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 kind of 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 later met on his first trip to Paris, became a kind of role model for 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 partly 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

Diary

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

Diary

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.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Diary

I've decided that the reason why I'm so picky about what I read is that the authors available, no matter how touted they may be, tend to be deficient in one of several areas that are of importance to me. Not only must they be eloquent, but their writing must also be informative and thoughtful, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, my main obstacle is usually related to the author's limited life experience, which, even when coupled with eloquence and thoughtfulness, is not enough to make their writing compelling to me. This problem comes up with career novelists whose novels seem contrived as soon as they move out of their comfort zone, and their comfort zone itself may be too narrow to sustain my interest. To repeat the example, I think D.H. Lawrence is pretty good in his novels set in England, because that is what he knew best, and when he pushed himself to write about other places in which he lived later in life, some of his original authenticity and purpose evaporated. Or, in the case of Proust, he remained in his comfort zone in all of his novels, and I eventually found his writing claustrophobic, because he seemed to repeat the same point of view with an inadequate amount of reflection on his subject. I am not finished with evaluating Krasznahorkai, but even though I think he has an effective style and a psychological acuity stronger than that of most writers, there is a sameness in bleakness and absurdity that seems to follow him from one book to the next. In his case, though he is expressing a particular vision effectively, I question whether that is all there is to it and suspect that it is not, because there is a conspicuous absence of certain kinds of characters in his work. I don't know how much more of him I'll read, but he seems to obsess about gloomy, abject life in rural Hungary and then, by living elsewhere – Berlin, New York City or Kyoto – only manages to come up with variations of the same theme, possibly without making use of the cultural contrasts available to him.

When it comes to nonfiction, the specificity of the subject matter adds another dimension to whether or not I'll like a book. Obviously, if it is technical or scientific, one would not expect it to be emotionally satisfying, but eloquence and thoughtfulness can still add to its value beyond its informativeness. Thus, I preferred books by E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond to books by Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky, because they are more expansive about the implications of their work. In Wilson's case there is also a palpable passion for protecting the biosphere. In nonfiction, narrowness of research often has an effect roughly comparable to narrowness of experience in a novelist. Doing research in a narrow field can result in ideas that seem to have limited applicability, while an author of fiction who has led a circumscribed life in a homogeneous environment is unlikely to have much of value to say about the broad conditions of the world in which we live.

One kind of nonfiction in which I've had mixed results is biography. I've read seven biographies of George Eliot and found four of them bad, one fair and two good. Of the two good ones, Frederick R. Karl's was by far the most thorough, but it exhibited the qualities cultivated by a professional biographer, and I sensed that he had limited interest in his subject, which, for me, gave the book a dutiful, mechanical quality. The other good one, by Rosemary Ashton, I thought, did a better job capturing the spirit of George Eliot, and it must have helped that she had a strong identification with her subject. There is a general haphazard element to biographies exacerbated by the fact that they require both good subjects and good authors. For me, there are hardly any people whom I think merit a biography, and that limits the field considerably. G.H. Lewes, D.H. Lawrence and Franz Kafka were interesting, but not extremely so. The lives of most literary figures aren't spectacular, but there is always an academic somewhere to write a book about any one of them. Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot and Ludwig Wittgenstein strike me as more interesting than most. However, even a good biographical subject can be ruined when placed in the hands of the wrong biographer. My next reading assignment is a new biography of Czeslaw Milosz. To say that he led an interesting life would be an understatement, but I can't be sure that the author will be able to capture his essence in a manner that I'll find satisfactory.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Diary

I had been planning to write about The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen, but after thumbing through it decided that a careful reading is not worth the time. It is one of the first books written by an American academic which criticizes American culture in a broad swath. However, it was published in 1899, and practically everything in it is either unsupported by actual research or applies primarily to the Gilded Age in which he lived. While many of his descriptions of wealthy Americans still hold up if one makes adjustments for the passage of time, he overreaches and unconvincingly attempts to apply his theory to multiple cultures over long periods. Anthropology, sociology and psychology were in their infancy when he wrote, and many of his claims would not pass muster now in academic circles; in fact, Veblen's academic reputation was quite shaky while he was alive, not because he lacked the credentials, but because he was a nonconformist.

Veblen's interest to me arose through the terms and concepts that he popularized in the titles of some of the chapters of this book: "Pecuniary Emulation," "Conspicuous Leisure," "Conspicuous Consumption," "Pecuniary Canons of Taste," etc. I think conspicuous consumption is still one of the hallmarks of American society, but the way it manifests itself now isn't exactly the same as in 1899. For one thing, in relative terms, the rich in those days were richer than most of the rich today, and, for another, as an emerging economic power, the standards of behavior for the rich were undefined, and there was a tendency to copy wealthy Europeans, particularly the English. Because of changes in social norms since 1899, I don't think Veblen's precise model of the idle rich is currently in vogue among the wealthy. You can see vestiges of it in the Rockefellers, Kennedys and Roosevelts, but it has mostly died. Quite possibly, because of competition, there is more of a sense now among America's wealthy that they can never have enough money. More importantly, Americans have always liked amassing fortunes, and since American culture has to some extent come to dominate the world's imagination, those who are wealthy feel empowered to behave according to their own preferences. Rich people have a new boutique of wealth-appropriate behavior from which to choose. At the low end you have people like the Trumps, who revel in gilt interiors, steaks and daily golf; in the middle you have the Koch brothers, who think that their conservative views are the right ones for the country: they attempt to steer the political system their way; at the high end you have Bill Gates, who has become a major philanthropist, perhaps for lack of a better idea of how to spend the remainder of his life. Warren Buffett simply loves business for its own sake, and he continues to enlarge one of the largest fortunes in the world without demonstrating much interest in spending it or showing off. Buffett is a good indication of the changes since Veblen, in that making lots of money is acceptable as long as you're ethical about it and eventually give it all away. There are also younger billionaires in the tech industries who claim to want to use their wealth to make the world a better place; since they tend not to have the knowledge or insight to do that, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to succeed.

I was exposed to conspicuous consumption growing up in the late 1950's and early 1960's in a suburb of New York City. The nouveaux riches in the the U.S. had a heyday after World War II. Golf was extremely popular among the wealthy, and some of the houses in my town were in the Tudor style. The wealthier people went skiing every winter and sent their children to camp during the summer. Some of my friends and acquaintances went to prep schools during high school, probably more for their status value than for their educational value.

These days, the wealthy seem to spend their money on multiple high-end residences, with some in exotic locations, along with the associated interior decoration, wine connoisseurship, etc. Some of them are interested in high-end art, but they tend to focus on its market value rather than its aesthetic characteristics. Since they no longer have to put on an appearance of idleness, they are freed up to continue working, and one might conclude that high-income work and higher net worth have come to replace the aura of leisure as the end goal of the wealthy. Money itself has taken on so much importance that there is nothing that supersedes it. This subject could be interesting for further exploration in an anthropological or sociological context, but its scope is well beyond the resources that were available to Veblen at the time.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Last Wolf

The third and last story in the László Krasznahorkai collection that I've been reading is quite different from the others but continues on the same theme. It was first published in 2009 and is stylistically postmodern, consisting of one long run-on sentence, in which a failed German philosophy professor sitting at an empty bar in Berlin recounts a story to the Hungarian bartender regarding an assignment he had received to write an article. Having little income, he had accepted an offer from an obscure foundation that had requested him to visit a remote region in Spain and describe the circumstances of the death of the last wolf to be found there. All of his expenses were covered, including a driver and a translator. The narrative is dotted with elements of farce, absurdity and despair. The bartender barely pays attention to him and at one point falls asleep. His translator in Spain considers him an idiot. The professor, who is the narrator describing himself in the third person, exhibits a mental state that can hardly be called upbeat:

...how could he describe what so weighed him down, how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time...

