Why Frey’s memoir lies matter

Fabricating events in a memoir can have serious consequences for readers as well as for the author.”

Niki Shisler in The Guardian:

Does it really matter whether a memoir is embellished? Frey’s “recovery” from drug and alcohol addiction is, according to him, “the primary focus of the book”. I have been in recovery for over a decade, so I know that it’s life-and-death stuff. One of Frey’s key themes is that he “recovered” by force of will alone. No AA, no 12 steps, no support group; just him and his demons. The message is that if he can drag himself out of the pit of hell, then anyone can. Except he didn’t.

Just think how dangerous that is. Addicts and alcoholics are desperate vulnerable people; if you’re going to offer them a way out, you’d better be certain it works. But how can you be, if you haven’t walked the path? The reader reviews for Frey’s book on Amazon contain this nugget: “I’ve been to four funerals in the last 12 months. One of them was a guy who dropped out of AA/NA after reading Frey’s crap – before it had been exposed as a fraud. He decided to follow Frey’s advice … He lasted about three months before he got high again. He was dead two months after that.”

Frey claims his memoir has “emotional truth”. But “emotional truth” is meaningless when it’s woven around events that bear no relation to reality – unless you’re writing fiction. This memoir was touted around publishers as a novel for a long time, unable to get a publishing deal. That should tell us everything.The book only works because we believe he really lived it. As fiction, it simply wasn’t good enough.

More here.

Chemical stories can make you blind

Helene Guldberg in Spiked Online:

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is a welcome corrective to the abundance of misinformation about chemicals. Chemicals are often presented as substances that are harmful to our health and the environment and should be avoided. But the idea of a chemical-free existence is absurd: the world is full of chemicals, both natural and manufactured, and we could not exist without them.
Today, it is especially the ‘man-made’, ‘synthetic’ or ‘industrial’ chemicals that we are encouraged to avoid. ‘But how do we explain the fact that we are living longer and healthier lives?’ asked Andrew Cockburn, director of Toxico-Logical Consulting Ltd, at the launch of the Sense about Science report. In the UK in 1840 the average life expectancy was only 40 years of age; today it is nearer to 80. ‘That makes us the healthiest hypochondriacs that ever existed’, said Cockburn.

More here.

Influential writer/thinker an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler creep?

Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

CioranWhere have we seen this story before? An influential European writer and thinker, celebrated in his mature years for works of sophisticated philosophical nuance, turns out to have been an anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler creep in his 20s.

The standard query immediately presents itself: Will the nefarious politics destroy the reputation?

Marta Petreu’s An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), inevitably hurtles humanists of a certain age back to other names and scandals — de Man, Heidegger, Eliade — with its exposé of the expatriate Romanian anointed by Susan Sontag in her 1968 introduction to The Temptation to Exist as “the most distinguished figure” then writing in the lyrical, aphoristic, antisystematic tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

Cioran, a lapidary ironist born in Romania, fled to Paris on a scholarship in 1937 (Petreu reports that Cioran faced possible prosecution for a newspaper piece urging a “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” of older Romanian intellectuals). After a brief repatriation to Romania in 1940 following the fall of Paris, he returned to his beloved Left Bank in early 1941 and lived there until his death.

More here.

Ancient Athenian Plague Proves to Be Typhoid

David Biello in Scientific American:

000bf6199b7813d69b7883414b7f0135_1More than 2,000 years ago, a plague gripped the Greek city of Athens. Ultimately, as much as a third of the population succumbed and the devastation, which helped Sparta gain the upper hand in the nearly 30-year-long war between the city-states. That much Thucydides–an ancient historian, general in the war and plague victim who recovered–conveys in his History of the Peloponnesian War. But he did not leave a precise enough description to decide definitively whether the disease was bubonic plague, smallpox or a host of other ailments. Now DNA collected from teeth in an ancient burial pit points to typhoid fever.

More here.

