Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reading Michel Serres



            I just finished Michel Serres, Variations on the Body (1999; translated by Randolph Burks 2011). This was a difficult book for me at times because I often resisted Serres’ counterintuitive attempts to valorize the body at the expense of the mind and further to argue that the body acquires knowledge, and creates culture. Ultimately, though, he convinced me of the limited truth of these propositions.
In the first section, “Metamorphosis,” Serres uses his own experience rock-climbing to argue the importance of a fit, athletic body in doings we normally think of as more intellectual or at least mental and spiritual rather than physical: writing, for example (“the genuine writer’s craft demands a solitary engagement from the entire body.” And further, “exercise, a rather austere diet…practices of strength and flexibility…for writing, are as good as ten libraries”). And he makes the claim that “human intelligence can be distinguished from artificial intelligence by the body, alone,” and that the body is the origin of mystical states (“During a few ascents of the Écrins Massif…I was suddenly inundated…with such a lofty elation…that I thought my entire body was levitating. Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Francis of Assisi [had] athletic bodies.” “Saintliness follows health,” he asserts, and “creation does not arise from torpor...but from training”).
            He also discusses the uses of fear in pursuing an activity that involves risk. Fear can be indulged beforehand, he says (though he does not mention it encourages careful planning) but has no business in the moment, when others’ lives may depend on you, because it paralyzes.
            In “Potential,” Serres poses the question “Who knows what the body can do?” About pain, he observes that “suffering tests the limits of the body in the same way as does exercise….I am initially what pain has made of my body; only…long after, am I what I think.”  About the way muscle memory works, “the body performs certain gestures all the more easily when they unfold from the least amount of attention possible….the body…doesn’t like consciousness, and the feeling is mutual.” “To inhabit your body better,” he says, “forget it….Health is unknowingness” and “smooth and even equilibrium…divine unconsciousness.” Freedom is defined by the body: “all power must…stop short of the body’s integrity” and leave it free to move as it pleases….Its virtuality is thus opposed to all power. Freedom is defined by the body and the body by potential.”
            Children understand fables about animals as transformations of which the young organism is capable; thus the story of Merlin showing young Arthur the world as seen through the eyes and skin or scales of various creatures. In youth, in love, in understanding we are transformed into and see things as the other. The Incarnation, says Serres, “signifies that the flesh conceals a mystery.” Sleep is an interesting phenomenon: “falling asleep passes into the potential.”
            In “Knowledge” Serres revises the Enlightenment formula that all knowledge comes through the senses to read “there is nothing in knowledge that has not been first in the entire body.” The infant mimics and thus learns through the body. Such imitation implies violence: “you suddenly find yourself taking the very place of the person you were copying.” Serres criticizes the educational doctrine that you can’t learn what you don’t understand, saying it is contradicted in learning addition and immensely more.
            Things, says Serres, imitate each other. And true knowledge is not an abstraction from a singularity but a copy of it; though humans need general ideas, God who knows all individuals doesn’t. The performer is a model of the teaching body. “Speak then for several minutes before a crowd to learn how much these discreet but not mute gymnastics protect you from the virtual lynching promised by the cooperation of the pack whose silent eyes converge on your lips.” Serres discounts the idea of innate knowledge: “long history improves imitation slowly…and made the body an ensemble of memories so well-engrammed that certain philosophers even believed—and believe still—in the innate origin of knowledge and language.” He talks about how physical and mental exercise retard aging.
            In “Vertigo” Serres points out that the wonder of bipedal motion involves movements like those of wheels. Standing upright and trying to walk that way, for infants or the first primates who did it, was vertiginous. The body interacts with its environment, breathing and eating it. We absorb and subjectivize the world in maintaining the body, while the body then exudes, creates and objectifies culture, making the world. In a strain of Catholic symbolism already apparent in the previous Incarnation reference, Serres here links this interchange of body and surroundings to Transubstantiation. Later he compares the death of the body to the Ascension of Christ.
            Vertigo may be more than learning, but also play: Roger Callois calls some games “Ilinx” or whirlpool games. Like gyrocompasses that become stable by being whirled, “do we owe our best balance” to whirlwinds? “Yes, rapid and unexpected rotations improve equilibrium.” Ataraxia, on the other hand, the desired “absence of agitation” of the “sages of Antiquity” would be a life-shortener; the body thrives on variation, instability.
            The concluding, synoptic example of the book is Archimedes’ discovery how his body displaces an equal weight of water in his bath, so that he floats, slightly vertiginous, and then leaps out, running through the streets, baring his naked body that is the instrument of his eureka moment, the acquirer of knowledge in motion and rest, instability and equilibrium.

