Saturday, June 27, 2015


In a review of the late poet John Berryman, August Kleinzahler says:
For what seemed a lengthy spell, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, the standard-bearers of American poetry were a group of manic depressive exhibitionists working largely, if not exclusively, in traditional metre and rhyme schemes, analysands all, and with self-inflating personae that always reminded me of those giant balloons of Mickey Mouse and Pluto with Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. They published and reviewed one another in journals like the Nation, Partisan Review, the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, with a good deal of auto-canonising. Robert Lowell, almost by default it seemed, was ceded pride of place, the 'most important American poet now at work'. Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second-basemen, the three best Ibsen plays–they seemed especially to like the number three.

It has always seemed somewhat arbitrary to me how connections and self-promotion, especially among male American writers, have often led to successful careers. Perhaps because I am less suggestible than many as to what counts as good writing, I frequently find that esteemed writer so-and-so just plain stinks, and I then start thinking about how on earth he or she succeeded. It is not uncommon for college buddies to promote each other as described by Kleinzahler. Of course, going to the right college probably makes a difference. In my last foray into American poetry I noticed that quite a few recent poets attended Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale or Princeton: Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Robert Haas, William Matthews, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and J.D. McClatchy. Although poetry seems to be getting more diverse, it still looks as if connections at major universities help a lot.

Four of my undergraduate acquaintances once seemed to be aspiring writers, and I suppose that is fairly common among English majors. The college was better known for producing journalists, not novelists or poets, though the successful writer Barbara Kingsolver happened to attend it - majoring in biology. None of the four actually became writers, though they did produce some writing, which I saw much later and left me unimpressed. One of them became an insurance salesman and apparently sold an insurance policy to Saul Bellow. Another worked for years at a psychiatric hospital near San Francisco. One had mental problems and hardly ever worked: he became a ward of the State of California. The one I knew best seemed depressed all of his life, never married, worked as a bond trader in Chicago and died young from lung cancer. For all I know, under slightly different circumstances, the four of them might have become famous writers.

I am not personally acquainted with any successful writers, and it is hard for me to generalize about them. Most of what I now read is just journalism, and my expectations in fiction and poetry are quite low. Biographies and other types of nonfiction are more reliable for my purposes. It seems as if the most successful fiction writers are small businesses with carefully designed products made to suit large audiences. The better writers, in the U.S. at least, now seem to live in the university gulag, which offers them a semblance of job security at the cost of depriving them of diverse experiences and making them more predictable than they might otherwise be. As far as I know, there is no current equivalent to the Beats, though I'm not sure that their work was memorable either. Like Berryman, Lowell and Jarrell, they were good at self-promotion and several had good academic connections.

Rather than rehashing some of my earlier posts, I'll just say that most of the American writers that I come across produce work that is unsatisfactory to me. Whenever I find someone interesting - Julio Ramón Ribeyro or Patrick Chamoiseau - they are almost unknown here. Apparently the American marketplace and the American mind that drives it are more than a little insipid.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Politics is a topic that I'd rather not think about, but we're entering the in-your-face phase of the 2016 U.S. elections and I would like to summarize some of my ideas in order to help clear them from my brain. The way the media handles this is something like nonstop Super Bowl coverage, and I may soon have to refrain from following the news.

In my view, the American political system is a hopeless attempt to simulate democratic participation that could only work on a much smaller scale with culturally homogeneous people and no class distinctions, including wealth differentiation. Not only does the U.S. encompass a large, culturally varied population, but corporations have long played a role in elections and are now de facto people themselves, with significantly greater political influence than any individuals. During my life I've lived in a variety of states, and the influence of businesses on the state governments has been obvious. Wealthy, industrialized states such as New York and Illinois tend to have business-dominated legislatures and high levels of corruption, whereas smaller, non-industrialized states such as Vermont and Oregon have legislatures that more closely represent the population and are generally less corrupt. On the whole, I find the Vermont government satisfactory, and I attribute this to the state's unindustrialized status and its well-educated population. There is no basis for thinking that the political environment in Vermont could easily be replicated in most other states.

As it is, I find the American presidential elections embarrassingly stupid. No matter who wins, the next president will be indebted to corporate contributors and other special interests. Whatever ideas any candidate may have, all presidents are constricted by the explicit or implicit commitments that they made to contributors. This partially explains why Barack Obama has not been much different from George W. Bush and why even the likable Bill Clinton was pro-business and anti-populist. There is little reason to expect that Hillary Clinton would represent any change in thinking from what has been going on in politics here for the last fifty years.

Although I don't think this is a popular opinion among my readers, the goal ought to be to automate government as much as possible, and this would be much easier to do if the capitalist economy were either modified or eliminated. An example of my thesis that humans are ignorant animals is that it is currently difficult for Americans to imagine a life in which they are not chasing paychecks, even when humans throughout most of their existence were not chasing paychecks. There were no employers or currencies before the last ice age, and about ninety percent of our time as a species was spent during that period. If you took business interests out of the equation, I think it would be relatively simple to organize society according to rational rules that could be made into algorithms. We may not yet be at a technological level where capitalism could be drawn to a close, but that may be closer than you think.

