Tuesday, March 13, 2018


I had completely run out of books that I wanted to read, and now the ones I ordered are starting to trickle in. To keep expenses low, I generally buy "very good" or "fine" used books when they are available, and some of them ship from overseas. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, is on its way from Australia. I got out of the habit of going to libraries and bookstores, because the odds of finding something I like through those sources aren't good. And I prefer to keep books on hand indefinitely in case I want to refer to them later. Every few years I clear out books that no longer interest me in order to make space for newer ones.

I've been looking at a couple of books of Vivian Maier's photographs. Some of the photographs are quite excellent. However, there is little or no context provided by the editor, John Maloof, in part because they were accidentally found. His first book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, provides no information at all on individual photographs, e.g., location and date. They appear to have been taken in New York between 1951 and 1955 and in Chicago starting in 1956. The other book, Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, identifies the year and location for most. There is some duplication between the two books, and Self-Portraits includes several photographs of her which could have been taken by someone else, or she may have set up a camera to take them – no explanation or theory is provided. The photographs in Street Photographer are printed as duotones in black and sepia, which gives them a dramatic mood and added contrast, and Self Portraits is printed in ordinary four color process, without the sepia, and contains several color photographs.

The photographs themselves cover a variety of subjects. There are street scenes with closeups of individuals and ones with wider fields showing many people. There are a few shots of inanimate objects with unusual shadows. Her photographs called "self-portraits" comprise several types. Most are clearly intended as self-portraits, as, when looking through a store window, she photographed her reflection from a mirror inside, or when she framed a picture with a conspicuous shadow of herself in the foreground. Her reflection and shadow seem like signatures to a photograph, and her shadow sometimes adds a sinister element, with her imposing hat and long coat. Others may be accidental self-portraits. She liked to hide in recessed doorways to shops that had mirrors on the outside, because this enabled her to photograph the reflections of people on the street without being noticed. It may have been an accident that she appeared in them. However, she clearly was fascinated by reflections, whether from glass, mirrors, hubcaps or yard globes, and she liked to incorporate shadow effects in her compositions. Although I still think they're very good, I am not as impressed with most of the self-portraits as I was previously. Her best shots, I think, are either closeups of people with excruciatingly clear details or complex street scenes with different people and groups all going about their day. There is an astounding photograph of Third Avenue in New York City, looking south toward the Chrysler Building, when the Third Avenue El was still in operation. Some of her street people are just as striking as Diane Arbus's, and her compositions seem less contrived. Arbus had an agenda that is missing in Maier.

I have wondered about the ethics of distributing Vivian Maier's photographs. It seems that her intent was to keep them private, and that she did not think about being "discovered," even posthumously. As an intensely private person, I think that she would have been horrified to see these books in circulation. Yet she took no action that might have influenced their distribution, and her inaction has been a net benefit to the public.

On my next post I'll say something about Richard Feynman.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


One of the most frustrating scientific writers for me has been Steven Pinker. I concur with him in that he is a proponent of the scientific method and is critical of intellectuals as a group, particularly the anti-scientific ones in the humanities, but he then goes on to make uninformed pronouncements, like a reigning king to his court, with congratulatory pats on the back from his friend, Bill Gates. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, argues that we are following a trend that started with the Enlightenment, in which the world has gradually become a better place, and that doomsayers are too pessimistic, given the empirical data showing continuous improvements in the human condition. It is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of Pinker's views from reviews, which are inconsistent, but his main argument, insofar as I can make one out, seems inadequate. In any case, I'm not going to read this book, because I see no evidence that I would find it either informative or persuasive. Therefore, as I have done with fiction that I dislike, I will discuss Pinker at arm's length, mostly as a launching point to clarify my own perspective, which doesn't seem to match Pinker's or most of his critics'.

It is undeniable that many statistics seem to support Pinker's main thesis: people live longer, technology has made life easier, food is relatively plentiful, educational levels are higher, etc. There is a lot of truth to meliorism, the idea that the human condition can be improved by our efforts. This term may not exactly match Pinker's view, but it seems to approximate it. George Eliot invented the word "meliorist" to describe herself. She was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, which is a suitable position for a realist. In the mid-nineteenth century, intellectuals were tossing around various versions of positivism, including that of Auguste Comte, and meliorism became her chosen point of view. However, Pinker seems to have concocted a rather brash argument, and there are three main caveats that I offer here: first, happiness can't be quantified outside a specific cultural context; second, the concept of "better," when applied to the human condition, is not necessarily meaningful within a Darwinian framework; and third, so-called improvements could abruptly evaporate at any time due to unfavorable circumstances.

From time to time I have wondered how people would react if you transported them from the past to the present. Those from the near past, say, 1800, might be able to absorb some of the advantages now available, but they would still have to make adjustments, which could be stressful, in much the same way that it is for immigrants currently arriving in the U.S. from less-developed countries. In their case, they would probably agree that they had made progress, but they would probably still feel somewhat uncomfortable in their new environment and not see themselves as fully integrated with American society. It is not uncommon for immigrants to return home when they have the opportunity. Those from the distant past, say, fifteen thousand years ago, would be bewildered, and might not be able to adapt at all. In their case, one can't make facile judgments about their happiness. If they were happy wandering through the forest, hunting prey, picking nuts and berries and living in temporary shelters, they would be objectively happy, and if they were unhappy living in an apartment in a city, working in a factory and obtaining their food from the local Kroger, they would be objectively unhappy. If they didn't care whether they lived to be eighty instead of forty, they might not see any benefit to increased longevity. I don't think that Pinker recognizes that happiness is relative, which means that it cannot be viewed independently from the values within individual cultures. He seems to engage in a form of cultural imperialism when he says that those who live in the developed world now are happier than those who lived in earlier times.

This criticism relates to the second criticism, in which evolution is understood not as a directed process but as a random process with no teleological aim. Though Pinker seems to avoid teleological language, the concept may lurk in his ideas. From a Darwinian point of view, life on earth is usually perfect, because the life forms that exist during any time period are the ones best adapted to the existing environment as long as it is relatively stable. Once you state that there is a process in place leading to a specific outcome, you open the door to religious interpretations, such as the presence of an "invisible hand" which guides humans toward future perfection. Given what we know of evolution, ideas like that are absurd. In a strict Darwinian sense, the main thing that has happened since the beginning of the Enlightenment is increased reproductive success among humans, which has caused the world population to grow from about one billion in 1800 to about 7.6 billion today. While this does ostensibly appear beneficial to humans, it has been accompanied by planet-wide environmental changes which are precipitating climate change and mass extinctions of other species, and I'm not sure just how wonderful population growth has been. Pinker also ignores what I call radical Darwinism, in which moral behavior, rather than indicating an advancement of modern humans over earlier ones, is itself an arbitrary evolutionary adaptation which could disappear just as fast as it arose. It seems possible that, like many thinkers in the humanities, Pinker has unwittingly absorbed a somewhat theological position, in which morality is seen to exist outside nature, as if placed there by God. That is hardly a position that can be supported by empirical data.

My third criticism is that Pinker doesn't know where this all leads. Apparently, he isn't familiar with investing and has never heard the phrase "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," which applies not only to investments but to almost everything other than laws of nature. Even with many signs pointing in a positive direction for mankind, there are multiple events that could change the apparent trajectory, and although Pinker may address some of them in his book, the fact is that no one, including Pinker, is sufficiently omniscient to avert all possible future disasters. I find him ignorant and arrogant in his assertion that existential risk is a "useless category," and there are certainly many academics who would agree with me.

