Wednesday, June 30, 2021


For various reasons, I think that the pandemic put my brain to sleep, and it seems to be waking up a little now. There is still the problem of finding adequate new reading material, though I do have a new book that I'll start one of these days. In this household, it sometimes seems as if we are preparing for Armageddon, and on that front we are certainly better prepared than most people. Besides living in one of the coldest states, far from coastal flooding, and with few right-wing fanatics, we have a propane generator and heat pumps now, so we are prepared for power outages and higher temperatures. If the odd neo-Nazi tries to assault the house, he will probably be shot. I'm considering whether or not I should buy a shotgun just in case there is a larger attack. Actually, I don't care that much whether I die now, since I'm seventy-one, and my father only lived to the age of fifty. His father lived to the age of sixty-eight. In my case, I've figured out most of the things that I wanted to figure out and am already getting tired of ordinary mortals. I'm not very interested in extreme longevity, though, obviously, there is a human instinct for survival.

I've been spending more time on investing than necessary, perhaps because it becomes addictive. In this instance there is an additional incentive, because, with new conditions in the stock market, it seems easier to make money. This situation has arisen due to meme stock investors. What happens is that certain stocks suddenly shoot up in value without good reason, and if you can identify those stocks and buy them in advance, you can make a lot of money very quickly. The people who push up the prices of the stocks are uninformed investors who simply follow recommendations from websites that purport to offer investment advice. In my case, by using more traditional stock analysis, I am occasionally able to identify and buy those stocks and then sell them when memes suddenly drive them up to ridiculous prices. There is a certain amount of luck involved, though, on the other hand, I have an advantage over the meme buyers. However, it now looks as if some of those buyers have wised up – or run out of money – so the rewards are diminishing. A few large institutional investors were caught off guard by this phenomenon and lost billions of dollars by shorting stocks that suddenly surged in price. Because the markets are returning to normal, I am starting to move back to a more traditional portfolio. For a time, it was enjoyable to see big money take a hit, because they have immense computational firepower at their disposal and usually outperform retail investors.

On a larger scale, the phenomenon of meme investing is just one example of how the internet influences choices and encourages irrational behavior. Of course, I'm tired of thinking about Donald Trump, but his success is an excellent example of how the internet expands poor choices in politics. You can now plainly see that, despite not understanding his constituency or having any real connection with them, Trump was suddenly catapulted to the most powerful position in the world. For the remainder of his life, he will be exposed as a charlatan who hardly knew what he was doing but managed to succeed mainly because he was unprincipled, while others, particularly the right-wing media, used him to advance their agendas. When his actions are closely examined in the future, it will increasingly become apparent that Trump had no idea what was going on and was merely following his lifelong habit of inflating his ego and lying in order to enrich himself. This has already been clearly demonstrated in his dealings with Ukraine, and the same picture is emerging from the January 6 riot. Rather than being a shrewd political operative, Trump is merely the accidental beneficiary of irrational behavior fueled by the internet. Investigations can only show that he was stupid, lucky and unscrupulous, and sooner or later he and the people who supported him will be shamed. Not only is it a bizarre situation that millions of people still think that Trump won the 2020 election, it is also a warning of future risks.

I think that meme stocks and the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 are examples of how unregulated technology can have undesirable and potentially disastrous consequences. New examples are appearing at an increasing rate. Thus, I still think that optimists such as Steven Pinker are more than a little naïve. You only have to consider that under slightly different circumstances Trump could have been reelected. That would have meant further erosion of international alliances, inaction on global warming, an increase in economic inequality, the continued collapse of the infrastructure and a mismanaged economy. Besides not caring about any of these issues, Trump doesn't understand them at all. There is some cause for optimism with Biden in the White House, but there is no guarantee that he will be successful in solving the problems at hand.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Sociology of Philosophy II

In my post on this subject last year, I gave my impressions of the field as I experienced it, mostly well in the past. After reading about Bertrand Russell, I thought I'd add a few comments. Ray Monk's biography, I think, is protective of philosophy, though he seems to have had an unspecified animus toward Russell. Alternatively, I think that he is a little too lenient with Wittgenstein, both in the Russell biography and in the earlier Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. This is interesting, because Monk, who is ostensibly a philosopher, may have hidden agendas in his biographies of both Russell and Wittgenstein. I don't think that I have enough information to sort this out clearly, but I would at least like to write down a few thoughts on the matter.

If you have read much of this blog, you will have noticed that I enjoy looking at the underlying psychology of individuals and pondering how they attempt to construct careers in whatever field they undertake. I had never read much of Russell, because his primary work was done in the early 20th century and was not generally studied in philosophy departments when I was in college. Russell was just a popular writer then, and I never paid much attention to him, so Monk's unflattering exposé didn't surprise me much. However, I did read Wittgenstein in college, and, in the interim, Monk's glowing biography of him. Now that I think Wittgenstein wasn't that great either, it seems appropriate to untangle the sociological context of this situation.

