Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Mandarins I

Despite the continued presence of houseguests, I've managed to make a small dent in the novel. So far I'm enjoying it a lot and it could end up becoming one of my favorites. The characters are intelligent, emotionally sophisticated, observant, articulate and free to a much greater degree than the characters in other novels that I've read. I feel as if I am reading the first adult novel since I finished Middlemarch, and Simone de Beauvoir is already becoming an imaginary friend.

The novel begins as World War II ends, and the characters are in the process of moving on after their lives have been disrupted and curtailed for four years. The men, loosely representing Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler, embark on new writing projects, while the women in their lives, though far more independent than the women you are likely to find in other fiction, mostly seem to frame their lives around the men. What strikes me is the frankness of the conversations and the self-awareness of the women, which exceeds that of fictional characters I've encountered elsewhere. I think all fiction writers should be required to read The Mandarins if they have any pretensions about describing people who are not morons. Only a few pages of this were enough to confirm my view that American fiction is fundamentally children's writing produced by emotionally stunted authors for sale to infantile readers. In American literary fiction, style, if you can call it that, has replaced substance.

I'm not as impressed with the male characters. Koestler seems cold, calculating and manipulative. Sartre seems wrapped up in questionable ideology. Camus is the most natural and appealing, though at heart he seems to be no more than a carefree writer. As a thinker, Sartre is the heavyweight of the three, but his serious philosophical works have not held up well. I am hoping to compare this group to current intellectuals who, I think, are narrower as people but perhaps no better or worse in terms of their ideas.

One phenomenon that is of interest to me is the dominance of socialistic thought among intellectuals throughout the twentieth century. You can still see remnants of it in Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky. I tend to agree with them with respect to capitalism, which has now been documented as a source of inequality, but I have been unable to understand the unquestioned faith in self-governance that dominates leftist thought. My skepticism has become one of the themes of this blog, because I have no confidence that people will ever be able to self-govern without causing significant ill effects like the ones we live with today. The question, to me, is not how to increase freedom, but how to circumscribe it fairly and rationally. I suspect that Sartre got this wrong and that his successors still do.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


I don't have much to report because I'm distracted by the arrival of visitors who disrupt my thoughts by their mere presence and strain me with their one-way conversations and humorlessness. I am waiting this out calmly.

I was just out for a walk and ran into Jim Douglas as he embarked on his; we discussed politics, since I had read his memoir and he used to be the governor. One of the things I like about Vermont is that a quiet, thoughtful, low-key person like Jim Douglas can actually win an election here. Of course, Vermont Republicans don't exactly fit the profile of Republicans in most states. He doesn't like Donald Trump and thinks Marco Rubio is too inexperienced.

I've started reading The Mandarins and think I'll enjoy it, if only for the glimpse it provides of the intellectuals of a different era. Unlike most intellectuals today, they went through difficult times and engaged each other in the café culture of Paris. Most of them didn't depend on faculty positions and lived more freely than our contemporary equivalent. It remains to be seen whether their ideas were any good – perhaps not – but certainly they don't exude that academic stench that pervades the so-called intellectuals in America today.

It may be a few days before I post again.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


For some reason I received an e-mail from Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, recruiting me to assist in a new process for winnowing down entries to their caption contest. Presumably I was selected because I was a finalist in the contest several years ago, but I was a little surprised to hear from him because I hadn't entered since then. For the last few weeks I have been participating in the process and enjoying it. I can see why they want help, because it would be tedious to sift through thousands of entries each week. Most of the entries aren't funny, and there are usually multiple similar ones. On top of that, I find that the pictures sometimes have little potential, and that makes finding a good caption even harder. Anyway, this isn't a bad diversion for me and it takes only a few minutes each week. I like thinking about humor and agree with Wittgenstein, who once said that "a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist only of jokes."

I realized that though I've discussed my early interest in comic books I haven't mentioned anything about cartoons. As I said, I didn't start reading books until about halfway through college, and comics such as Superman and Batman influenced my imagination as much as anything until then. During my adolescence we often had copies of the New Yorker at home, and I developed an interest in their cartoons quite early. They have a universal appeal and have probably always been what sells the magazine. The cartoons of Charles Addams had the strongest effect on me. Not only did they possess a dark humor, but they also contained elements of social criticism and satire. Addams was effective at making fun of the middle class in postwar America and had an appeal to subversives like me. In contrast, the TV program, The Addams Family, was humorous but lacked satire; John Astin, who played Gomez Addams, turned him into a kooky eccentric, and Charles Addams's bite was nowhere to be seen.

I still have some reluctance to read the New Yorker, but it seems to have improved a little over the last few years with a new editor and a better staff. The cartoons, when I read them, are still pretty funny, though they are not the final word on cartoons. I think that kind of work is highly demanding and requires more creative skills than most people possess, thus I respect Gary Larson for retiring from The Far Side series after fifteen successful years. Larson would have been good at the New Yorker or anywhere, and he must be upholding higher artistic standards than most successful artists in any field. Although the New Yorker cartoonists seem to maintain their standards well, I can't understand why the cartoonist Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury didn't retire thirty years ago, because he was never in their class. As far as I can tell, Bob Mankoff is doing a good job, though as a personal matter I would prefer edgier cartoons. It amuses me to think that, for all of the stylish appeal of the New Yorker, it is the cartoons, not the short stories, poems or even the journalism that make it what it is.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I decided to add a new kind of entry, which I'll call "Diary," in order to allow myself to write about anything without naming a specific topic. I've got into the habit of writing something every few days, and it's a lot easier for me to do if I don't have to come up with a topic each time. This will be my way of blabbing a little for fun. Strictly speaking, it won't be a real diary, because there will still be certain areas that are off-limits, since anyone can read this. As in my other posts, I won't say much about household members or their families, particularly my living relatives. Ex-wives, ex-girlfriends and ex-anything are still fair game, since those bridges have already been burned, though I don't think I have much left to say about them at this point. Not many of my family members know about the blog, and although I doubt most of them would be interested in it, I'd rather not risk estranging them if at some future time they were to take issue with something I wrote.

As I said, I'm reading things on the Internet at a reduced rate and am spending more time reading printed books and periodicals now. Coming up on my reading list are The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes, and The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir. Hughes is that rare critic who writes well and has strong convictions, and though it may turn out that I don't always agree with him I find it intensely refreshing to hear passionate people speak their mind without kowtowing to editorial hucksters or academic prima donnas. I'm not sure whether I'll like The Mandarins, but am taking the chance. I am attracted to smart women, and de Beauvoir certainly was that. This novel is a roman à clef whose characters represent Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nelson Algren and others, and I hope it will provide some insight into intellectual life in Paris of that period, though it may not work well as a novel. I don't think I'll burn through these books fast, so it may take some time before I comment on them. I recently resumed Proust again out of a sense of duty, but he puts me to sleep after a couple of pages – making good bedside reading. I think of him as a writer who lived in a culturally rich time and place and who explained himself thoroughly and eloquently, but these positive attributes are not enough to compensate for the fact that he is an entrenched social climber and an airhead who indulges himself at the expense of his readers. I don't find him insightful in the least, though he has more to offer than fellow windbag Henry James.

We are having a dreary, warm winter so far, with no snow. Usually we turn on the boiler in mid-November, but it hasn't been necessary yet and we are heating entirely with wood. I'm not looking forward to Christmas, as I will be spending it here with non-family members, and I have no common interests or rapport with most of them despite knowing them for fourteen years. I had thought of going to Montreal by myself for a week to escape them but decided not to be petty. As you can tell, I don't have much holiday spirit at the moment.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sherry Turkle II

I've finished reading the book and have gradually become more disappointed in it for reasons that I'll explain later. Even so, Sherry Turkle has done her homework and provides ample documentation of the way lives have recently been altered by technology. The main areas that she examines are solitude, self-reflection, family, friendship, romance, education and work. I have found her anecdotes informative, because I don't otherwise get this exposure, and I'll copy a few more quotes that are interesting and instructive to me.

In spring 2014 Kati is interested in politics, the Italian Renaissance, and training for the Boston Marathon. When she goes to parties, she reports that there is a lot of texting. Here is what she tells me: At any party, her friends are texting friends at other parties to figure out "whether we are at the right party." Kati says, "Maybe we can find a better party. Maybe there are better people at a party just down the block." Kati is describing how smartphones and social media have infused friendship with the Fear of Missing Out – now a feeling so well known that most people just call it by its acronym, FOMO. In its narrow definition, the acronym stands for tensions that follow from knowing so much about the lives of others because of social media. You develop self-doubt from knowing that so many of your friends are having enviable fun.

Arjun, a college senior, gave me another way to view why people turn away from a friend and to a phone. For him, the phone not only serves up comforting friends; it is a new kind of friend in itself. The phone itself is a source of solace.

Comments from teachers about the students at a competitive, private middle school:
Students don't make eye contact.
They don't respond to body language.
They have trouble listening. I have to rephrase a question many times before a child will answer a question in class.
I'm not convinced they are interested in each other. It is as though they all have some signs of being on an Asperger's spectrum. But that's impossible. We're talking about a schoolwide problem.
They are talking at each other with local comments, minutia really, short bursts, as though they were speaking texts. They are communicating immediate social needs. They aren't listening to each other.
The most painful thing to watch is that they don't know when they have hurt each other's feelings. They hurt each other, but then you sit down with them and try to get them to see what happened and they can't imagine things from the other side.
My students can build websites, but they can't talk to teachers. And students don't want to talk to other students. They don't want the pressure of conversation.

