Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

Though I'm ill-versed in physics, not having studied it since high school (1966-1967), I found this book by Richard Feynman extremely enjoyable to read. I've had a little exposure to physics through my interest in astronomy and geology, but what is really entertaining about Feynman is his wide range of interests and his honesty. The book is a series of long anecdotes that Feynman dictated to a friend and includes several of the major episodes of his life. There is also a commencement speech that he gave at Caltech. He refers to his work as a theoretical physicist throughout the book, but is light on technical details. Feynman's unique personality comes through clearly.

The title refers to one of his most memorable and representative episodes. He was a down-to-earth, unpretentious physics student who had just graduated from M.I.T., which in those days wasn't as competitive as it is now, and had ventured completely out of his element when he moved to Princeton to pursue his Ph.D. Princeton was pretentiously modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, complete with American interpretations of English affectations:

So the very afternoon I arrived in Princeton I'm going to the dean's tea, and I didn't even know what a "tea" was, or why! I had no social abilities whatsoever; I had no experience with this sort of thing. 

So I come up to the door, and there's Dean Eisenhart, greeting the new students. "Oh, you're Mr. Feynman," he says. "We're glad to have you." So that helped a little, because he recognized me, somehow.

I go through the door, and there are some ladies, and some girls, too. It's all very formal and I'm thinking about where to sit down and should I sit next to this girl, or not, and how should I behave, when I hear a voice behind me.

"Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr. Feynman?" It's Mrs. Eisenhart, pouring tea.

"I'll have both, thank you," I say, still looking for where I'm going to sit, when suddenly I hear, "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman."

Joking? Joking? What the hell did I say? Then I realized what I had done. So that was my first experience with this tea business.    

What stands out about Feynman is his extraordinary accomplishments in quantum physics coupled with his frankness and plebeian interests. He grew up in an ordinary neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens, and was encouraged by his father from an early age to figure out how things work and think for himself. He was naturally inquisitive and developed the habit of thinking things through in his own terms, which were not necessarily the same ones that were taught in school. This helped him to excel in math and science, and by the time he was in his late twenties he was well-known in the physics world from his graduate work at Princeton and his participation in the Manhattan Project. Major universities went into bidding wars to hire him; he started at Cornell but later moved to Caltech, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Feynman may have been a little socially awkward, but he was fairly gregarious and enjoyed people very much. However, he detested pomposity and pretension and quickly became impatient with sloppy thinking from anyone. This put him at odds with many academics, particularly those in the humanities; he describes the people in the philosophy department at Cornell as "particularly inane." His dislike of sloppy thinking came to a head in the early 1950's, when he was invited to an interdisciplinary conference in New York whose topic was "the ethics of inequality." He became outraged by some of the ridiculous statements made by other participants:

There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn't make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn't read any books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means."

So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? "People read."

Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became kind of an empty business: "Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio," and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.

This side of Feynman means a lot to me, because it reinforces what I've thought for years, and right up to the present I become disturbed by the nonsense writing that I encounter everywhere. In fact the only way that I've found to solve this problem for myself has been to scrupulously limit my reading to carefully selected material: randomly foraging on the Internet – even at the so-called high-end intellectual websites – was starting to drive me nuts.

Feynman led a full life, was always curious and loved to pursue pretty women. He met women in bars and restaurants from Buffalo to Las Vegas to the Sunset Strip. He became a regular at a topless restaurant near Caltech, where he would work, meet people and sketch the dancers. In his spare time he tried all kinds of hobbies. While in Brazil he learned Portuguese and samba music. While in Japan he attempted to learn Japanese. He became interested in drawing and painting and actually did some good amateur work under the name of Ofey. He also became a proficient drummer and performed in a group called "The Three Quarks." Another time he ad-libbed with a cowbell for a rock group in Vancouver, and the bandleader said "Geez! Who was that guy who came down and played on that cowbell! He can really knock out a rhythm on that thing!" Feynman got around, and he somehow became a participant in John Lilly's experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. In his later years he occasionally became somewhat reluctantly involved with government affairs. As always, he was outspoken about incompetence wherever he saw it, whether in the California school textbook selection process or in NASA.

