch, has been criticized because of its authorial intrusion.  I think many of the best parts of the book are provided by the voice of the narrator, and I wish more writers did that now.  In the context of my comments on mental illness, I find that kind of information essential for understanding characters and their motivations.  A good novel would ideally cover multiple generations of families, with all their psychological quirks and reactions to social changes.  Writing without that tends to be imperceptive and trivial and serves no purpose beyond following the mandates of the reigning literary establishment.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mental Illness

I mentioned in an earlier post that I think my ex-wife is mildly mentally ill. This topic may not be of much interest to most readers, but I have decided to write about it in order to clarify my thoughts and go on record.

There is a strain of mental illness that runs through my ex-wife's family. Something happened with her mother's mother's mother that I never found out much about, and which could be a family secret.  Her mother's mother, as far as I know, was a normal person. I met her several times before she died and liked her. Two of her daughters were a little off though. My ex-wife's mother seemed to have a hard time relating to the world. She seems to have been driven by a sense of duty, and, while on the surface she seemed quite responsible, I always got the impression that she felt uncomfortable and could not engage well with people. She was a religious Lutheran with a Germanic background on her father's side, and at least once had a panic attack, during which she had to speak to her pastor immediately in the middle of the night.

One of my ex-wife's mother's sisters seems to have had more significant mental issues. She received electro-shock therapy for many years. She and her husband, for whatever reason, did not have children of their own, and adopted a daughter. That turned out to be a complete disaster. They were part of the snobby set in town, and their adoptive daughter developed into white trash. I knew her and she was a likable, warm and friendly person. However, she hung out with the wrong people and was overweight. I got the impression that her adoptive mother had no idea about or interest in parenting and took the attitude that she had purchased a defective product and wanted to return it to the store. The daughter became more and more socially unacceptable over time.  She briefly married a toothless, skinny hillbilly from Kentucky named Sammy, and later had a child with a black man named Bucket. As I recall, Sammy borrowed some false teeth for the wedding.  She had a heart of gold, but no money. No one in the family wanted to be associated with her, and when she came by my ex-wife's parents' house, she wouldn't be invited in, and they would throw her money from a window.  She died of cancer a few years ago, and both of her adoptive parents are dead now too.

My ex-wife's mother had four children. Her husband was a successful small-town lawyer with a much warmer disposition. The eldest child was an only son and was treated like a god. He was an Eagle Scout, a science Ph.D., and later a dean at a major university. I knew him before I met my ex-wife, and think of him as cold, insensitive, conventional and shallow, though he certainly was a hard worker. He had his father's work ethic and his mother's Germanic coldness. My ex-wife and her two sisters formed a lower caste within the patriarchal family and were always jockeying amongst themselves for position. Since their mother was cold and perceptually torpid, their emotional needs were never addressed. Throughout my ex-wife's later life, I have seen her repeating an identical cold and insensitive behavior toward her own children.

Almost from the day I met her in the fall of 1969, my ex-wife was complaining about her parents. They were, she thought, always treating her unfairly.  They had forced her into a nursing program when she would rather have studied something else. Nevertheless, she did not have a true rebellion. When her parents told her to do nursing, she did nursing.  When they told her to get married, she got married. In contrast, her two sisters did exactly what they liked and got away with it, ironically coming out better in the eyes of their parents. Her parents died in 1998 and 2002, and since then the family has disintegrated.  The sisters don't communicate with each other.

I'm not completely sure why my ex-wife divorced me. I would have stayed married, though I was tired of her after eleven years.  The divorce probably had mostly to do with the stress of two small children, and my early work history certainly played a part. What I think of as the primary manifestations of my ex-wife's mental illness began to blossom thereafter.

