Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Literary Preferences

One of conflicts that arise for me occasionally on the Internet is disagreement over the merits of a particular author. Everyone seems to have favorites, and I can never find a way of convincing them that their pet author is seriously lacking in some important quality. In my case, there are a few novelists whom I think are better than most, but even then I see their limitations. Sometimes the defects are related to the historical epoch and the state of the novel when they wrote. Thus, while Emily Bronte is a supremely talented novelist of the romantic period, she wrote before realism or modernism had become prominent, and therefore those elements are beyond her purview. One also might say that more recent novelists are trapped by the fact that they are writing after realism reached a peak in the nineteenth century, and if they are adventurous - and wish to sell their work - they may be reluctant to dredge up that style again.  Since realism is my favorite form, I have more or less given up on reading contemporary novels, which I usually find lacking.

Because I prefer realism, I place a lot of emphasis on how penetrating the author's gaze is and how he or she sizes up the state of affairs. Very few novelists of any style do this well. Middlemarch was written before modern psychology had entered popular fiction, but in other respects it is a nearly perfect synthesis of life in the English Midlands of the 1830's. I attribute much of the success of the novel to the fact that George Eliot knew her subject intimately from firsthand experience. Of course, she also had a fine mind and had been at the forefront of the English literary world as the editor of The Westminster Review.

I've had disagreements about Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady wasn't bad, though it seemed derivative, and I thought The Aspern Papers was pretty good, perhaps because it was based on real people who had interesting lives. Everything he wrote that I read is tedious to read, and The Wings of the Dove put me to sleep. There is a plodding, unobservant, internalized quality to the work of Henry James that has been recast by some literary critics as masterful. My guess is that James had an inherent inability to excel at realism because he never lived. If he was heterosexual, he never married; if he was gay, so far as we know, he never had homosexual relationships. A writer without life experiences is of little value to me. He came from an eccentric wealthy American family, and by my standards he never figured anything out.

Another writer who irritates me is Lorrie Moore. In this case what bothers me is the professionalization of literary fiction, and the underlying delusion bordering on dishonesty that pervades the field. To be sure, I think she exhibited a talent at the beginning of her career, but what followed is of greater interest sociologically than literarily. She received an M.F.A. degree from Cornell, got a job at the University of Wisconsin in 1984, and published the short story collection, Self-Help, comprised mostly of her M.F.A. work, in 1985. Self-Help, I think, contains one good short story, and the rest is at best precocious adolescent writing, but the book was enough to launch her career. She became a darling of M.F.A. students, some of whom refer to her as a "goddess."  Through the 1990's she used a formula in which the protagonist was an unhappy, introverted woman who had a relationship problem. The nature of the problem was never explored, and the stories usually ended on a down note, with the protagonist depressed and sometimes suicidal. Then, perhaps based in part on a real-life experience with her adoptive son, she wrote a popular story about child cancer that won her the O. Henry Award in 1998. On the whole I have found her short stories formulaic and unperceptive. Her novels are poorly constructed, badly edited and of little interest to serious readers. Her work is issued in the tiniest of trickles, and even then seems injudiciously released.

What irks me is that, although Lorrie Moore is ostensibly a failed writer, she is at the top of her game in the alternate reality of contemporary American literary fiction, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. She is basking in adoration and doors are opening to her everywhere, when by all rights she should have given up and found another job in a different field. If I bring up any criticisms of her on the Internet, I am instantly rebuffed by people who are incapable of articulating why I should change my mind. I must be silenced immediately.

These and similar experiences incline me to refrain from discussing literature on the Internet. Unless you happen to be communicating with a like-minded person, discussion is invariably a waste of time. You can write it off as human nature, but on some topics I simply conclude that I have better taste than many others do. In the case of Lorrie Moore, it's obvious to me that her admirers are brainwashed literary fiction junkies or an undiscerning general readership that has been sold a bill of goods. You can't talk to people like that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Conventional Wisdom

The painting at the masthead of the blog, in case you're unfamiliar with it, is The Parable of the Blind, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which references the Bible. As the title of the blog also suggests, I am skeptical of the beliefs that many people hold. This may have originated with a slightly contrarian attitude that I've had ever since childhood, but it is also related to facts such as my parents' different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities and my history of living in the U.K. and culturally diverse parts of the U.S. Because of these experiences I did not develop an identity in conjunction with the norms of any one place, and I tend to be an outside observer wherever I go.

Seeing the world in this way has both disadvantages and advantages. On the negative side, I don't fit in well anywhere, people can be suspicious of me without cause, and it is difficult for locals to understand me. Internally, I often experience a certain cognitive dissonance because of differences in the ways other people process information in relation to the way I do. On the positive side, I am unimpeded by local prejudices and habits, and, with a broader range of experience than many, I am rarely surprised or upset by turns of events. Above all, I am free to theorize about the world without the constraints of received wisdom.

