Friday, August 26, 2016


A languorous summer seems to be drawing to a close with the arrival of cooler temperatures and rain. Occasionally we retreated to the basement, where the temperature peaks at seventy degrees, to cool off. I have had a greater sense of lethargy this summer than most. All I did was grow tomatoes and go on a couple of trips. The most recent trip was a road trip to Valatie, New York to see the garden of the author of a blog that provides some of the recipes that we use. I especially liked the sprawling, dilapidated old mansion that survives from the early mill days of the region. I also liked having the opportunity to drive at one hundred miles per hour, which awakens me from my torpor. The third annual world meeting of Doubt the Experts took place on August 16, and it may be the last one, because John's parents are selling their summer house in Weybridge and he may not be back. Actually, the meeting consists of two guys sitting at a bar drinking beer and talking.

I continue to think about why I like the writing of Simone de Beauvoir. It is no coincidence that I also like the writing of George Eliot. The emerging idea is that I find slightly masculine women more aesthetically appealing than masculine men or feminine women. My theory is that motivations that are biological in origin infiltrate people's conscious or unconscious goals, and that much of what men do, regardless of their age or vocation, boils down to attracting women (or men, if they're gay). They are competing and making ostentatious displays in order to get attention and win devotees rather than seeking truth or beauty as ends in themselves. You can see this everywhere, from Joseph Smith to Hugh Hefner to Wilt Chamberlain to Charles Manson to Jimi Hendrix to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. The concept of the "rock star" is quintessentially male, and it can also be found in a slightly more subdued form in academia and the arts. In practice, what this means is that, even among male intellectuals and scientists, attracting bimbos may sometimes take precedence over seeking truth. Clear examples are harder to find among the intelligentsia, but think of Saul Bellow or Richard Feynman.

This idea came to me not on a theoretical basis but directly from noticing that there is a qualitative difference in the writing of George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir that other writers are unable to match. Specifically, I perceive that they are trying to express truths, and that for them this takes precedence over entertaining their readers, increasing their incomes or becoming famous, though they may retain a peripheral interest in those aspects. Notably to me, they lack what I think of as male competitiveness: they are not trying to win. I think that cooperation is more present in women than in men, and that, particularly in literary and artistic pursuits, the desire to win tends to compromise the quality of a work. The emphasis is different in most female writing; there is less competition and the emotional takes precedence over the rational. If you've read much of this blog, you will have noticed by now that I'm not a big fan of emotional outpourings.

It is possible that a feminized male writer would also appeal to me, but I haven't found one yet. At first I thought Proust had potential, but I have since decided that he is missing a crucial ingredient: intelligence. So, when I read literature that is supposed to be good, the men usually seem to be showing off and exaggerating their knowledge and insight, and the women usually seem unduly emotional and unrealistic. Unfortunately, George Eliot did not write a memoir, but there is no doubt in my mind that if she had it would have been just as engrossing as Simone de Beauvoir's. Both George Eliot and de Beauvoir were more masculine than most women writers, and, ironically, they even attracted female groupies.

I've started de Beauvoir's The Prime of Life and will be commenting on that. My readers may not share my enthusiasm for de Beauvoir, but if they continue to read this blog they will just have to put up with it, because she has become my imaginary friend.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Sixth Extinction II

The remainder of the book covers several additional topics, including forest ecology in the Amazon, bats with white-nose syndrome, the Sumatran rhino and the Neanderthals. The number of species per acre near the equator is much higher than anywhere else, and the extinction rate there is correspondingly higher. Many species are adapted to narrow temperature ranges at certain elevations in the tropical mountains, and global warming forces both animals and plants to migrate uphill over time. In more temperate regions without mountains, the migration is towards the poles. A chapter is devoted to the effects that humans have had on ecosystems by exposing them to organisms from which they had previously been isolated.