Feynman is also a case study in intelligence: one of his biographies, which I haven't read, is titled Genius. The part of his intelligence that I can identify with is his extreme intellectual independence, but it was his scientific accomplishments, which put him in the ranks of the top twentieth century physicists, that made him famous. You might call him a patron saint of this blog, because he was all about doubting experts throughout his life. His intelligence took on a practical character, which may have had to do with the fact that he grew up during the Depression. He never read widely beyond technical literature and perhaps lacked confidence in his writing skills: why would he have dictated his memoirs to someone rather than write them himself? M.I.T. was of little help in this regard, because they allowed an astronomy class to partially fulfill his humanities requirement for graduation. As to his native intelligence, probably his Ashkenazi genetic and cultural heritage played a role there. Even so, in light of my comments about AI, Feynman himself is an example of how human mental capacities are becoming obsolete. One of his strongest skills was the use of approximations and shortcuts to make complex mathematical calculations, and that was a critical advantage during his early years as a physicist, when electronic calculators didn't exist and mechanical calculators were crude and unreliable by current standards. It isn't hard to project into the future and imagine the mental apparatus of Feynman or anyone else being eclipsed by AI at some point. But that doesn't detract at all from Feynman the man, who certainly would have been an interesting person to know.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


I've started to read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" at a leisurely pace and will comment on it when I finish. There's not much to report otherwise. I've planted tomato seeds for the season, and the first one germinated in just four days. I now use a heating pad under the container, and this accelerates the process considerably. Most of the vegetable garden belongs to my partner, and she is way ahead of me with the cold-weather crops. Although we had a warm winter and the spring has also been warm so far, the plants are still emerging very slowly and it is only just starting to turn green outside.

For most of the time we've lived in Vermont I've fed the birds year-round, though technically you're not supposed to because bird feeders attract bears when they're not hibernating. We had some trouble in 2014, when a bear bent the metal pole holding the feeders, ate all the suet and crushed the tube feeder to eat the sunflower seeds. That happened twice, and I began to bring in the feeders at night, which worked for the remainder of that season. We didn't have any more trouble until this April 20. At 2:30 A.M. I heard noises in the yard and turned on the light to see a large black bear lying next to the bent pole and finishing off the sunflower seeds from the broken tube. It had eaten the suet first. I opened the sliding door and banged on it to get the bear's attention, and when it saw me it ambled off. Until November I'll be feeding the birds nyjer only, which the bears don't seem to like. The woodpeckers and chickadees will have to find food elsewhere, but they shouldn't have much difficulty now that insects are out. Fortunately the suet feeder is indestructible and the tube feeder manufacturer sent me a free new tube. I was able to fix the bent pole by breaking it off from the stand, removing the stub inserted into the stand, cutting off the damaged portion from the pole and reinserting the pole into the stand. The hummingbirds will be returning soon.

In other news, I sold my entire comic book collection in one lot for $1000. The buyer, who is a professional dealer, will make quite a profit from them, as I think he can sell them individually for more than $2000. Since this isn't really a hobby for me and the overall condition of the comics is poor, I didn't want to bother with putting in the time and effort to eke out the maximum possible profit. I bought the comics for a total of about $25 and they have been sitting in bags since I stopped reading them in 1964. When I was in high school I went with friends to Palisades Park in New Jersey, at which time I cut out several coupons from the comics, and this negatively impacted their value. My most valuable comic was Justice League of America #1, which I bought in 1960 for 10¢. If I had immediately put it into a plastic case and kept it for 56 years in good atmospheric conditions, I could have sold it now for more than $5000. If I had bought 100 of them for $10, they would now be worth $500,000! I always find it interesting how arbitrarily collectibles come to be valued. On the one hand this indicates how sentiments and emotions such as nostalgia influence perceptions, and on the other hand it shows how difficult it is to predict the future accurately. The unpredictability of comic book values can be seen as convincing evidence that no one is able to predict certain aspects of the future with much accuracy – if people were able to we would currently be witnessing not just more billionaires but a few trillionaires.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Human Relations

