The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships — Neil Strauss

The Truth is poorly named but it’s also amazing and you should read it, preferably in the biblical, imitation-leather edition. Unfortunately, The Truth buries the lede: the weakest, most tedious section by far is the beginning, when Strauss goes to therapy for “sex addiction” (which may not exist, at least for reasonable definitions of “exist”).* Don’t give up. Get past the first third and pay special attention to the rest, where Strauss’s sharp, comedic / absurdist observations strike.

the_truthIn the first section, we learn that there is such a thing as “a CSAT,” that is, “a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist.” The therapists seem at least as mad as the patients, which seems to be a recurring theme in life (you know what they say about psych majors…). The treatment does not work, at least at first. Strauss, seeking answers, gets what appears to be an fMRI, hoping that his brain makes hedonic and novelty-seeking, only to be told that he chooses relationships or the chase. Score one for free will or something like it.

The middle section is about the chase. The chase is about women, yes, but it’s also about finding a way to be. Strauss meets people whose new-age and pseudo-religious or -mystical bullshit is vile. At one moment, meeting a woman who presents herself as a guru, “Common sense tells me to leave; curiosity drives me forward.” That’s the writer coming out. I wish I could say that I always follow common sense. I don’t, for the same reason. Strauss’s Guru attempts “mix spirituality with business” and then says, “Let me know if you have any ET experiences in Peru.”

He doesn’t. He runs.

Unfortunately he runs to a polyamory retreat that’s also infused with spirituality nonsense that should’ve died with the ’70s. That doesn’t work out either:

I look up and see a yoga stud from Kamala’s pod.

“Have you rounded up any more girls?” the orbiter asks him.

Kamala Devi and Shama Helena said polyamory was about loving relationships, not casual sex. But these guys seem more like next-level pickup artists, coming to these conferences with the intention of sucking any available women into their powerful reality.

Understanding things as they are, as opposed to how they “seem,” is rarely easy for anyone, anywhere—which may be one reason we have literature. The supposedly selfless caring for others that Strauss hears about is more like socialism, with its attendant problems: Equality for you and special privileges for me.

Later, things do not improve for Strauss: “This is truly the blackest day of my life: I’ve been kicked out of an orgy for eating popcorn.” He’s eating popcorn because he can’t fake bogosity at the level necessary for that world.

So he tries another (there are more worlds out there than most of us know). His next stop involves something like conventional swingers, if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron, at a club or party called Bliss. Towards the height of his first experience, he writes that “I would’ve paid every penny in the bank for this experience ten years ago—If I’d known it was even possible.” Many things are possible, but the mind holds us back; the same theme in a different context plays out repeatedly in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. For Strauss, that moment is “the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever experienced.”

Then he passes out. He’s taken too much GHB.

So, in short, Strauss attends an orgy that should be everything he’s ever wanted, but he takes drugs he shouldn’t and doesn’t have the sex he should, or that he thinks he wants. While there, he meets a woman who seems mostly like a groupie but who also demands monogamy and yet goes to an orgy, chiefly because her “friend” is there (that people are not internally consistent or even interested in internal consistency could be a shadow theme of The Truth—or maybe it’s just been written by an “ambivalent,” as Strauss is, or is termed).

He goes to another and decides he is “determined not to wreck this orgy like all the others.” I won’t speak to what happens, but one does get the sense that Strauss is well attuned to self-criticism and understanding how others will see him.

Wanting to be a swinger or polyamorous person can make internal, logical, and consistent sense; one cannot say the same for what comes next, when Strauss, on his own, sticks three straight women in the same domicile and attempts to date all of them, simultaneously, while living with them. The preceding sentence’s length and complexity is deliberately designed to evoke the complexity of Strauss’s arrangement.

In sports there is a term called “unforced errors,” which occur when a player does something transparently wrong that is not caused by the opponent or some other outside force. What Strauss attempts is an unforced error and one that ought to be easily foreseen. But one might attribute this to that previous mentioned issue between common sense and curiosity. The three women more or less come to Strauss, in his telling. Mastering “the game” has evidently done things for him.

In The Truth Strauss ultimately assigns the genesis of his adult relationship habits to his upbringing. In his case maybe that’s true, but I’m reluctant to assume a casual relationship between upbringing and adult life: how many people who had childhoods similar to his grew up to be functional adults? Since at least the time of Freud it’s been popular to ascribe adult personality traits to childhood, but I’m not convinced those are robustly supported and that they’re more than just-so stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a deeply chaotic, multi-faceted world.