The paradox at the heart of any cultural institution

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

Newmoma_1There is a paradox at the heart of any cultural institution. It is that the men and women who dedicate themselves to these essential enterprises exert a fiscal and administrative discipline that has nothing whatsoever to do with the discipline of art, which is a disciplined abandon. I imagine that for anybody who founds or sustains or rescues or re-invents a museum, an orchestra, or a dance company, this tension between the institution and the art comes to feel like a natural paradox. There is always a balancing act involved, which helps to explain why the very greatest institution-builders (Lincoln Kirstein comes to mind) invariably have something of the artist’s temperament. And when we consider how rare such people are, we realize that there is nothing surprising about the fragility, the mediocrity, and the downright banality of so many cultural enterprises. If making art is hard, making an arts institution work may be harder still. 

I believe it is important to recall the daunting nature of these challenges as we consider the deeply troubling state of the Museum of Modern Art a year after its re-opening.

More here.

Hamas’s Point of View

Khalid Mish’al in The Guardian:

It is widely recognised that the Palestinians are among the most politicised and educated peoples in the world. When they went to the polls last Wednesday they were well aware of what was on offer and those who voted for Hamas knew what it stood for. They chose Hamas because of its pledge never to give up the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and its promise to embark on a programme of reform. There were voices warning them, locally and internationally, not to vote for an organisation branded by the US and EU as terrorist because such a democratically exercised right would cost them the financial aid provided by foreign donors.

The day Hamas won the Palestinian democratic elections the world’s leading democracies failed the test of democracy. Rather than recognise the legitimacy of Hamas as a freely elected representative of the Palestinian people, seize the opportunity created by the result to support the development of good governance in Palestine and search for a means of ending the bloodshed, the US and EU threatened the Palestinian people with collective punishment for exercising their right to choose their parliamentary representatives.

More here.  [Thanks to Mark Blyth.]

Seydou Keita: From tin of negatives, mural-sized conflicts

Michael Pips in the New York Times:

10Even by the elevated standard of the New York art world, the rumor was exceptional: a tin of negatives buried in Africa for three decades that, when opened, revealed the work of a photographer who was neither “outsider” nor “indigenous” but spectacularly modern. And so the bejeweled and bohemian showed up at the Gagosian Gallery the evening of Oct. 18, 1997, wearing Fulani bracelets beneath their Charvet cuffs, blouses referencing Matisse referencing North African fabrics, Xhosa men in dinner jackets.

As accustomed as they were to art-world rumors, as familiar as they had become with exaggerations in the photo market, they could not help but be impressed. They saw mural-size black-and-white portraits in which the intricate designs of tribal costumes were set against backdrops of arabesque and floral cloths, the subjects disappearing into dense patterning that suggested Vuillard. A number of the photographs sold immediately, at prices of up to $16,000, and by the end of the evening, many in the crowd stood childlike in front of their limousines, waiting to catch sight of the photographer whose images they would never forget…

It is a story that includes screaming fights, a lawsuit and charges of theft, forgery and perjury. It survives the photographer himself, who died in 2001. And it touches on the broadest channels of human history, from colonialism to capitalism to revolution to race. But it also involves a conflict of the most rarefied sort – a philosophical disagreement over the nature of photography and the concept of authenticity.

More here.  More pictures by Keita here.  [Thanks to Moshe Behar.]

coetzee on translation


(via bookninja)

BOOKS of mine have been translated from the English in which they are written into some 25 other languages, the majority of them European. Of the 25 I can read two or three moderately well. Of many of the rest I know not a word; I have to trust my translators to render fairly what I have written.

Whether that trust is well placed I find out only rarely, when a bilingual reader who has compared translation with original happens to report back to me.

Some such reports come as a jolt. In Russia, I discover, The Master of Petersburg has been renamed Autumn in Petersburg; in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar).

more from The Weekend Australian here.