When I read The Selfish Gene several years ago, I was struck not particularly by Dawkins's presentation of the work of W.D. Hamilton and others, but by the conceptual leap from species-centered evolution to gene-centered evolution. I don't follow these topics in any detail and am more interested in broader themes that influence one's worldview. Accordingly, I have increasingly focused on the conceptual limitations of humans and why at any given time we tend to have some ideas rather than others. My current impression is that, though still significant, genes as described by Dawkins are just one of several elements of importance in the understanding of life. Other elements might include the physical properties of the local universe, symbiosis and the nature of ecosystems. I don't think genes are everything, because basic Darwinism is still intact, at least in terms of the logic of evolutionary processes, and Darwin knew nothing about genetics. More telling to me is the fact that all species eventually become extinct, and with them many or all of their genes, indicating that genes are far less immortal than Dawkins seems to suggests in that book. Large mammals like us are carrying around loads of genes that serve no purpose and probably never will.

Even so, realizing that you can think about life without thinking about species was an eye-opener to me. This, along with newer scientific research, makes it possible to see humanity quite differently from the way we did just fifty years ago. It is currently estimated that only about ten percent of the human body is distinctly human, and the other ninety percent is made up of microorganisms, so we really are walking blobs of protoplasm that trillions of microorganisms call home. The biological processes behind all of this are one thing and our cultural conceptions of ourselves are something else entirely. I like thinking about what it means to be human, and increasingly science seems to be saying that we may not be what we think we are, and that some of our ideas may have more to do with instincts and cultural influences than with true self-understanding or an accurate assessment of human nature.

Human relations always seem to be fraught with problems, yet we habitually idealize them. When we think of castles and knights in shining armor we think of romance and damsels in distress, but the reality is that people lived in castles for protection from those who would kill or enslave them, or, conversely, to enslave those who lived outside their walls. I have noted that war seems to be here to stay, with groups like ISIL still around and Hitler on the rampage not that long ago. Recently I have been thinking about what actually underlies contentious relationships. What I'm finding is that if you look closely enough, nearly all relationships are contentious to one degree or another. As I've said, the typical work environment is particularly fake, because employees understand that they must control their behavior in order to secure an income. They make conscious efforts to suppress behavior that might lead to their dismissal and act friendlier than they may truly feel. But what about personal relationships, where on the surface two or more people spend time together ostensibly because they enjoy each other's company? This realm of thought can become unsettling if you apply it to your personal life.

I still like to think in the context of hunter-gatherer models, which refer back to a time when we were basically the same as we are now but didn't have any of the benefits or conceptual changes that later accompanied civilization. We lived in small eusocial groups that were culturally and genetically homogeneous and survived in a large part due to cooperation. Even then there would have been animosity and violence, with competition for mates and social status. Small groups of males must have been cooperative among themselves, but were protective against unaffiliated males, which is reflected in modern enthusiasm for team sports. I have always found male friendships somewhat superficial; they tend to revolve around some shared activity and evoke a tribal feeling that makes them seem like male bonding rituals. Men seem to be geared toward solving problems and achieving objectives in small groups. Women, in contrast, seem to be geared to cooperate in activities that are related to childrearing: they are more concerned with maintaining a network of female friends for work-sharing. Caring for babies is work-intensive, and women have had to evolve cooperative behaviors in order to succeed at it. This may sound sexist, but based only on my experience the majority of men and women follow these patterns. To say that men and women tend to exhibit different behavioral patterns is not to say that there is no overlap in their potentialities, but that men and women tend to have different preferences based on earlier specialization related to survival requirements.

That brings me to monogamous male-female relationships, which I think are the most important ones to the majority of us but also the most problematic. Apparently there is a deeply embedded distrust between the sexes, in that estrus has no external manifestations in humans. The standard interpretation for this phenomenon is that women have been sexually promiscuous for a long time, and in order to avert male wrath and infanticide they have evolved this feature. That seems plausible to me, and I'm sorry to say that I don't think romantic relationships as portrayed in the media have much to support them scientifically. The way I think of it, men and women once had so little attraction to each other that in order to reproduce, more than for any other species, sex became incredibly intoxicating to both. Men and women typically have such different interests that cohabitation often becomes problematic. Among the most conspicuous changes that have occurred during my lifetime, improved birth control and female financial independence immediately led to a high divorce rate, delayed marriages and an increased proportion of single adults. As soon as remaining single became plausible for women its popularity took off. Having been dumped twice myself, I can attest that women can be as hard, insensitive and lacking in conscience as the most thuggish of men when it suits their purposes and they have the means available. Evolution has masked female aggression by giving women baby-like voices, producing the appearance of vulnerability when in fact they outlive men on average. Contrary to their outward appearances, women hold no monopoly on empathy.