The discussion of invasive species interested me. Ordinarily we hear news about Asian carp or zebra mussels or Asian long-horned beetles, but these make up only a tiny fraction of them. It turns out that earthworms were extinct in New England following the last Ice Age and were reintroduced by colonists. If you look at your yard here, the grass isn't native and the dandelions came from Europe. Even Queen Anne's lace is European. The fact is that invasive species are ubiquitous, and not much attention is paid to them unless they are found to conflict with our preferences in one way or another.

The Anthropocene epoch, as Kolbert describes it, came about both directly and indirectly from the migrations of humans out of Africa that began about a hundred and twenty thousand years ago. The most obvious directly-caused extinctions were the result of hunting by humans of large animals that had slow rates of reproduction. Because of those slow rates, even without excessive hunting a species might become extinct over thousands of years. Other large species such as deer are able to reproduce fast enough to maintain a robust population. The indirect causes of extinction include the introduction of foreign species and the alteration of the atmosphere through the addition of greenhouse gasses. Kolbert says very little about greenhouse gasses or pollution and a lot about introduced species. Both frogs and bats are being killed by fungi that were inadvertently transported from one part of the world to another.

Kolbert discusses our relationship to the Neanderthals in some detail. Although we interbred with them, the evidence points to our causing their extinction. We also seem to have caused the extinctions of several other Homo species since we left Africa. Here Kolbert emphasizes the human resourcefulness that is not evident in any of our close relatives despite having almost identical genetic makeups. It appears that a few small mutations made all the difference.

Right up to the end of the book, Kolbert remains resolutely unphilosophical about the current extinctions. She goes as far as to quote Richard Leaky, who said "Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the Sixth Extinction, but also risks being one of its victims," and Paul Ehrlich, who said "In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches." Kolbert herself says this:

Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are humans! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what's most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that counts to us as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. 

That is as close as she comes to taking a position, and I would have preferred it if she had gone on to suggest altering some of our current practices: what about controlling our population growth and reducing further destruction to the Earth's ecosystems? Kolbert has made a contribution to the discussion of our environment, but this is hardly a call to action.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Sixth Extinction I

I'm slowly making my way through The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, and will break my comments up into two parts. The title refers to the fact that there have been five major mass extinctions over the last half-billion years and that we are in the early stages of a sixth, which is entirely man-made. The text jumps around between early scientific inquiries into the Earth's history and present studies. The chapters I've read so far cover current frog extinctions in Panama related to the spread of a fungus by humans, the disappearance of the American mastodon about thirteen thousand years ago, which presumably was caused by Native Americans, the hunting to extinction of the great auk in the nineteenth century, the asteroid that caused the fifth extinction and the acidification of the oceans resulting from the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most of this material will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to maintain a basic level of scientific literacy, but, unfortunately, that group is in a minority and books like this are a necessary public service.

Although Kolbert is a clear writer with a precise literary style, I am not finding the book engaging. This is because she follows contemporary journalistic practices that eschew linear exposition and bold theorizing in favor of anecdotal reportage sprinkled with hard facts. She efficiently describes the appearance, offices, musical choices and speech habits of scientists and the exotic locations where they conduct their research, but to me this is merely a contrived technique taught to journalists that is meant to draw the reader into a story. I find that it makes the writing disjointed – it is harder to connect the main ideas, if there are any. I prefer to read scientists like E.O. Wilson who tell you what they think and why they think it instead of beating around the bush like this. At times Kolbert seems more interested in literary travel writing than in science. And if scientists are interesting people, you would never know it from reading this book.

Even so, Kolbert does manage to pack a lot of information into the book, which she has researched thoroughly. In fact, this extinction language is far more appropriate than the global warming language that has captivated the media, because global warming is really just one aspect of the ongoing environmental disaster caused by humans, and the enormity of the situation is better captured in the context of the major biological events that have occurred on the planet since the Cambrian period. Extinction language captures the full impact of human destructiveness, and this kind of long-term thinking underlies some of the positions that I have taken on this blog: as a species our self-conceptions are often radically at odds with the reality of what we are collectively doing at this moment.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Ruminating over Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, I've been considering why I prefer writers like de Beauvoir to others and am concluding that it's the seriousness that they offer. Most writing, even ostensibly serious nonfiction such as philosophy, is often little more than entertainment and amusement, as Professor Laporte noted. As I've mentioned previously, there are commercial and vocational aspects to writing which encourage publishers and authors to attract as many readers as possible, or, in the case of professionals, to advance their careers. Among voluntary readers, the tendency to prefer writing that makes you feel good is always going to be stronger than the tendency to prefer writing that startles or unsettles you. There isn't much of a market for disturbing books, because most people don't want to spend money on something that makes them feel bad. Even so, hardly anyone would be completely happy knowing that they live in a bubble, and if an author can provide just enough truth to leave his or her readers feeling in the know, but without causing them to drastically rethink their worldviews, everyone can be happy.