Psychiatry and psychology in particular are deeply troubled fields because we don’t have good models for the brain. In those domains it may be obvious when someone is too dysfunctional to live independently, but the supposed treatments and models are derived from poor or nonexistent premises. Imagine trying to start a car and discovering that one third of the time it starts, one third it doesn’t nothing, and another third of the time the engine dies. That’s close to the current state of real knowledge about psychiatry and psychology.

We tell ourselves stories, which is great—in some ways I am a professional storyteller—but we use science to figure out what’s reliably and consistently true, and the childhood traumas leading to adult reenactments does not appear to be reliably and consistently true. Perhaps the stories Strauss tells himself now allow him to live in a particular and better way, and in that sense they’re functional. But they may not be causal.

On page 10 of The Truth Strauss writes of his then-girlfriend and now-wife, “She is reliving her mother’s relationship with her cheating father. I am reliving my father’s secret sex life. We are repeating a pattern handed down by generations of lying, cheating assholes and the poor fools who trust them.” They specifically seem to be repeating generational trauma. The idea that we repeat our childhood experiences has been commonplace since Freud, but is it true? Do we really have any evidence of it, or, again, are we just telling ourselves stories? Pop culture loves Freudian ideas. I’m not so sure that the psychosexual narrative Strauss constructs is more real than one that accepts the null hypothesis.

By the end Strauss is married. I wonder how Strauss’s marriage will hold up over time. I wouldn’t bet on “well” without favorable odds. Many beliefs that feel firm at a given moment turn out to be provisional in the fullness of time. It’s striking that Strauss never, so far as I know, mentions his age or the age of his lover, Ingrid.

For all of his problems, I can’t imagine most guys doing what Strauss has done or accomplishing what Strauss has accomplished. For all the psychic trauma in his childhood, the outcome is impressive.

The Truth is the sort of book I can’t imagine being made, in any sort of honest way, into a movie. Oddly, perhaps, I can imagine The Game being made into a reasonably honest movie and am somewhat surprised that it hasn’t been.

The final truth about relationships is that there is no final, universal truth about relationships. We make things up as we go along and universal experiences aren’t universal. It’s not a real sexy truth. It also doesn’t require a book to say. Instead, we tell all our stories about relationships in the book of life and the stories we draw from it.**

Let us return to the beginning of The Truth again. Strauss starts by saying he is “the king of ambivalence.” He wants what he can’t have or doesn’t have at that moment. This is not good and is perhaps generalizable:

Most married people I know don’t seem to be any happier. One day Orlando Bloom, an actor I’d written a Rolling Stone article about, came over to visit. At the time he was married to one of the world’s most successful and beautiful women, Victoria’s Secret supermodel Miranda Kerr [. . .] And one of the first things out of his mouth? “I don’t know if marriage is worth it. I don’t know why anyone does it. I mean, I want romance and I want to be with someone, but I just don’t think it works.”

My other married friends haven’t fared much better.

Yet he does it anyway. To his credit, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity does eventually get name-checked, since Perel has done unusual work in questioning our usual arrangements. Still. On the first page Strauss considers a woman and writes a sentence that could be an alternate title: “Not my type, but I would.” The book processes his motion from “but I would” to “but I won’t,” even if she is his type (and it seems that most women are).

* Psychiatry and psychology in general aren’t in good epistemological shape. There is no good functional, reproducible model of the brain. Both fields may essentially be wielding beads and rattles rather than science and be closer to shamanism than medicine.

** This is a post I’ve meant to write for a long time, but it hasn’t been an easy write.

Briefly noted: Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is defiantly, definitely okay; the biggest problem with it isn’t the novel itself but having already read Blindsight, which its some similar notes but is just a much, much better novel.

Leviathan Wakes is big on game theory, empathy, and political questions. They start early—”The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there” happens on page 14—and don’t really relent. Still, I dislike the implication that “the great god Darwin” thinks that individuals and small groups are inwardly selfish; evolution has also endowed us with the ability to cooperate, and humans are super-cooperators, alone among animals.

Leviathan_WakesBut the divisions among people may change shape and form, but they always remain, at least as long as we live in a world of economic scarcity. In Leviathan Wakes, Earthers, Martians, and Belters (those who grow up and/or live in the Asteroid Belt) are the primary divisions. I write this in 2016, and in the current European and American political systems there are spasms around divisions that, viewed from the proper perspective, will seem trivial. The other day I heard someone say that Trump has a point about immigrants. I agreed and amplified, suggesting that he do something about the filthy, lazy Irish and Italians, with their Papist ways and mooching dispositions. The guy I was talking to didn’t know what to do with that; the Know Nothing Party may be gone, but its ideas live on for as long as humans have a powerful psychological need to divide ourselves into tribes.