Women talk about being on dates with men and going to the bathroom to check their phones to see who else has contacted them. They say that they feel a little guilty, but over time, acting on the impulse to check your phone – to check your options – comes to feel normal. Consider Madeleine, thirty-two, a financial analyst in New York. She's out to drinks with a group of friends, including a man who seems interested in her. But, phone-enabled, she is clear that "drinks do not imply the entire evening." Messages on her phone mean "things could go anywhere." In this world, she says, "if I get a message from a guy who interests me and I want to leave the group of friends I'm with, I do. I usually go to the ladies' room to set things up so I'm not sitting at the table where people can look over my shoulder as I get too specific about my next plan."

When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurochemical high so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse. We've seen that not only do multitaskers have trouble deciding how to organize their time, but over time, they "forget" how to read human emotions.

It was only when Elizabeth returned to the university that she saw the full effect of years spent multitasking, a life lived in hyper attention. Now, as a graduate, she has been assigned an excerpt of Plato's Republic for an ethics class. "I had skimmed the chapter, as was my habit, then, realizing that I hadn't retained much, reread it again and even made a few notes. Unfortunately, on the day of the class, I did not have that notebook with me, and while I remembered the overall gist of the chapter (moderation – good; desire for luxury – bad), I struggled to recall the specific ideas expressed in it. Without access to my cell phone to refer to the article or read up on Plato on Wikipedia, I wasn't able to participate in the class discussion. Having access to information is always wonderful, but without having at least some information retained in your brain, I am not able to build on those ideas or connect them together to form new ones."

This senior physician is sad as he considers his students' discomfort: "They don't want to take responsibility for the things that might come up in a conversation, things that would come out during a full-patient history. They don't want to hear that their patients are anxious, depressed or frightened. Doctors used to want to hear these things. They knew that the whole person got sick. The whole person needed to be treated. Today, young physicians don't want to have that conversation. My students welcome the fact that the new medical records system almost forces them to turn away from the patient and keep the interchange about relevant details. They don't want to step into a more complicated role.

As I was concluding work on this book I attended a large international meeting that had a session called "Disconnect to Connect." There, psychologists, scientists, technologists, and members of the business community considered our affective lives in the digital age. There was widespread agreement that there is an empathy gap among young people who have grown up emotionally disconnected while constantly connected to phones, games, and social media.

While I think that Sherry Turkle is to be commended for examining and publicizing the effects of new technology on human lives, I also think that her analysis falls short in several respects. The tone of the book, from start to finish, is that of a psychologist who has seen an increase in troubled patients and has pinpointed the source in addictive new technology. Her prescriptions read like a self-help manual: the patients are to put away their smartphones and start having face-to-face conversations with those around them, whether at home, school or work. If only it were that simple. Like Turkle, I would prefer to be surrounded by sensitive people who were interested in interacting with me and were capable of articulating their ideas, but the obstacles to that are far more significant than she suggests. She repeatedly harks back to memories of her grandmother, who lived under conditions considerably different from those we live in today. She also idealizes more recent times that I am old enough to remember. I have lived in the U.S. for nearly sixty years, and I recall having the open-ended discussions that she relishes, mostly as an undergraduate liberal arts student. Outside that period, I have generally found people to be too private, too scared, too inarticulate or too uninterested to have what I would consider to be a satisfactory face-to-face discussion of any depth. My early home life, and, as far as I can tell, the home lives of most of my contemporaries, did not provide the conversational opportunities that Turkle seems to think were flourishing then. When I entered the workforce, conditions worsened, with coworkers tending to be too protective of their source of income to take many risks. The baby boomers I've known have their own set of undesirable characteristics. Thus, for most of my life I have had to content myself with at most one or two people who are willing and able to participate in a decent conversation. Turkle's thoughtful and articulate people have always been a rarity in my life. As I suggested in my last post, Turkle seems to inhabit a humanistic academic bubble that isn't representative of broad American culture. Her research and writing seem to focus on elites who have the resources to address concerns that everyone else puts up with quietly.

From my point of view, a deeper analysis of Turkle's subject matter would include a closer look at its sociological aspects. For example, the gadgets and apps that seem to be causing many of the problems would not necessarily exist if we didn't live in a capitalistic society. Turkle's stressed-out, insensitive multitaskers might be more relaxed and happier if they lived either in an agrarian or a post-capitalist society. There is no reference in her book to this fact, and I find a more significant, if more abstract, account of the origins of modern tensions in works such as Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Without capitalism, there would be no Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their products. In the absence of a highly competitive job market it would be much easier for people to act spontaneously and lose that unpleasant robotic veneer. Here I think Turkle may have a conflict of interest in the sense that she does not want to alienate corporate leaders who currently provide her with access that is crucial to her work.

On the whole, Turkle remains firmly planted in the humanities camp. That isn't surprising if you consider that her earliest research was on Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Although she is careful not to blaspheme against AI and robotics, she obviously sees them as parts of the problem and allows little or no place for them in any solution. This, I think, is where her imagination fails her. To be sure, her long presence at M.I.T. has made her fully cognizant of the past failures of AI and robotics with respect to human interface. However, in my opinion, extant anthropocentrism in the humanities precludes the possibility of her allowing that AI may one day surpass human capabilities across the board, even as it demonstrates positive emotional capabilities that are in no way inferior to ours. At that point researchers like Turkle, rather than defending human uniqueness, may well join the technological bandwagon and acknowledge that posthuman life may actually have more to offer than the lives to which we're accustomed.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sherry Turkle I

In case you were wondering, I haven't had a stroke or died. I started reading Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. I had heard of her before in reference to her previous book, Alone Together, which was published in 2011, and was interested in reading about the ongoing effects of digital media. Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., seems to be one of the few public intellectuals writing nontechnical books on this subject, which I think deserves far more attention than it gets. As I've said, the brains of younger people who have access to the latest technology are being organized in ways that defy historical precedent, and there doesn't seem to be much discussion of the potentially significant negative consequences, both to individuals and to society at large.

Turkle has a background in sociology and psychoanalysis, hence, from a scientific point of view, the research cited tends to look murky and subjective compared to that of some other disciplines. However, this is just the kind of book that I was looking for, because it is filled with relevant anecdotes regarding the behavior of people with whom I have very little contact: educated Americans in roughly the five-to-thirty age group. Like most quasi-scientific popular nonfiction, the book is a little bloated, repetitive and too informal in its argumentation to generate much of a punch. Moreover, Turkle, at the age of 67, is a pre-digital person like me, and some of her thinking seems old fashioned, particularly in the area of psychoanalysis, which I consider obsolete. Still, I am finding the book useful for understanding younger people, and there are surprises. Apparently older people, me included, engage in some of the questionable behaviors encouraged by digital media. For now I'll just mention some of the points I've come across that I find interesting, and perhaps I'll follow up with another post later on.

Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. In one experiment, people were asked to sit quietly – without a phone or a book – for fifteen minutes. At the start of the experiment, they were asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they became bored. They said absolutely not: No matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question. But after just six minutes alone, a good number of them were doing just that.

Interviewee Eleanor:
Let's say we are seven at dinner. We all have our phones. You have to make sure that at least two people are not on their phones or looking down to check something – like a movie time on Google or going on Facebook. So you need sort of a rule of two or three. So I know to keep, like, two or three in the mix so that other people can text or whatever. It's my way of being polite. I would say that conversations, well, they're pretty, well fragmented. Everybody is kind of in and out. Yeah, you have to say, "Wait, what..." and sort of have people fill in a bit when you drop out.

One of Eleanor's friends explains that if a conversation at dinner turns serious and someone looks at a phone, that is her signal to "lighten things up." And she points out that the rule of three is a way of being polite even when you're not at the dinner table. When "eyes are down" at phones, she says, "conversation stays light well beyond dinner."

In order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee solitude. In time, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves is diminished. If we don't know who we are when we are alone, we turn to other people to support our sense of self. This makes it impossible to fully experience others as who they are.

Developmental psychology has long made the case for the importance of solitude. And now so does neuroscience. It is only when we are alone with our thoughts – not reacting to external stimuli – that we engage that part of our brain's basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past. This is the "default mode network." So, without solitude, we can't construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digital have always had something external to respond to. When they go online, their minds are not wandering but rather are captured and divided.

...if we don't have experience with solitude – and this is often the case today – we start to equate loneliness with solitude. This reflects the impoverishment of our experience. If we don't know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.

Cara, a college student who has been using an iPhone app called the Happiness Tracker, has a different problem. How much should you look at the "output" of a tracking program to clue you in on your feelings? Over several weeks, the Happiness Tracker has asked for Cara's level of happiness as well as information about where she is, what she is doing, and who she is with. Its report: Her happiness is declining. There is no clear link to any one factor. When she gets this result, Cara finds herself feeling less happy with her boyfriend. The app did not link him to her declining happiness, but she begins to wonder if he is the cause of her discontent. Uncertain of her feelings, she ends up breaking up with her boyfriend in partial deference to the app.