What I find annoying about political debate is that technology as I am describing it never seems to be considered. In the U.S., you are supposed to be either a Democrat, implying acceptance of capitalism but with attention paid to the less fortunate, or a Republican, implying acceptance of capitalism with no attention paid to the less fortunate. The only other positions Americans seem to recognize are communism, which they think results in collapsed economies and autocratic leaders, or theocracies, in which the women have no rights and are, for example, required to wear burkas. When you leave technology out of the discussion, you neglect the important fact that human labor is gradually becoming obsolete, with inexpensive technology permanently replacing people at an accelerating pace. I certainly have no difficulty imagining machines doing a better job at governing than the elected officials I've observed throughout my life.

There are too many variables in play to predict exactly how humanity will evolve over the next fifty to one hundred years. Among those are political instability, war, global warming, economic shocks and unmanaged population growth. A fairly probable scenario is that, at least among the developed countries, the need for human labor will decline significantly, even without radical changes such as the development of super-intelligence. Super-intelligence is in a class by itself, because it could result in technological change far in excess of what we currently anticipate. But even short of that, it is clear that social changes will have to occur if people no longer work or corporations as we know them cease to exist. It is quite possible that, as paid human labor declines, taxation will have to be increased sufficiently to prevent social collapse. If people can't find a living wage and the government doesn't support them, how else will they survive? The main alternative is the two-class system that you see in dystopian futuristic films, with a cruel ruling elite and impoverished masses at their mercy. It is plausible that the governments of developed countries will be forced to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to such a high level that the incentive to work primarily for money will evaporate. If that occurs, all of the economic competition and exploitation that we currently see as normal could end.

From my point of view, the national politics that we witness in the U.S. is primarily about wealth redistribution, and the wealthy are winning. To be sure, many other issues are addressed in Washington, but that is barely audible chatter and is drowned out by the roaring torrents of money awash there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Quote of the Day

The truth is that the evolution (or if you like the degeneration) from Cezanne to Warhol was inevitable from the moment that royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage was replaced by the market.

Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.

—Michael Lind in The Smart Set

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Quote of the Day

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

—George Eliot, from Middlemarch

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Grand Inquisitor was Right

For me, one of the most memorable passages in literature is The Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoevsky is not always enjoyable to read, because his novels, this one in particular, are long and rarely to the point, but rambling novels were popular when he wrote. They were often serialized, and both the writer and the publisher had incentive to keep them long. George Eliot, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, was initially offered today's equivalent of almost $500,000 for her novel Romola but declined because she thought she wouldn't be able to write it fast enough and that serialization might interfere with her conception of the novel. A slightly less lucrative deal, also including serialization, was subsequently reached; as it turned out, Romola was a commercial flop anyway. I don't think concise fiction came along until the twentieth century, and this may have had to do with new marketing techniques and an increase in the number of writers as much as anything else.

In case you don't know, the Grand Inquisitor parable concerns the return of Jesus Christ to earth in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor arrests him, lectures him, and finally sends him away, telling him not to return because he isn't needed. Although this may have relevance to themes that occur elsewhere in the novel, I've forgotten the rest and treat it as a stand-alone puzzle. The Grand Inquisitor argues that people are not ready for freedom, which he interprets as what Christ has offered mankind. This seems to be an odd take on Christianity, and I prefer to consider it artistic expression rather than a specific religious commentary. The concept of freedom does not seem central to the Bible as I understand it, and the passage has more to do with human nature than with religion per se. If you look at the parable from a purely religious point of view, it doesn't make much sense. The Grand Inquisitor seems to recognize that Jesus is a divine being who, therefore, could destroy him, yet he believes that he has the authority to banish him. Jesus himself doesn't challenge the Grand Inquisitor and simply departs; he never speaks, and there is no explanation of his thoughts, so there is a temptation to conclude either that he agrees with the Grand Inquisitor or that this is some abstruse sort of test for mankind that has yet to be deciphered. The standard interpretation today, which may or may not be correct, is that Dostoevsky sides with Christ and the parable is a critique of the Roman Catholic Church and socialist atheism, with the Grand Inquisitor as a symbol of both.

My interpretation of the parable ignores religion almost entirely. Although this may not be what Dostoevsky had in mind, I think of it as having to do with the question of how capable mankind is of governing its own affairs and whether totalitarian rule is preferable to self-determination. I don't find Christ at all compelling here. Since he seems to refrain from judging the Grand Inquisitor, the reader doesn't know whether he concurs with him or not. Conceptually it is more appealing to me to conclude that the Grand Inquisitor is right, and in the text he has made a convincing argument that provokes no rebuttal.

The position of the Grand Inquisitor relates to what I've said about democracy. In a contemporary context, I believe that we are at a crossroads in civilization that has been brought about by the limitations of human capabilities in conjunction with advances in technology. Some futurologists seem to think that technology may soon allow us to become immortal, either through medical advances or through robotics, or both. In my view this is an incomplete position, because it doesn't take into account the wild, biological nature of human beings. Like the Grand Inquisitor, I have little confidence in our ability to self-govern.