In Leviathan Wakes some descriptions are good (on a space station, “The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms” or “The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve”), but the text can usually be described as nondescript. It’s rarely bad but rarely stellar. For example, the sentence after the one about the circle of life on Ceres is “He liked it that way,” which is representative of the novel’s language.

The sense of mystery is strong, though, and mostly excuses the sentences. You’ve read worse. You’ve read better. The plot gets sillier as the novel progresses.

What else? There is a convenient magic drive that gets people from place to place relatively rapidly. It’s hard to imagine that genetic engineering won’t have re-made the human species by the time we develop advanced space stations with room for millions of people. Did people in 1750 imagine that in 2000 we’d still be riding horses and firing muskets? Because imagining 2250 without substantial genetic engineering is hard (unless there’s an apocalypse in the meantime, which is also possible).

Leviathan Wakes is guilty of many of Charlie Stross’s space opera clichés, but I mostly forgive it. I just can’t imagine wanting to re-read it.

Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals — John Lefevre

Masters of one medium, like Twitter, aren’t necessarily masters of another medium, like the 80,000-word memoir. They can be but don’t have to be. Lefevre mastered Twitter, but his long-form game is not as strong. That being said I did laugh when reading Straight To Hell; I feel like I couldn’t drink anywhere near the amount Lefevre does, or take anywhere near the amount of drugs. I don’t imagine I’d want to be friends with him. As he puts his life philosophy, “As we see it, if you’re dumb enough to get caught cheating, you probably don’t belong on Wall Street.”* That sounds like a sentence from a Bernie Sanders rally. It isn’t.

Straight_To_HellLeFevre writes, “From my experience, the rich and unscrupulous tend to make for entertaining company.” Speaking of political connections, he could be talking about Donald Trump, which is part of the reason he makes a popular, evil presidential candidates (and I don’t use the word “evil” lightly, but he is evil: the evil of pure id, untempered by knowledge or self-awareness). Straight to Hell has more political resonances than it should, and that may help explain its popularity, as it works on readers’ subconscious.

Still, LeFevre’s company is often entertaining, and the best one can say about his scruples is that he makes public what many would like to be private. The speaker of unpleasant truths has a kind of honor. The book is his unpleasant truths, though it is often about the unpleasant truths he dodged (“Now I know for sure, this deal is never going to work. But I still don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for killing it.”) Machiavelli has a vital role in history for a reason.

Even for people like me, who don’t see money as evil, LeFevre will make them want to see money as evil. (Consider how Sylvia Nasar puts it in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius: “Historically, money had been seen as powerful, desirable, very likely evil, and mysterious, like natural calamities or epidemics.”) Money can be earned in ways that tend to benefit humanity or, in LeFevre’s world, in ways that tend to be about rent seeking and stealing pieces of the pie, rather than earning them, or expanding the size of the pie. Finance here looks like the latter part. That being said one doesn’t and maybe can’t know whether LeFevre’s book is representative, any more than a movie like Bad Teacher is representative of the teaching industry.

Straight To Hell is a memoir about signaling. The finance world presented in it has descended to an almost-pure signaling hell, in which there is no content, only surface. Hence the ceaseless references to luxury brands and luxury-brand schools. The two have become synonymous, however much humanities-department Marxists may want to deny it. There is a weird kinship between high school memoirs or novels and Straight To Hell. American high schools are painful because there is no content to shape form. Lefevre’s finance world is similar. In it, seniority beats skill (count the number of times the word “senior” appears). Many American high schools are so bad because there is no financially viable way to start an alternative high school that can siphon off smarter students and parents. Banks, in Straight To Hell, operate the same way. If contemporary investment banks operate anything like the way Lefevre depicts them operating, then “fin tech” (or “financial technology companies and products,” to use a phrase du jour) should be a ripe opportunity for startups, because the banks, and their personnel and culture, are so internally fucked up that smart startups ought to be able to eat them.

Unless, of course, regulatory and other barriers kill startups before the startups can really succeed. Still, anyone investing in financial companies should read Straight to Hell. It ought to give them courage, if it’s accurate. I can’t really judge whether it is. I’m too far from the industry. It seems unlikely, but unlikely things turn out to be true all the time. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would massively spy on virtually all of its citizens, but Snowden showed that it does. It seemed unlikely that an electric car startup could succeed, but Tesla showed that it can. I won’t discount Straight to Hell without trying to triangulate its portrayals. Still, if it is to be believed then many bankers are redistributing money to escorts and drug dealers. Not that I’m opposed, necessarily, to either group, but it is interesting given recent noise about financial inequality to see money flow from the rich to middle-skill service providers (though the book is not conceptualized or framed in that way; still, often the most interesting parts of a book are those that are unintended).