Friday, December 26, 2014

My Best Reading of the Year



Daniel Kahneman published Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. This was my choice for the best nonfiction book I read this year. Among the forty books I read thirteen were nonfiction. Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, writes about his research in three areas of decision-making: cognitive bias, prospect theory, and happiness assessment.
            First he sets up an opposition in the ways the mind works to assess or decide something. The intuitive way works quickly, without our conscious awareness, drawing on memory. The reflective way is slower, takes conscious effort and causes bodily signs of dilated pupils, increased heart-rate, and others. Most of our decisions from moment to moment are made intuitively, some of them necessarily so, like reflex action from pain or danger, but in many cases we ought to be engaging in reflection to avoid the cognitive biases and other problems with intuitive decision-making.
            Kahneman names several categories of heuristics or rules for quick decision-making, and he enumerates their various pitfalls. Among the cognitive biases which impede good decisions are these:
The Representative Heuristic. We tend to classify according to a narrative story rather than base rates, that is the real probability that object or person A belongs in category B. An outstanding case is the Linda Problem, in which respondents go for plausibility when asked about probability (the tendency to answer a less-difficult question than the one asked is one of the drawbacks of thinking fast). Linda is single, 32, outspoken and bright. She majored in philosophy and as a student was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice. When given this information and told to rank the following scenarios in order of probability
A  Linda is a teacher is elementary school
B  Linda is a bank teller
C  Linda is an insurance salesman
D  Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement,
most respondents rank D as more likely than B, defying logic.
Tom W’s specialty is a variation of the Linda Problem.
 We tend to misconceive of the way chance works in particular ways. Given a six-sided die with 4 green and 2 red faces, rank in order of probability these sequences coming up:
A  RGRRR
B  GRGRRR
C  GRRRRR
As in the Linda Problem, most respondents will say B is more likely than A, even though there are two possibilities for a previous throw in A and thus it is more likely.
Regression to the mean tends to confirm people’s mistaken notion that punishment works better than praise; Kahneman quotes an Israeli pilot instructor who says “when I praise someone for an exceptionally good performance, he almost always does worse the next time, but when I chew out someone for a bad job, he always does better the next time.”
Insensitivity to sample size means  people are not aware that they will get results at either extreme from small samples.
The Availability Heuristic. Large classes are recalled faster than instances of less frequent classes, likely occurrences imagined more easily than unlikely ones, and associative connections between events stronger when they often occur together. But the availability heuristic results in frequent, systematic errors.
The Anchoring Heuristic. Any number mentioned in the initial request to estimate an unknown quantity or range will affect the resulting guess, however impossibly small or large the number is.
There are other sources of error aside from heuristics.
Overconfidence. Research suggests that clinical evaluations by professionals are not as reliable in predicting certain kinds of outcomes (violations of parole, recidivism, longevity of cancer patients, credit risks, the future price of a wine vintage) as formulas, that is, algorithms that equally weigh a few obvious predictors (such as Ashenfelter’s formula for wine vintage value that uses total winter rainfall, rainfall at harvest, and average temperature over the summer growing season).
WYSIATI—The intuitive mind tends to accept presented facts as all it needs (What You
 See Is All There Is), where reflection would convince us that there are some things or numbers we don’t know that would be relevant to a decision (Known Unknowns). Further reflection would suggest that there might be facts relevant to a decision that we don’t know are relevant (Unknown Unknowns).
We tend to see more order in the world than is really there. We tend to think ourselves more in control than we really are, and less subject to chance (optimistic bias) The optimistic boas lessens loss aversion—the tendency to fear losses more than we value gains. Framing works on loss aversion: more people will choose surgery if told that there is a 90% survival rate than if told that there is a 10% mortality rate. To avoid feelings of regret, people tend to continue investing in losing prospects—sunk costs.
The planning fallacy—the tendency to overestimate gains and underestimate losses—is an example of the optimistic bias.
In Prospect Theory, Kahneman found that expected utility theory, the accepted notion, did not account for the relative wealth of the person who chooses risk, but that real decision-making does. He proposes the fourfold pattern of risk attitudes. We become risk averse when there is a high probability of a large gain. We become risk seeking when there is a high probability of a large loss. We become risk seeking when there is a low probability but a chance for large gains. We become risk averse when there is a low probability for large losses.
            Rationality and Happiness—Kahneman’s research found that in remembering an experience, we rate its pleasure or pain on the peak or valley of the experience plus its ending, with no concern for duration. Moreover, the remembering self rather than the experiencing self gets the last word.
            Altogether, Kahneman’s work seems to indicate we don’t make decisions very well most of the time, and that we are not especially self-aware in any of our thinking about thinking.