Living my life this way, and now retired and facing no obligation to please employers or anyone, I increasingly find what might be called "consensus reality" quite odd. As I mentioned in an earlier post, everyone is essentially winging it. I think the way human society is organized is somewhat arbitrary now and could be quite different if people only thought differently. Something like this occurred to me after I graduated from college. For about a year I lived with my dysfunctional family - all five of us under one roof for the last time. My father was then making little money and consuming vast quantities of alcohol, but everyone else was working and our household income was more than adequate. We lived in a large Victorian rental house in a tree-filled neighborhood in Connecticut overlooking a river and not far from Long Island Sound. Although there were several forces in play that caused this state of affairs to end, with a slightly different model the situation could have become stable and pleasant. As a family we could have saved money, made daily living more desirable, dried out my father, etc. Of course, that never happened, and before long I moved away and my father was dead.

I mention this because it is often the case that people are trapped by the paradigms under which they operate. This has been examined by Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the now famous phrase "paradigm shift." The change from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system is a prime example. I find that paradigms are adopted by all people, and they are usually defended and clung to even when there is evidence that better paradigms exist.

It is possible that we are in the very early stages of a broad paradigm shift now. Whatever anyone thinks of Piketty's book, Capital, it has triggered a great deal of discussion. There was already a lot of rumbling and discontent before Piketty came along, but he seems to some extent to have become a lightning rod. The financial crisis of 2008, the weak U.S. recovery, America's failure in world leadership, etc., along with Piketty's book, have helped elevate inequality as a major issue at the U.S. policy level. Of course, I am delighted, because people, though currently only a minority, are also beginning to raise the question of whether capitalism and democracy are suitable models for mankind. I don't think they are, as will also be evident from previous posts.

Often, when people think of democracy, they conjure images of Thomas Jefferson, the visionary who freed Americans from British tyranny. In fact, Jefferson's vision is now obsolete. He sought to free America from commercial oppression by England and religious oppression by churches. But he also relished living the life of a country squire supported by slaves, who, along with women, had no voting rights. While for his time he may have accurately assessed the dangers of extended voting privileges, he apparently believed that equality pertained only to white male landowners. The Founding Fathers cannot have thought deeply about inequality. Contemporary Americans, other than bigoted conservatives with a pro-slavery mentality, are deluding themselves if they think of the Constitution as a document that reflects timeless wisdom.

I consider capitalism even more insidious than democracy, because it has a greater effect on how people think about their lives and how in fact they end up living their lives. Especially in the U.S., personal worth is closely tied to both the status level of one's job and the associated level of pay. This is a hard road to travel for hunter-gatherers, myself included. It channels people's behavior according to the requirements of commercial ventures, often making liars out of them. These days, even what passes for art has become a lie. As Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thomas Piketty III

I am now about halfway through Capital, and, though economics is hard to get excited about (or read at all), I have to applaud Piketty for, at a minimum, opening the economic dialogue far more effectively than any American economist has been able to for at least thirty years. Conservative economists are lining up to take potshots at him, but, historically speaking, they've already lost the battle in that they have been forced to address his arguments: without him they would have been left to restate their distorted version of reality ad nauseum.

Since at least one of my readers is literary, today I'll write about Balzac. As it happens, I've read Le Pere Goriot, which Piketty uses extensively to make his point about economic life in developed countries during the early nineteenth century. I don't consider Balzac to be one of the greatest writers, because there is a comic book quality to many of his characters. This was particularly apparent in La Cousine Bette, but I didn't notice it as much in Le Pere Goriot. As a reader who enjoys realism, Le Pere Goriot is one of my favorites by Balzac. I should also mention that Balzac clearly was a major influence on Dostoevsky, who was similarly long-winded but is reasonably credited with introducing the inner life of characters to novels.

Piketty describes in detail the plot of Le Pere Goriot in order to show how becoming wealthy was far easier through marriage or inheritance than through hard work. The criminal Vautrin explains to the young Rastignac that he would be more successful at obtaining a good life by marrying into wealth than by becoming a lawyer and working diligently for many years:
By the age of thirty, you will be a judge making 1,200 francs a year, if you haven't yet tossed away your robes. When you reach forty, you will marry a miller's daughter with an income of around 6,000 livres. Thank you very much. If you're lucky enough to find a patron, you will become a royal prosecutor at thirty, with compensation of a thousand ecus [5,000 francs], and you will marry the mayor's daughter. If you're willing to do a little political dirty work, you will be a prosecutor-general by the time you're forty....It is my privilege to point out to you, however, that there are only twenty prosecutors-general in France, while 20,000 of you aspire to the position, and among them are a few clowns who would sell their families to move up a rung. If this profession disgusts you, consider another. Would Baron de Rastignac like to be a lawyer? Very well then! You will need to suffer ten years of misery, spend a thousand francs a month, acquire a library and an office, frequent society, kiss the hem of a clerk to get cases, and lick the courthouse floor with your tongue. If the profession led anywhere, I wouldn't advise you against it. But can you name five lawyers in Paris who earn more than 50,000 francs a year at age fifty?