The reason why I always return to eusociality and other biological sources in order to explain human behavior is that the ideas that one encounters in the public domain are invariably misleading if not outright false. The ideas that humans are inherently good or that God is watching us to make sure that we make the correct moral choices are so absurd that it can be intellectually challenging to live in a country like the U.S., where so many take them seriously. Flawed reasoning and the denial of empirical evidence underlie everything in the U.S. from its constitution to its conception of its role in the world, and our politicians are expected to espouse ridiculous jingoistic and religious nonsense in order to win popular votes. Inclusiveness is fancifully expected to solve the problem of inequality while ignoring the destructive effects of capitalism, and the very mention of overpopulation is taboo when that is clearly a major factor behind many of the problems in the world today.

I have been particularly disappointed by the emphasis that philosophers have placed on reason as the basis of morality. To be sure, many aspects of our behavior can be seen to contain rational elements, but rationality is not the source of our behavioral predispositions, and it is misleading to discuss morality, religion or political systems without reference to our evolutionary characteristics. We say that we love liberty but neglect to mention that the price of liberty is often someone else's servitude and that insufficient constraints on liberty may render the planet uninhabitable. We say that we love equality while vigorously supporting an economic system that discourages it. We say that we want world peace while provoking violent opposition worldwide with economic and military intervention. It must also be stated that we have the same human nature as the members of ISIL, and as abhorrent and crazy as their behavior may seem, under the right circumstances we might behave exactly as they do. On some level they are acting instinctively to vanquish a perceived enemy that threatens their group. Because of our evolutionary past, any threatened group might theoretically behave in the manner of ISIL given the right conditions.

Obviously I'm not going to solve the world's problems in one little blog post, but at least I can emphasize what I think would be some steps in the right direction. The currently popular "American values" theory of foreign policy has to go. American values promote over-consumption, waste of natural resources, pollution, overpopulation, marginalization of minorities and disregard for disruptions caused beyond our borders. If anything, America is a bastion of personal gratification, something that should never be copied anywhere. As world leaders, rather than promoting ourselves as a model, we ought to be looking at how to transition out of capitalism, reduce consumption, control population growth, reverse environmental destruction and institute a system of governance that fairly restricts undesirable behaviors and eliminates the vagaries of participatory democracy along with the poor outcomes that it generates. A good start would be the public recognition that human nature is not what it's usually made out to be, that we are organisms governed by irrational impulses over which we have limited control, that what benefits one group often has negative consequences for another group, and that the future of mankind contains more unknowns than we should willingly accept.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


The lull continues, though my activities are slowly moving toward summer ones. Although it's only April, if you stargaze at four A.M. the sky is now arranged the same as it will be on a summer evening, with the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way prominent to the south. I just took a quick look at Saturn, which is currently near Antares in Scorpius. When you familiarize yourself with the night sky you begin to feel as if you are living inside a giant clock, and it is easy to understand our ancestors' fascination with it. I'll be planting tomato seeds soon.

We continue to follow the presidential campaigns, and if you are able to stay awake through the Democratic debates they are surprisingly substantive compared to past years. One thing that I find interesting is that the media approaches the Democrats differently from the Republicans. They tend to ask more serious questions to the Democratic candidates, because that is how Hillary and Bernie have consciously framed their campaigns, but the Republican debates are designed to evoke controversial and grandiose statements, since Trump is politically ignorant. I was recently encouraged by hearing Wolf Blitzer of CNN ask Bernie Sanders a fairly sophisticated question about minimum wage increases. If minimum wages are raised, won't this lead to wage inflation and eventually push prices up to a level where those who had low wages will once again have low wages due to inflation?  I think the answer is yes, and this reveals some of the shortfall in Bernie Sanders' analysis. Bernie is not an original or deep thinker and looks a little like an FDR copycat. However, I still far prefer him to Hillary Clinton, who seems like the George H.W. Bush of the Democratic Party: she lacks "the vision thing," without an original idea in her head. While she is good on details and is generally cautious, her incrementalist approach, which mimics that of Barack Obama, is doomed to fail when large systemic changes are required. In my view, Obama has been a mediocre president in part because of his insistence on making decisions through an inclusive process of consensus. This approach absolves the president of responsibility for poor policy decisions and provides greater influence than is warranted to self-interested parties. The same accusation of weak leadership that has been made of Barack Obama would be made of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders may have gaps in his understanding, but he clearly has greater leadership ability than either Clinton or Obama.