It is a little difficult to reframe what de Beauvoir does in an American context. She is criticizing her class, and the class structure in America is less defined than it was in France in the last century. Moreover, the language of social criticism in the U.S. has been channeled into narratives such as rich versus poor, white versus black or Native American versus colonist that hardly mention the internal shortcomings of the middle class. Generally, the middle class is held up as a model that provides a life without either poverty or the corruption associated with excessive wealth. Because of the popularity of religion here, there isn't much room for a narrative about an atheist who escapes the oppression of the religious bourgeoisie, which unfortunately constitutes a large percentage of the American population. There doesn't seem to be a de Beauvoir equivalent who trashed the middle-class establishment for trying to force her to live an intellectually bankrupt life: the closest the U.S. came to that was the equal rights movement, which never suggested that life in the middle class was stupid and merely asserted the right of every individual to live in a manner comparable to middle-class white males. From the point of view of someone like de Beauvoir, there isn't much depth to the emphasis on equal rights in the U.S., because it assumes without question that, not only is a bourgeois life desirable in itself, but that religion ought to play an important role in it.

To be sure, over the years in the U.S. there have been minor episodes in which American orthodoxy was questioned. During the 1960's and early 1970's, there were elements of anti-materialism in the hippie movement. However, in that case, the short-lived movement was led by the children of the privileged. More recently, the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, made atheism a popular topic for public consumption, but they haven't made a dent in American culture as of yet. Even the best-known American radical, Noam Chomsky, finds it easier to rail against American imperialism than to critique the American consumer, whom he treats as a victim of corporate greed rather than an intellectually deficient conformist.

A country without a cadre of serious thinkers who are recognized as such by the public will predictably elect presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama and nominate candidates like Donald Trump; the literature will be second-rate, and the national heroes will be professional athletes.

Enough of that. I've started to read The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, which will probably be the topic of my next post.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter II

I've just finished reading the book and have to say, in the feeling of the moment, that it's the best memoir I've read so far. The ending, in context, with the tragic death of de Beauvoir's childhood friend, Zaza, is truly moving and perhaps crystallizes the outlook that de Beauvoir developed and held for the remainder of her life. Although there is some girlishness in the book that I don't care for, de Beauvoir's portrayal of the struggles she faced growing up in a bourgeois French family early in the last century is illuminating to me. Some aspects of her path to maturity are bizarrely reminiscent of the machinations in Jane Austen's novels of the previous century.

The atmosphere in de Beauvoir's household had deteriorated significantly by the time she began her undergraduate work at the Institut Sainte-Marie and the Institut Catholique, where she studied literature, languages and mathematics. She had already declared herself an atheist to her mother, and her father would have preferred a suitable marriage to her planned career of teaching at a lycée. His conservative bourgeois background became evident as soon as Simone began to buck the system. The conflict was exacerbated by the fact that she continued to live at home, even during the academic year, and was completely dependent on her parents financially. They disapproved of much of her curriculum and intrusively monitored her by reading all of her mail, while providing her with a small allowance. She was not permitted to dress fashionably or wear makeup. She fell into despair and desperately sought a meaning to her life.