Vautrin then goes on to suggest that Rastignac marry into money in order to obtain an income of 50,000 francs at age twenty. He has a candidate lined up and will assist Rastignac by killing her brother in order to expedite her inheritance.

Although the point of Piketty's reference is to make his ideas intelligible in a non-technical way, I find Vautrin's calculations interesting in their own right. His schemes are hardly any different from those made by people everywhere, if only more extreme, but they are rarely discussed with such candor. Literature like this has given rise to a prejudice within English-speaking countries suggesting that the French are morally bankrupt. However, I see the same phenomenon in America, with the thoughts hidden, sometimes by self-delusion. Thus, American businessmen crave vast wealth and rationalize their behavior by thinking that they are "job creators" or that they are "creating value" or that they are engaging in the "creative destruction" of inefficient companies. Or they are reinforcing America's economic and military might in order to withstand the evils of terrorism, communism, totalitarianism or whatever. One of the most bizarre aspects of American ideology has been its convoluted linkage of Christian values to the virtues of the wealthy. In my view, today's ruling class contains a hidden element of Vautrin, and many wealthy people in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere are sociopaths in disguise.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Literature is not a Profession

In a review of The Formation of the Victorian Literary Profession, by Richard Salmon, Rosemary Ashton writes in The Times Literary Supplement, "Literature was once the pursuit of rich amateurs, writers with aristocratic patrons, and scurrilous penny-a-liners scraping a living in 'Grub Street'. How did that situation change, as experts generally agree it did, in the early-to-mid nineteenth century?" Thomas Carlyle hoped to provide financial assistance to struggling writers comparable to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Johnson and Robert Burns, and he suggested an "Organization of the Literary Guild" similar to medieval craft guilds. Taking Carlyle to heart, Charles Dickens formed one with Bulwer Lytton in 1851. Their "Guild of Literature and Art" built retirement homes for literary people in 1865, but the homes were not well-received, and the Guild disbanded in 1897.

To a certain extent, the ambiguity surrounding the literary profession hasn't changed much since Carlyle's lectures of 1840. Many of today's journalists are reminiscent of Grub Street writers, paid by the article. The authors of bestsellers operate more like independent businesses than members of a guild. What is new is literature as an academic subject, along with writing programs and writers' workshops. As far as I am able to tell, these recent developments have done little to improve the quality of writing or the lot of good writers.

In the nineteenth century, not many people wrote for a living or wanted to. That would have made sifting through budding writers far easier than it is today.  Now, every year millions of students take courses in literature and creative writing, and regardless of their talent many of them come to define themselves as writers, if only because the creation of literature is seen as high-status work. Increasingly, universities have become degree mills, not unlike manufacturing plants, but selling diplomas instead of cars. It is difficult to imagine Thomas Carlyle or Charles Dickens condoning the writing produced by the students in M.F.A. programs and writers' workshops. What they referred to as literature has largely been co-opted by universities and publishers.

In my view, though there is usually good reason to transform practical vocations such as medicine, law and engineering into professions, because standardization and competency levels improve them, the same cannot be said of the arts. Thus, in the case of writing, the public is force-fed whatever the writing programs and literary publishers put forward, even when there is a blatant conflict of interest. The income of writing programs and publishers depends on the success of their authors. This partially explains why literary fiction has become a niche product that is of little appeal to most readers.

Although in theory I would want to support a talented writer like Rousseau, I doubt that he could have written as well as he did if he had arrived at being a writer by means of a comfortable education followed by formal university certification of his writing skills. In a capitalist economy no less than in a communist economy, the arts, with few exceptions, don't lend themselves to professionalization.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Singularity

I'm about a third of the way through Capital and will eventually make at least one more post on it. Today I'll write about the singularity.

In earlier posts I suggested that government could be automated and that capitalism could be brought to an end if the right technology existed and were put into effect. This view generally fits within a gradualist framework under which new technology becomes incorporated into our lives without any major shocks, setbacks or unexpected turns of events. Alternatively, there are scenarios in which technological developments could suddenly cause radical shifts either for better or for worse.