I've ordered books by Sean Carroll, Frans de Waal, Richard Feynman, Czeslaw Milosz, Simone de Beauvoir and Stendhal, which I'll read in due course. I am particularly enjoying the ability to buy used books online at very low prices. The low prices are psychologically freeing, because I feel less compulsion to finish books that I don't like. In the past I would have forced myself to finish books by George Saunders, Tom Perrotta and Virginia Woolf, but now I just stop reading them and set them aside without hesitation. I also seem to have outgrown whatever attraction I ever had to libraries and bookstores, and I rarely go to them anymore. Once upon a time, when books were hard to come by, Borders seemed like a godsend, but how quickly it became obsolete. Many still enjoy rummaging through bookstores and libraries for the surprise find, the sensory presence of books or the feeling of community that they inspire, but as a practical matter if you know what you like there is no sacrifice required when you bypass them entirely. You can find anything online, and if you knew what others were reading in those bookstores and libraries you might well be shocked to discover how little you have in common with them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


There isn't much to report today, but there isn't much to do either, so I'm returning to my writing habit to occupy my mind. It's a dreary, rainy day in the middle of mud season and I don't have on hand any books that I want to read. On top of that I have no desire to socialize, because I'm still recovering from a talkative weekend visitor. Fortunately she was articulate, knowledgeable and polite, making her presence on the whole desirable, but unfortunately she seems to have used up my reservoir of social receptiveness for the month, and I'm ready to retreat to my solitary habits.

The visitor lives in Washington, D.C. and confirms something I've observed repeatedly: city dwellers are more socially adept than rural dwellers. I find it a little ironic that I can be in social situations and notice this incongruity while not being particularly social myself. A high percentage of the people I've known who have lived only in rural areas really have behaved like hayseeds compared to city people, who obviously have acquired a variety of skills and increased their social awareness simply by living in environments that require it. I don't think the two groups understand each other very well, and perhaps I do better than most because I have spent considerable time with each. I haven't always enjoyed it, because rural people really are yokels in the sense that their worldviews cannot be the same as mine, and, to the extent that I am able to understand a variety of worldviews, the urban dwellers aren't much better. In political terms you might think of rural people as red-staters and urban people as blue-staters. I don't identify with either, but consider blue-staters more socially aware.

The interesting thing to me is that if you look at either group closely from a sociological standpoint, one cannot be considered inherently superior to the other. While the rural do suffer from a lack of exposure to ideas and ethnicities, the urban suffer from overexposure to an ideological interpretation of reality that eases the tensions created by the complexity and stresses unique to cities. In cities you are routinely exposed to others who, on an instinctive level, arouse suspicions and fears which, if left unattended, may generate an assortment of pathologies. Thus cities develop implicit rules of conduct to reduce tensions, and those who inhabit them absorb them as part of the culture. It would be unrealistic to expect rural people to know or understand that ideology, because they have little exposure to it beyond what they see in the media.

What I find is that there are limits to how well I can relate to city dwellers, because their cultural exposure tends to confine them to their particular ideological orientation, which, though broader than what one finds in rural areas, still has limitations. For example, it is cities, not the countryside, that foster political correctness. One of the reasons why I like having my own blog is that it permits me to clarify my ideas without having to defend them against the ideological intrusions of those who don't know why they think what they think. Although I realize that even my own ideas have originated in cultural contexts over which I had no control, I am still surprised that so few people are able to recognize how ingested and derivative their ideas may be. When people don't know why they think what they think they take on the character of automatons. If you are able to step back a little from the cultural indoctrination that you've been subjected to the world is a messier place than you ever imagined and certitudes begin to resemble nonsense.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fiction or Memoir?