These days, neuroscientists speculate that when parents caring for children turn to their phones, they may "effectively simulate a still-face paradigm" – in their homes or out in a restaurant – with all the attendant damage. It is not surprising if children deprived of words, eye contact, and expressive faces become stiff and unresponsive with others.

As you can see, Turkle provides much food for thought. She has exactly the same reaction that I had to Victoria in my earlier posts: here is a dysfunctional child who is not on track to becoming a full-fledged adult in the sense to which I'm accustomed. The book is a rallying cry for preventing children from becoming robotic zombies who never understand themselves and live in a trance in which they sail through their lives as if belonging to a subhuman herd of nervous mammals. Turkle proposes what amounts to talk therapy that gives kids a slap in the face in order to wake them up from their stupor, which she links to a lack of emotional development and an inability to empathize with others or understand themselves.

For the most part, I am saying "Yes!" and giving high fives as I read this, but on reflection I am a little worried that Turkle may be too invested in old paradigms. I completely agree with her that this media environment has given rise to the fearful reactions of college students who make their campuses hotbeds of political correctness because they lack the self-confidence and intellectual maturity to deal with ideas and behaviors that don't fall within their narrow comfort zones. And she is obviously correct about the irresponsibility of parents who lazily allow digital devices to subvert time-tested, biologically necessary childrearing methods. However, when I think of these phenomena in the context of what I've written about anthropocentrism and AI, it may be that this digital herding is the vanguard of the future. I'm not so sure that a later form of AI couldn't lead to an improvement over the world as we know it. With the chaotic circumstances that keep surfacing in our human-controlled present, I don't see how anyone can dismiss out of hand an orderly world in which people are prevented from engaging in wars and terrorism or despoiling the planet so as to ruin it for future generations. You might say that the algorithms currently used in smartphones are primitive precursors to ones that may one day work much better and encourage richer personal development while simultaneously reducing world disorder and instability. What would be wrong with that? Possibly Turkle is stuck in obsolete Enlightenment thinking that places mankind on a pedestal and denies the existence of our recurring deficiencies.

Another criticism I have of Turkle is that psychoanalysis and talk therapy have historically not been terribly effective at changing behavior on a large scale. Through much of its existence, psychoanalysis seems largely to have been a fashion statement of the rich: they could afford to hire a very expensive personal advisor to consult on demand. Because it didn't usually work, most people couldn't afford it and drugs were a lot cheaper, it more or less died out. Even if it still exists, its popularity is probably confined to well-heeled and highly-educated people like the ones Turkle runs into in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this regard Turkle may be addressing a very small audience. Beyond formal psychotherapy, she seems oblivious to the fact that in most families childrearing has never been a controlled process in which parents have the luxury of following all of the latest recommendations offered by the current gurus.

On a personal level I am benefiting somewhat from Turkle's mention of the failings of adult users of digital media. Although I don't fall into the category of serious abusers, there are still behaviors to watch out for. I do have a smartphone, but I mainly use it as a phone – about once a week. I don't have digital service and it is connected to our home Wi-Fi; I get beeps when I receive e-mails or messages, but that usually occurs only a couple of times a day. Occasionally I use the smartphone on public Wi-Fi while on trips. This means that I am nothing like the people discussed by Turkle, who are actively engaged with their smartphones day and night. However, I am guilty of one of their sins, which is that of constant editing. I genuinely love having the ability to edit my written communications, and I frequently do it on this blog, sometimes even after I've made a post. But my motivation is somewhat different from Turkle's target: I like being able to improve on whatever I've written. Turkle criticizes people who are obsessed with controlling their public image, and although I can't honestly say that I am completely indifferent to my public image, I genuinely don't care that much what people think of me, and I have no interest in getting "Likes" or "Thumbs Up." Even so, I do to some extent inhabit a bubble. The fact that I have withdrawn from commenting on other sites could be construed as an attempt to avoid disagreements and gain control over my environment so as to eliminate anyone who disagrees with me. From my point of view, I have retreated to this blog only because I have given up on finding substantive, interesting and civil discussion on other sites, which tend to be populated by the same narrow-minded, inflexible and intolerant people whose behavior Turkle finds problematic.

I'm only about a fourth of the way through the book and will probably have more to say later.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Town and Gown

One of the reasons why I chose to retire to Middlebury was that it has some similarities to the town where I attended college, namely, Greencastle, Indiana. Greencastle is also a rural county seat, and DePauw University is about the same size as Middlebury College. There were things that I liked about DePauw, but I wouldn't want to live in Greencastle again. I still have some connections in Indiana, but none of my relatives live there, it is a right-wing state, the educational level is low, the terrain isn't interesting and it gets hot there during the summer. Middlebury and its vicinity are much prettier and more rural, the people are better educated, the cultural amenities are superior, and so is the college. Actually, it would be fine with me if I never returned to Indiana again.

My first year at DePauw was almost a magical experience for me. I set off on a train by myself to college, sight unseen, from Manhattan, with a trunk and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in August of 1968. My father, the drunk, drove me to the station and symbolically gave me an acorn to plant when I arrived. In those days, prior to the closing of the rail line, Greencastle was a whistle stop, and I had to tell the conductor when to stop the train. It seemed as if I were in the middle of a cornfield, because that was about all you could see, and the old train station had long been abandoned. I left my belongings unattended by the tracks, walked toward town, came across a drugstore and called a cab. As colleges go, DePauw wasn't as bad as it might have been, and living in that environment was nirvana to me after living with a dysfunctional family in a suburb that had become an enclave for social climbers. Knowing that fraternities were idiotic, I elected to live in a dorm. I met many of the international and out-of-state students, so at first it didn't occur to me that the majority of the students were dull Hoosiers or the children of wealthy families from the Chicago suburbs. I was just elated to live in a place where ideas seemed to matter and most of the people I ran into didn't seem like fools. Unfortunately, I was later hoodwinked into marrying one of the dull Hoosiers, and the rest is history.

No doubt there were some town and gown disputes while I lived in Greencastle, but I wasn't aware of them at the time. DePauw is a Greek-dominated college with lots of rowdy fraternities. Things changed considerably while I was there, and by the time I left most of the students looked like hippies and smoked pot, though beneath the surface they were still conservative Midwesterners who ended up becoming accountants and lawyers. DePauw was originally associated with the Methodist Church, but Middlebury had no church affiliation and was created by townspeople who felt a need for an institution of higher learning. If you fast forward to today, there are some town and gown disputes in Middlebury, but they seem to be minor.

The relationship between town and gown has gradually become clearer to me. The townspeople are just ordinary people earning a living, and the college is populated by professors who generally know far less than I once attributed to them. As I've said, professors are usually just good students who wind up teaching college, and in hindsight I don't think I learned much from them. I used to be annoyed by the fact that my college experience wasn't well thought out and that no one at the college took any responsibility. I would have been OK with DePauw if anyone had said that with my curriculum I would receive some intellectual stimulation and have a good time, but that I would eventually have to learn something more useful to earn a living. I did eventually study printing and business, which proved sufficient to finance the rest of my life, but the process would have been far more efficient if I had gone into it knowing that I would be doing a few years of broad study followed by a few years of vocational study, and that the two would not necessarily intersect. I only found this out on my own over a long period without any help. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have expected to be prepared for the workforce when I finished college and would have selected an actual vocation before receiving my B.A. degree. At the time, the people at liberal arts colleges were mindlessly repeating the mantra that they were teaching you how to think critically and communicate well, which supposedly would leave you set for the rest of your life. In retrospect it was a lie, because throughout my working years critical thinking and communication skills were far less important than following instructions and conforming. If anything, my liberal arts education made me more incompatible with the American workforce than I might have been otherwise, because the ability to think independently is a handicap in most jobs. My undergraduate experience turned out to be a personal growth period with no practical advantages. I now view many of my former professors as vaguely incompetent adults who should never have been given the charge of vulnerable minds.

The town and gown here are fairly well integrated, and most conflicts are quickly resolved. It helps that the college has a billion-dollar endowment and doesn't balk at spending it to keep the downtown looking respectable, which makes it appealing to the wealthy students they seek. Some of the students are so rich that they could live off their trust funds and never work. There are cases in which the town and gown have literally merged. After he graduated from Middlebury in 1972, future governor Jim Douglas married his dentist's assistant, Dorothy, a woman who grew up on a farm here. She still does all the yard work (and probably all of the home repairs) and he now works as an executive in residence at the college. We have no affiliation with the college and are just as likely to oppose it as support it, depending on the issue. Recently we opposed the use of a neighbor's house for student housing, since Middlebury students have a reputation for drunkenness and loud parties. On that issue we sided with the local bubbas, who stopped by our house in a large pickup truck to tell us that there would be shooting practice next door to the students' house early in the morning after a Halloween party there. Although I sympathize with students who want to live off campus – I lived off campus myself for two out of four years – I'd rather not have them living around here.