She had custody of the children and seemed all right for the first few years after the divorce. But by age 10 our daughter began exhibiting oppositional-defiant behavior and she would not cooperate with her mother in the least. My ex-wife immediately threw up her hands and shipped her off to live with me and attend 5th grade in my rural backwater. I had few problems with my daughter that year, and we agreed to return her the following year. She lived with her mother during 6th and 7th grade, but returned to me in 8th grade permanently. I also found her to be a handful in 8th grade. Her schoolwork was abysmal and I used to lock her out in the cold when she misbehaved. I made her sign a written agreement each time before letting her back in. Her grades were so bad that she burnt her report card once and I had to drive to the school to get a copy. Her bedroom was an impassible mountain of debris. But against all odds, then came the greatest experience of my life. My daughter gradually reformed, went to college, found a good husband and settled down. We are now extremely close.

The outcome with our son has not been as positive so far. During his teenage years he began acting up, and my ex-wife had him arrested for assault. He was sent to a juvenile detention house and had to wear an electronic monitor on his leg when he visited me. She tried to ship him off to live with me, but I resisted at that time because I was living in a smaller apartment in the Chicago area and had a girlfriend.  He eventually settled down too, but not before marrying a Mexican girl in Mexico at age 19, later divorcing her and more recently marrying a Colombian woman at age 28. He managed to complete a four-year college degree, but his employment and marital prospects are not good, in my opinion. I have played a small role in his life, because we are very different from each other and have not bonded to the same degree that I have with my daughter.

The mental illness that I see in my ex-wife manifests itself in several ways. In the old days she would have been called "neurotic." When we were married, she often misread people and misinterpreted their behavior. Her family was predictable, unimaginative and Midwestern, yet she never seemed to have figured it out.  She worries constantly about things that aren't important. Since the kids grew up she has been moving frequently and has no permanent place of residence. Often she will move on short notice when she detects an odor in her apartment. Although she seems to have developed some minor friendships with women, over the last 28 years she has developed no close male relationships. She is not asexual, gay, bisexual or transsexual.

What has disturbed me the most about her behavior has been her lack of responsibility in matters of child rearing.  I don't know firsthand, but think that her family and friends were completely appalled by her shipping off her daughter at age 10. Yet she would have done the same with her son without giving it a second thought.  To some extent I rescued my daughter and am not worried about her. My son, on the other hand, seems to have been ignored during his upbringing. Although he is athletic, he did not do any sports in high school.  He lived in a wealthy community but associated only with people who were not college-bound. He was not encouraged to go to college and had no ambitions instilled in him by his mother. Despite the fact that he displayed slow social development, there is no doubt in my mind that he could be in a much better place in his life now if he had been attended to and directed by his mother on a daily basis. His mother's upper-middle-class background is completely at odds with the lower-middle-class lifestyle that he has adopted. He is now, at age 30, working in a low-paying job at a brokerage company and supplementing his income by working part-time at Pizza Hut. His second marriage seems doomed, but is an improvement over his first.

In recent years, my daughter and ex-wife have had major clashes. My daughter married a Tibetan refugee who subsequently completed college here and was in need of funds. My ex-wife wielded the power of money to buy subservience from our daughter. When my daughter didn't accommodate my ex-wife to her satisfaction, funds were abruptly withdrawn, and she and her husband were left in the lurch. This follows a pattern that my ex-wife experienced while growing up: parents buying the behavior they want from their children. My ex-wife complained about it when her parents did it, and now she is doing the exact same thing.  I have helped coach my daughter and she has developed a  strategy for dealing with her mother that seems to be working. In a nutshell, it involves keeping her at arm's length and nipping it in the bud whenever she starts to make excessive demands. In this she has the complete support of my son-in-law, who at this point would be fine with never seeing my ex-wife ever again.