           
My fiction choice is Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, written in 1969; this was a reread of a book I probably first read in the seventies or eighties. It is a book with lots of natural history—mostly botany and hemiptery, with a little of Nabokov’s expert lepidoptery. A fair amount of untranslated Russian and French is made more comprehensible because of Nabokov’s style, containing many catalogues, repetition with variation, and multilingual glosses. And like all of Nabokov, the Word is apotheosized: “Thank Log!” is a frequent expression of Van Veen, the protagonist and, as we gradually discover, the memoirist writing his own history in the third person.
            The book ends with its own blurb, and near the end is a dissertation upon time, in which Professor of Psychology Van Veen denies that the future has any part in the concept of time and which is an expression of Van’s lifelong denial of death. The book may be seen, as indeed may many novels—Austen’s romances come to mind—as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. It is an alternate-geography, alternate-history, alternate-planet story that takes place on Antiterra or Demonia. Terra, on the other hand, is a planet accessible only through the hallucinations of Van’s mentally-disturbed patients, but it is the world whose geography and history is that of our own world—the readers’ reality. Another way to look at the world map of the book, with Russia located in North America and Russian, French, and English all likely languages to be heard within any group of Americans, is that it reflects somehow the mental geography of Nabokov himself.
            Fourteen-year-old Van Veen—Ivan Dementievich Veen, whose father is most often referred to as Demon Veen—visits Ardis, the country house of his aunt Marina. There he and his cousin, twelve-year-old Ada, begin an affair that lasts for more than eighty years. The two children soon discover diaries, letters, and other documents in the attic of Ardis from which they quickly and correctly infer—both have intelligence off the IQ chart, which contributes to their mutual attraction—that Marina is in fact the mother and Demon the father of both of them. Far from deterring their affair, the discovery becomes another secret link bonding them.
            Their tryst is interrupted when Van must return to school, and it is not resumed until four years later. Another blissful summer interlude ends when Van discovers Ada has been unfaithful. He goes off to murder her two lovers, but is prevented by a silly duel in which he is injured and by the death of both of the objects of his wrath, one by his wife’s poison precipitating the fatal effects of disease, the other in an Antiterran version of a protracted Crimean War.
             Van and Ada are reunited briefly after a hiatus of five years, but when Demon Veen discovers their affair, he convinces Van to stay away from Ada so that she may have something like a normal, happy life. Ada marries, and she and Van are separated for some years. This period of reunion and separation is complicated by the presence of Ada’s younger sister Lucette, who spied on their lovemaking when they were all children, who loves Van while she also has an intimate sexual relationship with Ada, and who kills herself by leaping from an ocean liner after her last unsuccessful attempt to seduce Van.
            The lovers are again briefly reunited in their thirties in Switzerland, an idyll that ends when Ada’s husband Andrey Vinelander has an attack of “psychopathic pseudobronchitis” which may or may not have turned into tuberculosis. In any case it does not kill Andrey, who returns to Arizona, taking Ada with him, and lives on for another seventeen years. A few months after his death Ada joins Van, again in Switzerland, and they live the remainder of their long lives together: he is ninety-seven as he writes the memoir called Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which Ada annotates as he writes.
            When I wrote that the novel is a wish-fulfillment fantasy I meant that it embodies what I regard as a particularly Nabokovian notion about true love involving the denial of convention and the embracing of the forbidden, a complication that ensures its being impossible to sustain. This notion may be seen at its most extreme in Lolita’s paean to the perverse. For Ada and Van, everyone (except perhaps Lucette) is too dim to see that their love trumps any disgust, horror, or moral opprobrium attaching to incest.