As the story unfolds, there is confusion about the actual moment and location of the death of the last wolf. Finally it is determined that the remaining pack of wolves had been hunted by a lobero, or wolf-hunter, until there were only two wolves left, a young male and female. As in the other stories, the lobero becomes a wolf-sympathizer and begins protecting them from farmers rather than hunting them. However, the female wolf, which became pregnant and was consequently slowed down, was hit by a car and died. The male wolf was not seen for some time and was thought to have fled to Portugal, but was later found and shot, never having left the area. The narrator's guide, José Miguel, a local warden, says that a shepherd, Alexandro, came across the last wolf and shot it. At the end, José Miguel contritely attempts to confess something in private to the professor, but he is rebuffed: perhaps he was the driver who hit the female wolf, perhaps he was the one who shot the last wolf, or perhaps it was something else. Krasznahorkai leaves this open to interpretation, and, as in other writings of his that I've read, he seems to prefer an element of uncertainty in his stories. The narrator never writes the article and continues to meditate on the events. Perhaps this is his report.

Unlike the "Herman" stories, The Last Wolf displays sympathy for the hunted animals by several characters, including the lobero, José Miguel and the translator. The nature of the narrator's sympathy is ambiguous, though he is deeply affected and becomes anxious. There is a greater sense than in the other stories of the injustice associated with man's alteration of the environment to suit his preferences, but Krasznahorkai doesn't clearly evoke an environmentalist's sentiment. The last two wolves are portrayed in a heroic, noble and tragic light. Possibly, besides the wildlife motif, Krasznahorkai is highlighting the absurd situation in which a writer is hired as a journalist under the auspices of a literary organization. No doubt he has been in this situation himself: he may be commenting on the absurdity of the expectations that are placed on artists, or perhaps this is an allegory about the diminished role of the artist in the modern world. Since the narrator seems to identify with the last wolf, artists, one might say, are being driven to extinction. At first I wasn't sure whether I would appreciate Krasznahorkai's chosen style, but I found the narrative very well-executed and satisfying in the end. Because the three stories are included in the same volume, it is tempting to think of them as variations on a theme, in which the author experiments with a subject in much the same manner that a composer might. The style of this one evokes a visceral feeling of stream-of-consciousness to capture the state of mind of the narrator, whereas the other two are more conventional "tales." Although I don't think I'll ever like short stories as much as novels, Krasznahorkai is such a good writer that anything written by him is worth a try. The Last Wolf is easily one of the best short stories I've ever read. If you want to read Krasznahorkai without committing much time, this would be a good choice, and if you like short stories, I doubt you'll find one much better than this.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Herman the Game Warden/The Death of a Craft

I'm reading a very small volume of short stories by László Krasznahorkai. Two of the stories are about Herman, a game warden in a rural Hungarian town. In the first story, Herman the Game Warden, prior to his imminent retirement he is assigned to remove unwanted predators from an area known as the Remete woods. He goes about the job methodically, having special traps made by a local blacksmith and using esoteric trapping techniques known only to experts such as himself. He easily captures, kills and disposes of feral cats, wild dogs, foxes and other species that have been deemed inappropriate by the authorities. Then suddenly he has a change of heart, almost a religious conversion, that causes him to believe that he should not be killing these animals. Rather, he decides, the townspeople are the problem. He stops trapping animals and instead begins setting up traps in town, which injure the residents, who subsequently search for the culprit. Eventually they find him, and Herman is shot. In the second story, The Death of a Craft, the same basic story is retold, with some of the facts changed, from the point of view of a sybaritic group of officers and their girlfriends who have arrived in town to visit a dying mother and engage in a short winter excursion to stifle their boredom. When the visitors learn about Herman, they become engrossed in his capture and join search parties in his pursuit. The ending of this version is different, with Herman leaving a trap near the altar of the local cathedral and then disappearing:

The disquieting question, whether "Herman" had intended the trap for those approaching the altar or perhaps for Christ descending from the cross, was to remain unanswered, because the demon, the ever tormenting, absent antagonist to our heroic struggles, had most likely left town early that morning, never to be heard of again.

These two stories were first published in 1986, early in Krasznahorkai's career, and, as short stories, are less complex than his better-known works. Herman the Game Warden seems heavily influenced by Kafka, with a description of a specific kind of insanity and a narrative with a claustrophobic focus on one person's obsessions. I don't find it particularly interesting and see it as an early experiment in writing, though it does show Krasznahorkai's interest in the macabre and his respect for Kafka. The Death of a Craft is of greater interest to me and demonstrates some of Krasznahorkai's skills. As in his longer works, it shows how he can shift gears and take a completely different perspective on a series of events. This allows him to produce richer fictional environments, because each character is seen to inhabit a different reality. In ordinary fiction, there is usually a presumed collective reality that the characters agree on, but this is not the case with Krasznahorkai, and it enables him to convey a complex realism with overlapping perspectives that don't fully converge. In The Death of a Craft, you get numinous hints of how Herman perceives the world, along with the perspectives of scared townspeople and some visiting adventurers.

In a sentence-by-sentence comparison between Krasznahorkai and Kafka, it is difficult to reach a conclusion regarding quality, since they are writing, respectively, in Hungarian and German, and I am reading English translations. Moreover, in this volume, Krasznahorkai has two different translators. My sense is that George Szirtes is one of the best translators of Hungarian into English, and I'm not so sure about the other, John Bakti. In the translations I've read of Kafka, his writing always seems extraordinarily precise compared to most writers, and I'm not confident that Krasznahorkai reaches that level. In any case, I consider Krasznahorkai the better writer of the two, because his use of multiple perspectives is beyond the scope of Kafka. Kafka himself knew that there was something seriously wrong with his work, probably because he recognized that it was constrained by the kind of mental illness that precipitated it. Krasznahorkai may also have some psychological baggage, but, if he does, it is less debilitating to him than is the case with Kafka.

The main problem that I have with Krasznahorkai so far is that, in what I've read, he is confined to rural Hungary and poorly-educated people. His use of multiple perspectives could be put to better use in a more-developed country with a better-educated population, which would be much more challenging but could possibly produce more spectacular results. However, as I've said, no writer is omniscient, and Krasznahorkai, like any writer, is limited by his background.

The reason why I appreciate the use of multiple perspectives is that it is uncommon now in a time when it is more relevant than ever. In a politically polarized era, it would be useful if people were more aware of how their worldviews differed from those of others. In many American towns there are people living right next door to each other who have completely incompatible perspectives. One household may consist of liberal atheists who support economic equality and the protection of the environment, while detesting Donald Trump; their neighbors may be conservative Christians who attend church regularly, believe in American exceptionalism and love Donald Trump. These two households may have nothing in common, but you would never know it from the appearance and proximity of their houses. Furthermore, there are several factions, including corporations, special interest groups, political parties, religious organizations and the Russian government, which have focused specifically on manipulating people's worldviews to serve their interests; unity of thought is being undermined constantly today. I think it would be beyond the capability of most writers to write a novel that realistically portrays both liberals and conservatives on their own terms, without taking sides, though such a book could be original, insightful and sardonic if a talented enough writer were around to execute it. I am often amused by disparities in outlook when I watch PBS NewsHour, and Judy Woodruff routinely acts flummoxed by the latest random shooting, terrorist attack or political imbroglio, even when it takes little imagination to sense why someone might do something that you wouldn't. The news media pretend that there is one narrative that fits everything, but, if there is, they certainly haven't found it. You don't have to dig very deeply to see that the world is far more complex than we are led to believe.

There is one more story in this book, and I'll write about it later.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Diary

I had hoped that by now I would have settled into my winter mode, in which I would be finding writings of interest and reflecting on various topics. However, after a series of visitors and a new domestic mouse invasion, we were hit by a strong wind storm, which snapped trees and damaged the shingles on our roof.