Besides the above, I am disappointed with Pinker in that, like other psychologists I've critiqued on this blog, he seems not to apply recent research on cognitive limitations to himself or his peers. The evidence is now incontrovertible that we don't think clearly, are poor at processing large amounts of information, don't individually know much and often engage in impulsive, irrational behavior, which we can't escape because of our biological provenance. In particular, psychologists act as if they are immune to confirmation bias. Like Daniel Kahneman, Pinker seems to think that, although most people are subject to various cognitive dysfunctions, the smartest people somehow escape them, or at least they are able to work around them. Beyond the fact that they are deluding themselves, they are lending support to the existence of an elite, competent class which includes them. Enlightenment Now is music to the ears of people like Bill Gates, who love the idea that they are improving the future of mankind through their philanthropic work. But are they? Although everyone would agree that Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy, how smart is he? As a distant observer, I see no evidence that Gates has any particular talent beyond coding and building a software monopoly. If he had never been born, we would still have PC's, the differences being that Microsoft probably wouldn't exist and there would probably be no operating system called Windows. Gates's main skill seems to have been to recognize a business opportunity and capitalize on it. To be sure, that was a difficult and complex task, but it seems likely that Gates is significantly less competent in other areas. The same goes for Steven Pinker outside the field of cognitive psychology. Thus, when Gates and Pinker team up, one ought to be wary of their self-congratulatory tone, which, finally, is little more than self-approving hype. I have no objection to the modest, balanced meliorism suggested by George Eliot, which accords well with my understanding of eusociality, but I become skeptical when others use similar ideas to inflate their stature.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Over the last few years, ever since I purchased a decent set of speakers, when the opportunity has arisen I have studied the popular music that I used to listen to, and I have been trying to determine how various performers from that period in my life stack up qualitatively. I started out by listening to the Allman Brothers Band, which I hadn't paid much attention to earlier, since they were latecomers, with At Fillmore East recorded in 1971, and, from a musical standpoint, I currently think that they were the best. I have also been listening to Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who died in 1990. Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits, is another good guitarist, but his albums are more obviously commercial than the others. I still prefer Duane Allman, who, in collaboration with Dickey Betts and other members of the group, made what, as far as I know, is the best live rock album ever recorded. I listened to Lynard Skynard, and still like "Sweet Home Alabama," but they were not on par with the Allman Brothers musically. I also revisited The Doors, who became popular in 1967 with "Light My Fire," and decided that although I like Jim Morrison's voice and Ray Manzarek's keyboard, they were a group of narrow interest, probably because Jim Morrison was a little crazy. I also listened to Jethro Tull's Stand Up, which was released in 1969; I became interested in that group during my hippie summer in Bloomington, Indiana in 1970, and have decided that, even though it was an innovative album, in hindsight it's good but not great. Most recently, I listened to Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, which was released in 1967 and was their breakout album. That was a significant year for me, and the first time that I took hallucinogenic drugs. Hearing it now, I still get a kick out of it, because it reminds me of the psychedelic days, when Timothy Leary was a cult figure – an era which seems to have vanished entirely from human consciousness. Surrealistic Pillow has musical limitations due to the talents of its members. In the 1960's, popular musical groups formed rapidly, and some groups had hits before they had become seasoned performers. However, with Grace Slick's voice, then-current musical innovations and cultural changes associated with the anti-war movement and the rise of drug use, it is an interesting sound and can be seen as a cultural signifier. Listening to that album is de rigueur if you want to fully understand Californian history during that period. I miss the days of long musical riffs, because the lyrics in popular music tend to be awful. Even though I'm sick of Bob Dylan and don't think that he deserved a Nobel Prize by any stretch of the imagination, he was, in my opinion, about the only popular performer who produced decent lyrics during the 1960's.

In other news, I have been wavering on what to read next. I considered reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft, but decided that, since it was published in 1792, it would be difficult to relate it to the modern world. Wollstonecraft was one of the most important female thinkers ever, and I enjoyed her biography, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon. I've ordered another short book by Richard Feynman, which I'm sure to like, but it probably won't be as good as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" I've also ordered a long biography of William Morris, which is a sign that I'm really hitting rock bottom. Given that my style might be described as "frugal ascetic," you may not think that I would be interested in fashion or design. However, I have always liked some of William Morris's designs, particularly his wallpapers. I like the architecture of Gothic cathedrals and some of the motifs in pre-Christian English art. Generally, I don't care for English artists, including those in the Bloomsbury Group, but William Morris seems to have produced some works that I can appreciate. Although you would never know it from looking at me, I probably have fashion awareness in my genes. My father's father came from a line of tailors and was a director at Liberty & Co., which apparently was Oscar Wilde's favorite store. My father's mother came from a line of hosiers, hatters and furriers. On my mother's side, although they made most of their money importing pianos, her parents later owned a ready-to-wear shop in Athens. I am tired of thinking about politics and hope that I can maintain a stream of books to read that will provide a more constructive and satisfying use of time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife II

The remainder of the book was a little tedious to read, but on the whole I have found it rewarding. Vivian Maier, from a research standpoint, is an extremely challenging topic. If a few business people hadn't chanced upon her possessions, it seems likely that no one would ever have heard of her, and the current situation, in which she is a famous dead photographer, would never have arisen. She would have been nothing more than an eccentric hoarder who was almost forgotten before she had even died. The saga continues, because copyright issues remain, the full extent of Maier's work is not known to the public, and further details about her life may yet emerge. Bannos's writing style is somewhat academic, and therefore somewhat less readable than it might have been. Structurally, the book is not chronological, so it jumps back and forth in time, rather than presenting the information in a more intelligible historical sequence. The story of her life is interwoven with her ascent as a popular photographer after her death, with grating transitions in the text. I have had to edit my previous post as various details of Maier's life became clearer to me.

Vivian Maier is particularly problematic, because she does not seem to have made any effort to forge a career as a photographer. The evidence indicates that she simply enjoyed her photographic routine and didn't care about an audience, friendships, intimacy or family life. From a strictly artistic standpoint, her work is complicated by the fact that she did not generally perform or supervise the production of prints of her photographs, leaving most of those choices to strangers whom she never met. In addition, she took thousands of photographs, and it is not known exactly which ones she thought were satisfactory or why. Her brother, Karl, with whom she had no contact as an adult, spent part of his life in a psychiatric institution, and, given her eccentricities, it would be reasonable to assume that she also had an unusual psychological profile. Nevertheless, to the extent that her photographs speak for themselves, she definitely had a photographic talent, and, as Bannos documents, she owned cameras which were state-of-the-art for the time and tried an assortment of photographic techniques in the pursuit of the particular results that she wanted, and in this respect she seems to have been no different from most artists.

Maier's adult life as a photographer falls into two main periods, based on geography. After her trip to Europe in 1950-1951, she remained in New York working as a nanny, and she became a competent street photographer, producing a large batch of photographs. In 1955, she briefly moved to Los Angeles and obtained a nanny position there. She explored the area, but apparently didn't like it, and the same year she moved to San Francisco, where she found another job. Throughout her life, one of her photographic subjects was celebrities, Hollywood stars in particular, but she didn't like Los Angeles and later disparaged it as a kind of wasteland. Apparently, she didn't like San Francisco either, and by early 1956, she had moved to the Chicago area for unknown reasons, and she spent the remainder of her life there, other than vacations. Her longest employment was in Highland Park, but she also held positions throughout the North Shore and in other suburbs.

Maier maintained great privacy with her employers, requesting a lock for her door if there wasn't one on it already, and as time passed she accumulated a vast hoard of objects, which became heavy and bulky, in one case requiring her employer to put a brace beneath her room in order to support the sagging floor. Some of her hoarding seems compulsive, particularly her penchant for saving newspapers and photographs of them. As a photographer, she seemed to have enjoyed the process more than the product in many cases, and she was skilled at stalking her subjects, usually taking a series of photographs of them in rapid succession. She spent most of her off-hours walking around with cameras wherever she went, and sometimes, on excursions, she neglected the children who were in her charge.

The most challenging biographical aspect of Maier's life is that she was secretive and had no known significant relationships. After she left New York at the age of 29, she never saw any family members again, except during a brief visit to France in 1959. There only remain anecdotal accounts of conversations she had, and sometimes she would come into contact with a person regularly without divulging her name. For example, she spoke several times to a lifeguard, who also had photographic interests, at the beach in Gillson Park in Wilmette (where I used to go). Her employers obtained varying amounts of information from her, but none of them knew her well, because she always remained private and independent. Her personal manner was often imperious, and as a nanny she seems to have resembled a Germanic Mary Poppins. In fact, though she hardly knew him, her personality may have been inherited from her father, who was a German-speaking Austro-Hungarian. She always claimed to be French, which was convenient for her vocation, but she actually was American and had only spent six years in France. In conversation, she was opinionated and condescending toward Americans. For her, New York City was culturally superior to the rest of the country. She was well-informed about the news and owned many books, but Bannos doesn't seem to know which books she read, perhaps because those were the first things to go when her possessions were sold. Retrospectively, there is no large body of information readily available about her, because she was basically an anonymous person throughout her life. Imagine the difficulties that would confront a biographer if they attempted to document an unknown person like you, who had left no written trail, had barely entered into the consciousness of others in the course of their life and was no longer available for interviews. In Maier's case there is the enormous quantity of photographs and film that themselves document her whereabouts and activities, which simplifies matters in some respects but doesn't answer all of the questions. There is a point at which the paltry accumulated anecdotes about Maier seem insurmountable and inadequate.

Bannos also had to deal with the media hype about Vivian Maier generated by promoters who didn't know much about her or conduct any serious research themselves. The film, Finding Vivian Maier, is primarily a promotional one for the benefit of John Maloof, who had been violating copyright laws along with several others in the distribution of her work. The book devotes quite a bit of space to copyright issues for this reason. I would have preferred it if Bannos had allocated more space to Maier's photographs instead. Many pages are filled with descriptions of photographs that aren't included in the book, and, with this leaving me rather frustrated, I have ordered a couple of books of her photographs in order to see them, because that is what remains of the greatest interest to me, given that any additional information about Maier is likely to be piecemeal and incomplete.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife I

I'm halfway through this biography, which is written by Pamela Bannos, a professor of photography at Northwestern University. Vivian Maier came to my attention when I saw the film, Finding Vivian Maier, in December, 2014 and commented here under "Art as Historical Record." The film offered an incomplete picture of Maier and her work, and this book is providing greater clarity, though many aspects of Maier's life remain a mystery. Bannos has done a lot of digging, and the book reads like a combination of detective work and a history of photography.