One could write an interesting piece comparing temperaments in Houellebecq and LeFevre. One could also write an interesting piece comparing Thiel in Zero to One and LeFevre. As Thiel notes, in a discussion about why startups (and other companies) must incentivize their employees with stock and other methods that align incentives:

Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. [. . .] A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

zero to oneStraight to Hell can be seen as a document about “value grabbing” and about living in the hedonistic present. The value grabbing is not purely financial, either: It’s also sexual. The team lives or dies by the current roadshow. Slickness rules. One could also compare Straight to Hell and Zero to One in terms of humor versus earnestness. Zero to One has its moments of humor (think of the brief section comparing hipsters to the Unabomber, or the part about Richard Branson and the naked windsurfing model) but the preponderance of the book is about how to make serious, real improvements in the quality of life for all humans. Straight to Hell is about getting a bonus and getting your dick wet (concern over women’s pleasure is mostly absent, or I’d add something appropriate for women as well). There is nothing intrinsically wrong about either and indeed both have concerned me greatly at various points, but there is something distinctly sublunar about the relentlessness of those concerns, and the way one never looks up from the bonus or the girl or the meal.

Is it a satire? Is the joke on me because I don’t get it? There is much like, “There’s no justice in this world—a valuable lesson to learn at a young age, especially if you want to end up on Wall Street.” Is it bravado, trolling, or truth? After many words I still don’t know.

* If they’ll cheat someone else, they’ll cheat you when they get a chance.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age — Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly

The first chapter of All Things Shining is strong and so is the second, on David Foster Wallace, but the book gets duller as it goes on, sustaining as it does its readings based on other books. There is something curiously empty about it, like a modern art museum that is much duller than a celebrity’s Instagram account. It is too well mannered. Academia’s mores rules. All Things Shining encourages us to find shining meaning in things but it itself doesn’t feel shiningly meaningful, as even sections like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift do.

Deciding that something is boring is easier than fully understanding why something is boring. I haven’t quite figured out the “Why” question regarding All Things Shining. The book does remind one of why great novels endure; story is still powerful and narratives without story are hard to sustain, especially when many claims seem somewhat dubious:

Modern life can seem to be defined by [uncertainty]. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at last occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.

I said that this is “somewhat dubious” because it is, even if we do face many choices. At bottom we each have to choose for ourselves what is important, and then pursue that thing. It might be pleasure or technology or words or research or money. Universals are likely absent and “The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus on our understanding of what we are.” The “burden of choice” also comes from the fact that many of us can pay the rent and pay for food, which leaves us with more time for self-contemplation. Maybe too much time.

I’m fond of telling students that you know you’re an adult when you realize that, if you can’t pay the rent and pay for food, you won’t have anywhere to live or anything to eat. Sometimes a focus on base material conditions is helpful. And forgetting that a very large number of people are justifiably focused on this issues is sometimes too easy for tenured academics.

Some paragraphs are both useful and yet I wonder what polls would say:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age.

Did the average Greek of Homer’s era live intense and meaningful lives? What about their children? What happened when their children died? Or was the average Greek covered in shit (link likely safe for work), slaving away to support a tiny number of nobles who focused on political games, consuming the marginal product of labor of the peasants, and fighting pointless, zero-sum wars with other nobles?

Still, the book has some interesting sections, and it is a deeper discussion of its issues than you’ll find on most of the Internet The discussions of craftsmanship are glancing but perhaps most interesting. Maybe if Wallace had conceptualized himself first as a craftsman and then as an everything else things would have gone better. Maybe not, though, and it’s hard to criticize one of the most truthful writers of his generation for not doing even better than he did.

Man’s search for meaning goes on.


Briefly noted: The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company — Michael S. Malone

The Intel Trinity is another of these books that one wishes were better written but that remains interesting throughout nonetheless. For one thing, I bought the party line about Intel being essentially indomitable from its inception to the present. It wasn’t (“Frankly, the evidence argues that Intel may have been the most successful technology company ever founded by a dysfunctional start-up team—certainly by such a team that stayed together”). The book also injects ideas about history and legacy into a very contemporary culture:

Thanks to the amnesia of Silicon Valley and the digital world, [Robert Noyce] had almost been forgotten by each subsequent generation of techies as they elbowed their way to fame at a thousand dot-com companies, and then at Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Intel_TrinityOver time, “Silicon Valley had finally and unexpectedly become history,” at least to its founders. Over a long enough time period anything becomes history, although Alan Kay famously said, “I also happen to believe in history. The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field. [. . . Computing is] complete pop culture. I’m not against pop culture. Developed music, for instance, needs a pop culture.”