We have many affinities with the college. Occasionally we attend concerts and lectures, and the art museum isn't bad for a small college. We attended the wedding reception of one of our neighbors, who is an economics professor. Her children had been over for some stargazing. The college has an enormous economic impact on the county, and I think of it as comparable to a large manufacturing plant, but with a highly-educated workforce. We're not close friends with any of the faculty, but I think they add to the desirability of the region. Last September, when my daughter and grandson were visiting, we happened to be seated next to Jay Parini and his wife at a restaurant. Parini is a well-known English professor who was a friend of the late Gore Vidal. His wife struck up a conversation with my daughter about babies. I like that informality. If the college wasn't here, this would be an economically depressed county with far less cultural vibrancy than it currently possesses.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bad Behavior

As promised, I read Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill. It consists of nine short stories, many of which deal with dark behaviors that don't ordinarily find their way into literary fiction. I thought I was going to finish it but gave up on the last story, which failed to capture my interest and featured multiple family members over a long period of time, making it seem too condensed to work as a short story. I read a used copy in which a previous owner had folded the top corner of the page at the end of each of the first two stories and none thereafter, perhaps signifying that they had stopped there. What stands out about the book is its honest look at prostitution and sadomasochism, and it also covers the New York writing scene from the point of view of people who are trying to succeed in it as of the 1980's.

Gaitskill's writing style is less affected than that of many of her peers and often reads like straight journalism, but with close-up looks at individuals who speak in their own voices as they go about their daily lives. For someone like me, who has never been promiscuous, solicited a prostitute or had a sadomasochistic thought in his head, the book is somewhat of a revelation. The drug abusers bear no relationship to my own use of psychedelics in my hippie days: they anesthetize themselves with heavy drugs that I never took. The impression I get is that Gaitskill is intent on emotional precision, especially regarding women, and that she likes to humanize characters who are typically discarded by society and never thought worthy of discussion.

Although much of the writing seems a little flat and factual to me, Gaitskill is good at description, and occasionally she inserts short flourishes that few writers could match:
Connie drew up her legs and sat with her arms around both knees and looked out the window again. It was true that in the summer the air shaft had an oddly poetic aspect. On days when the apartment air was as heavy and stifling as a swamp, noises and smells came floating up it on clouds of heat, lyrical blends of voice and radio scraps, drifting arguments and amorous sighs, the fried shadow of someone's dinner, a faded microcosm that lilted into their apartment and related them to everyone else in the building.
I gather that Gaitskill is considered an expert writer on female emotions, both positive and negative, but to me this volume seems like reportage; just as we never hear much about prostitution or sadomasochism, we never hear much about female emotions, but they are all there for anyone to see, and it could be argued that Gaitskill has found a fishing hole that has mostly been avoided by other writers of her generation.

Since this is my personal blog, I reserve the right to make simplistic, unsupported assertions from time to time (subject to your rebuttal, of course). If I were to sum up Bad Behavior, I would say that it is carefully written and strives for authenticity, which means that it is honest and accurate, without much emotional wavering and no moral judgment. Compared to her female peers, I think Mary Gaitskill stands up well. That would include Francine Prose, Mona Simpson, Cathleen Schine, Anne Beattie, A.M. Homes, Maxine Chernoff (I confess to having read one book of each), and Lorrie Moore. Although I no longer read Lorrie Moore, she seems comparatively remote and disengaged, as if she were writing from the point of view of an insular girl who has never left home but has heard bad reports from the outside; I think contrivance has been seeping into her work for years, and I'm not even convinced that she still likes to write. But if Moore has had too little experience, perhaps Gaitskill has had too much.

Mary Gaitskill probably deserves more to be read than the other writers I've mentioned, but that isn't saying a lot. I am not familiar with all of the details of her life, but apparently she ran away from home at the age of 15 and later on became a prostitute. She knows whereof she speaks. I don't have any evidence, but I wouldn't be surprised if the story "Secretary" stems from some kind of sexual abuse that she experienced during her childhood. In trying to think of someone similar to Gaitskill, Vivian Maier comes to mind. Though Maier was far more of an outsider and an eccentric than Gaitskill ever was, I get some of the same feelings from her work, and she apparently had a tendency to be cruel. Gaitskill is not on the "A" list of female literary authors, probably because she doesn't play well into the feminist propaganda of her generation or the sheltered political correctness of the current MFA environment. I don't feel compelled to read any more of her work, which is not to say that you shouldn't read her yourself, particularly if you have an interest in contemporary American fiction. I hardly bother at all with it now, though I liked The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, who is currently quite antique at 82.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Though I don't particularly like to comment on current events, it seems appropriate to say something about the terrorist attacks in Paris of November 13. There is a general consensus in developed nations that ISIL (or ISIS or Da'ish or Daesh) is an unfathomable organization whose destruction must be stopped by a coordinated international effort. That much is clear, but from a political and journalistic standpoint I haven't seen the events described in the same way that I think about them, namely, as a biological phenomenon. No doubt this is a highly complex situation, but I think the best way to look at it is through the lens of science.

What seems to stump commentators is the brutality of ISIL in conjunction with what looks like the absence of a coherent ideology. ISIL is wreaking havoc in the name of Islam when no one can see the teachings of Mohammed in its behavior. World leaders and journalists are at a loss to explain it in the familiar language of religious conflict. From my point of view this is a perfect opportunity to drop comfortable Western ideology and look at ISIL as a Malthusian phenomenon with the help of modern science. Although ISIL exists in real time, it can be studied in the same way that archaeologists, for example, are studying the collapse of Pueblo society in Mesa Verde, Colorado during the late 1200's.

Broadly speaking, what is occurring probably has to do with overpopulation, political instability, environmental change, in-group and out-group conflict and instinctive male behavior. It would appear that ISIL was conceived and is being operated by out-group male Muslims whose life prospects, for multiple reasons, whether they live in the Middle East or Europe, are inadequate. In a situation like this, religion is at best a pretext for violence and it may be a waste of time to look for coherent ideology. ISIL is following an ancient survival model that can be found throughout human history and has nothing to do with the contemporary templates that we use to describe the world.

What is different this time is the high population levels in the Middle East, where disruption has implications thousands of miles away and potentially throughout the world. Obviously this is an enormous topic that I can barely touch here. I'll just mention a couple of aspects that relate to some of my earlier posts. First, I think it is important to see beyond ideology such as political correctness in situations such as this. As I said earlier, the PEN protesters who didn't want Charlie Hebdo to receive a free speech award could not have had a good conception of the underlying causes of the January, 2015 attacks in Paris. They were probably thinking along politically correct lines something to the effect that the satirical magazine made Muslims feel insulted. If these Muslims had been students in America, perhaps they would feel "unsafe." No trigger warnings were provided! Is that how we ought to interpret these events? No, it isn't. Second, this is an opportunity to see how inadequate the arts and religion can be for dealing with occurrences like this. I am thinking specifically about Michel Houellebecq's novel, Submission, which I just reviewed. Although Houellebecq gets some credit for concocting an imaginative outcome for France in light of its growing Muslim population, the novel is actually rather inadequate if you are looking for an understanding of why so many Muslims live in France today or why the Middle East is in turmoil. The point here is that even if it isn't the responsibility of novelists to solve world problems, Houellebecq should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt and certainly should not be magnified to the status of a major thinker on the basis of his work. Similarly, if you regard Marilynne Robinson as a serious author, consider here that it is biology, not religion, that is driving these events. Religious traditions are malleable, and there is little to prevent outlier groups from diverting them to serve their purposes. If religions were static ideologies there would be far fewer varieties of them in the world than presently exist.

It is a mistake to think that our current social norms such as political correctness are going to be broadly applicable to other cultures on different continents. As humans, we have a very long history of resorting to religion and art to assuage the stresses of life, and it can be difficult for us to think beyond them. Admittedly there is an unsatisfying, counterintuitive aspect to modern science, and we tend to resist it even when it is our best option for understanding life's complexities. However, we stand a better chance of comprehending ISIL by studying disintegrating societies of the past than we do by falling back on the comforts of our cultural perspective, including religion and art.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


You may have noticed how my attitude has changed toward the Internet over the course of writing this blog. For a number of reasons I am reverting back to the way I used it ten years ago. I was a late adopter of computers and didn't buy one until the Internet had become an important tool for shopping, banking and investing, which justified my purchase at the time. I gradually became diverted into using it for broader reading and discussion, and am now finding it to be more problematic in these areas. Life in cyberspace is conducive to information overload, a short attention span, bad manners and, especially in my case, cognitive dissonance. The sense I get is that it contains chaotic, uncontrolled elements that undermine some of the benefits that its users imagine they are receiving. I find it jarring to enter an environment which at first seems coherent and rational only to discover that my initial perceptions were illusory and that I have inadvertently walked into an unexplained free-for-all in which discontinuities surround you. I occasionally end up feeling as if I have been attracted by a display window outside a department store and, upon entry, I discover an empty warehouse with a few lunatics wandering around. The ideas behind a given website may or may not match its outward appearance, and in the latter case you may be in for a series of rude awakenings. Websites loosely designed for literary and cultural content tend to be less reliable than ones designed specifically for the sale of products or services.