Since moving here, I have become a mouse psychologist and have taught myself to think like a deer mouse. They can enter a house from many places, and I had already blocked all of the holes at or below ground level. When we moved in, there were five holes through which they had been entering and leaving. After two years, they chewed a new hole in the basement doorjamb, and I blocked that with cement. Two years later a mouse got in through a small hole that it had enlarged on the roof, and I filled that with steel wool. Recently I heard a mouse gnawing in the basement and decided that it must have entered somewhere through the roof, so I climbed up there and blocked some possible entrances (you can't always be sure) with steel wool. The reason why I thought that they were entering through the roof was that I could hear them climbing up and down the electric and cable lines outside while I was lying in bed. There were no further signs of mice inside for several days, but as soon as the wind storm hit I caught two of them in the basement. My theory is that they were living in the attic and may have become trapped in the house when I blocked their passageway, and when the storm hit they were frightened by the noise and fled to the basement. They are very easy to catch in humane traps baited with peanut butter. I used to let them out in the woods a mile and a half away, but now I release them outside in the yard to see if they can still get back in. Mice leave trails of urine wherever they go, and they use them to find places that they or other mice have been to recently. At the moment there don't seem to be any more mice in the house, but only time will tell. William does his job reducing the local mouse population, but they are always going to be around because of their high reproductive rate.

Wind storms are an anomaly here and seem to be a result of global warming. Besides Hurricane Irene, we've had two major wind storms and two lesser ones since 2011. This time we were without electricity for nearly twelve hours. Wind gusts reached eighty miles per hour, equivalent to a weak hurricane. Vermont may not get the droughts that some other places will, but the climate will be more variable, with warmer winters and hotter summers. Because of the storms, some people here have been getting backup generators. Out in the country, without electricity not only is there no light at night, but your well pump can't work, meaning that you won't have well water to drink, bathe in or cook. We keep a supply of water in gallon jugs so that we can at least fill the toilets and flush them without power.

My project for today is the replacement of a fence post that broke during the storm.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Diary

One of the advantages of being retired is that you become accountable to no one and have the option of thinking as independently as you like. There is always the danger that you may become delusional and enter into a solipsistic world that is unintelligible to everyone but yourself, but I don't think that I fall into that category as of yet. On the contrary, I notice how people who work for a living, whether self-employed or as employees, compromise their thoughts in a manner that I don't have to. Generally, I can say whatever I like, and there will be no negative consequences such as a loss of income or a decline in my professional reputation. I find it difficult to engage with some writers because I can sense the pecuniary motivation behind their work and can see how they have created a façade specifically designed to entertain their readers without really challenging them, and this may differ from what they would write if they were unfettered by economic constraints. Such observations underlie many of the criticisms that I have made here, and I think it is telling that you won't generally find similar ideas in publications or books. Part of this deception occurs innocently in the sense that every writer belongs to some milieu that determines the forms and subjects that its members are expected to adopt, but in a commercial society, as D.H. Lawrence suggested, the ideal of honest writing often conflicts with financial objectives. Thus, I have increasingly found that some degree of dishonesty pervades public writings of all sorts.

As far back as the 1960's I noticed that painters who wanted to succeed had to develop a recognizable style as soon as possible. The more successful they wanted to become, the more obvious and repetitive that style would have to be. Since then, I've noticed that wherever I live there is usually a well-received local artist who has developed a distinct, recognizable style, and repetition has become a key ingredient of their success. While repetition may seem incompatible with creative expression, in a commercial environment it is a crucial element. The same is true on a national or global scale, but increased competition merely makes internationally competitive art more refined without eliminating the repetition: stylistic familiarity works much like a jingle in a television or radio commercial, with the aim of encouraging your continued patronage.

You might say that familiarity provides an undeserved advantage in all fields, including ones that are supposed to be intellectually rigorous, given the pervasiveness of human cognitive limitations. Flawed theories can survive for decades once they become established, if only because people have become accustomed to them. Even though I have tended to admire the thoughts of the Enlightenment thinkers, in a modern context much of what they had to say is dated or just plain incorrect. One of my biggest complaints has been that the implications of Charles Darwin's ideas have been largely ignored, because people were accustomed to and preferred the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, which, while uplifting to some degree, are not realistic in an overpopulated, unequal, polluted world. I try not to overstate my case, but I find it appalling that naïve ideas regarding individual freedom and free enterprise are widely encouraged and accepted despite overwhelming evidence of their destructive effects. I feel that it is necessary to say something about this. Our understanding of human nature has increased dramatically over the last two hundred years, and to ignore that information is foolhardy, to put it mildly. If you only paid attention to politicians, you would think that God is in Heaven smiling down on America and that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al., were the greatest geniuses in the history of the world. By now it is completely obvious to me that the Founding Fathers, though advanced thinkers in their day, held ideas that are outdated and untenable if not demonstrably false now.

Sometimes I wonder what the point of this blog is, and I usually return to the idea that it explores some concepts that are hard to find in conventional media. In my recent readings in nonfiction, I am struck by how very few authors are willing to speculate broadly on the implications of their findings. As our world becomes more complex and less manageable, rather than seek better solutions, our leaders, both intellectual and political, prefer to pat themselves on their backs and exaggerate their effectiveness as problem-solvers. In particular, the evidence for human irrationality has become indisputable, yet practically no one goes on to address the risks entailed when the prevailing models for livelihoods and governance are left unquestioned beyond the context of narrow academic research. Thus, I am unlikely to run out of subject matter for this blog in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Diary

It now officially looks as if fall is here – the prettiest time of year, enhanced for me by the fragrance of drying leaves, which reminds me of my youth in southern New York. I don't think I could enjoy living in a place without four seasons and deciduous trees. Because of all the temperature variation over the last few months, it seems is if we were shortchanged on summer and winter is approaching ahead of schedule. I have books to read but may delay starting them, since there are visitors arriving soon.

One of my distractions over the last few weeks has been active investment. The stock markets are always unpredictable, but they become more predictable just after the middle of the business cycle, which varies in timing from country to country. The recession of 2007-2009 was quite severe worldwide, and the recovery continues. In my case, the recession immediately followed my retirement in late 2007, and I promptly lost about forty percent of my assets, without much income other than a very small pension. Normally, the economy and stock market would have recovered by about 2012, but it's only happening now. Fortunately, I have enough luck or skill to succeed in investing during times like this, and in about a month's time I've made enough profit to buy a new car. I've been thinking of replacing my current car, which is nearly fifteen years old and getting rusty from the road salt in Vermont. Still, I find the capitalist system unfair. Once you accumulate a certain amount of money, if you invest it properly you never have to work again. Ordinary workers become your de facto employees without your ever having to deal with them. As a stockholder in their companies, you benefit from the income and growth of their corporations without lifting a finger. If their employee benefits are reduced or if the workers are replaced by robots, you make even more money. I'm not rich, and I still may end up having spent only about a third of my life as an employee, with the rest a free ride. I've been retired for ten years and have more money now than I did when I retired.

The Trump presidency continues to disturb. At this stage, what is startling to me is that, despite the fact that the majority of the people, including some of his own staff, recognize his weaknesses and the danger that he presents to the U.S. and the world, he remains in office. I attribute this mainly to political cowardice on the part of Republicans. The fact that the Republican Party is in ideological disarray probably has something to do with it. Do they want lower taxes or lower budget deficits? You can't have both. To the extent that Trump has any policies, he supports a massive windfall to the rich at the expense of a higher national debt that may be impossible to pay off. Even if I were a Republican I would be appalled by the party's ideological incoherence.

The most unsettling thing to me about Trump is the message that he repeats constantly to energize his supporters, who represent about a third of the American population. To paraphrase Trump's message loosely, it's "I ain't gonna pay the niggers no more." The crux of his policy since taking office has been to rescind everything accomplished by Barack Obama, without offering any intelligible explanation. The subtext is pretty much "because the nigger did it." Similarly, Trump portrays illegal immigrants as dark-skinned people who are stealing American jobs. Whether or not he actually believes this is a moot point, because it is his primary political tactic, and it works. He has been coached by people like Steve Bannon to get support from economically challenged whites by using this technique. The dishonesty of Trump and Bannon lies in the fact that most of Trump's supporters are more or less in the same economic boat as the people whom he implicitly disparages, and Trump isn't doing anything to help them. The only noticeable beneficiaries of the Trump presidency are Trump, his family, his associates, and possibly the Russian government. Most observers have seen by now that Trump doesn't understand politics or have any strategic vision. A closer look also shows that he is completely indifferent to the disenfranchised.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst III

I have picked up my reading and finally finished the book, but I haven't had much to say about it. Despite writing in an informal voice, Sapolsky is a dutiful academic, and he surveys various research in some detail. He is not a grand synthesizer, and time after time he seems simply to reiterate "it's complicated." For a reader like me, who prefers the short answer to the long answer and an elegant theory to a hodgepodge of scientific facts, the book as a whole is not satisfying.

