Life: Making the right mistakes edition

The statement of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture must have sounded crazy to its creators. . . . the idea that this was true. . . must have sounded totally outrageous at the time. This was a leap of faith, in the form of a question that [Taniyama] posed at the International Symposium on Algebraic Number Theory held in Tokyo in September 1955.

I’ve always wondered: what did it take for him to come to believe that this wasn’t crazy, but real? To have the courage to say it publicly?

We’ll never know. Unfortunately, not long after his great discovery, in November 1958, Taniyama committed suicide. He was only thirty-one. To add to the tragedy, shortly afterward the woman whom he was planning to marry also took her life, leaving the following note:

We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.

. . . In his thoughtful essay about Tayniyama, Shimura made this striking comment:

Though he was by no means a sloppy type, he was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this, and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.

—Edward Frenkel, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which is recommended.

What mistakes have you made lately?

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.

We believe what we can see: In the Garden of Beasts edition

From Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which is worth getting from the library (this section deals with 1933):

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith [the Consul General] described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship. Messersmith spared no detail—his tendency to write long had early on saddled him with the nickname ‘Forty-Page George.’ He wrote of the widespread violence that had occurred in the several months that immediately followed Hitler’s appointment and of the increasing control the government exerted over all aspects of German society.

People in the 1930s simply couldn’t believe that Germany would act as it did. This might be one reason why cell phones and cell phone cameras are so powerful: it’s very hard to deny video. If cell phone cameras had been widely available in 1930, could the Holocaust have unfolded as it did, in a major Western country? The answer, of course, will always be “maybe,” but I think the shock of seeing footage of Jews and others being beaten and murdered in the streets might have had a powerful effect around the world.

I wonder if we’re on the cusp of seeing cell phone cameras reduce the amount of police brutality in public places, since police will know they’re likely to be taped. Cops don’t like this (see here and here for more).

Although I obviously love reading, it’s relatively easy to deny a written description of an event. It’s much harder to deny a video that shows the people involved. That’s not to say video can’t be manipulated—it obviously can—but sometimes a short video can do what “Forty-Page George” can’t. It’s hard or impossible to “exaggerate” video, even if it can be maliciously edited. We should still read, as “Twilight of the Books” makes clear, but video still changes things (it changes what can happen in fiction, for example; people have been writing about blue movies or explicit pictures for a long time, but the plausibility of something like Anita Shreve’s Testimony depends on widespread access to inexpensive video equipment (see also Caitlin Flanagan’s somewhat misguided but interesting essay on the novel). That’s relatively recent, and we’re still dealing with what it means.)

EDIT: See also this discussion of police and cameras from Crooked Timber.

Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair — Elizabeth Mcneill

Most novels (and memoirs) leave you with a sense of distance, a sense of being at a comfortable remove. Nine and a Half Weeks doesn’t: it’s too graphic, too immediate, too flat. One sees this effect in the first sentences, without any preamble as to who these people are and how they came to be: “The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head. I liked it. I liked him. He was moody in a way that struck me as romantic; he was funny, bright, interesting to talk to; and he gave me pleasure.” One senses quickening thoughts and pulses in those short sentences, and even in the long one, where semicolons could be periods, and the last descriptor—”he gave me pleasure”—is the really important one. You don’t get the very ironic tone of a book like Alain de Botton’s On Love, letting us see that love is irrational but really understandably so. Alain, the narrator of On Love is basically a needy, endearing, neurotic weakling; his self-consciousness contrasts so much with the man in Nine and a Half Weeks that they’re practically different species.

There are clever phrases in the memoir, as when the narrator says of her lover, “His face turns attractive when he talks;” I like the strange word choice, as if the head is physically turning, or as if he has two, or multiple, faces. A few moments are archaic—the man describes a friend or rival coming over as “This dope” (emphasis in original), which hasn’t been currently slang in decades and stands out in a book that otherwise stands out for not being part of any particular time. The prose holds up, and the narrator has an eye for tedious rituals, as when she tells of a “statistical tale,” where the contrast of statistics and narrative stands out:

In the middle of the statistical tale he’s requested from me—brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents, hometown, schools, jobs—I stop and close my eyes . . . please, I think, inarticulate even in my own mind, unable to turn to him and make the first move, please . . .

There’s a pervasive fear of dullness running through the memoir. The narrator notes that she and her lover looked like “An attractive, well-educated couple in New York City, average, middle-class, civilized.” That contrasts with what came before and will come after. Or does it? The memoir teases us by making us wonder if the the narrator isn’t so unusual as public discourse would make her out to be. I think the story’s flatness, the unwillingness to engage in direct commentary on what’s happening, points us in this direction, as when the narrator says, “I am standing, nearly on tiptoes, across the room from him, my arms raised above my head. My hands are tied to the hook on the wall on which his one large painting hangs during the day.” She’s hung like a painting and enjoys it. There is no further morality or analysis. Sixty Minutes plays in the background, a reminder of the middle America the narrator feels like she’s leaving behind even when she imagines it as a foil to her own actions.

