Life: Some things rarely change edition

“Have we not yet had enough of lightweight metaphysics and received ideas? The trouble all stems from our gigantic ignorance. Things that ought to be considered carefully are simply believed in, without any discussion at all. Instead of observing, people make assertions!”

Flaubert, in a letter dated 1871. Ignorance and assertion are constants, not variables.

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Mason Currey

Daily Rituals is charming, and almost every entry feels like the right length; if anything, I would have liked each to be slightly longer, perhaps because the quirks and weirdnesses of the famous artists described provide justification for the quirks and weirdnesses of non-famous artists.

daily_ritualsThe answer to the title is “divergently,” but with some patterns. Many like walks, routines, and stimulants. Exasperation with TV is common, and even the non-writer artists tend to read. Many artists also exasperated lovers and spouses through their compulsions and tics. Given the low remunerative value of art and the low probability of success through recognition, being an artist is a compulsion for many of those described within—Currey even uses the word in his description of Patricia Highsmith: “Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable.” Daily Rituals may be best read by anyone romantically entangled with or biologically related to artists, as well as any artists who want to justify their own weird predilections. I love it when people explain myself to me.

Currey wants to answer questions like, “are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” But they don’t have answers, because artists work in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways. It’s like asking about alcoholics: people who really want to drink will drink in elegant bars like Pouring Ribbons or chug Natty Lites in a dark Chinatown alley. Most might prefer the former to the latter but will settle for the latter when necessary. Currey also writes:

“The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices.

Most of the artists in here establish routines whenever they can, much like the writers in Writers on Writing. The number of people who need routine, who need defaults, speaks to its utility, among artists or anyone trying to accomplish a task with an artist’s dedication (like entrepreneurs, who might be the artists of the modern age). Distraction might also be handier than ever, giving rise to essays like “Disconnection Distraction:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

If you get into that habit, you’ll be well-informed on unimportant news and less likely to make the thing that becomes the news. One question you might ask is: “Are you reading or making the news?” Aim for the latter. The former isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s worth reading a lot, but as a secondary, not a primary, activity. Reading the news on the Internet or checking e-mail are especially dangerous in this regard because they can feel like working though they’re not.

I mentioned the compulsive aspect of art. That reappears again and again. Currey writes of Simone de Beauvoir that “when she took her annual two- or three-month vacations, she found herself growing bored and uncomfortable after a few weeks away from her work.” Long, pointless idleness is is boring, like binging on TV, but that’s because most artists seem to like what they do, or like it like an addict likes. Voltaire’s secretary “estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. for Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. ‘I love the cell,’ he wrote.”

Such stories may be why, in Currey’s words, “Looking at the achievements of past greats is alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging.” The line made me laugh because of the juxtaposition of opposites, but also because he’s expressing a fundamental truth: if you look at the work as work, it can be “discouraging,” since so many artists do so much of it, but if you look at it as an extended form of play, it should be “encouraging.” It should also be “encouraging” because you can do it too—if you want to. Which means the limiting factor between you and art is you—which oscillates back to discouragement.

Still, Daily Rituals is at its heart a manual for dealing with and/or understanding someone with an artistic disposition, which might be described as imagination and execution. A surprisingly large number of people seem to imagine that being an artist is all about the “imagination” part and not much at all about the execution part; wandering around coffeeshops, bars, and parties, doffing a funny hat, and making enigmatic pronouncements is not the majority of what being an artist, broadly defined, is about. It’s about results, and Daily Rituals is about getting them and enabling the conditions necessary to get them. “Necessary” is the key word: a condition may be necessary but not sufficient, and it’s possible to treat a daily ritual as an empty ritual with no real output.

There are also a fairly wide range of ways to succeed. Some artists do spend a lot of time drunk or at parties. At least one prefers to work hungover, which would make me crazy. The artists appear approximately split between those who like noise and those who prefer quiet. I’m among the latter and can barely believe that anyone really gets anything done in noisy coffeeshops, tapping on laptops, but enough successful writers have testified to the contrary that I’m forced to believe them. The fundamental idea remains, however, that artists are artists because of their output. That’s it.