It will take many more books and maybe many more years before it becomes less of a pop culture, if it ever does. The Intel Trinity is history, but the paper quality of the hardcover is oddly poor, as if the publishers themselves imagined the book to be non-essential and disposable. That contrast between the historical comments and the quality of the physical object itself is odd.

Still, it does trace the story of Intel from its beginnings and from the Fairchild exodus. Fairchild employees were apparently more dissolute and fun than modern tech company workers, or at least compared to the image of modern tech workers:

Just to repeat the anecdotes of the era is insufficient. There were endless after-work drunken gatherings at the nearby Wagon Wheel saloon, where women employees were hustled, marriages were broken, feuds were fed, and in time, employees were stolen by competitors.

Intel itself, however, was apparently less exciting, at least for most people.

The Intel Trinity also points to some of the reasons why Silicon Valley has been so hard to dislodge as a startup capitol (much as NYC is still a publishing capitol, despite outrageously high housing costs): “between 1967 and 1973, [hundreds of new companies] created not only a vast and prosperous business-technology community, but also the greatest start-up company incubator the world had ever seen” (59). At a time when most people were focused on free love and the word “start-up” to connote a new company didn’t really exist, northern California was blossoming. That’s a tremendous head start that’s hard to overcome today and will be hard to overcome tomorrow, despite San Francisco’s completely insane politics.

I haven’t yet got to the stories of Noyce, Moore and Grove. The latter has the most flabbergasting story, since he barely escaped World War II-era Hungary, when Hungary first fought on the side of the Germans, then was occupied by Germany, then was occupied by the Soviets, and eventually had its fledgling democracy crushed by the Soviets. Grove was Jewish and his survival story is amazing enough to have made me order his memoir, Swimming Across, which Malone draws from.

One has to wonder why the Intel trinity is less famous than, say, Bill Gates. I think the answer is simple: there were three of them. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are less famous than Gates, though their company is at least as important, largely because I think the press needs a single person to deify and to hate. Multiple founders makes the process of adulation and despair harder to conduct. Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the most famous modern startup founder because he stands alone in the spotlight. This reading owes something to Zero to One, which is as much about culture and it is about startups. Culture is everywhere, even in technology, as Malone reminds us.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch — Jonathan Gottschall

How many people are willing to admit: “I concluded that I’d been wrong about MMA people, fighters and fans alike?” Admitting to being wrong is a paradoxical show of power: the power to say that you’re weak, rather than pretending to be strong, which only the strong can do. The Professor in the Cage is full of paradox, beginning maybe with the author himself: a cerebral professor who pursues fighting. I get why he does and why he gets the reactions he does. I don’t do MMA but people are surprised that I run and lift. Are those activities in natural opposition to cerebral writers? To anyone in cerebral professions? Not to me, but, evidently, to many.

prof_in_cageA lot guys start MMA because they fear for their own masculinity and want to prove it: “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they fear they are weak.” Or, at least, they do in situations—like most of the contemporary Western world—when their physical safety is mostly assured. Much later, in the final chapters, Gottschall says, “half my reason for taking the fight was to try to do a brave thing—to redeem myself, at least in my own eyes, for all the times I’d flinched when I was young.” There may be other possibilities for redemption. Like, say, letting go.

Or channeling your energy in different directions.

The stories of entrepreneurial competition are legion. Gottscahll puts his energy in physical direction, in part because he’s an English professor by day—and a failing one at that. We have certain things in common, Gottschall and me, except I got out earlier, and I haven’t published the books he has. In some ways, though, Gottschall is a warning: How can someone who has done so much interesting work still get no traction in English departments? He could be a cautionary tale in my own warning essay about grad school.

Towards the end of the book Gottschall writes,

I’ve said I took up fighting partly in hopes of getting fired. But that’s only half-true. Becoming a real college professor has been the great ambition of my adult life, and a big part of me is still reluctant to give up on it. In truth, I probably feared being fired as much as I hoped for it.

