Friday, September 20, 2019


I started to read a biography of Édouard Manet but gave up. My main reason was that I didn't like the writing style of the author, who seems to be American. In most respects it was a well-researched book, but I thought that it dawdled on irrelevant details and was primarily directed at an American audience. I have noticed over the last few years that American academics and journalists seem to be trained to produce slightly dumbed-down, over-simplified writing, not only with the aim of reaching wide audiences, but because that is the standard for all groups of American readers regardless of their educational backgrounds. It is unfortunate in this case, because, although in many respects Manet's life was that of a boring bourgeoisie, he somehow managed to occupy a pivotal position in the transition from pristine neoclassical paintings to what is now thought of as modern art. Though in a purely aesthetic sense his paintings don't always measure up to the paintings of the Impressionists, who were slightly younger, or the Post-Impressionists, he was the first to paint unflattering depictions of urban life while evoking classical themes: both his painting style and his subject matter were an affront to his contemporaries. However, it seems to me that Manet was less an artistic visionary than a representative of the ubiquitous social changes that occurred in Paris in the late nineteenth century. Those changes favored realism, as in the case of Courbet and Manet, and the visual appreciation of life as it is, as in the case of the Impressionists. I don't actually like Manet's paintings that much, and while he does seem to occupy a pivotal role in the history of art, I now see him more as a mere participant in the broader cultural evolution of his time.

I'm not sure how well the biographies of artists are going to work out for me as reading material. After reading Robert Hughes, most of the authors are likely to be disappointments. I also have a book on Gauguin, but, because it's long, I may save that for winter.

I've more or less resumed my routines, such as yard work, house painting and tree trimming. I haven't done any stargazing in months and may have missed a few good nights in August. September has been unusually cool so far. William has been catching lots of mice lately, so the local mouse population doesn't seem to be adversely affected by climate change. At night he brings them through the cat door onto the porch, and in the morning I usually find a dead mouse, a partially eaten mouse or a live mouse that is hiding in a crack to escape from William. It's a pain in the neck to catch the live mice, which I let out. Most of them are small, and it is easiest to catch them when they climb the screen. I use the same juice glass with a piece of cardboard that I use to catch insects. Last night I locked the cat door so that William had to stay outside and couldn't enter the porch. I also put his bowl of water outside so that he would have plenty to drink. In the morning, the bowl had a dead mouse floating in it. As you can see, dealing with the mice isn't a very pleasant process. Fortunately, after several years of assiduous mouse-blocking, we haven't had any in the house since 2017.

I guess I'll continue to look for new reading materials. In particular, I would like to read about research like Robert Plomin's and David Reich's. I am finding biological topics far more interesting than physics problems. For this reason I'm skipping Sean Carroll's latest book, which discusses quantum mechanics and its unintelligibility. Even though I am a novice as far as the sciences are concerned, I often find science writing preferable to journalism, fiction and other kinds of nonfiction. Because behavioral economics seems to be a potentially interesting break from traditional economics, I am hoping that at some point it will diverge from capitalist propaganda and be put to use in different areas such as social policy and governance. At present, most of the purveyors of economics stupidly perpetuate the myth that human progress depends on the profit motive and the innovations of entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, as far as I know, little or no research has been done to debunk that outlook – it would make for good reading if it existed. At the moment, climate change seems to be reducing public approval of unchecked economic growth, but the wealthy still remain in firm control of the dialogue, at least in the U.S.

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