In broad outline, it is hard to disagree with Sapolsky. He shows how the endocrine system, neurons, genes and the environment, the latter including cultural influences, work together in complex ways to produce behaviors which, though causal in origin, are highly variable. I found the parts on neurology the most interesting, the parts on primates and other mammals less so, and the parts on social psychology obvious. Some of the academic disputes interested me a little. I enjoyed his historical perspective on the disagreement between sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson and paleontologists and geneticists such as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin over genetic determinism. Since Sapolsky is, like the latter two, a New York Jew, he is allowed to frame the dispute as political in nature, South versus North. A related schism exists today, with an odd mixture of conservatives and impartial scientists on one side and political correctness and liberals on the other. He also discusses controversial experiments in social psychology such as those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, which I had heard of before. He disagrees with some of Steven Pinker's ideas in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which I haven't read and don't intend to.

Where I am in greatest sympathy with Sapolsky is in his assertion, which is extremely well-documented in this book, that human behavior is fundamentally irrational. Although he seems to go out of his way to avoid the appearance of a polemicist, like me he does not believe that we are rational agents at all. Without making much fuss about it, he specifically repudiates philosophers who suggest that morality falls within the domain of reason. However, it seems to me that he offers no prescriptions and in the end resembles a standard American liberal who believes in social justice, understanding others who are different from you, blah, blah, blah. In contrast, I find it more useful to discuss specific ways in which society might be reordered in a manner that is both fair and sustainable. On this front, Sapolsky seems to draw a complete blank. For example, although he is fully aware that how people vote is essentially irrational, he offers no critique of the current democratic process. Similarly, despite convincingly demonstrating that male leaders usually have no particular talents that extend beyond the promotion of their self-interest, he makes no comment on how, in a capitalist system, they endanger the world. While he is broadly in agreement with E.O. Wilson, he doesn't lift a finger to warn us about the risks of destroying the planet or precipitating our extinction.

Sometimes Sapolsky's attempts to be humorous and entertaining become annoying. On page 385 he finishes a paragraph as follows, with the footnotes shown:

This was a bold assertion that the heuristic of dialectical materialism not only extends beyond the economic world into the naturalistic one, but is ontologically rooted in the essential sameness of both worlds' dynamic of irresolvable contradictions.* It is Marx and Engels as trilobite and snail.†

*I have no idea what it is that I just wrote....
†Ditto.

Considering the complexity and seriousness of the topics under discussion, I would have preferred fewer distractions and more focus. However, if you can tolerate Sapolsky's writing style and the length of the book, it is a good source of information.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Diary

I'm still not reading much, but I've finished my astronomy projects for the time being, and, after some social engagements and a little more stargazing, I'll probably start reading on a more sustained basis, which will provide more grist for the blog. I assume that most of my tiny cadre of readers find book discussions to be of greater interest than my "Diary" posts, since they incorporate topics well beyond the daily life of a retiree.

Cleaning the objective lens of my refractor turned out to be fairly time-consuming. Technically, I have abused the telescope by leaving it outside almost constantly for four years, with the objective lens exposed to dew on many occasions and drying each time. In the interest of not damaging the objective lenses of telescopes, conventional wisdom is that they should rarely be cleaned. However, I probably should have cleaned mine two years ago, and it had quite a buildup. Stargazing is a male-dominated hobby, and many stargazers are obsessive about their telescopes, taking adoring pictures of them, showing them off as displays of wealth and social prestige, and lusting after aspirational equipment that they can't afford, but I consider telescopes to be functional objects. Most of the cleaning solutions I tried didn't work at all, but finally I got a blue enzyme cleaner from Texas Nautical Research in Houston, the U.S. distributor for my telescope, which is Japanese in origin, and, after a few attempts and an improvised technique, it finally became clean, and without any scratches or damage to the optical coatings.

I've been watching Season 7 of Portlandia, and, as previously, the episodes are extremely uneven in quality, but there are usually some good ones. I especially liked the opening scene to Episode 5, which shows a man looking for a restroom in an office building. A receptionist directs him to one, but he can't follow her instructions and accidentally wanders back to her desk. At that point, to avoid embarrassing himself, he pulls out his smartphone and turns on an app for office navigation. Its database includes the layouts of all office buildings, municipal buildings and homes, and, like GPS, it navigates him right up to the toilet seat, with images and verbal instructions the whole way. Later, the same man is shown sitting at home on his sofa watching TV. Suddenly the app comes on and offers figurative guidance, given that he has been unemployed for 3.5 weeks. The app coaches him through the entire job-hunting process to the final interview, for which he wears headphones attached to his smartphone. When he is offered the job, the app instructs him to shake hands and make eye contact with the interviewer and then leave. This reminded me of Sherry Turkle and some of my previous posts. At the moment, this scenario looks funny, but I think it's already starting to happen. A less-funny implication of this kind of technology is that there may not be any jobs at some point. If all thinking can be done with apps, algorithms and AI, there eventually won't be much need for employees.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst II

I haven't been reading much this summer and am moving very slowly through the book. The writing style isn't as bad as I had feared it might be, and I am finding the topic interesting. By describing the biological processes behind psychological processes, a deeper understanding of human behavior becomes available, because the causal mechanisms are readily apparent. For example, where Daniel Kahneman documents "fast" and "slow" thinking, Sapolsky specifically links some aspects of these processes to hormones and various regions within the brain. The amygdala is the home of many emotional and irrational reactions that occur instantaneously, and the prefrontal cortex is the home of many deliberative processes; both regions are activated in complicated ways by hormones and pheromones. Other mammals have similar regions and processes, and human behavior is merely a recent manifestation of brain functions that have been in existence for millions of years.

Sapolsky looks in some detail at testosterone and shows that its effects are far more complex and subtle than those mentioned in common parlance. Rather than simply boosting male aggression, it serves as an amplifier to reactions and is context-dependent. In other hormones, I've only got as far as oxytocin and vasopressin and still have a long way to go. I'm not particularly literate in this subject, so this isn't an easy read. I am more interested in the implications of this kind of work than in all of the particulars. Sapolsky's discussion is wide-ranging, and I am paying more attention to his general thoughts than to the biological specifics that determine our behavior. In later chapters, which I'll get to eventually, he discusses groups, hierarchies, morality and free will, which have greater appeal to me.

The sense I get is that Sapolsky is going to demonstrate how complex all behavioral processes are, so that while it may be possible to identify behavioral patterns on a broad scale, in individual cases multiple outcomes are possible due to the large numbers of variables in operation: it is easier to predict general human behavior than the specific behavior of an individual. I don't think that Sapolsky has many philosophical proclivities, though he is familiar with the work of Daniel Dennett, so I'm not expecting much on that front. Still, it looks as if I will be able to incorporate the ideas in this book with my own ideas about human limitations and the theoretical desirability of external AI-based management for our species. For me, it is simply a matter of risk management to ensure that human errors don't lead to disastrous consequences for all of us. We ought to arrange our circumstances in a manner such that outlier groups such as ISIL or incompetent political leaders such as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump don't ruin the world for everyone. Furthermore, we need an unbiased authority to enforce limits on our freedom, such that we can't have as many children as we like or despoil the planet in pursuit of riches. These are the directions in which I would take Sapolsky's work, but he does not so far seem ambitious on those fronts.