The singularity, if you haven't heard of it, is the theoretical moment when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, with unpredictable effects that could change Homo sapiens forever. Some proponents, such as inventor Ray Kurzweil, take this seriously and are planning their lives accordingly. Kurzweil is hoping to remain healthy and live as long as possible in order to benefit from coming technology that will make him immortal. Some experts think that Kurzweil is unrealistic regarding the biology of human longevity and the capabilities of technology. Others, such as physicist Max Tegmark, are more cautious regarding the singularity. His approach is that we don't know for certain that it will occur or what would happen if it did. Tegmark suggests that we discuss it ahead of time rather than wait and see.

I am not well-informed on artificial intelligence or biology, but I think a singularity is likely to occur, though I'm not sure when or what the results will be. Since I don't believe that there is anything special about human intelligence, I see no reason why supercomputers couldn't dramatically outthink humans in the not-too-distant future. They are already better at chess and Jeopardy. Certainly computers could have much larger memories and far greater processing capabilities than any human. Once they can be taught to learn, which does not seem to be an insurmountable task and already goes on at a rudimentary level, why couldn't they outperform us?

Among the positive potential outcomes, humans might live much as they do now, but without having to work, and with increased longevity. There could be a benign merger between humans and machines that would create a new species without eradicating what we now think of as human nature. Conflicts might be resolved peaceably, the ecosystem could be managed better, and in theory everyone could be happy.

One negative outcome would be an uncontrolled rampage by supercomputers that don't act in the interests of humans. This has been a subject of science fiction for many years. It could probably be prevented but would require advance planning.

Another negative outcome, and perhaps more likely, would be the use of supercomputers to benefit one group of people but not others. Under this scenario, a small group of wealthy technocrats might rule the world, neutralizing or eliminating their opponents and accelerating their own evolution while excluding others. Or this could occur at a national level, in which case the supercomputers would simply represent the most advanced weaponry.

At present this may all appear too speculative, but I think one of these outcomes is possible. Keep in mind that the type of supercomputer I'm talking about here might be capable of making improved versions of itself, anticipating all human behavior, developing new energy sources that we have been unable to, designing and making weapons beyond our comprehension and obviating the need for human labor of any description. It might even write better novels, short stories, poems - and blog posts - than humans.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Films

Since our main form of entertainment during the evening is watching films on Netflix, I thought I'd say something about films for a change. Actually, I got burnt out on them, because when you watch several per week they become a blur. The fact is that in any given year there are only going to be a couple of new films that I consider to be of any value beyond simple entertainment. The better films become less memorable when crammed in between others. In some ways films were more effective when you only went out to see them a few times a year.

Two that we watched recently were Nebraska and August: Osage County. You could probably classify both of them as black comedies, though they are not as black or as imaginative as Dr. Strangelove, my all-time favorite. Nebraska is about an old drunk living in Montana who, based on junk mail he received, thinks he won a sweepstakes for a million dollars and wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up. To a casual observer, this would be the less interesting of the two films, because the characters are ordinary and unglamorous. However, the characters and dialogue, plain as they are, are perfect, and this may well be Bruce Dern's best acting performance ever. August: Osage County started as a play and is about a dysfunctional family living in Oklahoma. The mother is a pill addict with oral cancer and the father is an alcoholic poet. Things end badly. It reminded me a little of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I found to have more interesting dialogue. The family dynamics are explored, but predictably, as you would expect in an American theatrical production. The only revelation of any value that I noticed was that the women were stronger than the men: Meryl Streep, in one of her better performances as the mother, and Julia Roberts, as the eldest daughter, in perhaps her best performance ever. The alcoholic father is played by Sam Shepard, whose brief appearance is good, but I have to say that his involvement in any production is a warning sign to me because of his relentless pursuit of false Americana.

Nebraska is more faithful to the way Americans think and feel, and it captures how they live in the Great Plains and Midwest without satirizing or sentimentalizing them. There is little of the distortion and condescension and none of the surrealism that one might expect in a Coen brothers film. The screenplay is unadorned and straightforward, but uncannily precise. The same cannot be said of August: Osage County, in which everything feels derivative. Overall, I didn't find that the characters added up. They were an intelligent group of people who for unknown reasons elected to live in a cultural backwater with high temperatures and no air conditioning. The men were weak and the women were strong: so what. I think the constraints that are placed on American theatrical productions significantly narrow the scope of their subject matter. I sense a formula here: family dysfunction is in; snarky dialogue is in; failed poet is in; down-home country living is out. August: Osage County, in sum, is a product contrived to suit the tastes of well-heeled urban American theatergoers.