Some time ago I had a brief exchange with John in which he said that he found memoirs preferable to fiction. Reading Le Clézio reminded me of the benefits of memoirs, but it is still a thorny issue for me to decide what to read. The appeal of fiction is related to our innate attraction to stories, folklore and oral history, which all predate written language and contribute to the fabric of culture. Modern fiction performs some of those functions, but, whether in purely commercial or literary form, it now contains unrelated elements that divert it from some of those earlier purposes. In the simplest terms, fiction's appeal can lie in entertainment, information or aesthetics. Popular fiction consists mainly of the first two, and literary fiction, in theory at least, consists primarily of the third. A memoir could be any of the three, depending on who wrote it and how well it is written.

The problem with fiction is that once you've read enough of it it becomes increasingly less compelling for those who dislike repetition. For example, I have never read any works by Charles Dickens, and at this stage I'm not going to bother, because from what I can gather his novels are excessively sentimental; I'm sure I've already read better ones, and it would probably be torture for me to read Dickens now. Many adults lose interest in fiction and turn to nonfiction, which is more useful in most cases. Some readers like fiction for its information value, where the author knows a lot about a subject or has done extensive research on it. These readers find it more enjoyable to absorb information that way, but I would rather go straight to the sources in nonfiction and skip the extraneous when I'm curious about something. Under these conditions I am confined to aesthetic fiction, which tends to be the most contrived type. You're probably sick of hearing what I have to say on this topic, but the reason I go on about it is that it's my best hope if I'm going to read fiction at all. In general it suffers from deficiencies similar to those that I find in modern art. The works skew toward literary fashions and the pretense of whatever the leading critics, creative writing programs or publishers happen to considered meritorious at any given moment. What I have usually found is that I don't share their taste. Commercialism directly or indirectly places an upper limit on the quality of new fiction, and although literary fiction isn't as commercial as other types, the literary establishment, which is accountable to no one, has been falling down on its job for as long as I've been reading.

At first glance it appears that the reading of memoirs might avert some of these problems. However, there is still a minefield to contend with. These days a memoir is likely to meet the specific agenda of the author and relate to objectives that don't interest me at all. Politicians write them to promote their political careers. Businessmen write them to promote their business careers. Writers write them to promote their literary careers. Many people would be fine with rewriting their life story in order to make themselves appear more desirable than they actually are. Even so, though I haven't as of yet read many memoirs, I think that they have the potential to offer the kind of writing that would suit me best. That would be the writing of an author who has lived a little, has thoughtful observations to make, is articulate and isn't dull and unimaginative or constantly alluding to the works of others. This sounds simple enough, but I can't say that I've come across much writing that meets these criteria. Rousseau's Confessions is a favorite; I liked The African and an excerpt that I read from Julio Ramón Ribeyro. Technically Walden is a memoir, and I liked that. I could have done without Dreams from My Father. Otherwise I've read memoir-like fiction, which sometimes works, e.g. The Mandarins. But fiction lets the author off the hook through the mechanism of the fictive voice; when that is the only voice in a work the author may never be held accountable for misconceptions and untruths present there, which can conveniently be attributed to artistic license; elements within that fiction can be factually incorrect with impunity for the author. Depending on your point of view, an extended fiction can be construed as a lie. I would prefer writing in which the author says "I think that...," taking full responsibility for every word. Frustratingly for me, it is difficult to find honest first-person writing that has been written by someone who has genuine insights, whose motivation is not primarily financial or professional, and who possesses true eloquence. You are more likely to find it in nonfiction, where there is a basic accountability with respect to facts, but the price you pay for that is nonfiction's often impersonal, dry narrative, in which the technical nature of the writing makes it unpalatable at times.

My next reading project will be to identify suitable memoirs or autobiographies to read.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The African

In my quest for good writing I came across The African, by J.M.G. Le Clézio, a short memoir written mainly about his father. The family was split up at the outbreak of World War II, with the mother and children living in Nice and the father working as a rural doctor in Nigeria. After the war they reunited in Nigeria, but by then Le Clézio was already eight, and his father was a stranger to him. The memoir is a thoughtful effort by a son to understand his father, which in this case requires a deep understanding of Africa and the effects it can have on those who live there.