I found little to disagree with in the Russell biography, except that Monk probably gave Russell more credit than he deserved. He let the reader believe that Gödel didn't refute Russell's main thesis and even suggested that Russell's work eventually led to the work of Alan Turing, hence, modern computers. As far as I am able to ascertain, this is hyperbole. Monk's earlier biography of Wittgenstein is comparatively glowing and has contributed to Wittgenstein's fame right up to the present. Since it is of no interest to me to reread Wittgenstein and assess his ideas now, I'll just say that I see no evidence that they are or ever were of much importance. Long ago, I also read Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by the philosopher, Norman Malcolm, which contributed to some of the early mystique surrounding Wittgenstein. In that book, Malcolm enthusiastically describes Wittgenstein's visit to Cornell in 1949. I was surprised when I later read that Richard Feynman, who also happened to be at Cornell in 1949, though not while Wittgenstein was visiting, specifically thought that the people in the philosophy department there were a bunch of idiots. Freeman Dyson, the physicist who worked with Feynman, knew Wittgenstein at Cambridge and later made unflattering comments about him. 

In the case of Wittgenstein, it is clear that he was mythologized and had a cult following for a few years, but I am now more inclined to go with the opinions of the physicists, though they would not have been familiar with his ideas. My point is that you can look at most thinkers – in this instance Russell or Wittgenstein – and see how their professional reputations were determined less by objective intellectual standards than by vague sociological factors such as Russell's aristocratic standing and Wittgenstein's fan base. Biographers also play into this, with Monk serving as an advocate of Wittgenstein and, for the most part, a detractor of Russell, at least with respect to his personal conduct.

Most of this is fairly obvious in many domains of life, and if you look at the history of ideas, it is not uncommon to find that some of them can be popular when there is no substantive basis for their support. The funny thing about Wittgenstein's popularity is that his ideas exist almost outside the history of philosophy – they had no precedent, and they have not produced any legacy. In other words, they depended on an ephemeral set of circumstances in a specific academic environment. Also, much of Wittgenstein's popularity today can be attributed to Monk's biography, which is what Monk is best known for.

As I mentioned in one of my posts on the Russell biography, Monk overlooked the fact that Wittgenstein was probably autistic, in the negative sense that autism influenced his ideas and probably made them unintelligible to non-autistic people. Monk was therefore not doing philosophy a service by canonizing Wittgenstein. Academia typically handles problems like this by allowing specialists within a department to hold positions which are incompatible; if you disagree with the ideas of one scholar in your department, you may simply hold a different position, study different works and never engage or reconcile. This is especially common in the humanities, where popularity can easily override objectivity. A similar situation exists now in economics departments, with some economists supporting the traditional rational agent model, with efficient markets, and others supporting behavioral economics, which focuses on human irrationality. The two theories are incompatible. There are no true gatekeepers in academia, which explains how certain ideas and fads can run out of control, and strange phenomena such as political correctness can take root.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life II

The second half of the book centers on Mansfield's development of her literary career and the increasing burden of her health conditions. Her short stories were immediately recognized as being of high quality, and she and Murry both attempted to engineer their future literary successes. That involved getting to know Ottoline Morrell and attending events at Garsington, her home outside Oxford. Through this connection with Bloomsbury artists and writers, they came to know Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Virginia took great interest in Mansfield and liked to talk shop with her, because she noticed that her writing lacked Mansfield's vitality and immediacy.

Mansfield was adventurous and traveled alone to Paris in 1914 during World War I. She had a brief affair with Francis Carco, a writer whom she knew through Rhythm. However, she was put off by his insouciance, and they never developed a relationship. Her relationship with Murry continued, and to me it seems to have been strategic for both of them. There was no sign of any real passion between them, and Murry seemed cold compared to Leonard Woolf, who was always doting on Virginia. In 1916, Mansfield, Murry, Lawrence and Frieda shared a house in Cornwall, but it only lasted for a few weeks. Lawrence and Frieda had ridiculous fights, one of which Mansfield chronicled. It is possible that during this period Mansfield caught her tuberculosis from Lawrence. Later that year, Mansfield met Bertrand Russell, who was then in the process of seeking a lover to replace Ottoline. By then, Tomalin thinks, Mansfield had lost interest in sexual escapades, and she never took Russell's bait. Judging from the experiences of Russell's second and third wives, Dora and Peter, that was a good decision. In any case, Russell was not a literary person and already had a reputation for self-centeredness. I wouldn't be surprised if Ottoline warned Mansfield.

It took some time for Mansfield and Murry to marry, because her husband, George Bowden, was away in the U.S., and she couldn't arrange a divorce. They finally married in 1918. After Mansfield developed tubercular symptoms, she typically spent part of the year in Europe, in the south of France or in Switzerland. Her friend, Ida, increasingly took care of her, and Murry was often away. He became the editor of the Athenaeum, a respected literary magazine, and thenceforth had a better income. Mansfield's stories also began to sell well. Thus, their financial situation improved toward the end of her life. One unpleasant episode occurred at this time. The translator, Floryan Sobieniowski, blackmailed her over letters that she had sent him, which probably showed that one of her early stories could be construed as plagiarized from a then-untranslated story by Chekhov. She paid him to get the letters back.  Mansfield died in Avon, France, at an institution operated by Gurdjieff, in 1923.