The actual circumstances of the discovery of Vivian Maier's photographs seem different from what I recall in the film. Maier was living in an apartment on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park, Illinois, and had placed most of her possessions in several storage units. The contents included negatives, prints, short films, slides, books and magazines that she had collected over the course of her life. Apparently, ownership of the storage units changed, and since no one was making payments for her units, the contents were put up for auction. In 2007, various resellers bought portions of the contents at low prices without knowing exactly what they had or where Vivian Maier was, and they almost immediately began selling items on eBay. In November, 2008, Vivian Maier slipped on ice near her apartment and hit her head. She never recovered and died in 2009 at the age of 83. Some of the resellers saw her obituary and identified her as the photographer at that time. There has been a lot of fanfare about Vivian Maier, including worldwide exhibitions of her work, but many of the people who have been promoting her, including the makers of Finding Vivian Maier, have primarily been entrepreneurs rather than art historians or photography experts, and this is one of the first books on Maier of biographical value.

Part of my interest in Maier is that I lived in proximity to her, though not always simultaneously. She worked as a nanny in Highland Park, Illinois, where I later lived for nine years, and I drove past her apartment on Sheridan Road many times while she was still living there. My family also once lived in the same neighborhood in Manhattan where she once lived. I think that some of her photographs are good, and that she has captured events in a way that effectively records the culture and style in various locations at specific times. In addition, there are psychological clues in her photographs that are indicative of her background and worldview and reflect a level of self-expression in her work that gives it an artistic flavor.

Many aspects of Maier's background were grim. Her maternal grandmother, Eugenie Jassaud, grew up on a farm in southeastern France and in 1896 became pregnant by a farmhand at the age of 15. In 1901 she sailed to New York, leaving behind her illigitimate daughter, Marie, and never returned to France. She became a cook for wealthy families in Manhattan and on estates in the surrounding areas, and, though never wealthy herself, she lived in opulent surroundings for much of her life. Marie was brought to the U.S. in 1914 at the age of 17 and lived with her mother until adulthood. She became a domestic servant in Manhattan and married a Hungarian immigrant. They first had a son, Karl, in 1920, and Vivian was born in 1926; they separated permanently around the time of Vivian's birth. Karl apparently didn't live with Vivian for long, and brother and sister hardly knew each other. Karl became a petty criminal and was incarcerated. With what little information is available, Marie seems to have been an ineffectual and irresponsible person, receiving financial assistance from her mother well into adulthood. In 1932, she returned to France with Vivian, then six years old, and lived there until 1938, when they returned to Manhattan. Vivian thus received French schooling for six years. By 1943, at the age of seventeen, Vivian had left home and was living as a lodger and working in a doll factory. Her grandmother, Eugenie, died in 1948, and Vivian returned to France in 1950 partly to settle her estate, which included 170 acres and a farmhouse. Although Vivian may have taken photographs before 1950, her trip to France included an extended tour of Europe, during which she took her first known ones.

Photography was emerging as a career and as an art form during Maier's lifetime, and it seems probable that she considered it as a potential career early on. She may have entered popular photography contests and lost. There is very little direct input from knowledgeable sources about Maier so far in the book, and I am hoping that there will be more information from people who actually knew her later on. As it stands, Maier is a perfect vehicle for psychological speculation.

My thinking is that she was born into a divided class structure at the height of the Roaring Twenties and remained in the lower stratum during the Great Depression, and that this affected her self-perception for the remainder of her life. There is no evidence that she ever tried to break out of the servant class, and her strategy seems to have been to live an intensely private life while eking out a meager subsistence as a nanny. Her private life seems to have centered on her hobby, photography, which she apparently never discussed with anyone. In the photographs I've seen, she gravitates toward babies, children and the underclass, including homeless people. The ones that I find the most interesting are her self-portraits, where she appears in a reflection or as a shadow. While there is no clear interpretation that makes itself apparent, one might surmise that they are affirmations of her identity, showing that she had a presence in the world, but also indicating that she occupied the background as a marginal player in society. Most of her life must have been lived very frugally, with little money to spare. Many of the negatives in storage were never developed, perhaps because she couldn't afford to develop them. However, other than the fact that her living conditions were less than optimal, it is of no real importance that she was not recognized during her lifetime. There is a great deal of artifice in the works of prominent photographers, who are often good at self-promotion or start with greater financial resources. The world that they and Vivian Maier chronicled is the same world, only her work contains less pretense and spin.

I should be finishing the book fairly soon and will make another post on it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


I started to read the latest Krasznahorkai book but gave up after several attempts. It consists of short chapters and stories, and I couldn't be bothered with it, since no clear narrative jumped out and I had to put up with a lot of stylistic nonsense that had no appeal to me. There is a conceit about writing and the role of the writer that occasionally makes writers seem ludicrous. I have found this on several occasions when I've delved into the works of critically acclaimed authors. If a fiction writer is considered important, the presumption it that he or she will sit at a desk and churn out masterpiece after masterpiece, but the reality is that they will be lucky if they can produce two good books, and the rest are likely to be marginal at best. This is generally true of the main fiction writers I've investigated as an adult: Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Cormac McCarthy, David Lodge, A.S. Byatt, László Krasznahorkai, Patrick Chamoiseau, Michel Houellebecq  and Lorrie Moore. While they may manage to maintain a roughly consistent level of quality, they all have human limitations, which makes it impossible for them to produce an unbroken sequence of masterpieces. In some cases their celebrity goes to their head, thus Flaubert's Salammbô, which was written between Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, was well-received initially in France but is widely ignored today. A writer's perception of his or her strengths may be completely at odds with the perceptions of their readers, and their idea of a superior work may be off-putting to the reading public. In my experience, novelists tend to produce their best works in early-to-mid-career, and toward the end they usually stick to tried-and-true formulas, slyly succumb to market forces or experiment beyond their writing capabilities. George Eliot was more consistent than most: her last novel, Daniel Deronda, is at least as good as most of her earlier ones, but she also delved into poetry, which no one reads today. Krasznahorkai, in my opinion, has a genuine writing talent, but it seems to me that he is stuck in a style that has limited flexibility and makes it impossible for him to convey some of the realism and social observation that I find indispensable to fiction.

My criticism of fiction has become one of the major themes of this blog, and, in order not to appear arrogant, I have refrained from saying that my problem may be that I know more than the authors do, and that they have little to offer me. This may not be true in an absolute sense, but I think I deserve some credit for having walked the planet longer than most of the above-mentioned authors, and before it's over I may have lived longer than all of them. Good fiction may not be synonymous with knowledge or experience, but you certainly wouldn't expect sixteen-year-olds to write good novels, no matter how talented they were. For undiscriminating readers who consume fiction in much the same way that they watch soap operas – as light entertainment or background noise – this may not apply, but I tend to be serious in everything that I do, and I react when I notice qualitative deficiencies and gimmicks. Besides this, as I've said, writing programs seem to have the opposite effect of their intended purpose, often producing polished gibberish in the place of raw gibberish, and the commercialization of fiction in an era of sophisticated marketing tends to support formulas known to sell well to specific audiences; if you don't happen to fit a market profile, you're probably out of luck as a reader.

Therefore, I am going to suspend reading fiction for the time being, and I'm looking for some good nonfiction at the moment. I find this challenging too, but the universe of nonfiction is much larger than the universe of fiction, and there are sure to be books out there that I'll appreciate. For example, the biography of Milosz, which I recently stumbled upon, was quite satisfying to me. In a way, I am starting to find writers more interesting as case studies in human life than as artists producing impressive works; their books become points of departure in the exploration of their psyches and lives, and this has the potential to result in a greater revelation than any writer is capable of offering in a creative work. Thus, I think memoirs and biographies have more potential than novels or short stories. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many good memoirs or biographies, but I'll continue to look. My fallback will be other forms of nonfiction, such as popular scientific books and book-length essays.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Girl Power

While I find the political situation in the U.S. deplorable, with the arrival of a vulgar, uninformed, bombastic, self-interested and dishonest president, I've noticed that the strong reaction against him may bring unexpected benefits. Feminism in the U.S. seems to move in waves over many decades, and the appearance of Donald Trump on the national scene seems to have precipitated a new one, which is impressive in its ferocity. Although it may be arguable whether Trump caused the #MeToo movement, it seems as if the latest round of sexual harassment protest dates to October, 2016, with the release of the Access Hollywood audio tape, in which Trump discussed women with Billy Bush. Trump was subsequently accused of sexual harassment by several women. A women's movement specifically targeting Trump began in 2016, and this, I think, recently led to the dismissal of several prominent male public figures from their jobs on the basis of sexual misconduct. The speed with which famous men have been removed from corporate, political and film positions is surprising when you consider how entrenched and unchallenged that behavior was until now.