I read Hart Crane’s  Complete Poems in the 1958 Anchor Book edition introduced by Waldo Frank. Although I had read Crane before, this was my first exposure to all the poems.
            Crane’s voice is a completely unique one in American poetry. He has rigorous formal control, often with rhyme, that scarcely seems to contain the near frenzy of the lines as they range across history, juxtaposing the most disparate elements. It reminds me of a native dance fueled by peyote or other hallucinogens, where the mannered, stylized patterns of movement threaten to break apart into manic violence. But Crane’s singularity does not mean, as Frank points out in his introduction, that he was not solidly in the tradition of Whitman, whom he invokes in “Cape Hatteras.” The invocation almost turns into a conversation, with Crane as much as asking “what would you have thought of the airplane, Walt?”  This is part of The Bridge (1930) which makes up about a third of Crane’s total poetry. Although White Buildings was published first, in 1926, Frank puts The Bridge first in this book..
            “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” describes Crane’s view of the bridge by dawn, noon,  and night, from below and presumably from the room he lived in overlooking the bridge; the “bedlamite” suicide who leaps from the bridge, and the Statue of Liberty visible from the Brooklyn side. The gull “chill from his rippling rest” is the first of a number of lines that remind me of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  In “Ave Maria” Columbus invokes the men who helped him by interceding with Queen Isabella and pronounces an exultant Te Deum for what he thinks is a successful voyage to the Orient: “I bring you back Cathay!”
             “Powhatan’s Daughter,” “Van Winkle” and other poems from the middle of The Bridge take us through real and imagined American history, all reimagined within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge. In “Cape Hatteras,” starting from Kitty Hawk, Crane juxtaposes the mechanical and industrial world with the atomic and the cosmic view, invoking Whitman, with little echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins in some lines: “Two brothers in their twinship left the dune;/Warping the gale, the Wright windwrestlers veered/Capeward, then blading the wind’s flank, banked and spun….” Somehow all this seems to lead to war, and we have both Walt’s war and Hart’s war, “from Appomattox stretched to Somme!” “The Tunnel,” the next-to-last poem, is a descent by subway into the tunnel beneath the East River, a kind of descent into the underworld with echoes of The Waste Land in overheard conversation snatches and putting another record on the gramophone; someone suggests Crane sees himself as answering The Waste Land with a poem about the promise of the New World, and in the last poem, “Atlantis,” the cables of the bridge become musical strings in a song where Atlantis is seen as some sort of continental bridge between the Old and New Worlds.
            In White Buildings Crane tries on various personae for the poet in “Chaplinesque” and “Lachrymae Christi,” updates the Faust legend in “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” eulogizes Melville in “At Melville’s Tomb,” and writes a multi-part poem about love in “Voyages.”
            In addition to some early poems Crane never reprinted and an essay, “Modern Poetry,” a section of “Uncollected Poems” contains “Eternity,” describing the aftermath of a hurricane that hit the Isle of Pines while Crane was visiting his family’s property there in 1926.
            Until the last few years, I have not spent a lot of time reading poetry in the Whitman tradition, or Whitman himself. The fact that my older son and his love are scholars of Whitman and important people in the Whitman Digital Archive has changed my attitude not only about Whitman, but about his literary heirs, of whom Crane is clearly one.
           


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Controlling the Universe



In Notes of a Native Son, which I've just finished reading, James Baldwin writes that “the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” Only a writer could say something so outrageous as that about language. For a writer it isn’t outrageous. But a normal person would say that the root function of language has something to do with communicating with other people. Baldwin has outed writers in a big way here: we aren’t really interested in communication with other people and aren’t very good at it. We do want, along with all the villains in James Bond novels and Superman movies, to control the universe.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Making It Small

I like the things I carry to be small. First Aid kits, tool collections, and so on. I drive a small sedan, used to sail a small sailboat and fly a two-seater airplane, but I can't really claim their limitations as causes of my passion for littleness. A better excuse would be the back trouble that resulted in my two spine operations. When I carry luggage or a briefcase, I'm aware of added ounces. I even weighed the two cordless Braun electric shavers I own--neither being more than a few ounces--so I could select the lighter one for my toiletry kit.
      Take keys, for instance. For some people, a huge wad of keys attached to a belt loop with a bear chain, looking for all the world like the spiked ball of a medieval flail, is not only a tool of office but an emblem of the bearer's importance, as weighty in figurative as in literal terms. For me, a handful of keys is an annoyance that distorts my pocket and makes my trousers sag. And so I try to diminufy, littlize, attenuate, eschewing the car keys with little transmitters, cutting the plastic top from the car key to make it smaller.
      I have a drawer full of little flashlights powered by single AAA batteries or button-cell batteries or their own internal batteries rechargeable by plugging them into USB ports. But the flashlight in my pocket is only a half inch in diameter and one and half inches long--the smallest one I've ever found, but surprisingly bright. It's attached to a penknife that is not the smallest that can be found, though it's the smallest made by the Victorinox Swiss Army people, with fewer than half a dozen features.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Real Mexican

People can be very proprietary about their regional American brand of Mexican food. I've heard friends who were introduced to Mexican food in California or New Mexico say, when presented with a Mexican meal prepared in Tucson or Brownsville, "Well, it's good but it isn't really MEXICAN."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Uncle Col

My wife's Uncle Col was an amused observer of the happenings around him, and when those events weren't amusing enough he would tweak them a little to provoke their essential ridiculousness. One night in Tucson we had all had dinner at Skyline Country Club's Sunday night buffet. Col came out of the restaurant into the driveway where the valet brought departing patrons their cars and found a man standing there, dressed in a suit and fairly obviously not the parking valet. But Col had a dollar in his hand and he held it out to the man, who just stared at him for a minute before saying, "What's this?" "Aren't you the valet?" asked Col, who might have been as innocently confused as he looked. The man stiffened and pulled himself up to his full height. He said, "I'm Richard Harvill, president of the university!" "Oh, oh," mumbled Col, "thought you were the valet," and his face showed no hint of a smile.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

You'll Thank Me

So here's the idea: put an ad in whatever national magazine or large regional newspaper you think might have readers likely to respond. The pitch is very simple. The ad reads, "Send me $5 and I will send you a list of all the people who responded to this ad." You might have to put a time limit on it; you might have to adjust the price. But do you see the appeal? This is a list of people who were willing to send money.