Along the way, Le Clézio seems to have absorbed much of his father's love of the continent and a simmering disapproval of colonialism:
When I read British "colonial" novels of those years, or the years just prior to our arrival in Nigeria – for example Joyce Cary, the author of Mister Johnson – they are completely unfamiliar to me. When I read William Boyd, who also spent part of his childhood in British West Africa, I can't relate to it either. His father was a D.O. (in Accra, Ghana, I believe). I never experienced what he describes – the cumbersome colonialism, the ridiculous antics of the expatriate white society on the coast, all of the pettiness that children take particular notice of, the disdain for the native people, of whom they knew only the faction of servants who had to indulge the whims of their masters' children, and above all, that sort of clique that both unifies and separates children of the same blood and in which they are able to glimpse an ironical reflection of their defects and their masquerades, and that, in a manner of speaking, forms the training ground for racial awareness that, in their case, takes the place of the school of human awareness. Thank God I can say all of that is completely foreign to me....

Where does that sense of deeply rooted repulsion I have felt for the colonial system since my childhood stem from? I must have picked up a word, a thought about the ridiculous behavior of administrators such as the district officer of Abakaliki whom my father took me to see and who lived among a pack of Pekingese dogs that were fed filet of beef and biscuits, and given exclusively mineral water to drink. Or else the tales of Great White Hunters traveling in convoys on lion and elephant hunts, sporting rifles with telescopic sights and exploding bullets who, when they encountered my father in those remote lands, took him for a safari organizer and questioned him regarding the presence of wild animals. My father would answer "In the twenty years I've been living here, I've never seen one, unless you're talking about snakes or vultures."

His mother seems to have shared some of that sentiment:
I can't recall what she said to my brother and me, when she spoke of the country where she'd lived with my father, the place we would join him in one day. I only know that when my mother decided to marry my father and to go and live in Cameroon, her Parisian friends had said to her, "What, with the savages?" and she, after everything my father had told her, simply responded "They're no more savage than the people in Paris."

Parts of the book remind me a little of my childhood, though the contrasts in mine were far less spectacular than his. Le Clézio's father was strict and taciturn, and the rules that children had to follow were more confining than those that exist today:
He was full of idiosyncrasies and conventions, about which I hadn't the slightest inkling: children should never speak at the table without being authorized, they should not run, or play, or laze in bed. They could not eat between meals, and never eat sweet things. They should eat without laying their hands on the table, could not leave anything in their plates and should be careful never to chew with their mouths open.

One cannot help but be moved by Le Clézio's account of the jolt that Africa gave him:
...I remember everything I received when I arrived in Africa for the first time: such intense freedom that it burned inside of me, inebriated me, gave me so much pleasure it was painful. 

I don't mean to speak of exoticism: children are absolute strangers to that vice. Not because they see through beings and objects, but because they see nothing but them: to me a tree, a hollow in the land, a column of carpenter ants, a band of turbulent kids looking for a game, an old man with blurry eyes holding out an emaciated hand, a street in an African village on market day, were every street in every village, every old man, every child, every ant. That treasure is still alive deep within me, it cannot be eradicated. Much more than simple memories, it is made up of basic truths.

This writing has a quiet intensity that, for lack of a better term, some might call "heartfelt." One doesn't often encounter it in literature, and the only other writer whom I can think of offhand who exudes a similar emotional energy is D.H. Lawrence in his early works. Le Clézio is struggling with his past and trying to make sense of it, as must everyone to one degree or another. If, for contrast, you compare this writing to Proust's, Proust seems like one of those spoiled and insular colonial children and has chosen to concentrate on describing social protocol; after several thousand pages, he still hasn't quite figured out what Charles Swann, Robert de Saint-Loup or most of the other characters are all about – will he ever? For me, Proust seems as if he is sleepwalking through life. Although there is something to be said for stylistic elegance in which a certain ambiance is captured or an unusual effect is made, these are not substitutes for real insight. There is as much humanity to be found in this little book as you may ever find elsewhere, and it is encouraging to me that the Nobel Committee for Literature gets things right once in a while.