As I've said, I like to view human behavior from a biological standpoint, and in this respect Trump is a typical male. He tries to dominate the situations he's in and cultivates an aura of success, and this is consistent with the behavior of many species, in which males go to considerable lengths to attract females. Other males are outdone in displays of fitness, including physical characteristics and the ability to win contests. Among humans, being a rich alpha male usually guarantees the privilege of mating with women, the net result of which is the production of children. When you closely examine the shortcomings of most alpha males, it becomes readily apparent that there is not necessarily any social benefit derived from the process, which seems biologically to have had to do mainly with their reproduction. Though they may have other talents, Trump-esque men often have far less to offer society than meets the eye, and when you examine them in the context of the highly complex modern world, they tend to be anachronisms who have wildly overstated their capabilities. If Trump were a peacock, would you vote for him? Some characteristics often associated with males, such as competitiveness, may serve purposes unrelated to attracting mates, but that has always been one of their primary functions.

The mating strategies of women are obviously quite different from those of men. They also need to exhibit fitness, which indicates that they are likely to produce healthy offspring, but in their case, if they are sufficiently attractive, they choose among suitors rather than compete with other women directly. In nature, receptive females usually acquire mates effortlessly, whereas some males compete unsuccessfully with other males and do not reproduce. Thus, females have less biological incentive to act aggressively. On the contrary, women, as members of a eusocial species, have an added incentive to offer and receive help from other women in the interest of raising their offspring, which is a daunting task due to the unusually long time period from birth to independence in our species. Of course, women can be aggressive, but under normal circumstances this does not involve physical confrontations or intimidation, which are common among men.

I am bringing this up because I think that greater political participation by women and increased inclusion of women in leadership roles would have a positive influence on society, particularly if it followed the leadership of autocratic demagogues such as Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. In a general biological sense, women have no incentive to assert their power for its own sake and are more likely to be sensitive to social needs than aggressive men. Although Putin is popular in his country and certainly knows how to run it to meet his goals, those goals are not the same as the long-term goals of all Russians. Putin is a Soviet-era autocrat whose policies are not likely to endure for long after he leaves office. The situation with Trump is somewhat worse, because he is incompetent even as an autocrat and therefore has nothing to offer Americans on any level at all. During his tenure, the federal government is losing what little coherence it had, and he is exposing the country to unnecessary new risks.

Because I look at our world biologically, a government in which females dominate must also be examined closely. While such a government might be characterized by greater order and more careful allocation of resources, as in a hive dominated by a queen bee, the goal of creating a large factory to produce and raise offspring is not necessarily what Homo sapiens wants or needs at this stage in its evolution. In the past, when I lived in the suburbs of Chicago, I sometimes felt as if I were trapped in a hive of women who were obsessed with raising their children, as if that was the only thing that mattered in life. Thus, while there is much to be said against alpha males, the female opposite is not exactly everyone's cup of tea.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to me that women seem to be uniting in large numbers against Donald Trump, because, if they follow through and vote, his tenure will end sooner than it might otherwise. Fortunately, minorities and young people of both sexes also find little to like in Trump or today's Republican Party, and their popularity is dwindling. I am heartened that I am not the only one who feels that Trump's exit couldn't be soon enough. Though Trump's behavior may be rooted in inherited tendencies that once played a role in our survival as a species, it would be an absurdity of the highest order to suggest that, given his behavior since he took office, he could be of any benefit whatsoever to mankind.

Friday, February 2, 2018


I haven't been writing as much as usual, because I haven't had much to say. Recently, I've been spending more time on active investing, since this seems to be a unique moment. Interest rates and inflation have been falling since I first began to invest in 1981, and we seem to have reached an inflection point where that pattern will reverse, which will change the investment environment considerably, while also requiring strategic changes. Because of this, I re-subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, which has good coverage of the relevant topics. I had been subscribing to the New York Times, but let that subscription expire. Actually, the two newspapers are not as different as you may think, and their headlines and stories are often very similar, with lots of additional nonsense articles to attract readers' attention. However, in recent months I have come to appreciate the editorials of the New York Times editorial board, and I still read those. You can read the paper online as much as you like without subscribing by deleting their cookies in your browser.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of reading reader comments in the Wall Street Journal and began to comment myself. I soon found that the environment is completely partisan, and if you make any criticism of Donald Trump, you will be viciously attacked by commenters who have no interest in facts and immediately label you in demeaning terms. After a few rounds of this, I decided that some of the attackers may be paid for their work, and that there is no point in attempting to engage them. I am not going to read comments there anymore, and I sent an e-mail to the Wall Street Journal to complain about this state of affairs.

The partisan atmosphere in the U.S. has reached monumental proportions, and the actions taken by Trump and his allies grow increasingly absurd. The lies and cover-ups taking place now are going to make Richard Nixon look like a choirboy. It is becoming harder and harder to imagine any scenario in which Trump was not somehow compromised by previous associations with Russia, and this will all come out eventually. Moreover, many of the people who have been willing to risk their careers to support him do not seem to be competent themselves; rather, he has surrounded himself with marginal political operatives who were unable to find better meal tickets. Trump and his family attract the bottom-feeders. The most disturbing aspect of the Trump era is that there are still Republicans who support him. In previous years they would have yanked him out of office by now for willfully undermining and discrediting the FBI, which has always been a sacred institution to conservatives.

In other news, I've been driving my new car a little. It has very good acceleration, but I can't crank it up yet, since the engine isn't broken in. Some of the features are quite exotic. After you come to a stop facing uphill, when you start up again, it automatically holds the brakes briefly so that the car doesn't roll backwards at all when you release the brake. The car has several external sensors. They identify the centerline of the road, and you are alerted if you begin to leave your lane. They also find suitable parking places for you and can control your steering when you parallel park. I haven't tried that yet, as I very rarely parallel park here. For many years I didn't buy a GTI, because they were expensive, and Volkswagens are unreliable compared to the major Japanese brands. Now that I am retired, I am less concerned about reliability, since I drive so little. Also, because of the diesel engine scandal, Volkswagen is attempting to make amends, and I have a fantastic warranty: six years or 72,000 miles. I'll be nowhere near 72,000 miles in six years.

I like to read charts, and today I found this one rather interesting, in light of some of my posts. Obviously, there is a lot of speculation in it, but the overall thrust is probably accurate:

Perhaps I'll start reading Krasznahorkai soon and return to literature on my next post.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

My Political Views

The political atmosphere in the U.S., you may have noticed, has become rather charged in recent years. One encounters political arguments of varying quality constantly, and, though I would prefer not to involve myself, I become concerned about the limited range of ideas that people hold, and how I get pigeonholed into descriptions that don't fit me well. Briefly, in the U.S., the thinking is that you are either on "the left" or "the right." These aren't very meaningful descriptions. If you are on the left, you are probably a Democrat and support equality, full government services, sufficient taxation to run the government properly, separation of church and state and abortion rights. If you are on the right, you are probably a Republican and support free enterprise, minimal government, lower taxation, the Christian religion and no abortion rights. When I engage in discussions with people who disagree with me, they usually lack the mental flexibility to characterize my views without resorting to these simplistic stereotypes.  I thought I'd take a few minutes to clarify my political views.

Though, ostensibly, I fit better on the left end of the spectrum than the right, I actually don't fit either viewpoint very well, because both accept the current democratic process and a capitalism-based economy as givens. I fit the profile of the left mainly because I think that everyone should be treated equally under the law, and that a significant safety net ought to be in place, even when that requires financial sacrifices by the wealthy. My thinking is biological, starting with the fact that we are eusocial creatures who have cooperation built into our genes. Although the current situation, with overpopulation and strained interactions between historically segregated cultures, has to some extent been precipitating a reduction in cooperation, conceptually we have already reached a point where the simplest solution is to treat all people as members of one group, in which all are equal. This position comes naturally to those on the left, but those on the right tend to view other groups as inherently alien and therefore not meriting equal treatment. Specifically, Republicans who believe in the Puritan work ethic think that they alone are entitled to the fruits of their labor, and that they shouldn't have to share them with others. The Republican position lends itself to racism or other kinds of discrimination and has an ancient basis in the tribal instinct for survival in an environment inhabited by competing groups, hence, although it also has a biological basis, I consider it problematic as a solution to the ills facing mankind, because it encourages future conflict.

As I have said in previous posts, there is ample evidence that capitalism increases inequality, and that is only one of several of its disadvantages. Capitalism is also responsible for pollution, climate change, mass extinctions and the waste of natural resources. However, most people are prepared to overlook the problems associated with it, because they believe that it has brought about improvements in their standard of living. I have said less about the problems associated with democracy and will elaborate on that now. In the books I commented on by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Robert Sapolsky, it is readily apparent that the principles of democracy are in desperate need of reappraisal, despite the fact that none of these authors were willing to examine that problem. Specifically, if, as the evidence shows, people don't think clearly, are often irrational, and know far less than they think they do, why would one presume that collective decisions made in a democratic process would provide optimal solutions for a group? There is evidence that small groups of decision-makers make better decisions than individuals, but that applies primarily to problems of limited scale, in which the parameters are significantly restrictive. Time and again, I have witnessed political leaders make poor and uninformed decisions and promote policies whose consequences are not fully understood or are obviously detrimental to the long-term benefits of the citizenry. This may occur as a result of political expediency, ignorance or the desire for personal gain. The fact is that, in a democracy, the voters themselves often do not understand which policies would be to their greatest benefit, and, by electing candidates whose views they share, they are guaranteeing the enactment into law of flawed policy decisions. The top positions in the U.S. government increasingly require a level of competence that no human possesses.