There is a tendency among many Internet users to become obsessed with the next new thing. This behavior is encouraged by companies like Twitter, which create the illusion of real-time news as events unfold. In a similar vein, there are more serious-seeming sites that have a tendency to pretend that they are offering content that is more in-the-know, that they are the sanctum sanctorum of the cognoscenti. In either case a web surfer may become buffeted around by waves of Internet nonsense and come out none the wiser in the end. Psychologically I feel myself pulled into this a little, and I'd rather not be, because on the whole it is a waste of time.

Not that I have ever tried to be "with it," I will henceforth retreat somewhat from the Internet resources that are available and if possible focus more on books. This will affect the blog, because it will take longer to absorb material and comment on it, resulting in a lower frequency of posts. I will continue to write about my favorite topics such as capitalism, Darwinism and AI, but will make an effort to do so only when I have something new to say. As always, I am open to suggestions for new topics and will write about them if I feel competent and am interested myself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Among the people whom I know best, one of their greatest concerns is that they don't feel that they belong to any particular group. I think the need to belong is hard-wired into us and is a manifestation of our eusocial nature, as discussed earlier. We have evolved to live in cooperative groups, and if we're not integrated into one we are likely to feel uneasy, because it was once impossible to survive alone. A genetic predisposition for a solitary life is weak in our gene pool, because over hundreds of thousands of years it tended to result in early death.

Even though I am a relatively solitary person myself, I also have a need to belong, and it used to affect my decisions more than it does now. In my early years I thought that I might fit in well in a college environment, but I eventually determined that I am too independent and unscholarly for academia. I moved to Oregon in 1975 with the hope that the local culture would agree with me better than it had in the Midwest or the East Coast. It didn't. By the time I moved to Vermont in 2011, my view was that I was unlikely to fit in anywhere, and the decision to move here did not assume that I would find friends or like-minded people, and in fact I haven't and don't expect to.

You could also describe some aspects of my recent forays into the Internet as efforts to connect with specific groups of people. In that sense the efforts were of no avail. I eventually discovered that Internet communities are transient and often illusory. Besides that, they can be downright unpleasant, because it is a place where people can behave uncivilly with little or no consequence. As discussed, the New York Review of Books left me with the impression that it serves the needs of a small number of people who aren't necessarily cohesive themselves, and there is no evidence that they care about anything beyond their individual needs. Incongruously, the NYRB, which supposedly promotes ideas, has no apparent interest in the discussion of ideas or the public who wish to participate in it. From the standpoint of belonging, the Internet has been no different from my previous life experience. In effect, I have withdrawn to my own blog with no expectation of group participation, except perhaps on a minuscule level with a small number of readers. If the readership ever went up, the blog could easily be ruined.

Since we live in a capitalistic society, I should also mention that the widespread need to belong creates economic opportunities. A fairly large percentage of TV programming amounts to nothing more than a substitute for an actual social life. It took a while for TV executives to figure it out, but by the 1960's sitcoms and talk shows had become staples. Talk shows have changed little since then, but sitcoms have expanded broadly into the miniseries and reality TV formats. Network news is now far less devoted to actual news than to infotainment and feel-good moments. Most of this programming places an emphasis on providing an artificial sense of community. Its very existence can be attributed to profit motives that have nothing to do with artistic value, as I often complain. Because families and friends are often geographically separated and fragmented by contemporary living conditions, the media cater to them by providing substitute products to satisfy that basic human need.

The exploitation doesn't end there. Professional and amateur sports could never exist as dominantly in American society as they do without someone promoting their expansion. Team sports are quintessentially about group affiliation, and by association they become monopolies over large geographic areas. For example, I'm supposed to be a Boston Red Sox fan even though I live in a different state, about 200 miles away, and don't care about baseball. Likewise, colleges and universities have figured out how to use sports to generate funding directly through sporting events and indirectly through alumni giving stimulated by sports. They have also recently expanded their marketing to alumni by encouraging them to retire in or near their campuses, providing an even more concrete sense of community.

With advances in technology, it is beginning to become a little frightening to think about what might happen if current trends in the creation and marketing of artificial communities continue. It is easy to imagine younger people who have grown up in a digital environment inhabiting virtual communities tailored to fit their personalities and interests. Prima facie, given the plasticity of the human mind, I see no reason why people couldn't learn to live in the complete absence of actual human contact if suitable artificial substitutes were provided. As for myself, I am satisfied to inhabit the more traditional world in which I have created an imaginary relationship with the mostly invisible readers of this blog.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Kakutani on Houellebecq

Though I no longer make a habit of reading book reviews of popular fiction after years of finding them unsatisfactory, I looked at Michiko Kakutani's review of Submission out of curiosity to see what she thought. She has a reputation for being an honest, if quirky, reviewer who doesn't shy away from going into attack mode when she dislikes a well-received work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, she hates Michel Houellebecq and Submission, and I thought I would comment on the strengths and weaknesses of her review and on the whole reviewing system that readers have to put up with.

In the first paragraph of her review she links Houellebecq to "hate-mongering." In the second paragraph she refers to the novel as "ugly." In the third paragraph she says that for Houellebecq "controversy has proved to be a very rewarding career move," and remarks that one of his earlier novels is "filled with misogynistic put-downs, putrid sex scenes and nihilistic pronouncements on the depravity of the human species." In the fifth paragraph she says that "Mr. Houellebecq's writing tends to be highly derivative of earlier writers," and that "his protagonists are simply variations of one odious type–self-pitying, self-absorbed and misanthropic men who have a hard time feeling any emotion other than lust." Referring to the book in the eleventh paragraph, she says that Houellebecq's "mockery of French academics...and an arthritic political system" is "all done with an extremely heavy hand." In the twelfth and final paragraph she concludes that the protagonist, François, "gets a new start in life by remaining true to his egocentric, opportunistic self." While her summary of the plot and her description of some of Houellebecq's techniques are reasonably accurate, she seems to me to intensely dislike the book for reasons that cannot be considered objective.

Where I think Kakutani goes astray is in her understanding of what constitutes art. Certainly it is easy to see that Submission does not fit the model of conventional popular American fiction, but she makes no effort to identify how anyone who is not a deranged pervert or something of the sort might find it worthwhile. I agree with her that it is written in a specific French tradition, but think she is being lazy about examining how that tradition works and the ways in which Houellebecq falls short in that regard. She negatively compares him to Camus, whom I now think is rather overrated myself, but doesn't try to determine what Houellebecq might be trying to say or how he might have said it better.

My view is that Houellebecq is not first and foremost a good writer in the sense of producing beautiful writing or the clear exposition of ideas, but that those are not really the essence of the novel as a form of art. Kakutani's position is not unlike that of art critics in the late nineteenth century who might have said that van Gogh's crude brushstrokes are proof of an imbecilic lack of talent. It is a little difficult for me to evaluate just how badly Houellebecq reads in French, but it isn't hard to see that his sentences generally lack elegance. I also believe that the ideas underlying his novels could be expressed better even in novelistic form, but to a serious reader that is not a sufficient reason to dismiss an entire work. Houellebecq appeals to me in Submission and some of his other novels because I believe that there are aspects of his worldview that are legitimate and stand in contrast to conventional optimistic views of mankind, and he offers a needed corrective. Reviewers like Kakutani seem blind to the fact that a negative or pessimistic outlook on mankind may be just as plausible as their optimistic view, and that their critiques of Houellebecq are based more on dislike of a competing worldview than on substantive reasoning.

I concede that there is a somewhat cartoonish element to the way that Houellebecq writes, but must point out that even comic books are now accepted as a legitimate form of art. If you have read my previous posts you will have seen that I prefer to view the limitations of mankind more calmly, in a somewhat detached manner. I think Houellebecq is just a little more hysterical and uninformed than he might be. From my point of view it would be preferable to express Houellebecq's ideas in a clear and accurate essay, but the fact is that no one reads that kind of thing, and most people respond more to a Houellebecqian tirade. When you take objectivity seriously it becomes apparent that Americans are far more optimistic than they ought to be–delusionally so–and Houellebecq, though excessive in the opposite direction, is constantly drowned out by a majority that is optimistic to the point of obtuseness. Regarding the accusation that Houellebecq is a misanthrope, misogynist, nihilist, narcissist, bigot, etc., I think that these are primarily name-calling labels that people use without bothering to understand his work; he must take some blame for being less articulate than he might have been, but I think that being completely articulate is not necessarily the responsibility of an artist, because incomprehensible complexity is something that art, particularly the novel, seeks to address. For me it is more appropriate to see Houellebecq as an enfant terrible who presents a particular worldview in a forceful and expressive manner.

Kakutani's review looks like a barely civil hatchet job. Beneath the "Mr." this and so on of the stilted New York Times writing style that she employs, one gets the sense that there may lie a simmering rage against all things French. This could place her in same camp as Jeb Bush, who, during a recent Republican debate, said that Marco Rubio's poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate looked like "a French work week." Of course, that was a continuation of the long-running hate affair that the Republicans have held with France since they changed the name of french fries to "freedom fries" because France, showing great prescience, refused to support George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this case I would only point out to Kakutani that French literary and intellectual history, whether one likes them or not, were once and perhaps still are the apex of Western civilization, and that beyond the fact that French writers and thinkers produced many of the ideas that made the very existence of the U.S. possible, throughout most of its history America has looked like a long-running episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" compared to life in France. Whether you like Houellebecq or not, he descends from a literary tradition that dwarfs American literature.