I might also note that I view it as a responsibility of educated adults to maintain at least some familiarity with these scientific developments, because I think that is necessary in order not to engage in avoidant behavior. There is enough information available for us to collectively improve our situation, and we would be fools not to make an effort. One of the reasons why I have become disenchanted with fiction and the arts in general is that they have veered off into alternate realities in which style trumps substance, and authors take no responsibility for their own educations, let alone those of their readers. They are taking the easy way out, which never bodes well in the arts.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I

I've just started this relatively long book by Robert Sapolsky, which takes a close look at human behavior, drawing from his background in neurobiology, primatology and other disciplines. Of all the books I've read on the subject, Sapolsky comes with the best background, which is extremely multidisciplinary by academic standards. E.O. Wilson's work in sociobiology offers quite a stretch from ants to humans, though I think he's a better writer and possibly a bigger thinker than Sapolsky. There is a gradation in scientific rigor that one encounters in topics such as this. The books I recently read by Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Jared Diamond are comparatively "soft" with respect to scientific rigor, because they either ignore many of the biological details of humans or gloss over them because they are not central to their research. According to reviews I've read, Sapolsky takes a hard, deterministic stance on human behavior, like E.O. Wilson, and this is the approach that I have found most fruitful. Practically all of the significant research on humans over the last few decades has occurred within the framework of biology.

This is not to say that I will enjoy reading the book. First, its length automatically causes it to flunk my concision test. Second, Sapolsky's writing style is like a presentation made by a popular university lecturer. He seems to want to come across as accessible to the clueless students clustered in front of him, and one reviewer describes him as a "hipster." When I see a male professor using "with it" language and displaying long, curly hair, I am reminded of the pot-smoking, student-seducing college professor played by Donald Sutherland in the film Animal House, and I find their pedagogic techniques more distracting than appealing. This may be an academic version of the insertion of irrelevant personal details about scientists made by journalists such Elizabeth Kolbert, and I could do without it.

Perhaps because of my own ignorance, I had thought that hard determinism was off the table in some scientific disciplines because of the existence of random events. I'm probably still not completely clear on this, but my current thinking is that the thesis of hard determinism is universally valid, and that it seems implausible to us only because we are incapable of knowing exactly how something happened in every case, and the word "random" is simply a cover for a particular, intractable kind of cognitive deficiency that we possess. The idea of randomness has always been more reputable than concepts such as ESP, telekinesis and magic, but it may actually belong in the same class. My current view is that the universe does in fact move like clockwork, but that our feeble little brains are unable to fully understand the exact mechanism for every event. We have made up secondary concepts such as mind, consciousness and God to fill in the gaps, but these only reflect our local, unprivileged status as finite entities within the world.

Even given that everything anyone does is predetermined and unchangeable, we labor under the illusion of free will and still must try to think of better ways to organize humanity. Therefore, there has been no change in my thesis that we ought to be studying what kind of beings we are and which habitats we are best suited to. We have both altruistic and destructive tendencies and seem to have evolved to coexist in cooperative groups. The end goal, I think, is not an immortal race of super-geniuses, as has been suggested by some futurists, but the creation of a sustainable habitat which allows all people to live the kinds of lives for which evolution has prepared them.

This book is jammed full with information, and I will attempt to pick out anything that seems worth discussing.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Diary

I've finished most of my astronomy equipment projects for the time being. I sold one item to a man in San Jose and another to a man in Belgrade, Serbia. The only remaining project is the cleaning of the 130 mm objective lens of my refractor, and I'm awaiting the arrival of cleaning fluid from England. The viewing conditions, however, have remained poor all summer. Orion is visible again – if you're up at 4:00 A.M.

This hasn't been a normal summer for me. We just had another round of workmen, who were hammering, drilling and sawing for a week in the process of repairing water damage and constructing a covered entry for the front door. William didn't like the noise either and spent all day sleeping on a chair in the basement. We also have had extremely cool weather. On September 1, the temperature hit 39 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a frost warning. In me, this seems to trigger a biological adjustment to winter, which isn't coming yet, and it throws me off. The tomatoes aren't doing as well this year, but are still producing adequately.

I think I'm suffering from a mild case of cabin fever for several reasons. First, I haven't left the state once this year, and its allure is wearing off. After six years, the native Vermonters seem less interesting to me than previously. Although they are generally more relaxed and pleasant than city-dwellers, like most of the rural people I've known they are socially retarded. Besides the usual New England reticence that I've come to expect, I find that they don't know how to communicate well and don't understand people who are not part of their immediate social group. Some of the people who have lived in this neighborhood for over 30 years have hardly ever spoken to each other. If it hadn't been for the recent migration of well-educated people to the state, it would probably still be a conservative backwater. In fact, parts of Addison County have an atmosphere similar to Southern Appalachia, complete with inbred populations that have become mentally deficient over the course of time. All of the people I know seem happy to live here, but, if you look closely, the native Vermonters are not well-integrated with the recent arrivals, and they comprise separate cultures to some extent.

Although my social needs are very limited compared to those of most people, it doesn't help that Anne, despite being healthy and energetic, gravitates toward people in the 75-100 age group. Admittedly, there are some advantages to that group: they don't have anything left to prove, are generally better-mannered and more articulate than younger people and are easy to get along with. However, to me they seem like relics of the past, and I often wonder how capable they are of understanding subsequent generations – not that subsequent generations are worth understanding. I might prefer people who are more physically active and less disease-riddled, but I haven't come across many and am making no effort to find them. As it is, I am unlikely to meet any through Anne, who is far more active socially than I am and my primary conduit to the outside world. Normally I am easily satisfied by the smallest amount of high quality social interaction, but under the present circumstances I'm hardly getting even that. It's beginning to look as if my primary social venue will be funerals – there has been one already.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence III

I looked over the remainder of the book and found some things of interest, but there are limitations to correspondences compared to fiction or memoirs. As Lawrence's literary career advanced, he additionally befriended Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley and Alfred Stieglitz, among others, and maintained a fairly large correspondence, which, however, frequently pertained to publishing matters or minor travel anecdotes. He was surprisingly energetic and alive for a man of wavering health, and it is difficult to keep track of his peregrinations in this book. During World War I he and Frieda stayed in England, living in Cornwall and Derbyshire. From 1919 to 1922 they lived in Sicily and traveled to Sardinia and Switzerland. From 1922 to 1924 they traveled to Ceylon and Australia and settled in Taos, New Mexico, and they then traveled to Mexico, New York, Los Angeles, England, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. In 1924-1925 he spent time in Mexico City but left when he became ill. They spent most of 1926 in Italy. In 1927-1928 they visited France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Germany, finally settling in the South of France in 1929, where he died the following year.

It isn't clear to me why he and Frieda traveled so much. Part of it had to do with their finances. Free housing provided by a wealthy patron seems to have been one of the motivating factors behind moving to Taos. There were also legal and other pressures which may have kept them unusually mobile. While living in England, Frieda was accused of being a German spy. Censors found passages in Lawrence's novels pornographic, particularly in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Lawrence became one of the most controversial writers of the century. He also wrote poems and plays and painted, and some of his paintings were seized because they were considered obscene. However, Lawrence also seems to have liked travel for its own sake, and it constituted part of his philosophy of living to the fullest and experiencing the world.

I am always surprised by people like Lawrence who are prodigious yet are still able to produce excellent work. However, I think that in every case high productivity eventually leads to lower quality. Lawrence seems to be bound by his early experiences in England, and he will mainly be remembered for his English novels. I did not find Aaron's Rod, which is set in Florence, particularly well done, and it seems likely that most of the fiction derived from his travels is not as good as his major novels, all of which are set in England. If you realistically consider how good fiction is produced, it soon becomes apparent how limited any writer is likely to be: you can't simply travel around and churn out top-quality writing pertinent to each location, because, during a short period of time, no individual can absorb a deep enough understanding of an unfamiliar environment to capture its essence, regardless of his or her skill as a writer. As I mentioned earlier, George Eliot made the same mistake, but it was limited to just one novel, Romola, which was set in Renaissance Florence. I have no desire to read Lawrence's novels set in Australia or Mexico.