Study Strengthens Link between Virus and Weight Gain

From Scientific American:Fat_1

New study results bolster the controversial hypothesis that certain cases of obesity are contagious. Over the last 20 years, some research has suggested that certain strains of human and avian adenoviruses–responsible for ailments ranging from the chest colds to pink eye–actually make individuals build up more fat cells. Having antibodies to one strain in particular, so-called Ad-36, proved to correlate with the heaviest obese people, and in one study, pairs of twins differed in heft depending on exposure to that virus. Now researchers have identified another strain of adenovirus that makes chickens plump.

Physiologist Leah Whigham of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her colleagues inoculated young male chickens with three strains of adenovirus–Ad-2, Ad-31 and Ad-37. She and her team then monitored the chickens for three and a half weeks, recording their food intake throughout. Though the infected chickens and noninfected controls consumed the same amount of food and were exposed to the same conditions, chickens carrying Ad-37 were found to have nearly three times as much fat in their guts and more than two times as much fat over their entire body at the end of the three-and-a-half week period. The other two virus strains appeared to have little effect on weight.

Whether or not hand-washing will help with weight management remains to be determined.

More here.

A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another

From The New York Times:Motzart

Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart’s “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a “pre-established harmony” exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear.

Thus it was less laborious calculation, but “pure thought” to which Einstein attributed his theories. Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affinity between their creative processes, as well as their histories. As a boy Einstein did poorly in school. Music was an outlet for his emotions. At 5, he began violin lessons but soon found the drills so trying that he threw a chair at his teacher, who ran out of the house in tears. At 13, he discovered Mozart’s sonatas.

From 1902 to 1909, Einstein was working six days a week at a Swiss patent office and doing physics research — his “mischief” — in his spare time. But he was also nourished by music, particularly Mozart. It was at the core of his creative life. And just as Mozart’s antics shocked his contemporaries, Einstein pursued a notably Bohemian life in his youth. His studied indifference to dress and mane of dark hair, along with his love of music and philosophy, made him seem more poet than scientist.

More here.

Temporary Columns: Writing About Rape

WomaninberlinI recently read a memoir about rape in Russian-occupied Germany: A Woman in Berlin. In the book, an anonymous young woman recounts her experiences during the first few weeks of Russian occupation. The memoir was written in real time. It reflects the urgency and immediacy of the moment. The recounting was stark, unsentimental and lacked self-pity. The young woman struggled with rape on a daily basis. She was raped by Russian soldiers and by officers, both, young and old. She traded sex with familiar rapists for food, shelter and protection from unfamiliar ones.

Although she used the word rape to describe her experiences, she, never used the term rapist to describe any of the men. She saw the men who raped her as more than just Russian soldiers with weapons forcing themselves on her and other women. The soldiers were young peasant boys from Tartarstan, or older toughened sergeants from the Urals, or middle class Muscovites, or the handsome Pole from Lvov. Understanding Russian, and having traveled in Russia, and read Pushkin and Tolstoy, she did not have the luxury of her neighbours, who could easily lump all Russians together and dismiss them as barbaric and crude men from the uncivilised East. She could recognize, and even almost come to like the Russian occupiers as individuals.

She describes this parting scene of a major who had spent many nights in her bed (more sick and lonely, than violent and overpowering):

The major looks at me a long time as if to photograph me with his eyes. Then he kisses me in the Russian style on both cheeks and marches out, limping without looking back. I feel a little sad, a little empty. I think about his leather gloves, which I saw for the first time today. He was holding them elegantly in his left hand. They dropped on the floor once and he hurried to pick them up, but I could see they didn’t match – one had seams on the back while the other didn’t. The major was embarrassed and looked away. In that second I liked him very much.

She could not dismiss or deplore Russians as a group, leave alone as a uniquely bad one. She made an effort to understand, even empathise with them, and their situation. She was tolerant, albeit dismissively, of men in general, and contemptuously so of German ones in particular. Her description of how the women of Berlin viewed rape in the context of a destructive war was laced with black humour. Referring to US firebombing versus Russian rape she quotes Berlin women as saying – “better a Russki on top than a Yank overhead”.