For me, reviews like Kakutani's are but another symptom of the cultural oligarchy that is headquartered in New York City. To figure out what's going on here you need only know that New York City is a center for publishing, and that major newspapers hire columnists who, in the course of producing columns, inevitably become hacks, regardless of their level of talent. The New York Times is in the business of making money, and to do that they need a constant flow of new content. One proven method for generating it is maintaining a fixed group of columnists with whom their readers come to identify. A few years ago it dawned on me that even the best columnists fail eventually if you hold them up to any real standards. If you look at what Michiko Kakutani has to do, there is no mystery to this. She speed-reads fifty-plus books each year that have been identified as being of potential interest to her readers, and then she quickly writes a short essay on each one. If she happens to come across a complex, puzzling or highly specialized book, she may not have the time or knowledge to do it justice, and usually no one will know the difference, because her columns are not combed religiously by scholars from all fields. To use Submission as an example, whether or not it is as lofty a work as I may have made it seem, it may simply be a matter of expedience for her to trash it. Her readers won't be any the wiser, her reputation won't be affected, and her company doesn't care whether the novel sells well or not. My point here is that the constraints under which reviewers like Kakutani work place an upper limit on the quality of their reviews. Besides the fact that it would be nearly impossible for one reviewer to produce fifty high-quality reviews per year, she would have no incentive to do so, because that would entail writing over the heads of her readers, contradicting the purpose of her employment.

Monday, November 2, 2015


After reading two novels by Michel Houellebecq I didn't feel that I quite had a handle on him, but now, with a third, I think I do. Submission ostensibly studies the intersection of the life of Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), the minor French writer, with the life of François, a fictional professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in Huysmans, against the backdrop of dramatic political changes in France of the year 2022. Houellebecq has variously been called a provocateur, a pornographer, a misogynist and a great novelist. I would now just label him as an imaginative French novelist and leave it at that.

The arc of Huysmans's life and career started with naturalism, like that of Émile Zola, evolved into decadence, like that of Oscar Wilde, and ended with a return to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. François's life seems to be following a similar trajectory. He is a middle-aged man who has been serially dating students half his age and becomes dejected after the most recent one dumps him. Most of his relationships last for only one year, the academic year, and his primary interest in them seems to be sex. In a bizarre but theoretically possible turn of events, a charismatic, moderate Muslim with immense political skills becomes the head of the French government, and radical changes immediately follow. The Sorbonne becomes an Islamic university funded by Saudi Arabia, in which all professors are required to convert to Islam and adopt Muslim practices such as polygamy. Women are no longer allowed to work. For most of this short novel it looks as if François is going to follow Huysmans's arc along with his country and become born again, only into a different Abrahamic religion, which will have the effect of providing him with a new meaning to his life.

Never one for tight narratives, Houellebecq has François balk a little toward the end as he begins to question Huysmans for the first time:
It had been a mistake to give too much importance to Huysmans's glib talk about "debauches" and "dissipation." That was just a Naturalistic tic, a contemporary cliché, part of the need to scandalize, to shock the bourgeoisie. In the end, it was a career move; and the opposition he set up between carnal appetite and the rigors of monastic life was equally beside the point. Chastity wasn't a problem and never had been, not for Huysmans or anyone else....In reality this had never posed the least difficulty for monks, and in my own case, as the Islamic regime pushed women's clothing in the direction of decency, I had felt my own sexual impulses gradually diminish.
François goes on to pick apart several of Huysmans's ideas, and at the same time Islam itself doesn't appear to offer solutions to any of his life problems. Nevertheless, after a long discussion in which the new university president attempts to recruit him, without any noticeable soul-searching he finally decides to convert to Islam for no compelling reasons other than vague financial ones; he is already technically retired from his academic position and is not under any real pressure.

The novel is disappointing from a conceptual standpoint in the sense that François merely goes with the flow, adapting as necessary, and principles never factor into the process. He stands little to lose by following the patriarchal model of Islam: he will have ample income from an unspecified sinecure if he elects to stay on with the university, along with three attractive young wives. He never gives the conversion much thought, and he never has to. If you compare this to Czeslaw Milosz's musing in The Captive Mind, François has taken the Murti-Bing pill and buried any reservations that might lead to his rejection of Islam. I suppose this is a predictable outcome, and it is easy to imagine someone like Houellebecq making the same decision himself under similar circumstances.

Along the way there is some good and bad writing. The pornographic sections are really too much for me to read, as I can only take so much discussion of orifices. Sex doesn't add anything to the novel and only shows that Houellebecq is consciously counting prurient male consumers as part of his base readership. Alternatively, this kind of writing may be viewed as passé in Western Europe, where Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for smuttier work. As with sex, Houellebecq uses other kinds of contemporary fillers that even show up in American novels. One that I'm already tired of is the listing of food and drink. Novelists these days must spend half their time copying menus at high-end restaurants only to insert the items throughout their work. The other half must be spent taking notes at various tourist attractions so that they can place them somewhere in their novels. Besides these standard tricks, Houellebecq arranges to have both of François's divorced parents die during the course of the novel, though François has never kept up with either of them and is completely indifferent to their deaths. In The Map and the Territory the protagonist's father also dies, but he is portrayed with greater sympathy; there is also no sex in that novel, and I surmise that Houellebecq intentionally cleaned up his act in order to obtain greater critical approval: it worked and he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, so now he can return to his old habits. If you took out all of the nonsense from most novels, they'd probably be only ten pages long.

On the good side, Houellebecq occasionally makes astute observations:
Many men take an interest in politics and war, but these diversions never appealed to me. I was about as political as a bath towel. No doubt it was my loss. To be fair, when I was young, the elections could not have been less interesting; the mediocrity of the "political offerings" was almost surprising. A center-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third. When people got tired of that candidate, and the center-left in general, we'd witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the center-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.
He can also be quite funny in a deadpan, self-deprecating way:
I had no plan, no exact destination, just a vague sense that I ought to head southwest–that if a civil war should break out in France, it would take a while to reach the southwest. I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war. Though, of course, I could be wrong.  

Whether you want to read this book or not is obviously up to you. I think I've summarized the main points adequately, and I doubt that it will get much press in the U.S. In the unlikely event that France goes Islamic in the future, Houellebecq may be considered prophetic. For me, he touches on some of the larger human questions, but in a manner that is primarily superficial, so if I read any more of his work it will be mainly as a diversion. Even so, he probably writes at a higher level than any American author I've ever read, and that is to his credit, to say the least.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Lauren Groff

Although I have generally stopped reading fiction, American fiction in particular, I still have a residual interest in it, because there is always the possibility that I will come across something that I will find interesting. I am about to start reading Submission by the French author, Michel Houellebecq, which I will probably enjoy. This novel became unusually controversial because it was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo on the day that their office was attacked by Islamic terrorists and twelve people were killed, and its subject happens to be Islam in France. I will comment on Submission in due course. I liked The Map and the Territory, his previous novel, and became interested in him earlier when I read The Elementary Particles, which is a little disgusting but offers the kind of social criticism that I appreciate and is virtually nonexistent in American fiction.

I wish I could find contemporary American writing that I consider good - this, after all, is the country in which I live - but I have to say that I haven't located it yet. Having surveyed classic European fiction already, reading it is a bit like watching old movies: yes, the acting may be good, the screenplay may be well-written, etc., but you can't escape the fact that it is dated; people don't live like that now, and some of the techniques are out of fashion. Even allowing for certain universals that are relevant to all humans, the absence of contemporary cultural references makes classics historical artifacts that have little to say about the actual issues that we confront now. All is not lost for me though, because I am still interested in the obscure and neglected topic of the sociology of American literary fiction. Obviously it would be impossible for me to do a serious study of it, since I don't actually want to read the books. Nevertheless, I have been exposed to a bit of it and have formed some opinions on that basis.

What has caught my attention in recent months is the ascent of Marilynne Robinson to the ranks of major American literary figures. She teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has been acclaimed for her novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. I read Gilead and, as I said, found the exercise to be a complete waste of time. The only place where I can say this without being attacked is my own blog: Marilynne Robinson and the intellectual community that supports her are a disgrace to American thought. In Robinson I see America turning back on itself in search of a meritorious Christian-based past that never existed. She has created a fable-like heartland inhabited by the exact kind of Christians who appeal to her imagination and has falsely positioned them as the essence of American values. Beneath her startlingly unselfconscious preachiness lies a religious fervor that, in my opinion, has no place in contemporary thought and overlooks much of what was wrong in America's history. The U.S. is and was a mecca for simple-minded capitalists who are hardly aware of the ill effects they have had on the world or how their triumphalism is a source of rancor from competing ideologies. Rather than entering the fray like a responsible adult and showing her readers how one ideology is usually no better than another, she takes sides in a traditional evangelical sense and tells us that her specific version of Calvinism is not only better than, say, radical Islam, but better than Southern Christian evangelism. Robinson is here to tell you that Jesus Christ was right and she is going to explain to you exactly what he meant. I am appalled that grown adults take her seriously, and the fact that she has any credibility among educated people is a warning sign to me about how demented the thinking is at the highest levels in this country. Apparently by being forthright about her opinions she has a magnetic appeal not unlike that of Donald Trump. She is a toned-down, politically correct, softened and feminized version who is perfect for lazy thinkers. I don't blame Robinson for having deep convictions that happen to be wrong; my complaint lies more with the intellectual bankruptcy of those who have uncritically provided her with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Within the literary world, Robinson seems to be a one-off, and I prefer to think more broadly about the creative writing subculture that presently inhabits universities. I apologize for having limited experience in this area, but there is a thread within it that I've been thinking about for some time and thought I'd mention. As I said, I used to like the writing of Lorrie Moore and followed her career closely for several years. Moore received an MFA degree from Cornell in 1982, studying under Alison Lurie. A popular writer today is Lauren Groff, who received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, studying under Lorrie Moore. These three connect three generations of American writers, with Lurie born in 1926, Moore in 1957 and Groff in 1978.