Like every intelligent writer I know, Lawrence's initial reaction to America, when he arrived in Taos, was negative. He wrote to Else Jaffe, his sister-in-law, in 1922:

...I think America is neither free nor brave, but a land of tight, iron-clanking little wills, everybody trying to put it over everybody else, and a land of men absolutely devoid of the real courage of trust, trust in life's sacred spontaneity. They can't trust life until they can control it. So much for them – cowards! You can have the Land of the Free – as much as I know of it. – In the spring I want to come back to Europe.

Later, in 1925, he wrote to Kyle Crichton, an American journalist:

I have been thinking of what you say about not having had the courage to be a creative writer. It seems to me that may be true – America, of all countries, kills that courage, simply because it sees no value in the really creative effort, whereas it esteems, more highly than any other country, the journalistic effort: it loves the thrill of a sensation, but loathes to be in any way moved, inwardly affected so that a new vital adjustment is necessary. Americans are enormously adaptible: perhaps because inwardly they are not adjusted at all to their environment. They are never as American as a chipmunk is, or as an Indian is: only as a Ford car or as the Woolworth building.

That's why it seems to me impossible almost, to be purely a creative writer in America: everybody compromises with journalism and commerce. Hawthorne and Melville and Whitman reached a point of imaginative or visionary adjustment to America, which, it seemed to me, is again entirely lost, abandoned: because you can't adjust yourself vitally, inwardly, to a rather scaring world, and at the same time, get ahead.

Obviously I was delighted to read the above lines.

Still, Lawrence embodied some aspects of the culture of his period that no longer interest me. He was writing at a time when Freud, Jung and psychoanalysis were trendy, and artsy people were interested in Eastern religions and native cultures, prefiguring the 1960's – all of which I think led nowhere. I have been trying to determine what, if anything, was so great about Frieda, and I can't come up with anything. The impression I have is that she was sexually uninhibited with Lawrence, which offered him something that he had not found with British women. She was socially skilled and reasonably well-read, but both of them were opinionated, headstrong and argumentative, and they often had loud fights that disturbed their friends and acquaintances. Rather than poring over biographies or letters, the answers may have been available if Lawrence had lived to write memoirs. As it is, I am inclined to see Frieda as a hedonistic woman who abandoned a conventional life and her children in order to have a good time. Lawrence seems to have had no interest in children, and this offered her an assurance that she wouldn't be weighed down again. In her case, however, I don't see an artist as much as reveler, and she left behind nothing of note. Sometimes it is easy to feel nostalgic about the now nonexistent artistic and literary colonies of the past, but I sense that, had I been there, many weaknesses would have been in full view.

This experiment in literary correspondences was not a complete failure, but I don't think that, in general, they are likely to be reliable enough to become a fixture of my reading habits.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence II

This book is probably more appropriate for academic research than for a casual reading, but I am finding it informative in several respects. Because it consists of Lawrence's actual letters, one gets a more visceral sense of the progress of his life than one would elsewhere. It also provides a fine-grained picture of how his literary career developed and the individual interactions that accompanied it. One sees how the tone and style of his letters changed according to the recipient. The letters to his old friends read more spontaneously than those to literary insiders and aristocratic acquaintances, and he is probably adjusting his presentation according to the requirements of each relationship.

Lawrence's output of high quality writing is impressive compared to that of more recent writers. He began to produce fiction under his own name in 1908, and his first novel was published in 1911, followed by a second novel in 1912. Sons and Lovers, the third, was published in 1913, a short story collection in 1914 and The Rainbow appeared in 1915. What is striking to me is how intimate the artistic circles were in England at the time. When an author received some attention, virtually everyone in the literary community became familiar with them and they were soon socializing. A brief chronology: he was an unknown writer who left his teaching position in 1912 due to poor health; by 1913 he was corresponding with Lady Cynthia Asquith; by 1914 he was corresponding with Amy Lowell (an American poet); in 1915 he was friends with E.M. Forster and corresponding with Lady Ottoline Morrell and Bertrand Russell.

Besides the relative frankness about sexuality in his novels, Lawrence probably appealed to the literary elite in England because of his relationship with Frieda, who came from an aristocratic German family. She divorced her husband in Nottingham and gave up her three children in order to marry Lawrence, and, especially by English standards, they lived a bohemian lifestyle. They never had much money to spare and moved often to cheaper parts of Europe in order to extend his small income.

In his better letters, as in his better novels, Lawrence comes across less as a thinker than as an artist who is committed to his somewhat utopian vision of the world. He expresses some of this in a letter to E.M. Forster in 1915:

In my Island, I wanted people to come without class or money, sacrificing nothing, but each coming with all his desires, yet knowing that his life is but a tiny section of a Whole: so that he shall fulfil his life in relation to the Whole. I wanted a real community, not built out of abstinence or equality, but of many fulfilled individualities seeking greater fulfilment. 

But, I can't find anybody. Each man is so bent on his own private fulfilment – either he wants love of a woman, and can't get it complete, or he wants to influence his fellow men (for their good, of course), or he wants to satisfy his own soul with regard to his position in eternity. And they make me tired, these friends of mine. They seem so childish and greedy, always the immediate desire, always the particular outlook, no conception of the whole horizon wheeling round....

I do feel every man must have the devil of a struggle before he can have stuffed himself full enough to satisfy all his immediate needs, and can give up, cease, and withdraw himself, yield himself up to his metamorphosis, his crucifixion, and so come to his new issuing, his wings, his resurrection, his whole flesh shining like a mote in sunshine, fulfilled and now taking part in the fulfilment of the Whole.

So I feel frightfully like weeping in a corner – not over myself – but perhaps my own resurrection is too new, one must feel if the scars are not there, and wince – and one must see the other people all writhing and struggling and unable to give up.

This tortured reasoning pervades Lawrence's early works, and I had similar thoughts when I was that age – 29 – though by then my expectations of others were already becoming quite low. There is something of the visionary in him, which adds to his appeal. Lawrence's struggle is of a type that one rarely encounters in the U.S., or perhaps anywhere.

I am going to attempt to move more quickly through this book, because I have a couple more lined up and don't want to dwell on this one forever.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Diary

There has been a lapse in my posts because I haven't had much to write about and have been preoccupied with other things. I recently purchased some new software and hardware for my Dobsonian telescope, which I can now operate with my Android smartphone and find millions of objects automatically. Of course, actual viewing conditions don't permit that, and there has been about one good viewing night all summer, which allowed me to get my best view so far of Saturn. I prefer fainter objects such as galaxies, which require optimal viewing conditions. Because of all the trees in the yard, there is just one spot, with a V-shaped opening between the trees, where I can see objects near the southern horizon, and those objects are only visible in it for a few weeks before moving out of range. Jupiter is gone and Saturn soon will be. I had wanted to see if I could split the companion star of Antares, but I didn't get a chance. One of the things that is interesting about astronomical observation is that after a while you get the sense that you are living inside a giant mechanical clock. I'm also spending time selling online some old equipment that is no longer needed.

Another occupation, which I don't do much anymore, has been finding an old friend. Even though I don't expect much to come from it, I enjoy the hunt. He is a high school friend named Evans, which makes him hard to look up. The last time I saw him was in about 1973, and I haven't heard anything from him since. I invited him to my wedding in 1974 and he didn't show up. Since I couldn't find him directly, I began to look into his family. His father was the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, and he had two sisters. Although his parents died long ago, both of his sisters married husbands with less-common surnames, and their weddings were announced in the New York Times. One sister is now the chief curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. I sent her an e-mail at work, but she didn't respond. The other sister, I just found, lives in Massachusetts. She owns a vacation house in Vermont that is advertised on VRBO, and I was able to contact her through that website. It turns out that her brother is alive and living in Miami. I will be e-mailing him soon.