Images repeat through the memoir. Scarves reappear. The words “like” and “love” are reconfigured like body parts. One senses Nabokovian echoes in the prose that one distantly hears on the first read but can’t make out. The narrator also feels her internal sense of self discombobulating, like a washing machine that shakes itself apart from within. She knows this is happening and imagines the reactions of otherwise course, until she writes of her experience.

We don’t know what the narrator wants beyond the obvious: sexual satisfaction. That she might only want the obvious might be the most frightening thing of all. What if everything else she has—a job, presumed communal respect, literary and political opinions—don’t matter very much? What if your real self isn’t those frontal cortex developments, but something deeper, more primal? I find posing the questions unsettling. The answers implied by Nine and a Half Weeks are more so. The patina of everyday experience conceals so much, especially in the realm of inchoate desire that social life is designed to channel. What happens when the channeling breaks? What happens when we want it to break? I’m reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which also features the discarding of the mind in pursuit of a mental state or feeling very unlike the one most of us presumably inhabit most of the time—the mental state worried about how much money we have, what other people think about us, whether we’ll get the job / life partner / degree / accommodates of our dreams.

The narrator likes the man’s dominance above all other traits, which derive from that dominance. He says of a friend or rival, “he’s got no guts whatsoever.” Note what she likes in the contrast he offers by comparison. He shows mastery by reading Gide in French and Kafka in German, both implying continental expertise and sexuality. Some moments are obvious, as when the narrator reads with “his thick pen solid and comfortable in my hand.” One doesn’t need to be Freud to imagine that the pen is not just a pen. In the same scene, the narrator says, “I write the letter (‘. . . met this man a few days ago, nice start, very different from Gerry, who’s more than happy with Harriett these day, you remember her . . .’)” (sic). The dig at her ex-boyfriend is subtle but present: he isn’t dominant, won’t tie her up, and presumably has settled with a lesser woman.

He demonstrates great knowledge too: “[. . .] whatever else he may do [in] it, this man clearly does read his original-language books in bed; why would anyone want to miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures available? All he’d need is a better bulb, a few more pillows, and a reading lamp. . . .” The room sounds sad and denuded, but it doesn’t matter much, even if the narrator is right about beds, which are good for more than just sleeping and that other thing. He offers commands, as when the narrator says:

He guides my hands between my legs and says, ‘I’d like to watch you make yourself come.’

He is sitting idly, comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, the creases sharp in the freshly cleaned suit. I do not try to move my hands. He waits. ‘You don’t understand.’ My voice cracks. ‘I never . . .’ He is silent. ‘I’ve never done that in front of anybody. It embarrasses me.’ “

She does, of course. That it embarrasses her is part of the point. What embarrasses her in the moment becomes the fodder for memoir, even under a pseudonym, long after. She likes giving power to him, which she does by letting him watch her masturbate. She also does by repeating how much she loves him, but I don’t think he ever says it back. It’s like he doesn’t need to, and by withholding the confirmation of his love he creates a neurotic fear in her. Only at one moment does he crack, when “All at once he is a decade my junior, a very young man asking me to have a drink with him, expecting to be refused.” But that doesn’t last long. Little does in this memoir, including their relationship, whose duration is given away by the title. But the narrator learns a lot in a short period. She says, “If you’ve never screamed, out of control, you can’t imagine how it feels. Now I know how it feels, it’s like coming.” She never goes the Biblical or mythological root and thinks there are things we shouldn’t know. For her, all knowledge is knowledge.

You can see that McNeill’s memoir doesn’t sit well with current ideals of equality and mutual respect in all fields. As Laura Kipnis says in “Off Limits: Should students be allowed to hook up with professors?” for Slate.com, “Feminism has taught us to recognize the power dynamics in these kinds of relationships, and this has evolved into a dominant paradigm, the new propriety.” Feminism has taught us to recognize power dynamics, but it should also teach us to recognize points of view. The narrator gets this; she thinks the man’s room is “too plain to be called plain. It’s austere, if you want to be charitable, or chic, if you want to be snide, or boring, if you want to be honest. It is not, in any event, a room you’d call cozy” {McNeill “Love”@9}. So the narrator is aware of angles, points of view, possibilities. I’ve been told I use “or” a lot in my own writing. It’s a useful word for people who perceive many ways of describing things, and here it betrays an openness to experience that the memoir exploits. She has a strong theory of mind that weakens as she awakens to herself.