My solution, as I've mentioned, is the gradual phasing out of traditional, hands-on, participatory democratic processes and the gradual phasing in of democratic algorithms, with the ultimate goal of replacing human voting. When AI advances to a sufficient level, it is conceivable that it will be possible to use it for better governance than we have thus far been able to provide for ourselves. At first glance, this kind of "wildlife management" model seems extremely unappealing, but if you imagine how people might actually live in it, it could be much better than what they are experiencing now. Conceivably, everyone could have sufficient food and shelter, a rich personal life and no worries about crime, war, servitude or environmental degradation. There might be reduced access to childbirth if the population became unmanageable, but most people would appreciate the benefits of certain restrictions on behavior, especially if they were administered fairly and equally; many of the current issues associated with partisanship reflect the unequal distribution of rights and restrictions. The need for a sense of self-determination could be satisfied by permitting small-scale decisions at the local level, with the larger, more complex issues falling under the aegis of AI. While, at this stage, this may still be a utopian idea, I have no difficulty imagining a population of happier, healthier people living without having to face their futures worrying about what the decisions made by their incompetent or corrupt leaders will bring. As you can see, this view hardly fits within the parameters of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Though I'm not particularly busy (I never am), various factors are preventing me from writing much on the blog. The new car purchase has been taken care of, with the car now sitting in the garage mostly unused. I don't have anywhere to go, and am a little hesitant to drive on ice and snow without snow tires. So far, other than driving back from the car dealership, I've only driven it once, to take a neighbor boy to school after he missed the bus. I am still spending time on investments, since, as I said, this is one of those rare opportunities to make easy money. I have been buying leveraged exchange traded funds, which are extremely volatile, and trying to avoid downswings. Since the market's direction has been consistently up for a few months, timing mistakes have been less problematic, and I often make thousands of dollars per day. This compensates for the losses I've accrued under less auspicious market conditions over the last few years. However, I must remain alert so that I can make quick sales in order to minimize losses in the event of downturns. I am also anticipating increases in interest rates and investing in inverse leveraged exchange traded funds for that purpose.

At the moment, I'm reading a fairly good book on human genetics, but am not sure whether I'll have any comments to make on it, since it is straightforward and so far doesn't have any revelations that change my thoughts. As usual, I've been trying to come up with some fiction to read and having a hard time of it. I considered writers such as Thomas Bernhard and Karl Ove Knausgård but decided that I probably wouldn't like either of them. There is something about the sensibilities of Germans and Scandinavians that I find distasteful, and my distaste, particularly in regard to Germans, runs deep. My parents, with good reason, were about as anti-German as you can get, and that has rubbed off on me; most of the Germanic people I've known, including my ex-wife, have had oafish characteristics that I can barely tolerate anymore. Perhaps before the World Wars I might have found something to like in Germany, but since then I don't think Germans have produced any art or literature that I would enjoy. I have been unable to take most contemporary American, English or French literature very seriously, and this brings me back to László Krasznahorkai. His writing is already a little tiresome to me, with the unrelenting gloom and pervasive sense of futility, but I am always able to detect a sophisticated artistry in his work that I never find elsewhere. In any case, I have ordered his latest book, The World Goes On, which is another collection of short stories.

My thoughts about this blog vary over time, and they are affected by my sense of who is reading it and why. I still seem to have a dwindling number of long-term readers who read it, probably for the heck of it, because they are mildly interested and have nothing better to do. Now, the majority of the blog's hits are from Google searches, many perhaps by students who are seeking information for assignments. The most visited post is "Kakutani on Houellebecq," and the second most is "A Woman Meets an Old Lover." These kinds of hits are usually one-offs, indicating that the reader was seeking specific information and was not curious about anything else on the blog. The Googlers may have no intrinsic interest in the blog; many of the posts fall into a series of posts that I've made about a book I'm reading, and I am finding that people read only one and not the rest. On top of this, with the lack of feedback, it is difficult for me to get a sense of what readers expect. At this point, I am more or less just writing what I feel like writing, and if something comes up that makes me reconsider the topics and themes of the blog, I'll change course if necessary. In any case, I don't see myself giving up the blog purely due to a lack of attention. Having comments pouring in would be less desirable to me than no comments. Obscurity is preferable to Internet fame.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Over the last year, I have enjoyed finally being able to put my investment experience and M.B.A. to practical use and make money in the stock market. Because my investment strategy involves greater allocation in foreign markets than is the norm, I was outperformed by U.S. markets until recently, but that pattern has changed, and now the U.S. is being outperformed elsewhere. After taking some profits, I bought a new car with cash and still have a larger portfolio than I did a few months ago. Stocks should advance globally for at least another year, and I plan to increase my bond allocation as interest rates continue to rise. When inflation increases, I will also invest in commodities.

It irks me that the Republicans, with gerrymandering, effective media campaigns and the buying of partisan economists, manage to attract a sufficient number of voters to get elected to Congress. The new tax law and deregulation are providing a temporary boost to an economy that was already doing well in 2016, but there is little in the news media to explain what the long-term costs will be. We are approaching the end of the business cycle, which will probably end in another stock market crash and a recession. In the meantime, wealthy people will have accrued nearly all of the benefits of the recent legislation, the wealth gap will increase, most Americans will still have low-paying jobs, and the national debt will start to balloon. The federal government increasingly resembles a nightmare. On the bright side, there is a good chance that Trump will be removed from or voluntarily leave office before the end of his first term, and a recession in 2019 or 2020 could put a stop to Republican control of Congress for a time. It is even possible that Congress will flip next November. I would rather not think about these things, since I don't really care about politics, but it is incumbent upon me to do so, given that the present behavior of the U.S. government is one of the greatest risks I face, along with everyone else. It may well be that the ignorance and short-term thinking of the current Republican leadership are at the most dangerous levels they've reached in American history.

My new car, which I'll pick up on Monday, is a 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI Autobahn. Technically, I didn't need it, since my previous car ran fine and still had about 50,000 miles left in it. However, it was getting rusty and riskier for long road trips. This is the first time in my life that I've had a lot of money to splurge, and I've wanted a GTI since the late 1970's. They were first sold in Europe and were not available in the U.S. until the early 1980's. This is a perfect vehicle for me, because it offers relatively high performance, good gas mileage and has the practicality of a hatchback. The one I bought is "loaded," with many features which I may or may not use.

In other news, I am adjusting to the end of the holiday season, which takes a ridiculously long time here. The guests are becoming more mature as they age and thus are more tolerable to be around, but the continued presence of visitors in the house for weeks at a time disrupts my habits, such as reading and writing, without replacing them with anything that I find equally interesting. I have to engage in increased self-editing, because I don't pass the political correctness test and don't want to upset anyone. Hence, I go on hold, into a kind of involuntary hibernation, from mid-December to mid-January. Now that the visitors have gone, global warming is throwing me off. Within a few days of each other, we had temperatures ranging from -23⁰ F to +58⁰ F. At the moment, the thermometer is heading back to -11⁰ F. These changes can be hard on the body, not to mention the flora and fauna. William liked being able to go outside without freezing, but seemed confused.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Milosz: A Biography IV

After his family's arrival in France, Milosz continued to live near Paris and worked as a journalist. They bought a house in 1957. Janka was preoccupied with raising the two boys, who became trilingual, speaking English, French and Polish, while Milosz struggled to earn enough money to support them. He developed a knack for churning out articles and translating poetry to and from Polish, though he did not feel that he had enough time left for writing poetry. The Captive Mind was very well received by intellectuals, but its sales were dismal. The Issa Valley, his first novel, also sold poorly. As it happened, the Department of Slavic Languages at UC Berkeley was expanding, and he was offered a job there as a Visiting Lecturer in 1960. He accepted, and this improved his family's financial state considerably; he was promoted to Professor with tenure after only one year.

His life in the U.S. from 1960 onward had ups and downs, and he never became completely acclimated to the American environment. Physically, Northern California felt harsh and alien to him; it seemed hostile and imposing, and he missed the seasons of Poland and Lithuania. He also missed the warmth and openness of the Polish people and found Americans cold and boring. During the Vietnam War, Berkeley became a hotbed of student protest, and he initially supported the students. However, by the late 1960's, the protests had become out of hand, with pointless destruction and incoherent ideologies, and he would not be bullied by protesters, whom he called to their faces "the spoilt children of the bourgeoisie," which, according to Franaszek, earned their respect.