He also observes that, contrary to what he thought he should do, he finds that “if you train in MMA, it’s hard to stay in the closet about it.” Which may true of any passion or activity that makes you feel most alive. However much you’re supposed to hide it, it’s hard to suppress that instinct. It’s who you are. It makes you slightly evangelical. For Gottschall, too, he finds himself “on crutches, or limping in a walking boot,” which makes MMA fighting particularly hard to ignore. I sometimes reach for metaphors related to lifting and running because they’re handy and relatively easy to understand. They’re also what I know. All of us have stocks of experience and knowledge and that’s part of what colors, filters, or constructs our world.

At base Gottschall is looking for life. In this respect he is like a novelist. He finds it fighting more, maybe, than fucking (or perhaps another book on that subject is yet to emerge). It may not be a mistake that one of James Wood’s books is The Nearest Thing to Life and it in turn discusses novels. Life and life-feeling are tricky to define yet continually sought. Cooperation and competition are perpetually cooperating and competing with each other. In The Professor and the Cage they are physically embodied. That physical embodiment propels the book forward. I don’t think I’ll spoil the book by saying that its denouement is a 47-second fight. In ritualized fighting the journey is the destination.

We find life in many places. Gottschall finds it in the cage.

Other have written about him. “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career” is interesting throughout. Is it a surprise that three of the most interesting academics in and around English—Gottschall, Camille Paglia, and William Deresiewicz—have such a strained relationship with the rest of the discipline? I don’t have their fortitude or seeming indifference to material possessions. Give me a new iMac and a $14 hipster cocktail stat. More importantly, Paglia’s two-decades-long protest has led to near-zero change. The structure of the system impedes change and will at least until tenure goes away. In the meantime, though, there is life in the cage.

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst — Adam Philips

Becoming Freud could be called “Reading Freud” or “Defending Freud,” because it has little to do with how Freud became Freud—there are decent, let alone good, answers to this question—and much to do with other matters, worthy in their own regard. The story—it is only tenuously a biography—is consistently elegant, though not in a flashy way; Philips reminds me of Louis Menand and the better New Yorker writers in general in this regard. Consider this: “Freud developed psychoanalysis, in his later years, by describing how it didn’t work; clinically, his failures were often more revealing to him than his successes.” Twelve words before the semicolon are balanced by eleven after, and the paradox of failure being more “revealing” than success is unexpected and yet feels right. As the same passage shows, Becoming Freud is also pleasantly undogmatic, unlike many modern-day Freudians, or people who claim Freud’s mantle or cite his work. I ran into some of those people in academia, and the experience was rarely positive on an intellectual level. Some were lovely people, though.

becoming_FreudIt is hard to get around how much Freud was wrong about, yet Philips manages this deftly by interpreting him interpreting others, rather than on his conceivably disprovable claims. Freud in this reading is literary. In Becoming Freud we get sentences like:

Freud’s work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves; but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view.

But this sounds like a description of language or of literary interpretation, rather than the final statement on the relation of facts to the mind.Plus, I’m not sure facts are all that different—but I sense that Philips would argue that’s because of Freud’s influence. Philips further tells us that “We spend our lives, Freud will tell us in his always lucid prose, not facing the facts, the facts of our history, in all their complication; above all the facts of our childhood.”

In short, Becoming Freud is closer to literary interpretation than to biography, much as Freud was closer to a literary critic than a psychologist. I’m not the first to notice that he writes of patients more like characters than like people. Philips reminds us that Freud’s “writing is studded with references to great men—Plato, Moses, Hannibal, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Shakespeare, among others—most of them artists; and all of them, in Freud’s account, men who defined their moment, not men struggling to assimilate to their societies. . .” These passages also, I think, show the book’s interpretative strengths and its sometimes exhausting qualities.

There is no real summing of Freud’s influence, when remains even when few will take his supposed science seriously. Yet despite the unseriousness of the science, talking therapy is still with us. The word “despite” seems appropriate in discussions of Freud: Despite the dubious effectiveness of talking therapy it remains in widespread use because we don’t have good alternatives. Many of us are socially isolated and lack friends; Bowling Alonew is prescient and TV and Facebook are not good substitutes for coffee or 3 a.m. phone calls. For centuries the West has valorized individual freedom and attempted to vaporize community bonds. We may be victims of our own success in this respect, and we’re now tasked with building communities based primarily on common interests. In therapeutic terms, we use the tools we have not because they are good but because they are better than nothing. Freud is in contemporary respects not good but he did articulate some of the ideas that would define the 20th Century. Getting a couple of major peaks is often more important than consistently being minorly right. I may be more inclined temperamentally towards the latter.