The foregoing may strike some as a rant, but I am trying to be balanced and think there is more to it than that.  If anything, it is an example of the limited reach and ineffectuality of counseling services, of which my ex-wife has availed herself generously. The world would be a better place not only if the streets were free of violent criminals and psychopaths, but also of those who are more mildly impaired and wreak havoc on others.  I find it most odd that people never discuss these sorts of things.  In a way it isn't all that different from being silent about keeping a deformed or mentally retarded family member in your basement - which people used to do.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Fiction I

The role of reading fiction in one's life is something that has intrigued me for many years. When I was growing up, my parents didn't have any interest in literature. My mother read very little and my father, an extremely rapid reader, burned through hundreds of detective novels.  I started reading DC comics in the late 1950's when we moved to the U.S. and continued to read them until my early teens. In junior high, when I was supposed to do a book report, I didn't read anything at all and made up a book. The teacher never noticed.  By high school I realized that I was supposed to read books, and I tried a little science fiction, which didn't impress me much. In late high school we were reading Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy in class, but they didn't engage me at all.  My senior year, my English teacher, who had an M.A. from Harvard, lent me his copy of Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth, which he thought I might like.  I labored on it for some time but found it opaque and pointless.  I later read a couple of Barth's other novels to see whether I had missed something, and now think of him as an idiotic college professor who should never have been published.  Also that year, a friend recommended Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, which I did find very amusing.

Although during the first two years of my undergraduate study I was exposed to a variety of fiction, none of it struck me as interesting.  Then, in the fall of my junior year, I took a class in twentieth century Russian literature, and that was it.  I liked St. Petersburg by Andrei Bely, but was really taken by fiction for the first time with Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. It's really quite a strange novel in that it combines very witty and imaginative social satire with serious themes such as the role of the artist in society, morality and religion.  I think that there are several aspects of Russian literature that differentiate it from American literature.  First, Russia has a much richer literary history than the U.S.  We have nothing like Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  Second, and I feel this deeply, the U.S. has never gone through much pain.  Comparatively speaking, the Russians are experts at it. They had brutal czars, Mongol invasions and the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.  The U.S. and U.K. like to brag about defeating Hitler, but it was the Russians who defeated Hitler, with over 20 million casualties.  The Russians know what suffering is - Americans do not.  Much as I dislike Vladimir Putin, when I see him looking at Barack Obama and thinking to himself "You naive fool," I know he's right.  People who have suffered tend to write with greater urgency and are more likely to engage in serious themes than those who have led pampered lives.  The latter group includes almost all American writers.

After college I read a little when I had time.  Nothing struck me until 1986, when I read the short story "How to Be an Other Woman," by Lorrie Moore. Moore, in those days, was a fresh and witty voice, with plenty of pathos and a modicum of the satire that I appreciate.  I was a Moore fanatic up until the late 90's, at which point I felt she had become a moribund, formulaic writer. Moreover, I lived in Dixon, IL for 10 years, from August, 1987 until January, 1998, and during this period I shored up my readings with European and American classic literature that I had missed previously.  I had no social life in Dixon and spent all of my time working, hiking and reading for several of my years there.  In my readings I came across Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which I thought then and still think is the best novel ever written.  I then became a George Eliot fanatic and read all of her fiction and several biographies.

George Eliot is the kind of person who ought to write novels.  She was steeped in the culture of the English Midlands of the mid-19th century and knew it inside out.  She was also self-taught in multiple languages, literature and science.  She made her way into the highest intellectual circles of London by way of very hard work and talent, yet it was not sheer ambition that drove her, and she thought deeply about the issues of her day, placing herself among the best thinkers of her time.  In all my years of reading literature, I have found no other author with as much wisdom to impart.  Her work is not all stellar, and her style is out of fashion, but I don't think any novel before or after Middlemarch compares favorably.

From the 1990's onward I have occasionally dabbled in contemporary American fiction. I've found all of it completely unsatisfactory, to the point that I am not going to read any more unless someone can convince an extreme skeptic that he ought to read something in particular.  I think there is greater hope in the fiction of other countries.  Through an acquaintance I heard about Julio Ramon Ribeyro, the Peruvian, and read translations of his first novel and some of his short stories.  The novel was good, but obviously a first novel. Some of the short stories are very good - as good or better than the best American short stories.  And I've been reading Michel Houellebecq: The Map and the Territory is the best novel I've read in many years.