Milosz's position within the department was unique, and he had little in common with the other faculty members, who were Ph.D.'s with academic specialties, while he was a lecturer who covered broad topics of his choice. He became a popular lecturer and enjoyed flirting with his female students. Some of his funniest episodes are described here:

Departmental gossip held no appeal for him, and he was bored by cocktail parties and chit-chat about trivial matters. On social occasions he would get drunk very early on and invite guests to participate in a game Gombrowicz devised, which he passed off as a venerable Polish tradition; this involved lying on the floor and creating a tangle of bodies. He appears to have had a strong compulsion to try to hit on women students. As this most certainly did not meet with Janka's approval, she quickly put an end to his partying. Often she endeavoured to instruct him in good manners and the correct code of behavior, telling him off as if he were a little boy when he had had too much to drink or ate too quickly or did not sit properly at the table. It is possible that she did not realize that these social failings were indicative of a core sensuality within him and a hunger for intense, 'naked' sensations, unrestrained by conventions.

In Berkeley, he was truly isolated in his vocation as a Polish poet, with his important contacts remaining in Paris. He craved feedback on his work and became despondent over the lack of incoming mail. He had hoped that Polish-Americans would appreciate his work but soon determined that most Polish immigrants were peasants who didn't read much except for vocational purposes. Even for the U.S., Berkeley was a poor location for him, since most publishing and intellectual activity took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. However, with the publication of an English translation of The Captive Mind in 1968, his name recognition gradually picked up, and, by the late 1970's, people such as Robert Pinsky and Helen Vendler were seeking him out. In 1979 he met an attractive young Polish journalist and conducted an affair with her for several years. He did not want to leave Janka, whose health had become precarious, causing frequent incapacity before her death in 1986. At the same time, his younger son, Piotr, began to exhibit symptoms of severe manic depression. By 1980 he was well known in American poetry circles, and he was surprised to find himself not only nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but winning it that year.

The confluence of events soon significantly raised Milosz's profile in Poland. Pope John Paul II, who was conspicuously Polish, became Pope in 1978, and, after receiving the Nobel, Milosz met him on more than one occasion. The Solidarity labor union was founded in 1980, and Milosz met Lech Walesa, who became President of Poland in 1990. The dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred from 1990 to 1991, and Germany was reunified in 1990. Although Milosz had not been well known in Poland, and some Poles questioned his Polish credentials, since he was of Lithuanian origin, in Polish minds he became lumped in with the rebirth of Poland as an independent nation, and as a Nobel laureate he added to Polish self-esteem. To his credit, Milosz avoided behaving like a celebrity and always remained low key. Prior to Janka's death, Milosz broke up with his Polish girlfriend and began seeing the American academic, Carol Thigpen, who was also much younger than he was. He and Carol married after Janka's death, and they later moved permanently to Krakow. However, Carol died unexpectedly from blood cancer in 2002, two years before his death.

In the course of reading this book I have been trying to piece together what I think of Milosz. On the positive side, he was a person whose range of life experiences vastly exceeded mine or that of most people, he was a good observer, and he usually wrote clearly and honestly. On the negative side, I think that, although he was extremely productive, he was intellectually lazy, and, to my mind, he was not a particularly good poet. Looking at his background, he seems to have had an ax to grind about his family's fall from aristocratic grandeur, his early poverty and the military domination and unthinkable abuse of Lithuania and Poland by the Nazis and the Soviets. He also seems to have wanted to raise the stature of the literature of his region to the levels of Western Europe and Russia.

Milosz's intellectual laziness can be seen in his rapid movement to Roman Catholicism subsequent to writing The Captive Mind. I think that he had always been uncomfortable in the world of ideas, and, rather than bring a clear resolution to his beliefs, he fell back on the traditions of his region even though he had not been truly religious earlier and still retained a healthy skepticism toward the existence of God. He did not seem to recognize that Roman Catholicism was simply an ideology that has been refined over many centuries to attract and retain adherents, and that, as such, it was more sophisticated with regard to winning his conversion than newer, untested ideologies such as Marxism. Under Roman Catholicism, one can do whatever one pleases, as long as there are periodic private admissions of weakness and requests for absolution. It is the perfect religion for criminals, child abusers and sensual people like Milosz, the latter preferring not to rein in their sexual impulses. Furthermore, the Church supports the kind of sexism that Milosz unconsciously practiced throughout his life. Although I think that the current movement against sexual harassment has been getting a bit excessive lately, if you imagine Milosz still alive and teaching at Berkeley, he would soon find himself disgraced and out of a job, and in his mind he would have been using the Roman Catholic Church as his cover the whole time. It is possible that, in rejecting Nazism and Stalinism, Milosz threw out the baby with the bathwater; he seems to me to have elevated the importance of faith prematurely when, with just a little more effort, he could have arrived at a more tenable worldview without willfully rejecting science.

As to the quality of Milosz's poetry, I can't speak with much authority, because I can't read it in the original and certainly don't have any qualifications as a poetry critic. I'll say that I think his poetry could just as well have been written as prose, because I don't find it as imaginative and striking as the poetry that I like. I see all of the poems I quoted earlier on this blog as far more imaginative and striking than anything I've read by Milosz. Even if you allow that Milosz writes in a different, lyrical tradition, his work pales in comparison to Homer's Odyssey.

My conclusion on Milosz is that he was an interesting case study in how an intelligent person reacts to various adverse conditions. People who have not had the same experiences should not presume that they would have been able to handle them any better than he did. I must note that there were probably some inborn characteristics that Milosz possessed that steered him in the choices that he made. In particular, there are hints throughout the book that his strategy may have been designed specifically to combat a tendency toward depression, and in his case it seems, on the whole, to have worked. Although, after reading this book, I am unlikely to become a full Milosz convert, I have found much to cogitate over in it and recommend it highly, even to those who are not likely to become Milosz aficionados.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Milosz: A Biography III

Surprisingly, the war years in Warsaw were among the happiest in Milosz's life. He and Janka were well-matched intellectually, and she was often the first to critique his writing. There was a rare camaraderie among the intellectuals during the Nazi occupation, and although they faced privations, they were able to survive adequately by trading on the black market. They wrote articles, met regularly, discussed issues and even created books by hand using a needle and razors. Since few regular jobs were available, they did not face the burden of humdrum workweeks. Milosz refined some of his ideas, such as the one requiring art to reveal something beyond "art for art's sake." In discussions with others, the question of the viability of democracy came up in relation to the fact that it had enabled Hitler's rise to power. He did not participate in active resistance to the Nazis and defined his role more as an observer and chronicler, and he considered the young members of the resistance irresponsible in their risk-taking and use of violence. Around the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, which was followed by the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, in which the Polish Resistance launched a major offensive against the Nazis, conditions deteriorated to the point where Warsaw finally became uninhabitable. Franaszek is a little light on details here, perhaps because he wrote for Polish readers who would be familiar with these events. Milosz and Janka escaped to southern Poland for the remainder of the war.

When the war ended, Milosz was in a strong position for obtaining a job as a diplomat, since he was fluent in English and French and had also translated into Polish. Although he had never been a Stalinist, his credentials as a communist sympathizer were adequate for the time. He was appointed cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in New York. His initial impression of the U.S. was completely negative. He was appalled by the mindlessness and conformity of the public and saw this particular capitalist environment as far more effective at thought control than any existing communist regime. Since his job involved cross-cultural exchanges, he traveled all over the country, and usually he was unimpressed. For example, he described Los Angeles as "a small hell-hole with no imagination, consisting of palm trees and nothing." The habit in America was a blatantly unreflective life, which he abhorred. Although he held a lowly position, his accurate and concise reports soon led to his promotion, and he was transferred to the embassy in Washington, D.C.

While he was a diplomat, a couple of new aspects of Milosz's personality become apparent. One is that, by contemporary standards, he was a womanizer. He met Janka in 1937, and they had sons in 1947 and 1951, but, partly because of Janka's preexisting marriage, they did not marry until 1956. He was impressive as a public speaker, and this seems to have made him a rock star in the eyes of intellectual women. Although he remained married to Janka until her death in 1986, their relationship seems to have declined after 1956, and he was seeing other women before and after that. Franaszek has not so far provided much analysis of this behavior, but I am inclined to think that the attention of women was an ego-boost to Milosz and reveals a hunger for recognition, which I don't consider a positive trait. The other aspect is that he actively sought contact with the most distinguished people whom he could find and often attempted to establish friendships with them. There seem to be two sides to this phenomenon. Part of it had to do with seeking a father figure and mentor to replace Oskar Milosz, who had died in 1939. Quite incongruously, he sought guidance and help from Albert Einstein on several occasions. Although Einstein seems to have thought well of him and praised The Captive Mind, he had none of Milosz's artistic angst and little interest in political ideology. I doubt that Einstein read poetry. It is odd that a minor Polish diplomat who, until about 1953, had little name recognition as a writer, managed to meet T.S. Eliot, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, Randall Jarrell, Henry Miller and Albert Camus, among others. Some of these contacts occurred as a matter of course through his job as a diplomat, but I suspect that he endeavored to increase his name recognition and to enhance his future prospects, and in this respect he can be construed as a shameless networker.