In college she developed a temporary crush on her literature instructor, Robert Garric, and began a quasi-romantic relationship with her cousin, Jacques Laiguillon. Here is how she describes herself at the time:

Since my infancy I had always been headstrong, self-willed, a creature of extremes, and proud of it. Others might stop half-way in their quest for faith or in the expression of their scepticism, their desires, their plans: I despised their half-heartedness. I always carried my emotions, my ideas, my enterprises to the bitter end; I didn't undertake anything lightly; and now, as in my earliest childhood, I wanted everything in my life to be justified by a kind of absolute necessity. This stubbornness, I realized, deprived me of certain qualities; but there was never any question of departing from my fixed intention; my 'serious side' was the whole of me, and I very much wanted to remain a whole person.

Jacques was far less serious, less intellectual and less reliable than Simone, and he misled her repeatedly. It is difficult to see why she put up with him at all, and I surmise that she was still immature and wanted to leave the door open to a marriage that would satisfy her parents. Jacques and Simone carried on for several years without so much as a kiss, and finally, without telling Simone in advance, he arranged to marry a completely uninteresting woman who had a large dowry. It was all downhill for Jacques from there; his wife eventually kicked him out; he was penniless and died of malnutrition at the age of forty-six. De Beauvoir seems to have loved him: she bends over backwards in this memoir to highlight his positive attributes – which I don't find convincing in the least.

Zaza, encouraged by Simone, also attended the Institute Sainte-Marie and faced pressures from her mother, who pointedly wanted her to marry properly and disapproved of Simone's influence, which she thought had put Zaza on the wrong track. Zaza was far more volatile emotionally than Simone, and when she had a potential husband lined up, Jeanne Padrelle (a pseudonym for Maurice Merleau-Ponty), whom she had met through Simone, he evaded commitment, and this, in conjunction with pressures from her mother, was too much for her to take: she became ill and abruptly died. At the close of this volume, with Zaza's death, the feeling is that bourgeois life puts ridiculous pressures on women, and that they should fight back.

The doctors called it meningitis, encephalitis; no one was quite sure. Had it been a contagious disease, or an accident? Or had Zaza succumbed to exhaustion or anxiety? She has often appeared to me at night, her face all yellow under a pink sun-bonnet, and seeming to gaze reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death. 

After the publication of this memoir, de Beauvoir was told that Zaza's parents had hired a detective to check Merleau-Ponty's background. They had learned that he was illegitimate and had forced him to back out of the marriage by threatening to scandalize his family.

Regarding de Beauvoir's take on the intrusiveness of bourgeois society, it is worth mentioning that for her the problem was not men per se:

Their friendliness prevented me from ever taking up that 'challenging' attitude which was later to cause me so much dismay when I encountered it in American women: from the start, men were my comrades, not my enemies. Far from envying them, I felt that my own position, from the very fact that it was an unusual one, was one of privilege.

De Beauvoir's life began to improve when she moved on to the Sorbonne and excelled academically, becoming, at the age of twenty-one, the youngest person ever to qualify to teach philosophy in France. More importantly, she had exposure to some genuinely interesting people for the first time in her life.

I was finishing for a professor called Laporte a dissertation for my diploma on Hume and Kant; from nine in the morning to six in the evening I was glued to my desk at the Nationale [library]: I hardly took half an hour off for a sandwich; sometimes I would half-doze in the afternoons, and sometimes I even fell sound asleep. In the evenings, at home, I tried to read: Goethe, Cervantes, Chekhov, Strindberg. But I had headaches. I sometimes wanted to weep for weariness. And philosophy, at least as it was taught at the Sorbonne, was not at all comforting. Bréhier gave excellent lectures on the Stoics; but Brunschvig kept repeating himself; Laporte pulled every system except Hume's to pieces. He was the youngest of our professors; he had a little mustache, wore white spats, and followed women in the streets: once he had accosted one of his own students by mistake. He handed me back my dissertation with a fairly good mark and some ironical comments: I had made the mistake of preferring Kant to Hume. He invited me to his home, in a fine apartment on Avenue Bosquet, to talk to me about my work. 'Great qualities; but very antipathetic. Style obscure; a false profundity: when one thinks of what one has to say in philosophy!' He considered all of his colleagues one by one, particularly Brunschvig, then all the old masters. The philosophers of antiquity? They were stupid fools. Spinoza? A monster. Kant? An impostor. That left only Hume. I objected that Hume didn't solve any of the practical problems: he shrugged his shoulders: 'There are no practical problems.' No. One must simply look upon philosophy as an amusement, and one had the right to prefer other forms of entertainment. 'So that after all it's all a matter of convention!' I suggested. 'I know,' he added, 'that scepticism isn't fashionable. All right: go and find yourself a more optimistic doctrine than mine.'  He accompanied me to the door: 'Delighted you came! You're bound to get through the examination,' he concluded, with an air of distaste. His attitude was probably healthier but less comforting than the vaticanations of Jean Baruzi.