In other news, I noticed a footprint in the mud in the woods behind the garage that did not belong to us. Out of curiosity, I purchased a game camera and positioned it to point at the back of the garage in order to capture potential intruders. So far, the main star of the ten-second videos recorded has been William, who can be seen coming and going from the woods at night, occasionally stopping to sniff the camera, and once carrying out prey. There have been raccoons and a fox, but no bears or deer – or people, other than us. I think the footprint was probably left by our neighbor, Fred, who is not a likely burglar.

I was recently contacted by an anonymous reader of this blog who expressed his/her appreciation. That encourages me to continue writing it, but is not necessarily enough to go on forever. I refuse to write solely on the basis of wanting to write, and believe that I must at least write something that might be useful, without being repetitive. Many of my general ideas have already been expressed, and new readings, though they may always provide a source for additional subject matter, are not necessarily easy to find. Very little fiction appeals to me, and finding good nonfiction is haphazard in my case. There isn't much to say about current events, since, for example, the fact that Donald Trump would turn out to be an incompetent president was already likely before his inauguration. The main story about Trump's legacy may be how long he was permitted to remain in office, and here we are, still pulling teeth. If you have any suggestions regarding the future direction of this blog, I am always open to ideas.

I will continue on the topic of D.H. Lawrence when I have more to say.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence I

I am enjoying this book, edited by James T. Boulton, but am reading it at a very slow pace. A more convincing picture of Lawrence emerges than you are likely to find in a biography, as you witness him reacting in real time to events in his life. However, the narrative is highly fragmented, as many letters are not included, and the full context of each letter is not always apparent. So far, most of the letters have been to his female friends, and I've just reached the point when, at age 26, he falls head-over-heels in love with Frieda Weekley, the wife of one of his professors at University College Nottingham.

He writes touchingly and eloquently on many occasions, as in a letter to Blanche Jennings in 1908:

I am very sorry you have been dipped so deeply in the blues. Let me drowse you out a little sermon, will you? I will labour it out like the church clock slowly lets fall the long hour. It has just struck twelve. I wonder if I can keep awake. I think, you know, hedonism won't wear. I think life is only a joke when you are sure it's most serious and right; when you know the great procession is marching, on the whole, in the right direction, then, to be sure, the creatures in the menagerie are comical, and their capers are too funny. But before you can see the fun you must be earnestly certain of the wonder of this eternal progression – The little lozenge lights are sliding round my pencil quaintly; but the sun they come from is keeping on its grand course. (If I write a bit canting, it is because I am almost dreaming.) My poor little philosophy is like that. I think there is a great purpose which keeps the menagerie moving onward to better places, while the animals snap and rattle by the way. So I laugh when I see their grimaces, if these do not hinder the march. I am sure I can help the march if I like. It is a valuable assurance.

That same year he moved to Croydon, near London, for a teaching position, and he describes the difference from rural Eastwood, his hometown, in a letter to May Holbrook:

Townspeople are indeed glib and noisy, but there is not much at the bottom of them. They are less individual, less self-opinionated and conceited than country people, but less, far less serious. It is with them work, and after work, conscious striving after relaxation. In Eastwood, people work, and then drift into their small pleasures; here they pursue a shallow pleasure, and it leaves no room for a prolific idleness, a fruitful leisure. Do not lament a town so much.

During this period he is writing fiction in pursuit of a literary livelihood and befriends Edward Garnett, the influential critic, essayist and dramatist (and husband of translator Constance Garnett). Garnett recognized his talent and boosted his early career. Unfortunately, Lawrence's health is already wavering, and he is showing signs of the tuberculosis that kills him at age 44.

I find Lawrence's writing fresh, vivid and honest, and I hardly think his more-famous contemporaries, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, are worth reading (I gave up on To the Lighthouse a few months ago). Although I am not by nature as sensuous as he is and do not revel in physical descriptions the way he does, he manages to combine that with substantive thoughts and feelings, creating an uncommonly powerful effect. Unlike most modern writers, he emphasizes expression, which is the real purpose of language, more than style, and I think that he is probably one of the best English writers ever. As I proceed through this book, I'll update you as seems fitting.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Diary

I am unable to wean myself completely from literary writing, and, since I find most of it unsatisfactory, I have been looking into new areas and am venturing into literary correspondences as a possibility. This may not be promising, because letter-writing is dead, and if you want to delve into it you have to read the letters of long-deceased people. Thus, whether you like it or not, you may end up as an escapist who idealizes the past. I have started a volume of letters by D.H. Lawrence and hope that it will meet my expectations. Although I try not to be a sentimentalist, it is difficult for me not to think that the environment for educated people in the West was far better from about 1880 to 1914 than it is today. In 1880, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy were still alive, Impressionism had just emerged, and Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and D.H. Lawrence were either young or about to be born. I don't deny that the social changes that have occurred since then have made it impossible to maintain the earlier conditions, but it is difficult for me not to think that there has been a decline in the quality of writers, artists, thinkers and politicians since then. If the ten people whom I just mentioned were alive now, they would, through no fault of their own, most likely not become prominent in the ways that they did then. From my perspective, economic, social and political evolution since 1880 have produced an environment in which it is much harder for those kinds of talents to flourish. While these are highly complex situations which can't be summed up easily, they are probably related to population growth and economic competition, with the former producing an increase in survival-based human migrations and the latter producing a widespread acceptance of lower quality, with price dictating which products sell in mass markets. Thus, while the standard of living has been going up globally, the richness of culture at the high end has deteriorated; people such as Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks came to dominate the arts, Donald Trump became president, and thinkers and scientists have more or less vanished from the public imagination.

The thought occurred to me that an alternative to seeking order in the world by escaping to the past is to become a complete fatalist. This may be less implausible than it seems. If Sean Carroll, the physicist, is right, and we live in a deterministic universe, we could interpret that as a kind of assurance. In this view, everything that has occurred in the last 13.8 billion years – or perhaps much longer – resembles a movie script, with no editing possible and the casting completed: we may even be living in a rerun. The worst thing that can happen is that you are stuck in a role or scene that you dislike, but, since you could never have done anything different, there isn't much reason to get upset. Tolstoy, Churchill and Einstein got the good parts, and you didn't, and nothing could change that. There is no possible outcome within the universe in which I am not typing this sentence now. Of course, this raises a number of questions. If you have no control over your mental processes, why worry about them? While some might argue that such thoughts could lead to amorality, immorality, irresponsibility or laziness, the reality is that we are hard-wired and socialized not to engage in most negative behaviors without even thinking about them: it is more difficult to choose to act badly than you may think. For that matter, philosophers could stop wasting their time pondering free will, consciousness and ethics, and libertarians could calmly be told to grow up. It is true that we have evolved to adopt certain illusions, but we have also evolved to recognize how we delude ourselves. Thus, the idea of fatalism is not self-contradictory or untenable.

On my next post I will have something to say about D.H. Lawrence.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone II

The remainder of the book is somewhat entertaining, but there is little in it that is new to me. It briefly covers many topics that I've mentioned on this blog, such as politics, financial decisions, intelligence, AI, groupthink, science, experts, and the social effects of technology, with a focus on ignorance and cognitive limitations. There is example after example of common misunderstandings and mistakes in thinking. In a recent national survey, only 47 per cent of the participants disagreed with the statement "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do," and only 47 per cent agreed with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." There are a couple of famous quotations that I like:

Socrates, commenting on a political expert:
I reasoned to myself, as I left him, like this—"I am actually wiser than this person; likely enough neither of us knows anything of importance, but he thinks he knows something when he doesn't, whereas just as I don't know anything, so I don't think I do, either. So I appear to be wiser, at least than him, in just one small respect: that when I don't know things, I don't think that I do either." (Plato, Apology)

Winston Churchill on democracy:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.