To sum up how her friends perceived her at the time, here is a description written by Leonard Woolf:

By nature, I think she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty. When we first knew her, she was extraordinarily amusing. I don't think anyone has ever made me laugh more than she did in those days. She would sit very upright on the edge of a chair or sofa and tell at immense length a kind of saga, of her experiences as an actress or of how and why Koteliansky howled like a dog in the room at the top of a building in Southampton Row. There was not the shadow of a gleam of a smile on her mask of a face, and the extraordinary funniness of the story was increased by the flashes of her astringent wit. I think that in some abstruse way Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and a writer. She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature. At the bottom of her mind she knew this, I think, and it enraged her. And that was why she was so often enraged against Murry. To see them together, particularly in their own house in Hampstead, made one acutely uncomfortable, for Katherine seemed to be always irritated with Murry ... Every now and then she would say sotto voce something bitter or biting.

I think this is a rather perceptive observation. Mansfield and Murry weren't really compatible as a couple, and their marriage may primarily have been a convenient vocational strategy for both of them. I don't think that there is any convincing evidence that Mansfield was a lesbian, though she may have had some bisexual tendencies (many women do). Woolf doesn't mention that she had a somewhat masculine mind, which may have put her at odds with Murry, who, comparatively speaking, was passive and inept.

On the whole, I found this biography interesting. However, Tomalin herself is a literary person, and the book is infused with tidbits that would appeal more to literary types than to general readers. These pertain to the wheedling and pretense that go with the establishment of successful literary careers. Certainly, after reading this, few would find the literary life appealing, particularly if they depended on it for their income. It's a pity that Mansfield didn't live another forty years.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life I

I'm halfway through this biography by Claire Tomalin. I think that Mansfield, who was born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in New Zealand, was one of the best writers of her generation, but, with her premature death in 1923 at the age of thirty-four, she never lived up to her potential. Because I am not finding the details of her life particularly interesting, I am looking more at the literary culture and the arts in England during the period, which coincides with the Belle Époque in France. As you might expect, the arts at the time were far better developed in France, but I am rounding out my knowledge of the English side and have been reading about D.H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell for some time. The broad context for this period is the immense wealth that existed in Europe just before World War I.

Mansfield's parents were nouveaux riches whose parents had moved to New Zealand from Australia, and her father was a successful banker. She was the third of four daughters and also had a younger brother. Compared to her siblings she was independent and rebellious, and I don't think that her mother liked her much. Because of the prestige associated with sending family members to England, the three eldest girls went to London from 1903 to 1906 to study. At the time, Mansfield was considering becoming a cellist or a writer. She met her lifelong friend, Ida Baker, who, despite being of lower intelligence, remained extremely loyal. When the sisters returned to Wellington, Mansfield longed to return to England, and her father allowed her to move there with a small allowance in 1908.

I've read as far as 1914, and it is difficult to see Mansfield's behavior as anything other than disastrous. Within months of arriving in England, she had an affair with Garnet Carrington Trowell, a young musician who worked for a traveling opera company. She became pregnant by Trowell in late 1908, and, since his family disapproved of her, they didn't marry, and she somehow wound up marrying George Bowden, an older Cambridge music scholar whom she hardly knew; she left him on their wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. Mansfield's mother came from New Zealand and took her to Germany, where, apparently, she had a miscarriage. She remained in Germany until 1910 and met Floryan Sobienowski, a Polish translator, who exposed her to Chekov and other writers, and probably infected her with gonorrhea.

Upon her return to England, she had health problems due to the gonorrhea, but made considerable headway in starting a writing career. First she wrote for The New Age, and then for Rhythm, which was edited by John Middleton Murry, who was then an Oxford undergraduate. Rhythm was shut down due to financial problems and was briefly followed by The Blue Review, which also failed. Mansfield and Murry attempted to live in a cottage in the country for her health, but they soon ran out of money and returned to the city. During this period, they met D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley, who were living together while she hadn't yet divorced her husband. Mansfield and Murry had a lot in common with Lawrence and Frieda, since they were poor and interested in writing. While Murry ended up graduating from Oxford and came from a humble background, he was not in the same league as Lawrence or Mansfield as a writer. Mansfield subsequently became a model for Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love. Although that is not my favorite Lawrence novel (Sons and Lovers), this is an indication of the closeness of the relationship with Lawrence. Mansfield came from a privileged background and didn't even know how to cook, but at the time she was no different from most struggling artists.

According to Tomalin, Mansfield typically took control of her relationships with men, though, at heart, she preferred women and may primarily have been a lesbian. I'm not entirely clear on this currently, but it seems that Mansfield was calculating, at least in the sense of being able to manipulate men who were interested in sex. So far, there hasn't really been enough information provided to sort this out conclusively, and the situation is complicated by the fact that Mansfield is still in the "follies of youth" stage of her life. She has made one bad choice after another, and you can therefore only grant her limited credit for her successes. In her defense, I would say that the self-centeredness of her parents, who took no real interest in her outcome as their offspring, must take some of the blame. They ignored her during a time in her life when they knew that she was likely to make mistakes.