The history of mankind is a history of conflict, which I believe is part of our identity as organisms. The game-changer, I think, will be super-intelligence, which may arise in the not-too-distant future. Because democratic processes have worked satisfactorily enough in recent years and totalitarian regimes have generally collapsed over time, there is a misplaced confidence in the long-term feasibility of self-determination through democracy. It seems probable to me that increases in computing capacities will change this state of affairs forever. It should be obvious to any observer that the popular vote can easily become corrupted, and even when it isn't, irrationality and ignorance among voters often produce questionable results. Super-intelligence would be able to think better than any human ever has, and would make the future much different from the past. One of the points made by the philosopher Nick Bostrom is that our brains are simply too small to do massive computations. On brain size alone it seems clear to me that we are about to be surpassed in thinking ability. It seems likely that once artificial intelligence is capable of advancing itself without human assistance, progress will be made rapidly. Because this falls within the narrow purview of futurologists and computer scientists, not many people seem to be paying serious attention to it. I suggest that you think about it yourself.

Assuming that super-intelligence comes into existence, there are several possible outcomes, and one can only speculate on what will happen. It would be likely to cause radical change one way or another. Among the possibilities that interest me is what direction humanity will take. Even if the new technology isn't usurped and has no unintended consequences, I'm not sure what human life will be like. On the one hand we may continue to live the way we do now, but without having to work and with enhanced bodies that allow us to live longer than we do at present. It is possible that super-intelligence may somehow be incorporated into individuals despite our brain size. In these cases, the social changes alone would be radical, and a sharp break from the last several thousand years. On the other hand, there are also many less sanguine possible outcomes.

The main aspect of The Grand Inquisitor parable that has bearing here is the question of how we will organize our affairs in the long term. As a skeptic on human competence in this area, I would actually prefer life to be governed by a super-intelligent machine with suitable controls than by any of the systems of governance that have been tried so far. It is a little difficult to envision exactly what this would be like, but there is no question that it would be a radical change. Many would be shocked by the transition from centuries-old intellectual domination of the planet to the realization that we are all second-rate thinkers, not much better than chimpanzees. Anthropocentrism would take a big hit. Ironically, the humility that this could produce might simulate religious humility in the face of a vastly superior power. I don't think that keeping human arrogance, corruption and folly in check would necessarily be a bad development at all, and in this sense the Grand Inquisitor was right.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Biology Trumps Reason

One of the few challenges to feeding hummingbirds is keeping ants out of the feeder. Downy woodpeckers also like the nectar, but they don't summon their friends, create long queues and occasionally drown in it, making it unappealing to the hummingbirds. Fortunately you can decrease the chances of ants finding your feeder simply by suspending it from a long wire. Oddly, seeking sugar reminds me of rock and roll, because I saw something similar to ant attraction when I recently watched a video about Jimi Hendrix. From its early days, rock and roll generated a kind of hysteria among young people. I think you can fairly say that it was mostly about sex and hormones. Smitten girls swooned over the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix and most pop artists had slews of attractive women awaiting them after each concert. It is no secret why so many teenage boys aspired to become rock stars; Dire Straits said it well in Money for Nothing on their Brothers in Arms album a few years later.

The 1960's were heady times, and I've been a little disappointed that it all came to naught.  If there was ever any message from Woodstock, no one knows what it was. Some of the best rock performers of the era, such as Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, died very young, but the ones who are still alive are hardly worth getting excited about now: Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan.... It is even somewhat embarrassing to me to have been part of the baby boom generation. Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs committed suicide. Jerry Rubin became a stockbroker on Wall Street. Perhaps the best known baby boomer of all, Bill Clinton, became a corporate crony and was the first president to be caught getting blow jobs in the Oval Office. Overall, it was an exciting postwar period in the U.S., and many of the talented performers who found their ways to commercial success then would probably be unable to today. Beyond that, the lingering image of the 1960's is a confused mixture of sex, drugs and rock and roll with a little politics thrown in for good measure. These days people who look like hippies are usually considered vagrants or losers.

The U.S. was and is a symbol of materialism and gratification, and the baby boomers did nothing to change that. I had hoped that material possessions and procreation might take a less important role in society, but they haven't. To me, this confirms something that I've witnessed all of my life: biology trumps reason. Basically, the appeal of America is instinct fulfillment, not aesthetics or understanding, and although it has evolved slightly over the years, the American Dream, which entails a house, a car, a family and a prosperous life, has never gone away. During the 1960's, materialism was briefly reviled by some of the young, but that has turned out to be a passing fad, and I see no evidence that any idealism from that period survives. The civil rights movement and feminism were both apparently about reaching parity with the now embattled white male. Today, with flagrant wealth inequality in the news all of the time, there is more emphasis than ever on making materially better lives available to everyone.

This is why although I am enmeshed with American life I'd rather think about something else. I find it simpler and more satisfying to take care of the hummingbirds by keeping the ants at a distance.