A recent article at The Chronicle of Higher Education website critiques the effects of MFA programs on American literature.  I agree generally with the author, Eric Bennett, but he himself is an academic, which I think makes him an inappropriate figure for leading a shakeup.  The academy's stranglehold on fiction in the U.S. ought to be blown up by terrorists, not incrementally changed by insiders.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Letter from Hell

A Letter from Hell

On the way back from the airport, the roads still had a trace of snow on them. There wasn't much traffic that day. Near Starksboro I came up behind an old van that doing about 45.  We reached a straight stretch of road and I started to pass it.  Then out of nowhere came a semi and that was it.

The next thing I knew I was talking to God.  It was a he and not a she, and he asked me why I didn't believe in him.  I said "Prove to me that you're not a hallucination."

And here I am. I guess the truth doesn't make you free.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Investing

Over the last 10 years I've spent quite a bit of time planning investments, particularly because I've been retired for 6 of those years.  This experience highlights to me the absurdity of the American economic system.

In order to follow the program here, the constraints are quite extreme. First, you must figure out at a relatively young age how to procure sufficient earnings to live your life and save an amount sufficient for retirement.  Most people are at the mercy of the job market and the economy, unpredictable forces beyond anyone's control.  Generally you are on your own, and you won't find much help.  Once you get a job, your employer is likely to be indifferent to your career path and will fire you on short notice if you are perceived to be a subpar performer.

Assuming that you are somehow able to save enough money for investing, you are then faced with another series of daunting challenges.  The financial services industry is there to make money, and whether you happen to make money or not is incidental to its goals. This in itself would not necessarily be an insurmountable problem, but it becomes so because of the complexity of investing these days.  Most of the investment advice I've come across is either incomplete or incorrect.  Even Nobel Prize winners in Economics don't seem to have a handle on it.  It is clearly too much to expect of the 70% of U.S. adults who lack four-year college degrees to navigate these murky waters.

The absurdity here has to do with faith in private markets.  We know from the health care system that private markets don't always work as well as large-scale public operations.  Left to doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers, health care in the U.S. became the most expensive in the developed world.  Here it was obvious that a federal system had to be put in place, but the Affordable Care Act is only in its infancy.  What is needed is a comprehensive retirement savings program at the federal level that will make financial decision-making much simpler and less voluntary, like Obamacare. As it stands, the financial services industry is primarily a wealth-redistribution device that makes a very small number of people extremely wealthy at the expense of the majority, who are increasingly finding themselves underpaid, uninformed, and facing bleak retirements. The majority needs far more help than will ever be supplied in this free-market system.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Randomness

At this stage in my life I often look back and see how it was directed by random events. This is an activity that causes discomfort for most, but I am at heart a naturalist and find it enlightening - especially in comparison to the stories that people make up to calm themselves.

I like to say that I wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for Adolf Hitler.  My father was a lieutenant in the King's Dragoon Guards, which was stationed in Greece at the end of World War II.  He would not have met my mother if there had been no war.  Even my mother's presence in Athens could be called a chance occurrence.  Three of her grandparents were Armenians who had fled Turkey to escape massacres under the Ottoman Empire, and one was from Strasbourg, France.

Having entered the British Army at age 18, my father was not a good candidate for leading a responsible adult life.  His only brother and many fellow soldiers died during the war, and he may well be described as having post-traumatic stress disorder, though that was not a recognized medical condition at the time.  My parents moved to England after marrying in 1946 in Greece.  That is when my father's downhill slide began. He was unable to hold jobs and was fired even at the company where his father was a director.  In 1957, the family, now 5 strong, moved to the U.S., where my father continued his pattern of being fired.  By the mid-1960's he was a serious alcoholic, and in 1974 he committed suicide.

Needless to say, I was not anxious to stay at home when I graduated from high school in 1968.  We lived in a relatively affluent, though socioeconomically mixed, suburb of New York City, and most of my friends went to college.  The wealthier ones were sent away to private schools for high school, and I saw little of them after that.  Neither of my parents were academically oriented or had any college experience, and they were almost useless as sources of information or guidance.  We siblings did not pay much attention to academics, but for the most part got acceptable grades.  My elder sister had no college plan, and even though she was accepted at Duke, she ended up studying at a two-year college in Paris and finished with a secretarial diploma from a school in London.