Another vague section of the book concerns the changing political conditions in Poland during Milosz's diplomatic career. Apparently, Soviet influence made politics in Poland increasingly ideologically rigid, and Milosz was eventually seen as a liability as Poland evolved into a puppet state. In 1950, his loyalty was questioned, his passport was confiscated, and he was reassigned to the embassy in Paris. At this point, he decided to defect, taking political asylum in France, and went into hiding near Paris, assisted by the conservative Polish émigrés who published Kultura, a right-leaning journal. He was under great stress for some time. Janka and his sons were still in the U.S., and he was unable to obtain a visa to travel there. Moreover, he detested the U.S. and would have preferred to remain in France, while Janka, who was more practical, wanted to stay in the U.S., because it was safer and a better place to raise her sons. Milosz came under attack from both émigrés and current Poles for defecting, though many of them were merely jealous. He fretted about the loss of his Polish identity and became emotionally unstable, considering suicide. However, he eventually settled down and wrote The Captive Mind, which seems to have been the game changer in his life and is probably his most significant work. Later that year, 1953, Janka and the children came to live with him in France.

Milosz remains interesting to me primarily because of his critique of intellectuals. I have yet to find any of his poems appealing, and I don't think that I would like his novel, The Issa Valley. However, he was also a complex person, and I enjoy pondering his psychodynamics, and this biography provides ample material for that purpose. I part company with Milosz's ideas in important ways, because I don't care at all about religion, and, not having what he would consider a "homeland," with associated nostalgic connotations like the ones that he invokes in Native Realm, I have no sense of missing something that previously constituted an important part of my life. So I am left with the feeling that Milosz led an interesting life, but that his contribution, other than expressing the value of poetry, has been merely to point out the deficiencies of intellectuals with respect to improving the human condition. I take a more skeptical view of human potential than he does: I don't expect people to come up with systems that will serve mankind well indefinitely, and, while there are perils, I see more promise in artificial intelligence than in the ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx or anyone else, past or future. For me, it is now well-established that the majority of intellectuals are poseurs if you view them in a long-term historical context.

I'm only up to 1956, and Milosz lived until 2004, so I'll have at least one more post on this book.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Milosz: A Biography II

1931 was a confusing year in Milosz's life, and he was not completely forthright about it in his public writings. Franaszek makes an admirable effort to sort it all out, but some of the details may be lost forever. Milosz established a friendship with the successful poet, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, and visited him in Warsaw; he made the river trip to Paris that I mentioned in my comments on Native Realm and began a romantic relationship with fellow law student, Jadwiga Waszkiewicz, the younger daughter of a wealthy Wilno gynecologist. Franaszek speculates that she later became pregnant and had an abortion. It seems that Milosz did not want to get married, and they broke up permanently in 1935. Late in 1931, Milosz decided to transfer to Warsaw University to finish his law degree, and it isn't clear why. Franaszek thinks that, due to his inability in mathematics, he may have been worried about flunking a statistics course, which he would have been required to take at Wilno in order to complete his degree, and that he may have thought that Warsaw would be a preferable location for establishing his career as a poet. As it turned out, the students at Warsaw University were much wealthier and better prepared than he was, and Milosz flunked out after just one semester, returning to Wilno.

So far, the only "character" issue that has arisen has had to do with why Milosz broke up with Jadwiga. From the point of view of her family, he was a narcissist and took no responsibility for his actions. It may have been that he simply did not want to be forced to marry and support a family at the cost of destroying his ambitions as a poet. At first glance, this Machiavellian attitude does not seem admirable, but in the long run it may have been a good choice. He was only twenty-four at the time, and, to put it in a familiar context, I have been thinking about my own situation when I was twenty-three. I was living with my then-girlfriend in Columbus, Ohio, and her parents decided that we should either get married or break up, since cohabitation of an unmarried couple was unacceptable within their milieu. I don't think that they had much interest in our well-being, and their motivation seems to have been to maintain their carefully cultivated public image as conservative, small-town bourgeoisie. I attempted to avert the marriage but was forced to choose, and, not having any particular plans or good advice at that time from any source, I acceded to their demands, and we were married in February, 1974. Certainly, it was not an optimal marriage for me. As time passed, my ex-wife-to-be increasingly seemed stupid, self-centered and cold, in addition to possessing the unpleasant neurosis that runs in her family, and, though she wouldn't admit it then or now, she was obsessed with her perceived social rank, which was always lower than she thought, and her self-appraisal seemed ludicrous to me given her deficiencies in social skills. In fact, one of the reasons why I had been attracted to her in the first place had been that she needed help. As for her family, although we always remained on cordial terms, they were of no benefit to me whatsoever with respect to emotional or practical support, and conversationally they fell into the category of boring, provincial Midwesterners. On the whole I would say that I got no benefit from that eleven-year marriage, unless you count children, and in hindsight I would not repeat that mistake. My entire experience in the Midwest, spanning about four decades, now looks like a complete waste of time, but that's a different story which I won't delve into now. Therefore, even though Jadwiga Waszkiewicz seems to have been superior to my ex-wife, I can't say that Milosz made an error by not marrying her. They communicated by letter late in their lives, but did not meet again.

Milosz completed law school in Wilno in 1934 and then received a scholarship to study French language and literature in Paris for a year. This proved to be a confidence-builder for him, as Paris was the cultural center of Europe, and his uncle, Oskar Milosz, had lived there for many years and was well known in literary circles. I think that Czeslaw's trajectory as a writer was significantly derived from a model he picked up from Oskar, though in writing style and ideas they probably diverged considerably. Milosz partook in literary and political discussions, museums and brothels and circulated among both émigré Polish groups and native Parisians. When he returned to Wilno, which was then part of Poland, in late 1935, his life began to take on a ho-hum tone. He held a boring position at Polish Radio. In 1936 he published a volume of his poems, Three Winters, which was well-received by critics and launched his career. The political atmosphere was becoming polarized, with right-wing Polish nationalists on one side and communist sympathizers on the other. Milosz was not particularly radical, but he was too left-wing for the Polish administrator in charge of the Wilno radio station and was fired in 1937. He then managed to get a job at Polish Radio in Warsaw and moved there. At this job he met his future wife, Janina (Janka) Cekalska. Janka was married to someone else at the time, but this did not prevent them from developing a relationship.

In 1939, all hell broke loose when Germany invaded Poland at the onset of World War II. The invasion seems to have caught the Poles off guard, and few were prepared for it. At the time, Milosz and Janka were in different locations and became separated for some time. He hoped to reunite in Paris but was unable to make the arrangements. She remained stranded in Warsaw, and he, by a circuitous route through Soviet Ukraine, became stranded back in Wilno. The lives of most Poles were imperiled by Nazi bombing and the Soviet Army. Stalin, like Vladimir Putin today, was itching to seize more territory. Traveling without the proper documents meant almost certain death, and several of Milosz's friends died during this period. Milosz himself was already fairly well-connected in Poland because of his literary reputation, and he felt guilty about the advantages that he received with the help of wealthy acquaintances of whom he tended to disapprove because of their unearned privileges. Finally, he made the perilous journey from Wilno to Warsaw in 1940, as described in Native Realm, was reunited with Janka, and remained there for the duration of the war.

I am finding Milosz's life quite engrossing, and will continue on this biography as time permits over the next few weeks. The author, Franaszek, not only has done his homework, but he has also done a good job ferreting out Milosz's emotional state at each phase of the story, which is something that not all biographers do well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Milosz: A Biography I

I'm making some progress in this biography of Czeslaw Milosz by Andrzej Franaszek and, as is my custom, will comment on it as I go. Ever since I read about Milosz in a 2010 article by Tony Judt, he has intrigued me, though I was also quite impressed by the poetry collection, A Book of Luminous Things, which he edited and I read in 1996. More recently, I found Milosz's The Captive Mind and Native Realm instructive. As a person with intellectual interests, I have been deeply disappointed with the intellectual climate in which I've spent my life, and the only writers I've found who have anything of value to say on this subject have been Tony Judt and Czeslaw Milosz, though there may be others of whom I am unaware.

Milosz was born in a time and place that guaranteed a challenging life: Lithuania, 1911. World War I began when he was three, the Bolshevik Revolution began and Lithuania declared independence from Russia when he was six, parts of Lithuania were seized by Poland when he was seven, the Great Depression began when he was eighteen, and World War II began when he was twenty-eight. Although he had aristocratic Lithuanian ancestry on both sides, the family had little money, and his father worked somewhat unsuccessfully as a civil engineer. He spent some of his childhood at family estates, where he learned to appreciate the outdoors and often hunted, and most of his educational years in Wilno (Vilnius), where he attended a Catholic gymnasium and studied law at Wilno University.

During his earliest years he was home-schooled by his mother, and when he began to attend school, he was deficient in some areas, particularly in math. Although, with his outdoor proclivities, he tended to be a naturalist and was interested in Darwin, literature and poetry soon became his focus. From his father he inherited a tendency toward adventurism, and this played out at first in his reading interests. Wilno was surprisingly diverse and intellectually rich for a small city, and he became aware of the various ethnicities, though in those days, as was the case throughout Europe, they remained segregated. Like the majority of the people, he was poor during his childhood and adolescence, and at one time he owned only a single pair of socks, which he darned himself. He has not had any romantic life so far in the book, perhaps because of his shyness, his somewhat unattractive appearance and the shortage of money, but it is possible that he had some sexual encounters with prostitutes, as was common then.