Alison Lurie was an academic's wife who eventually found her way to writing fiction and teaching English before MFAs became prominent. I read one of her novels, The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989) and thought it was OK but not outstanding. She has been compared to David Lodge, who is nine years younger and writes light satirical novels focused on academics. She has also made contributions to the new academic specialty of children's literature. Lurie usually spends part of the year in Britain and part of the year in Key West and is probably not very representative of American writers. Stylistically, I see nothing of her in the writing of Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore's early fiction was experimental, and she became an instant hit among critics when her first short story collection, Self-Help, came out in 1985. She was only 28 at the time and already teaching creative writing in Wisconsin. Like Lurie, she emerged from an academic background: her grandfather had been the president of Skidmore College. Moore's early fiction was jokey, overflowing with wordplay, but her stories usually ended on a down note that looked much like clinical depression. The short story form leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, and she wove in feminist themes without making any explicit commitment to them. I always got the feeling that the women in her stories were the suffering victims of male abuse, but she never came out and said it. For a time I enjoyed the up and down jokiness and despair, but after about ten years she seemed to have run out of ideas. In 1997, when her career was beginning to tank a little, she published the short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" in the New Yorker, and it subsequently won the O. Henry Award and cemented her literary reputation. By the age of 40 serious writers are expected to produce some serious work, and, as luck would have it, Moore had gone through the experience of having a sick baby and had managed to harvest it for literary purposes, even including that fact in the narrative itself. Since then she has not fared well at all as a writer, and I speculatively attribute this to a lack of real drama in her life, along with the insularity in which she lives as an acclaimed writer who is well protected by university moats and fawning editors such as Robert Silvers who use her reputation to sell their publications. People are still throwing money at her, and I shudder to think how much she makes for what little work she does. I am sure that she is far more successful than she ever thought she would be and has a difficult time dealing with it.

Along comes Lauren Groff, another introverted girl from upstate New York, like Lorrie Moore. By the time she had graduated from Amherst in 2001, there was a better-established path to literary success, and she chose to study with Moore in Wisconsin. Like Moore, she received early acclaim with her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which was published in 2008, when she was 30, and became a bestseller. She has done well since. I read her short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, which came out in 2009, and thought it was all right, but too juvenile for my taste. Groff is good at turns of phrase that precisely capture familiar events while throwing different light on them, but she lacks the mature observation to dissect anything beneath the surface. Her writing is careful but not witty. She also has a penchant for a kind of Americanized magical realism based on folklore from upstate New York. She grew up in Cooperstown, which is named after the Cooper family of which the fanciful author James Fenimore Cooper was a member. Farther down the Hudson River in Tarrytown there was Washington Irving, who wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," two American classics. These influences appear in her work. The reason why I chose to write about her is that I read this review of her latest novel, Fates and Furies, by one of the very few credible reviewers living today, James Wood. Wood does an admirable job teasing out what is best about the book, but in a rare instance of professional integrity doesn't hold back on its weaknesses. Apparently the second half of the novel is so off-kilter that he had to reinstate any disbelief that he had suspended in the first half after finding the narrative veering into hyperbolic untruths. I would not recommend Fates and Furies, but you might want to read Wood's review if only to see what a proper review looks like.

Groff seems to come from a privileged background. Her father is a rheumatologist and her sister, Sarah, who is a graduate of Middlebury College, competes in triathlons. While a variety of people probably choose to enter creative writing programs, the impression I have is that MFAs are especially appealing to children who are born into affluent families and feel a need to differentiate themselves by excelling at something that appears on an approved list of upper-middle-class careers. Here I go generalizing again, but it looks to me as if this kind of arrangement is likely to skew who gets published in the direction of people like Lauren Groff, at one end of the spectrum, allowing space for a few underprivileged minorities at the other end, in compliance with contemporary political correctness standards. This is not to say that Lauren Groff can't produce good fiction; rather, my point is that the system tends to homogenize literary culture, and people like Lorrie Moore and Lauren Groff rise to prominence well before they have reached the level of maturity as writers that would warrant such success. Groff's latest novel may be her first attempt at adult seriousness, but if James Wood's review is accurate, she lacks the maturity and insight to tackle the large and complex subject of marriage.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Generally Speaking

You could characterize a lot of my writing by saying that it involves observation and generalization. Journalists and academics seem more prone to describe and compare than observe and generalize, and fiction writers make things up for the entertainment of their readers, which may involve observation but usually doesn't include much explicit generalization. My writing style tends to presume that through the process I will arrive at a worthwhile conclusion or a formula that more or less sums things up. I do this unconsciously because that is how my mind works. Despite not being a scientist, I may come across as an informal scientist who is always making loose observations and proposing general theories that somehow explain whatever it is that I have chosen to focus upon. For this reason, I sometimes feel as if I am not providing the kind of writing that readers are most likely to expect. I don't write according to a journalistic model, I don't write according to an academic model, I'm not writing fiction, and even though I may seem to follow a scientific model, there is no research behind most of what I suggest. A little discussion of why I generalize is in order.

I recently read an article by Robert Sapolsky in which he says that by nature not only people but other mammals operate according to mental categories. The specific example discussed is that of gender. Like us, chimpanzees divide the world into male/female; upon coming into contact with a newborn chimpanzee, the first thing they want to know is its gender. I also just happened to notice, in the process of doing genealogical research involving census records, that gender is always one of the most significant characteristics recorded for each household member. This kind of categorization is probably a form of generalization in which different sets of behaviors are associated with males and females, and on that basis alone the future behavior of an individual is predicted. The article points out that there is in fact a range of gender characteristics built into each of our brains which does not necessarily correspond to our sexual organs, so it might be said that chimpanzees would be puzzled by contemporary LGTB thinking on gender, which makes gender identification an interior process that does not necessarily have any exterior manifestations.

It is true that categorizing and generalizing can be haphazard activities that result in distorted understanding of phenomena, but they are also default analytical methods that allow us to make basic evaluations and decisions. In the case of gender, within specific species, males may realistically be expected to behave aggressively and physically attack newcomers under certain circumstances, whereas females may be expected to avoid confrontation with the exception of defending their young. By adopting models of gender-based behavior, certain kinds of life-threatening actions may be avoided most of the time, even though the models may not be appropriate in every case and may not provide an accurate picture of reality. Sapolsky's main point is that gender stereotypes among humans are for the most part intractable, with important implications for transgender people who will find that others may not understand their choice of a gender that is at odds with their bodies. I am only using this as an example of how human minds work, but my personal position is that if I had gender issues myself I wouldn't change anything and would just deal with it. I've noticed an assortment of gender characteristics in myself and others and don't think that making an exterior change to put forth your ideal gender preference has much meaning at all. There have been feminine men and masculine women for millennia, and most of them would probably give you a blank stare if you suggested that they change their gender.

Over the last few years, much research has been devoted to making AI think as well as or better than humans. A major breakthrough occurred in 1997, when the computer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, who is considered to be one of the best chess players ever. That is seen as a "brute force" method, in which the computer evaluates hundreds of millions of moves per second, which is not at all how humans play. Humans simplify their play by using strategies and insight, which require far less processing than Deep Blue and produce a high relative return for the amount of processing. Improvements in chess programs since 1997 have resulted in newer programs that can run on mobile phones and play at the grandmaster level with less analysis and hardware than Deep Blue. Some AI researchers are looking at tier-like programming that simulates human thinking in order to achieve a more human-like cognition process in AI.

As I've suggested before, I don't think that human cognitive abilities are all they're cracked up to be if you look at how we got them, their purposes, our small brains and the totality of what we don't know. Computers that already exist are capable of processing far more information than we ever have, and their capacities are likely to increase rather than level off. In this context it seems that our brains have evolved, in effect, to get more bang for the buck by using processing shortcuts. Though you can see it in much of our cognitive activity, it is particularly clear in sciences such as physics, which aim at general rules that can be expressed mathematically and have the greatest explanatory power. At the frontiers of knowledge, physics and other fields are becoming so difficult that few people are capable of advancing them on their own. I recently read about a new mathematical proof that is so complex that hardly any mathematician in the world can read it, let alone understand it. Contrary to the image of the robust human intellect that emerged from the Enlightenment and portended almost unlimited mental potential, it is beginning to look more as if we may be reaching an upper limit to our unaided intellectual capacities.