I should point out that I call the narrator “the narrator” as opposed to “McNeill” or something more conventional because she feels like a fictional person more than a real person (which is strange, given how many fictional characters seem real, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth McNeill is itself a pseudonym. We don’t know who the real author is. The man is never given a name—he’s only given traits, like his penchant for Brooks Brothers and sadomasochism (sometimes, especially when it comes to belts, simultaneously). So I don’t entirely know what to call them, or what to call their madness, if it is indeed madness. Can we find pleasure in madness? The narrator’s point is that many of these normally distinct categories eventually blur. I think that’s one of Tartt’s points in The Secret History too. There is more to be written about the book—its strange tenses, leaping from past to present to future, to what extent we should indulge in or avoid attempting to apply universal lessons—but this gives flavor of it and why its merits still show.

The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more

In “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age,” Charlotte Allen describes the relatively widespread hookup culture:

Welcome to the New Paleolithic, where tens of thousands of years of human mating practices have swirled into oblivion like shampoo down the shower drain and Cro-Magnons once again drag women by the hair into their caves—and the women love every minute of it. Louts who might as well be clad in bearskins and wielding spears trample over every nicety developed over millennia to mark out a ritual of courtship as a prelude to sex: Not just marriage (that went years ago with the sexual revolution and the mass-marketing of the birth-control pill) or formal dating (the hookup culture finished that)—but amorous preliminaries and other civilities once regarded as elementary, at least among the college-educated classes.

She sees such a culture as a result and driver of devaluing marriage, feminism, and biology, citing as evidence Tucker Max, evolutionary psychology, Roissy in DC (who is despicable yet hilarious), women complaining publicly about their husbands, very long-term educations (medical residencies and PhDs now routinely stretch into the early 30s), and delayed marriage. This is mostly a bad thing in Allen’s eyes. Maybe it is mostly a bad thing, but even if it is, I don’t think the hook-up culture being described is likely to stop for basically economic reasons: the equilibrium for it appears to lean toward hooking up for most people and technology is lowering the “cost” of casual sex.

The second one is probably the most interesting, and the first can mostly be understood by reading Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Kathleen Bogle’s Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. The basic problem both describe is that situations in which women outnumber men tend to lead to hooking up, while situations in which the opposite occurs tend to lead to the opposite. But I wonder how much of this is due to technological development driving social change, rather than vice-versa. “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” shows that parental and institutional attitudes towards premarital sex have softened over time, and “Contraception has reduced the chance of unwanted pregnancies from premarital sex, and this in turn has changed social attitudes.”

The parental attitudes issue can be seen in Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss’ 2008 journal article, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). The short version: parents work harder to control and limit their daughters’ sexuality than their sons’, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. They don’t say whether this effect has declined over time, but based on the research in “From shame to game,” I would guess that the answer is yes. Still, if the evolutionary incentive of parents is toward controlling and limiting their daughters’ sexuality, this would help explain why the stigma against extensive sexuality still exists, especially among younger women. And parents might want to limit sexuality because they have to deal with potential costs, like pregnancy, but don’t experience the obvious pleasures. Younger men, on the other hand, don’t get pregnant, and their perceived sexual value doesn’t seem to decline with the number of partners—hence why the double-standard persists, even though, as Allen points out, it is weakening. And technology is probably hastening that, which leads to laments like Allen’s.

One other technologically related issue is there too: porn, and the near-zero cost of its dissemination (cell phones, and “sexting,” can now make anyone a pornographer in under a minute, including those under 18). I remember reading about a study-in-progress in which the lead researcher said,

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

Although I doubt porn has the power that some of its detractors imply, it is also hard to believe that pornography’s sheer ubiquity hasn’t had some effect on how women and men treat sexuality—and, presumably, the effect is lowering the stigma of sex by showing that, regardless of what authority figures say, plenty of people are doing it.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes about “… the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore nothing is permitted.” The quote is hilariously out of context but nonetheless gets closer to expressing something essential about modern sexual politics (and it seems like Europe got there first, as it often does socially): sex changes “things,” that nebulous word, but it in its consensual form it isn’t fundamentally harmful. Everything is pardoned in advance, except maybe pleasure for its own sake, and everything is permitted, contra Kundera. Sex is becoming less harmful all the time. Consequently and perhaps not surprisingly, people are having a lot more of it, since it’s probably still as fun as it used to be (although we all know that there’s nothing like forbidden fruit to spark an appetite: consequently the pleasure of novels that take as their impetus a love that exists even though it can’t or shouldn’t). Who can blame the Manhattan woman who’s had on average “20 sex partners during her lifetime,” according to Allen? I’m reminded of Tony Judt describing early 60s Britain in “Girls! Girls! Girls!:”

Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.

Now very few of us, unless we have unusual religious convictions without the usual hypocrisy those convictions entail (think of Margaret Talbot’s article “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” in which she asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?“), live on Chesil Beach. Instead, we live in Roissy’s carnival, in a world of options, and the real question is whether we understand that world and our own choices in it. The bigger problem than the sex other people might be having is the gap between our behavior and our understanding of our behavior, which, at least to this observer, seems as wide as ever.

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