Some passages in Daily Rituals are funny; you wouldn’t expect this book to be a comedy and yet I laughed frequently. Two examples:

[John Cheever] had what appears to have been an unusually robust sex drive (the actress Hope Lange, who had a brief affair with Cheever, said that he was ‘the horniest man [she] ever met’) combined with frequent bouts of impotence, probably brought on by his alcoholism but no doubt made worse by his sexual guilt and a frequently rocky marriage. All of this was distracting from his work, especially since Cheever placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least ‘two or three orgasms a week’ and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: ‘With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.’


The German poet, historian, philosopher, and playwright [Friedrich Schiller] kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom; he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.

Links: National security letters, car culture, hookup culture and moral panic, art, booze as muse, and more

* “What It’s Like to Get a National-Security Letter,” which should scare you.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* What makes a work of art seem dated.

* Booze as Muse; yes!

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* Programming for everyone. Cool.

* “Quinoa should be taking over the world. This is why it isn’t.” This describes me: “But it’s also about the demographics of the end-user in developed countries–the kind of people who don’t think twice about paying five bucks for a little box of something with such good-for-you buzz.”

* “Special Deal: The shadowy cartel of doctors that controls Medicare.” One problem with centralizing government control of certain industries is that a small number of hidden players can control a larger and larger share of the economy, making it difficult or impossible for non-insiders to compete.

* “There’s an awful lot wrong with moral panic stories about “hookup culture” on campus [. . . ] I’m also struck that [. . .] these stories fail to reflect the very sound basis for engaging in casual sex if you’re a college student, and the folly of pining away for the traditional relationships of yore.”

Counterpoint to the sex-plot post: Jenny Diski on The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

It’s intellectually important to acknowledge being wrong and to look for ways you can be wrong and yet very few people do this or do it honestly. I probably don’t do it honestly either, but I will still post a long quote that somewhat contravenes my recent essay “The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers:”

the great open space of sexuality permits all the possibilities of abjection, power, narcissism, pleasure-seeking, dour determination, creativity and mechanisation. It would be very hard to devote such a great deal of life and thought, time and effort to it as Millet does without getting it all pretty much confused. Everyday pornography is linear in order to keep a single idea afloat in an ocean of polymorphous potential. Sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning unless you keep to a very firm remit. The sexual story can transform from pumpkin to princess to swan with injured wing and back again in the blink of a thought. It is a nothing, an empty arena, that might be everything. And everything is more than we can cope with. The obsessive, fetishistic, single account that pornography provides is what keeps sexuality within bounds. Here is the danger of writing the sexual life: you lose the boundaries unless you steadfastly restrict yourself to the detail. At times Millet seems to be attempting to do this, but again and again, like a painter who writes explanatory notes over her picture, she tries to explicate, to flesh out the doing with her intellect, and then the sexual life is shown up for the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas it is.

That’s from Jenny Diski’s 2002 review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M; if sexuality is “a great open space” that “permits all the possibilities of objection, power, narcissism” and so forth then sex plots really can or should propel a lot of fiction. Diski’s view (I believe she is speaking for herself here and not describing the memoir in question) is not necessarily incompatible with the essay but certainly it feels different, especially with the way she says that “sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning.”

A subject or person or feeling that “runs rampant with meaning” could be one surprisingly complete definition of art, which may also encourage “the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas” that nonetheless must be somehow restricted if a work of art is going to take any form at all. Art without some form does not exist, like a platonically perfect work of art that never goes further than conception. Execution is everything.