For a novice reading popular nonfiction, this book may be of some interest, but for me it all comes to naught. As predicted in my last post, the conclusions are far from edifying. Like Daniel Kahneman, the authors are sympathetic with libertarian paternalism, which I think at most might assuage the guilt of the rich, who would credit themselves for attempting to encourage smarter behavior on the part of the less-competent. The final message is a murky one, something to the effect of "if we all work together as a community, everything will be fine." The gist is that a person doesn't have to know much, as long as people cooperate. However, it is already established that people don't always cooperate, and, furthermore, that even those who seem to possess good judgment make decisions which, over a long period of time, may be to their own detriment. These latter concerns are not really addressed. Sloman and Fernbach are self-deprecating at times – a plus – but there is no real heavy lifting to be found in this book. While they recognize that their findings suggest risks to our species, they stop well short of providing a grave warning or recommending further study, as has the organization CSER. We are supposed to muddle through again – but will we succeed?

It occurs to me that, at a theoretical level at least, one may assign costs to cognitive errors made at high levels within society. At the moment there is quite a lot of concern about the presidency of Donald Trump among educated people, and the efficacy of the democratic process would have been an obvious avenue for exploration by Sloman and Fernbach. Their choice to ignore it does not reflect well on them as thinkers. Trump is a good case in point, because his judgment is widely questioned, and, in my opinion, his election reflects a dangerous turn in the public's collective expression of their stupidity. There are different ways that one might assess the costs to society of the Trump presidency. In the simplest terms, Trump could trigger a devastating nuclear war. That may not be likely, but Trump may well have a significant deleterious effect on global efforts to reduce climate change. Trump's ignorance of economics could potentially come at a cost of trillions of dollars to the American economy, exacerbating social unrest and destabilizing society. Sloman and Fernbach stop short of making recommendations regarding how society might avert these potential disasters by enacting a system that would prevent someone like Donald Trump from gaining access to such power.

As I've said, democracy, though it once had appeal in that it counterbalanced the abuse of power and provided individuals with a sense of self-determination, is not well-suited to the modern world. Increasing complexity has created a large stage for potentially disastrous outcomes that result from human cognitive deficiencies. Thus, as it becomes technologically feasible, I advocate the transferal of governance to artificial intelligence which operates in a semi-autonomous fashion. The gravest threats to the medium-term stability of the world population are all man-made, and there is no indication in this book that world leaders, no matter how well they cooperate, will be able to resolve them.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone I

This book, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, delves into areas of cognitive psychology not covered by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While there is some overlap, and Kahneman is cited, Kahneman emphasizes the error-prone nature of human thinking, particularly with respect to formal reasoning, whereas Sloman and Fernbach emphasize the deficiencies in knowledge apparent in individuals. They provide what I think is a more approving description of the causal reasoning used by humans and explain its origin in biological terms, showing how other species also seem to use generalization models based on empirical evidence, though at a less sophisticated level than we do. The main point, however, is that we know far less than we think we do, and we are adapted to a hive-like mentality in which our survival is ensured by interdependence.

The writing style is more informal and breezy than that of Kahneman, and although some research is cited, the tone is less academic. As with Kahneman, the "research" sometimes seems a little contrived, with hokey questionnaires filled out by volunteer college students. However, I agree with all of their main points, and, as was the case with Kahneman, find them obvious. Sloman and Fernbach seem more sensitive to biological explanations than Kahneman, and I am disappointed that there is no mention of eusociality or of E.O. Wilson, which might have taken the book in a direction that I would have found more interesting. I'm halfway through, and it looks as if it will end in a few platitudes, more of the self-help variety than I would like, in accordance with Kahneman's method.

Because the books both seem circumscribed and cautious, while at the same time suggesting that they contain deep thoughts, I am reminded of the joke that was popular in the late 1960's and 1970's:

"To be is to do" – Socrates.
"To do is to be" – Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do" – Frank Sinatra.

(In case you don't know, the joke derives from the lyrics to the song, "Strangers in the Night," which was a hit in 1967.) I 'm not sure exactly why it is, but I always get the impression that the findings of psychological research are fairly obvious, and that the only reason that one might have for bringing them up would be to develop some further hypotheses about the human situation – which never occurs. Therefore, I have the feeling that, like Kahneman, Sloman and Fernbach are going nowhere with this despite their portentousness. I may be wrong, and I'll fill you in on my next post.

I am beginning to get a sense of the sociology of psychology. If you look back at the history of psychology, although many of its early practitioners, such as Freud, Jung, and even Skinner, had significant insights, the methodologies that they invented do no hold up well as science according to current standards. Psychology takes on a more serious aura when it is linked to neurology or AI, and that is exactly what cognitive science tries to do. Thus, there remains a nebulousness that has always existed in psychology, but it is no longer possible to succeed in the field without using measurements and throwing in a few scientific-sounding words such as "cognition." Although it does seem that significant advances are being made in the field, my perception is that its practitioners are usually not big thinkers, and their spin on the subject may just be career moves on their part.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Diary

Because I had a DNA test done, I joined Ancestry.com for six months in order to follow up on it, and my membership will be expiring soon. During this period I have spent a lot of time on genealogy and have found out a few new things about my family history. Unless you have famous or wealthy ancestors, it is difficult to find much detail, and most of your ancestors appear as names, places and dates. However, if you keep at it, some pictures begin to emerge, in my case through the trades of the males over multiple generations. Then, as you approach the present, if you know about your grandparents and great-grandparents through direct family sources, you get some sense of the social changes and adaptations that people in your family made over the course of a few hundred years.

I've had the most success with the Wayre family background of my English grandmother. I've traced it back to about 1670 in the town of Spofforth, Yorkshire, which is a few miles west of York, near Harrogate. In the early documents, they spelled their name "Whare," and, beginning with my great-great-great-great grandfather, William, who was born in 1749, they changed the spelling to "Wayre." William may have been one of the first in the family to leave farming. He became an apprentice hosier in 1769 and had a shop on Stonegate in York for many years. By 1804, he was a stocking manufacturer, hatter and furrier. Many of his sons and grandsons continued in his line of work, with shops in Hull, Leeds, Nottingham and London. His great-grandson and my great-grandfather, Arthur L'Estrange Wayre, was the last Wayre furrier and lived in London. The family story is that Arthur's first wife died when her nightgown caught fire. They were married for seven years, during which time she produced five children. His second wife, my great-grandmother, had another six children. On the London wedding photograph that I posted earlier, he is the third person from the left on the back row.

Besides filling in the family tree, I've also had some contact with distant relatives. I emailed a second cousin in England whose grandfather, my great-uncle, corresponded with me in 1977. She sent me a photograph of my grandparents at her parents' wedding in 1961. I've also been in touch with a more distant Wayre relative who provided some genealogical details that were new to me. In addition, the DNA test has put me into contact with one distant relative of each of my English grandparents. It's a little ludicrous to think that you've discovered a significant family connection, but at least these are people with the same hobby as you who may have some useful information. So far, all of them have been in England. Eventually I may hear from relatives on the Armenian side.

I've started another book, but have not read enough of it to comment yet and will on my next post. I have reached a point at which I can find very little that I am able to read with much enthusiasm – this is a cyclical event that I run into every once in a while. The problem I have is that I prefer contemporary writing, and within that category the books tend to be either too commercial or too academic for me. Looking through the books reviewed in the New York Times, nearly all of them were written for mass audiences. If they are fiction, I tend to find them formulaic and lacking in insight; if they are nonfiction, I tend to find them too contrived and dumbed-down to take seriously. I would guess that at least ninety per cent of the bestsellers from either category specifically target readers who are not selective about what they read and can be attracted by advertising. Some of these books can be all right, as was the case with Collapse, but that was exceptional because it included original work and speculation by a thoughtful author. I was less impressed by Thinking, Fast and Slow, because it consisted mainly of the rehashing of old research without a critical evaluation of its relevance to the current state of affairs in the world. As for fiction, besides all of the qualitative problems I've mentioned in the past, there remains the greater question of whether it is still a valid form of art: consumer art is an oxymoron to me, given that the people who sell it are not qualified to make that distinction. As far as academic books are concerned, if I chance upon one that I like, I might enjoy it, but most academics these days seem to be poor writers and to operate in such narrow spheres that that they are unable to think beyond their fields of expertise, or their books may be more technical than is appropriate for a casual reading.