Sentences like this abound: “In this period of Freud’s life—as in any period in anyone’s life—the discrepancy between the documented and the undocumented life is striking, and can only be imagined.” Yet such issues sort of defeat the purpose of biography, no? It may also be why novelists like writing the lives of famous people: one gets to imagine their inner and outer selves without the pesky need for proof.

Philips’s Freud is an idealized person and for that reason I like this Freud better than most writers’s Freud. As Philips points out repeatedly the book is inadequate as a biography; he says all biographies are, which may be true to some extent, but the fewer the facts the less adequate the interpretations that might be drawn from them. Becoming Freud is similar to Alain de Botton’s Kiss & Tell, though Botton’s book is a novel. Here is The New Yorker’s take. There is a novel in there somewhere. We don’t know and likely can never know Freud. Few modern writers have such privilege, unless maybe they delete their entire email histories before they die.

There is not enough known about Freud to even make his biography feel novelistic. Whether this is good or bad depends on the reader.

Briefly noted: The Word Exchange — Alena Graedon

The best criticism of this novel is “Human, All Too Inhuman,” in which James Wood, among other things, defines hysterical realism. “Human, All Too Inhuman” was written before The Word Exchange but still applies to it. The novel is good on a sentence-by-sentence level but is poorly and tediously plotted; malformations on the macro level are hard to describe but easily noticeable. I’ll happily start the next Graedon novel because this one shows much promise. The Word Exchange concerns a near-future world in which Anana works with her father, Doug, on the world’s last paper dictionary. Her father disappears, the Dictionary as a product and institution are attacked, and Anana needs to find out why. Yet on page 75 she writes:

But this was no ordinary book burning. Our digital corpus was also being dismantled, by pale, nimble hands. Who, I wondered, would want to destroy the Dictionary? Did Doug know? Was that why he’d vanished?

Word_Exchange_cover this point something more should have happened than random thoughts, discussions about Hegel, Anana’s time in college, her relationship with pseudo-friend Max, and many other threads so random that one has to wonder if or when they’ll cohere.

The novel channels many others: Stephenson, Gibson, even Carlos Ruiz Zafón, all of whose complete works you should try first, especially Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition.

There are echoes, maybe unintentionally, of The Name of the Rose (think of the moment when Ubertino and William are speaking together and William says, “I like also to listen to words, and then I think about them,” which one could say also of Anana and the other characters in The Word Exchange, though they lack Williams’s rigor.) Yet that novel, for all its abstruse Catholic metaphysics, is bound by a murder; people like murder stories because the stakes are plain: Death is bad, preventing it is good, and murderers need to be subjected to justice. In The Word Exchange no stakes are clear. By page 130 the narrative is still wandering and navel gazing; it’s only in the 130 – 140 range that things start to cohere, slightly.

Writers are fond of murder for a reason; if not murder, then comedy, and though there is a disappearance in The Word Exchange there is no murder. John Updike’s novelistic alter ego Bech knows the draw of murder:

Murdering critics is something most writers, I suspect, have wanted to do. The device of poisoning an envelope flap was used, I discovered later, in an episode of Seinfeld, but by then it was too late, my die was cast.

Art imitates other art even unintentionally. Murder and mystery are good too to emulate, and The Word Exchange is conscious, maybe too conscious, of its emulations. It is not consciousness enough of the pleasures of narrative, of structure, of figuring out the “why” and not just the “how.”

In The Word Exchange I want less… Brooklyn? It’s hard to choose an adjective. The novel feels written or narrated by a bright and precocious but ultimately annoying student who has not yet learned how to be in the world. Even the acknowledgements page is annoying, beginning as it does with “I have a real community of minds to thank.” As opposed to a false community of minds? Why not just say, “Group of people?” The sheer number of people thanked may be indicative of the problems with the story: Too many people said too many things and no central person adequately controlled the outcome.

The praise for The Word Exchange indicates why one can’t trust critics.

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath

There is something futile about this otherwise consistently interesting book, and Heath says as much towards the end:

It should go without saying that writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem. Furthermore, the project of reversing the trend is too big and too complicated for any one person to accomplish much.

Enlightenment_heathNonetheless I enjoyed and recommend Enlightenment 2.0; here is Alex Tabarrok’s review, which introduced me to the book. Its subjects and sources seem eclectic at first: Hollywood movies, Fox News, politics, 18th Century writers, philosophers, economists. Not all its examples are plausible. But the single golden braid of what rationality means runs through the book, and Heath identifies patterns I’ve inchoately felt but never quite described. Readers who are familiar with the extensive irrationality literature—Thinking, Fast and Slow is perhaps the best, though not the only, example—may find sections repetitive. Yet the overall impact is strong.