Still, I’m not sure that sexuality can really get “out of hand” and run “rampant with meaning,” at least in terms of the physical act itself, because there are a limited number of physical acts and, in practical terms, a limited number of partners and configurations. Contrast this with, say, science: there doesn’t appear to be any obvious limits to the things that people want or the weirdness of the present universe. That doesn’t mean that sexuality doesn’t usually interact with other parts of life, but in the modern Western world I’m not sure that sexuality and relationships need to be the primary focus of so many novels.

Jane Jacobs is everywhere, even when you don’t see her

In a Reddit thread someone recently asked:

Who the hell actually thinks Jane Jacobs has any influence on Seattle’s urban planning?

Through The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs has influenced urban planning in every American city at the very least and perhaps every city in the world, though I can’t speak to the experience of other countries.

Jacobs correctly observed that city planners, most notably and famously Robert Moses, were bulldozing important areas for highways and other sub-optimal uses, and that communities should have more of a say in what happens regarding development, especially development that uses eminent domain. In addition, she correctly observed that city planners were frequently disconnected from the way people actually live, which is somewhat similar to the way academic literary critics today are disconnected from the way people actually read.

But by now the pendulum between “planners ruler” and “community veto” has swung too far in the opposite direction: today NIMBYs and People United Against Everything (PUAE) have too much power, and we’re seeing the consequences in most places anytime anyone tries to build subways, rail, or housing. In many places, with San Francisco and New York leading the pack, supply restrictions on building have led to enormous housing cost increases, but markets can’t effectively respond because a small number of incumbent property owners can block new, private developments.

I’m optimistic about cities over the medium term, but in the short term the real problem faced by cities is not too little “community” input but too much, usually represented by a relatively small number of NIMBYs and busybodies—the process privileges existing homeowners and the fact that “only socially and psychologically abnormal people want to waste their evening showing up to neighborhood hearings.”

Still, Jacobs’ influence remains, and this essay by Edward Glaeser, comparing Jacobs and Robert Moses, demonstrates how their ideas have come to define a great deal of what people think about cities. This is especially important:

Moses was also right that cities need infrastructure. People cannot just argue forever on an unpaved street corner. They need homes to live in and streets to travel along and parks for relaxation. Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction—of building up.

Jacobs didn’t understand one important part of basic economics, which is that restricting supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices. Someone like Jacobs can’t afford to live in Greenwich Village today because the housing is too expensive. Most of Manhattan and much of New York more generally has priced out the middle class, in part due to the rules and laws that stem from Jacobs’ victories; instead of living in the city, those people are now driving cars in Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Places like Seattle and Portland are somewhere between Atlanta and New York, but even Seattle won’t allow sufficient development to allow for middle-class growth.

The language Jacobs uses in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is sometimes dangerous, as when she says that “streets or districts which do have good primary mixtures and are successful at generating city diversity should be treasured, rather than despised for their mixture and destroyed by attempts to sort out their components from one another.” She’s right about mixed-use areas being valuable, but the word “treasured” is a problem: a mixed-used building that is three stories tall can be equally good at being mixed-use with thirty stories. Treasuring buildings that already exist can lead to the San Francisco problem, and San Francisco itself is only the furthest along example of what happens when supply can’t meet demand.

There is one thing I think Glaeser gets wrong in his article:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt. [. . . ] No matter what Jacobs thought, there simply was not a car-less option for New York.

The issue with older cities is less about cars than about older cities doing what they do well: density, public interfaces, and so forth. Instead of trying to capitalize on the strengths of older cities, older cities built the massive highways and parking lots Jacobs and her acolytes eventually learned to fight. Sometimes the response to a technology shift isn’t to attempt to ape the shift but to make sure you focus on doing your core strength better—which many cities have utterly failed to do.