I had little idea what to do about college and randomly ended up at a small liberal arts college in Indiana.  It was not a bad college, but in hindsight I would never have gone there if I had had a college plan well before 12th grade. My study habits were poor, and I did very little reading in high school.  The fact that I attended this particular college had significant consequences for a large chunk of my life.

Being an introvert, I did not circulate widely, and had only one girlfriend during my 4 undergraduate years.  I became emotionally attached to her, and we moved in together in 1973 after I had finished college and she had a year to go.  Her parents were conservative Indiana Republicans, and though they apparently found me satisfactory, they could not abide by our living together. By the end of 1973 I was under intense pressure to marry, and though that was not my inclination, I gave in because the alternative seemed to be an end to the relationship.  Thus we were married on February 2, 1974, a few weeks before my father died on the Ides of March.

The marriage proved to be a mistake, but it lasted for 11 years and produced 2 children. Again, in hindsight, I ought to have changed course, broken up, and not married then. I have been living with what I consider to be the consequences of my ex-wife's mental illness ever since. Unchecked mental illness in those we know adds enormous variability to our lives, and in itself produces almost unfathomable disarray.  It is present everywhere but is rarely acknowledged or discussed except in the most severe cases.

My lack of academic orientation led me to simply study subjects that interested me, and I majored in Philosophy. I vaguely thought that this might be a career option, but abandoned it entirely when I became completely disillusioned with a graduate program that I entered in 1975.  Here, in hindsight once again, I would have done best to take what I could from a liberal arts education and earn a living with a job that required unrelated technical training. That is more or less what I ended up doing, and all these years later I have somehow wound up with just what I wanted: idyllic living conditions and a compatible partner. But what a circuitous path.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Philosophy of Science

Yesterday I watched a discussion between Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci here and have been thinking about how discussion can be much more productive than solitary work such as book-writing. When someone writes a book, it may be plagued with misconceptions and errors that never come to light, and the reader must wade through it in darkness.  During a discussion, these same misconceptions and errors can be dispensed with immediately, resulting in very rapid progress, comparatively speaking.

I felt a strong affinity with these three.  Once I was a philosophy student, and I would have liked to have studied with someone like Daniel Dennett, though he was a rarity then and still is now.  The other two are steeped in the sciences, and I find them refreshing after spending several fruitless years attempting to plumb the depths of literary culture.  I still correspond with one of my philosophy professors, who is now 83, but I find that I have very little in common with him.  He comes from the analytic tradition, with an emphasis on religion, moral reasoning and the philosophy of art, and seems to have a specific dislike of science. We cannot agree on much because I believe that science has reframed several philosophical issues and removed some of their mystery.  Specifically, I think that Darwinism has recast how we should think about human behavior: we are above all animals, and any conspicuous behavior must be looked at first for a possible adaptive advantage.  In my view, this immediately turns most previous thought about moral reasoning on its head. Morality has little to do with reason, and can never be understood properly simply by analyzing concepts.

Although that topic did not come up in the discussion, a couple of my favorites did.  First, all three are avowed atheists, and they had no cause to disagree. Second, and more interestingly, they all seemed to hold the view that, rather than being a rare, unexplained phenomenon unique to mankind, consciousness is essentially a biological phenomenon shared by many animals in varying degrees, and that scientific research will in the end clarify its nature.

For many years I thought that philosophy was divided into two main camps. In the U.S. and U.K., analytic philosophy dominated, and the focus was on the analysis of concepts. Continental philosophy was the province of big theories and sweeping generalizations. Neither paid much attention to science or considered it relevant to philosophical problems.  I now see philosophers like Daniel Dennett as potential saviors of philosophy as a discipline that would otherwise go the way of Homeric Greek.  Dennett understands the conceptual clarity that made philosophy a viable subject, but he is rare among philosophers in recognizing the role of science in advancing our conceptual schema.