At this stage in my reading, he is nineteen and pursuing his law degree, which in some respects includes an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, while working at a literary journal and participating in poetry readings. Already, he seems to be trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance that he is experiencing. The main elements of that, as far as I can tell, are the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between religious faith, ideology and the role of the artist and intellectual in society. Especially in this early period of his life, Milosz exudes idealism, but in his case it is accompanied by a moral seriousness that I find rare. He is showing signs of impatience with frivolous, stylized poetry and disgust for the facile, fashionable ideologies of the so-called intelligentsia. His distant uncle, Oskar Milosz, whom he met on his first trip to Paris, became a role model to him as a poet, and perhaps infused in him a respect for religion, to which he was otherwise disinclined. I would have preferred it if Czeslaw Milosz had not clung to religion, but if you look at the world from his point of view, it offered a perspective which was not tainted in the manner of political ideology or aesthetic tastes, and it provided a basis, however artificial, for making moral judgments. I am willing to cut him a lot of slack on his religious beliefs, because in his case they gave him a platform for questioning the less-substantial positions that were adopted by the ideologues and artists around him. As I have noted, a better-known intellectual of the postwar period, Jean-Paul Sartre, while an atheist, was a hypocrite regarding the brutality of Stalin's regime. The intellectuals to whom I've been exposed in the U.S. are typically protected by academic moats and rarely venture out into the world; when they do voice opinions, they tend to follow party lines without demonstrating any understanding of the underlying problems. This is why Tony Judt referenced The Captive Mind during the Iraq War, and the same conformity and careerism prevails today within the extant crop of American intellectuals. To my knowledge, they have not provided any conceptual frameworks which might have prevented the Iraq War, the Great Recession or the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump. Milosz, though perhaps not correct on every point, deserves careful consideration, while they do not. For me, Milosz represents a kind of seriousness that is almost nonexistent in the U.S. I think that the circumstances of his life played a significant role in the formation of his identity as an intellectual, and that such circumstances may never have been experienced by any Americans, so in a way it is understandable that Americans of all educational levels carry on in their infantile fashion. However, the whole point of being or claiming to be an intellectual rests, in my opinion, on the ability to distill information that is not readily discernible in one's immediate environment, and in the absence of that ability one begins to crave the arrival of an adult upon the scene.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Those of you who have no interest in rodents will be pleased to know that my removal efforts have been successful, and I probably won't write about them again for some time. In the recent case, it seems that mice had chewed an entry to the house at the intersection of the dormer roof and the main roof. The roofers hadn't covered the niche adequately, and mice were free to gnaw on exposed wood in a protected location. They probably established nests in the attic by late summer and had sufficient time for one or two litters and the collection of a food hoard from outside. There was no evidence of them in the house until they traveled down to the basement through the walls later on. As I caught them I released them in the yard until late November, at which point I began to transport them farther away. I then caught three additional mice, and those appear to have been the last ones. The last mouse, unlike the others, didn't defecate at all while in the trap, which leads me to think that it had run out of food and had come looking for it in the basement. A secondary mouse entrance was created when they chewed through an exposed crack in the wood at the side of the house underneath the bay window on the ground floor. I had to cut a hole in the side of the bay window in order to gain access. This mouse entrance was noticed immediately, because I could hear them gnawing, and they didn't have time to establish nests before being blocked out. I used steel wool and mouse-resistant foam to block the holes.

The previous owners of the house appear to have done little or nothing about mouse prevention, as there were mouse droppings everywhere when we moved in. When I installed a new dishwasher, I found that the insulation around the old dishwasher was full of mouse droppings, indicating that mice had been nesting directly in the kitchen. Now, after six years of mouse-blocking, the house has become more secure, and it may take several years for another episode.

It occurred to me that a writer could turn this into a story called "The Last Mouse," reminiscent of Krasznahorkai or Kafka. Kafka's unfinished story, "The Burrow," is written from the point of view of a mole-or-vole-like creature going about its paranoid underground life. However, because I am a realist, fanciful writing tends to annoy me, because it distorts what actually occurs in nature. Kafka's story, which I found entertaining, was about an anthropocentric mole and actually expressed nothing more than Kafka's psychological state. I have noticed, in particular, that although mouse behavior seems complex enough to imply advanced cognition, mice really operate more like sophisticated algorithms. Because mice have different solutions to problems that they encounter in their environment, one might mistakenly come to believe that they improvise and adapt when in fact they are hard-wired to react according to instructions encoded in their genes over millions of years. To the extent that humans are like mice, it is in their inability to transcend their deterministic impulses inherited from their distant ancestors. The difference is that the automatic responses that work for mice are more inclusive than the automatic responses of humans, whose evolutionary path has made genetically-based algorithmic solutions insufficient for solving many of the kinds of problems we currently encounter. In particular, we have altered our environment to the extent that our ancestors would not be at all comfortable living in it. Thus, although we do have many automatic responses like mice, we also need the "slow thinking" referred to by Daniel Kahneman in order to solve many of our problems, and this is well beyond the capabilities of mice.

Speaking of infestations, things are starting to look good regarding the Trump infestation at the White House. Robert Mueller seems to be hitting pay dirt by delving into Trump's banking records. From my point of view, there is no plausible explanation for Trump's deferential behavior toward Vladimir Putin that excludes the likelihood that Putin has the goods on Trump, probably with respect to illegal financial dealings, but perhaps also in other areas. It is difficult to know exactly how this will play out, but I am hoping that Trump will leave office before the end of his first term. In the meantime, I am enjoying some of the high quality satire that is being produced now.

I continue to read the biography of Milosz, but without much enthusiasm, as the chapters on his early life draw heavily from Native Realm, which I read previously. With any luck, my reading will accelerate and I'll have something to say before long.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


I've made a little progress in the book I'm reading on Milosz, but not enough to comment at length. I have been thinking about why I am interested in him, and it is probably because he seems more admirable to me than most, and I may have some similarities to him. His family structure was vaguely similar to mine when he was growing up. His mother's side was gentry, with a bucolic country estate, but without much money; my mother's family wasn't gentry, but they were well-off for a time and better-educated than my father's family. As in my family, Milosz was an introvert and his parents were extroverts. Like me, he identified with his mother much more than his father, who, like my father, tended to be frivolous. His mother, like mine, was a flirt. This is only background information which may explain why I have an affinity for Milosz, and the more interesting parts should occur much later in the book. I have always felt that my life could have been enriched somewhat if I had known someone like Milosz, but I never ran into anyone like him, and, at this stage, I probably never will. I find nearly everyone in the U.S. shallow and superficial, and my own generation tends to be narcissistic. Generally, I have not encountered people who have had many thoughts beyond their careers, hobbies, social status, material acquisitions or family activities. Even academics and intellectuals seem to set very low standards here, and I have not found any solace within that group. You have to look to Europe or elsewhere to find adults with a grasp of human history.

In this vein, it is rather depressing to observe the current political attempts in the U.S. to reform the tax system. If you examine the rhetoric, it's hard to see any underlying ideas, but, as has been the case since the 1980's, the Republicans, exactly in accordance with the work of Thomas Piketty, are attempting to distribute more wealth to the rich. There is little or no concern about the long-term consequences of the legislation, and I think that Congress and the president may as well be a group of chimpanzees. I have also been reflecting on this article about how only thirty-six percent of Americans know where North Korea is located. It is no coincidence that actual Americans elected the current members of Congress and the president, and I continue to ponder why, exactly, people think democracy is such a good idea. Fortunately, there are a few intelligent, informed people in the world, and I remain somewhat more optimistic when I think about CSER, the organization which is nicely explained in this video. Unsurprisingly, CSER is not headquartered in the U.S.

My mouse-elimination campaign has been more time consuming than in most years. I've made several trips to the roof and cut a hole in a wall in order to access one of their entry points (which was created by poor carpentry a few years ago). In this round I have blocked two definite entry points and several other potential ones. However, they may still be gaining access from somewhere, though I can't be sure yet because I don't know exactly how many were in the house at their peak. At this stage I have begun to escort all caught mice to Cobble Road, about three miles away, where they can live out their days with their kin near the edge of a quarry. Whether or not I eliminate all of their existing points of entry, they should all soon be out of the house for the winter. Deer mice prefer to live outdoors during the warmer months, and it may take them several generations to find any entries to the house once the current invaders are gone. I think that with two warm winters in a row there may currently be a local mouse population explosion, which has caused the mice to seek new nesting areas nearby as the mouse ghetto expanded.

I also seem to be spending increasing amounts of time on equipment care as my property maintenance arsenal grows. Prior to moving here, we had only an electric lawnmower and an electric string trimmer. I now have all-gasoline equipment, including a lawn tractor, a lawnmower, a string trimmer, a regular chainsaw, a pole chainsaw, a backpack leaf blower, a snow blower and a power washer. These all require maintenance, some annually. And I have to install my snow tires before we get a heavy snow.

I hope to take up less mundane topics on my next post.