When the car began spreading in earnest in the 1920s, the total U.S. population was 106,021,537. In 1930 it was 122,775,046. Today it’s approximately 316,000,000. Moving to a highly car-dependent lifestyle made sense for a long time, but now a lot of urban areas are simply choked by them. This famous photo from the City of Muenster Planning Office succinctly demonstrates the problem, as does L.A. during rush hour:

Cities, buses, and bikes

Education is also part of the city puzzle, since it’s provided publicly and, usually, on a per-city basis. For much of the period from approximately 1970 – 2010, it was possible for parents to outrun well-meaning but poorly executed court degrees pertaining to school districting. It’s hard to measure the extent to which school busing and similar schemes drove many parents to the suburbs, even if they would’ve liked to stay in cities. This 2006 WSJ piece describes some of the pernicious consequences that are still reverberating in Seattle, which is a microcosm for the problems elsewhere. Schools and real estate both show the same basic principle: when principles meet self-interest, self-interest usually wins. Everyone favors low- and moderate-income housing in theory but don’t want it in their neighborhood, and everyone favors racial integration in theory unless their kid gets moved to the worse school.

Still, that’s tangential to Jacobs’s main points and how they affect contemporary decisions in cities. That I’m still citing Jacobs’ work more than 50 years later demonstrates its importance. To the extent any normal person has heard of anyone having anything to do with urban planning, they’ve heard of Jacobs and Moses. Pretty much anyone with any formal education in the subject has not only heard of them but read at least excerpts of their writing. It’s like being in English lit and wondering who this Shakespeare guy is.

The Lost Girls interview, war, and its relationship to sex

In the Lost Girls interview I linked to recently, one thing that Alan Moore says stands out as resolutely wrong:

War, I still believe, is a complete and utter failure of the imagination. It’s when everything else has been abandoned or hasn’t worked. It’s what destroys the imagination. It set back the progress of the human imagination.

It’s true that war “set[s] back the progress of the human imagination,” but war is actually about resource control, with “resources” defined broadly. Resources may be primarily geographic (one thinks of the recent U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan) or they may be about commodities (one thinks of Japan capturing oil fields in World War II) or they may be people themselves (one thinks of innumerable pre-modern religious wars). They are also often sexual, or have a sexual tinge, which Moore and Gebbie do get right in Lost Girls and foreground, since sexual behaviors and motives tend to be glossed or ignored in most histories.

There are exceptions, however; consider, for example, this passage from Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II:

The number of sexual relationships that took place between European women and Germans during the war is quite staggering. In Norway as many as 10 per cent of women aged between fifteen and thirty had German boyfriends during the war. If the statistics on the number of children born to German soldiers are anything to go by, this was by no means unusual: the numbers of women who slept with German men across western Europe can easily be numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Resistance movements in occupied countries came up with all kinds of excuses for the behaviour of their women and girls. They characterized women who slept with Germans as ignorant, poor, even mentally defective. They claimed that women were raped, or that they slept with Germans out of economic necessity. While this was undoubtedly the case for some, recent surveys show that women who slept with German soldiers came from all classes and all walks of life. On the whole European women slept with Germans not because they were forced to, or because their own men were absent, or because they needed money or food – but simply because they found the strong, ‘knightly’ image of German soldiers intensely attractive, especially compared to the weakened impression they had of their own menfolk. In Denmark, for example, wartime pollsters were shocked to discover that 51 per cent of Danish women openly admitted to finding German men more attractive than their own compatriots. (164–166)

That wartime behavior became a topic of community discussion and cathartic release and punishment after the war. Still, this passage and other, similar ones from Savage Continent demonstrate that a lot of men treat women like resources in the context of war. Saying that war “is a complete and utter failure of the imagination” implies a level of goodwill that often doesn’t exist. To continue with the World War II example, it’s evident that Hitler had a phenomenal imagination, to the point that most of his adversaries and victims couldn’t believe the staggering, cruel audacity of what he was attempting. In a more recent example, in the first Gulf War it was apparent that Saddam Hussein imagined himself taking over Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia, although he didn’t presumably imagine that he’d provoke a world-wide counter-reaction.

Nonetheless, the rest of the Moore and Gebbie interview is excellent and unexpectedly moving, and Lost Girls itself is, from what I know, still a singular, highly unusual, and highly recommended book.

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