I tend to agree with Laporte on Hume, but this anecdote is also interesting in that it shows that some Sorbonne professors were described as at least a little depraved well before Michel Houellebecq depicted one that way.

I was surprised that while at the Sorbonne de Beauvoir got into the habit of patronizing some real dives: she went, usually with Poupette, to bars and nightclubs, got drunk on gin fizzes and danced with whoever asked her. On occasion she put herself at risk, but apparently she always arrived home intact.

Eventually she came into contact with Sartre and his inner circle; they had the reputation of elitists and bad boys. They disdained most of the other philosophy students and avoided them like the plague. Of the three (Andre Herbaud, a pseudonym for René Maheu, Paul Nizan and Jean-Paul Sartre), she first got to know Herbaud quite well. However, Sartre was the most impressive to her: besides genuinely hating the bourgeoisie, he was the most intellectually energetic person she'd ever met and was not an academic type at all; he liked literature, the arts and contemporary American music as much as philosophy, just as she did.

How was it that I managed to fit in with them so quickly? Herbaud had taken care not to shock me, but when they were all together the three 'comrades' didn't pull their punches. Their language was aggressive, their thoughts categorical, their judgements merciless. They made fun of bourgeois law and order; they had refused to sit the examination in religious knowledge: I had no difficulty in agreeing with them on that score. But I was still, in many respects, the dupe of bourgeois humbug; they jabbed a pin in every inflated idealism, laughed high-minded souls to scorn – in fact, every kind of soulfulness, the inner life, the marvelous, the mysterious, and the precious all fell under their lashing contempt; on every possible occasion – in their speech, their attitudes, their gestures, their jokes – they set out to prove that men were not rarefied spirits but bodies of flesh and bone, racked by physical needs and crudely engaged in a brutal adventure that was life. A year before, they would have scared me; but I had made much progress since the beginning of the academic year and I very often felt the need for stronger meat than that to which I was accustomed. I soon understood that if the world these new friends opened up to me seemed crude, it was because they didn't try to disguise its realities; in the end, all they asked of me was that I should dare to do what I had always longed to do: to look reality in the face. It did not take me long to make up my mind to do so.

She soon recognized that "Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion" that she had longed for since she was fifteen: "he was the double in whom I found my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence."

Thus the postwar generation of French intellectuals was born, for better or for worse. I have not been impressed much by what little I know of their serious oeuvres and don't consider Sartre or de Beauvoir to be major thinkers. Their lasting legacy is probably de Beauvoir's influence on the feminist movement of the 1970's. To me, existentialism isn't really a comprehensive philosophical position, and I feel no need to explore it further. Unfortunately, as boring as the practice of it may be, science continues to produce the most important ideas for mankind, and the type of thinking done by Sartre and de Beauvoir and intellectuals everywhere ever since is mainly a relic of the past. It must also be noted that de Beauvoir, by her own admission, is not a particularly imaginative writer. However, these caveats only slightly detract from her value to me, and I think that she is as intelligent a confidante as one could hope to find. I have yet to come across any American writer with de Beauvoir's perspicacity. On the contrary, Americans seem wedded to the idea that the bourgeois lifestyle should be made available to all, a belief that would make her cringe. Hence I plan in due course to work my way through the remainder of her memoirs no matter how long it takes.