There are two points that I want to make about this. On the one hand, a case can be made that the way we generalize is inaccurate and misleading, and that there may be other more direct ways to understand reality that are beyond our inherent intellectual capacities. On the other hand, we may not be capable of escaping this kind of shortcut method of understanding the world, because it was built into us by our evolutionary development. As a thought experiment you can see how these factors might play out today in the domain of political correctness. A purely politically correct person would theoretically make no inferences about anyone based on their outward appearance. Thus, a demure, fashionably dressed woman in a gown arriving at a gala social event in a black limousine accompanied by an elegant man in a tuxedo would not be presumed to have an inner life different from a burly, unshaven man with windblown hair, sunglasses and tattoos covering his arms stopped at a red light and revving his Harley-Davidson loudly. While it is theoretically possible that the gowned woman and the motorcyclist would have similar inner lives, the odds of that are comparatively low, and a politically correct person who ignored that fact would not only have difficulty communicating with them by treating them identically, but would also be unable to function in society as it exists. In this example, pure political correctness would have the virtue of a complete lack of bias, as if using only deductive logic and never inductive logic. The downside, however, would be significant. Without making inferences about people based on their outward appearances and behavior, their actual personalities become unknowable, hence it would be impossible to apprehend their motives. All people other than oneself would become noumenal, making it impossible to categorize and group them. The human instinct to belong to a group would be stifled if it were impossible to identify groups, and it would not be possible to lead a normal human life as we currently understand it.

My thesis, then, is that generalization is what humans do, and that although it is subject to error, we cannot avoid doing it. This means that I favor empiricism and the scientific method over the view that reality is essentially unknowable. There remains the possibility that through future genetic engineering or AI some sort of trans-human model that explains reality without relying on traditional empirical methods will emerge, but in the meantime I intend to stick to what we do best, since that's all we really know.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Enos Severance

When we moved to Vermont in 2011, I had no idea that I would become interested in local history. As it is, there are so many palpable signs of the past here that it is hard for me not to think about it. Our house was built by the original settler of this land, Enos Severance, in about 1798, when John Adams was president and Thomas Jefferson was vice president. Although the house was remodeled in 1974, it retains some of its original features. It was a basic post and beam farmhouse with an enormous hearth in the center of the ground floor. The hearth is gone, but its foundation is still in the basement. We have the original ceiling beams, the original pine planks on the second floor, and some of the original doors and hardware.

Born in 1770, Enos Severance was the fifth of ten children born to Ebenezer Severance and Azuba Smith in Northfield, Massachusetts. At that time Vermont was mostly a wilderness. Although the legal background is still murky, there were conflicting claims on the land by colonial New York and colonial New Hampshire. Starting in 1749, the colonial governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, sold land grants here, the first of which was named Bennington, after him. Middlebury was chartered in 1761. When New York began to make grants of the same land as the New Hampshire grants, a legal battle ensued, and purchasers of the New Hampshire grants, who were primarily small farmers and land speculators such as Ethan Allen, formed a militia to protect their property from New York. The issue was later resolved in 1791 in favor of New York, when a settlement was paid to New York by Vermont, enabling Vermont to become the fourteenth state. Because the French and Indian War (1754-1763) made Vermont an unsafe place to live, not much settlement took place during that period. This was immediately followed by the American Revolution (1765-1783), which also destabilized the region, with Lake Champlain serving as a conduit for the British forces in Canada. It was not until after the revolution that settlement picked up in earnest.

I have no evidence about what prompted the Severances to move to Vermont. Possibly they were attracted by the cheap land. In those days, modern agricultural methods did not exist, and it is also possible that they had exhausted their soil in Massachusetts. In any case, Enos's eldest brother, Samuel, arrived here in about 1786 and purchased land in East Middlebury, where he soon started a farm and married his neighbor's daughter, Mary Kirby, who had recently settled from Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1793, Enos and Samuel's father, Ebenezer, began to purchase land in our neighborhood on South Munger Street. In 1796 and 1797, Enos purchased adjacent land to the north, which became his farm, where he built his house. Samuel sold his property in East Middlebury and moved to land adjacent to the south side of Ebenezer's. In all, the Severances had several hundred acres along South Munger Street. Ebenezer's original house still stands, as does Enos's, but Samuel's appears to have been replaced by a new building, with a later Severance house dating from about the 1850's still standing next door.

Not many people were living in Middlebury in the late 1700's. Ebenezer Severance, as one of the few mature men, became a town selectman. Everyone appears to have been religious, with much of their social life centering around the Congregational Church, which was built in 1806, but whose members held meetings elsewhere prior to that. The same building stands today, and you can hear its bell from our house three miles away. It is difficult to imagine how physically demanding life must have been for the Severances. They had no power equipment for farming, no electricity, no inside plumbing, and twenty-below-zero temperatures during the winter. They had to cut their firewood by hand, and they probably made their own clothes. Worse yet, death was always nearby, with children not surviving childhood and adults dying before reaching the age of 60 in many cases.

In 1801, at age 30, Enos married Lydia Petty. Their first child, Philena, was born in 1802, and at age 27 she married a reverend and moved to Bristol, Vermont. Their second child, Roxana, was born in 1807 and lived in the house for most of her life. Lydia died in 1813 at the age of 49, and Enos married his second wife, Chloe Emerson, in 1814. Chloe bore him one daughter, Lydia, in 1815 and died while Enos was still alive. Enos soon married his third wife, Abigail Field, who outlived him. He died in 1842 at the age of 72, and his third daughter, Lydia, married later that year at the age of 26. Upon Enos's death, Abigail remarried and stayed on in the house until her death in 1869. Roxana then apparently married for the first time, at age 62. She and her husband, Edwin Landon, remained in the house until her death in 1877.

These were all ordinary people about whom we know little today. At his death, Enos owned about 80 acres, the house, a barn and the woodshed that we just replaced. He had an orchard, of which at least one tree is still alive - we ate a couple of its apples this year. According to family records he was also a beekeeper, though there is no evidence of that now. Several of the Severances, including Enos, his first wife, Lydia, and Roxana are buried in the Case Street Cemetery, about a mile from here.

You can infer some of their culture from their marriage patterns. Apparently it was unacceptable for a woman to live in a house without a male head of household. Thus, the younger Lydia married as soon as her father died, Abigail remarried as soon as Enos died, and Roxana married as soon as Abigail died - presumably Abigail's last husband no longer occupied the house. Conversely, there may also have been pressure for single men to be married. From the little evidence that I have, it is impossible to know whether there was attraction between the couples in every case; among the older couples it seems more likely that the marriages were simply an expedient way of keeping everyone paired up, and they may hardly have known each other before they married. The rural conditions and slow transportation further complicated the situation by making the plausible marriage choices extremely limited, and I would guess that everyone married someone who lived less than five miles away or attended the same church. From the church documents that I've seen it is clear that being an upstanding Christian was strongly emphasized. For example, the son of one of Enos's neighbors was reprimanded by his father for doing woodwork on a Sunday, when all work was strictly forbidden.

I don't know what the collective agricultural activities of the Severances were. The soil here is full of clay, and over time it seems to have shown itself best suited for hay. In this county over the years sheep, beef and dairy cattle have done well. Many grains don't grow well, as is attested by a contemporary farmer who is switching to rice after attempting unsuccessfully to grow other grains. With poor soil, little industry and a consistently small economy, most of the settlers who arrived in the late 1700's and early 1800's had left by the late 1800's. Enos's youngest brother, Moses, lived briefly with his father in his old age, but he then moved on to Ohio.

It is comforting to ponder simpler times, and the idea of a simple life appeals to me as much as anyone. There are people in Vermont now and people who would like to move here who would prefer to throw back the hands of time and live under circumstances in which they can proceed slowly, not feeling the pressures of the modern world, and perhaps even having more genuine relationships than they are likely to find in our competitive, fast-paced civilization. However, it is easy to idealize those conditions, and it would be instructive to transport Enos Severance to the present and ask him what he thought. There is little doubt in my mind that he would soon want a tractor, a car, electricity, a chainsaw and many tools that were unavailable when he was alive. If he were given the benefit of a modern education, his intellectual horizons might expand enough for him to consider belief systems other than the one that dominated his entire life. If you look at the past this way, it is less tempting to idealize it and make false assumptions about its merits.

This last point sums up how I feel about Christian sentimentalists such as Marilynne Robinson. I would not object to her fiction, other than its tendentiousness, if it were sold as light reading for escapists, but because of her academic credentials and popularity among educated readers she has somehow been elevated to the ranks of major thinkers. To me, this is an indication of how unclearly even the so-called intelligentsia may think. There are countless ways to imagine comforting ideologies in which one might live more happily, and Robinson's choice, besides being no better than many others, resorts to idealization that is both historically inaccurate and lacking in applicability to the present. In my view, the credentialled people who embrace her work are only demonstrating their inability to think deeply or imagine anything beyond their existing prejudices. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, they are engaging in escapism pure and simple.