Reading the irrationality shows how rational, logical people are proving that people are irrational and illogical. Yet it takes rationality to demonstrate how we aren’t, and that alone may justify rationality (the existence of the contemporary world shows that it is possible for rationality to flourish). In most domains, too, individuals suffer most of the consequences of irrationality: If you spend more than you make, you suffer more than me; if you sleep with people you shouldn’t, you suffer more than me. The exception comes from voting; I don’t see Bryan Caplan cited in the index but Heath points to many of the themes Caplan does in The Myth of the Rational Voter, another recommended and yet depressing book because it posits a problem to which there is no good solution. Comedy is one partial solution, as Heath says about liberal comedians attacking conservative lunatic initiatives, and so is setting up the right systems, or right sort of systems:

To the extent we are able to achieve something resembling rationality, it is usually because we have good kludges. As productivity expert David Allen put it, ‘To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives. I know that’s true of me. The smart part of us sets things for us to do that the non-so-smart [sic] part responds to almost automatically, creating behavior that produces high-performance results. We trick ourselves into doing what we ought to be doing.’

I would call myself a “high-performing person” and would not call myself a productivity expert, but one of my most-used programs prevents me from using other programs effectively: Mac Freedom. For ten dollars, this program will turn off your Internet access for a specified period of time (you can get it back by rebooting, should you really need it). The Internet is amazing but can also be noxious and distracting. Freedom reminds me that I should pursue my long-term goals and that most “news” is total garbage and that my life (and the world) is not going to get better based on whether I inhale someone else’s intellectual garbage. I’d argue Facebook is even worse than news in this respect, and, now that everyone is on Facebook, the quality of Facebook has declined further: people are worried about what their moms and bosses and employers will think, so they shunt the real parts of their lives to pseudonymous services.

Still, much news is superficially attractive and has that dangerous quality of feeling like learning even when it isn’t. I’m susceptible to it and, even before reading about Allen, I’d developed some strategies for resisting. Those strategies aren’t perfect and depending on what I’m working on I may genuinely need the Internet, but most of the time concentration is the scarcest resource, rather than information. And well-structured information is scarcer than “information,” which makes books more valuable than many articles. Still, I need to trick myself into remembering this.

Heath notes that some concepts are not intuitive, don’t make us “feel” correctly, and yet are essential for the workings of modern life. But it’s easy for demagogues or just plainly ignorant politicians to appeal to feelings that are popular but simplistic and wrong. Heath says that liberals have a harder time with this, as their preferred policies require coordination and complex understanding of multiple moving parts.

I like the observation in “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup,” in which Scott Alexander observes that Team Red and Team Blue seem more often to decide on issues based on opposing whatever the other one wants, rather than initial dispassionate analysis followed by decision.

My favorite issue that works along these lines is housing policy, which is especially interesting because both Team Red and Team Blue tend to oppose sensible, affordable housing policies, but for slightly different reasons. As I wrote here (and have written elsewhere), housing affects everything from schools to the real power of money (which may be different from “income”) to the environment to intellectual growth and development. Yet housing policy has devolved in the last forty or so years and is barely on most people’s radar. Markets are dysfunctional due to land-control uses. Team Blue is concerned about incomes, and sometimes even real incomes, and housing policy is hugely important in this domain. Team red is concerned about markets, at least superficially, and yet housing and land development is widely distorted. (Team Red often opposes markets when markets don’t produce their desired social outcomes, which is a topic for another time.)

As a side note regarding the subtitle, I’ll say that I don’t feel my life to be insane or not sane. I’ll also say that this is not true only of politics, but also some weirdly large swaths of the humanities:

[Harry] Frankfurt’s important contribution [via the book On Bullshit] was to have distinguished between lying and bullshitting. What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game. There is no pretense with the bullshitter. Although producing ordinary declarative sentences that would normally be evaluated under the categories of truth and falsity, the bullshitter is not even trying to say something that sounds true.

When someone has opted out of the truth-telling game there is almost no reason to talk to them.

Much of Enlightenment 2.0 is distressing to those of us who like to imagine ourselves as rationalists. Yet the world is still by many metrics improving. I’m tempted to start a new series in which every December I post “Good news in review,” since most news is biased towards problems, deaths, fuck-ups, and the like. Yet overall by most metrics people are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives. That’s a huge but under-emphasized point. Many of the big, preventable killers in the United States—like cars and guns—could be better dealt with through policy, as long as people understand just how many other people die from those causes. Most of us don’t attend to them, however, and prefer salient deaths like shark attacks and terrorism.

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

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