Primolevi_1Her writing reminded me of Primo Levi — also a “victim” of World War II Germany. While his experiences were very different from A Woman in Berlin, they shared a similar sensibility. They were willing to accept their shared humanity with their tormentors, even as they opposed and resisted them. Primo Levi’s experience in Auschwitz and that of the woman in Berlin cannot be easily compared. Levi faced the systematic oppression of a Nazi state machine bent on humiliating and killing Jews. The woman in Berlin by contrast, was oppressed in the context of the chaos of the initial days of a military occupation – that even she seemed to welcome. Rape was incidental to the military occupation, not intended by it. Her tormentors were uncomfortable with what they were doing, even as they did it. The Nazis who invented and ran the extermination camps viewed Jews as questionably human and therefore deserving exclusion from the human race and extermination. “Even if the Nazis did not always believe in race theory wholeheartedly, they still denied the shared humanity of humankind.”. The Russian occupiers of Berlin did not have a racial ideology that treated Germans as subhuman or deserving of humiliation as a race.

The experience of A Woman in Berlin is also distinct from the reports of mass rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda or Muslim women in Bosnia. Here rape was a weapon of war, not incidental to it. There is no record in the Soviet archives of rape being a policy of the Red Army. The memoir illustrates how a transaction that seems so completely dominated by brute force – men with guns forcing themselves on helpless women – can also involve negotiations between victim and perpetrator. Still, these rapes would be considered war crimes, even though there was no explicit order from Moscow to rape German women, and some women seemed to consent to some sexual activity, albeit under pressure. Each individual act would be a war crime because of the context in which it occurred – under military occupation – making consent itself, irrelevant to the crime. The conditions under which the choice took place already constrained it.

The experiences of Primo Levi and the woman in Berlin are disparate. Yet, there is a striking similarity in their sensibility. They write with a stunning moral clarity and deep human empathy. They never question the common humanity of humankind. Their writing is literary moral rather than political theory. Still, it expresses a sensibility that needs to be captured for a more decent politics.

0674194365In The Decent Society, Avishai Margalit comes closest to the political theorizing of such a world. Leaders who mobilize their people against great injustice and oppression, even as they re-affirm the humanity of those who oppress and discriminate against them contribute to creating such a world. In contrast other leaders who also fight against the oppression of their people question the humanity of their oppressors, not just particular actions, or the politics that leads to these actions. Emerging from an ethos of oppression or discrimination of their people, their politics lacks moral imagination – the ability to create the sensibility of a common humanity. This is fundamental to a peaceful moral politics that is not just an accidental outcome of a balance of power.

Primo Levi or A Woman in Berlin appeal to us. They are inspiring tales of human survival in the midst of great adversity. They are self-reflective about their survival. They do not shy away from narrating the compromises they made to survive and the happenstance involved in it. Because they are unsentimental and lack self-pity – even as we are horrified and sometimes even saddened by what we read, we are never depressed nor dejected. They are also ordinary people, whose heroism and survival stems from banal acts of goodness, not extraordinary ones. And they write with a clarity and precision about the ambiguously singular moment when evil and good intersect – and neither prevails, permanently.

This is because they take their particular experiences – as a Jew or as a woman in Berlin – and make them universal. They do this not by telling us a story about how the oppressed and defiled – a Jew or a Woman – are a part of humankind – but rather by never questioning the common humanity they share with those who oppress and defile. We read them because they express the possibility of an inchoate universalism at the very moment when it seems to have been banished, forever – in the midst of the starkest divide between the self and the other.

Sojourns: Varieties of Academic Reception

Over a year ago, Perry Anderson pronounced in The London Review of Books that Pascale Casanova’s La République mondiale des letters, translated into English last January as The World Republic of Letters (Harvard, 2005) “is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact at large as Said’s Orientalism, with which it stands comparison.” I remember thinking at the time that this seemed unlikely, that whatever strengths Casanova’s book might have as a study of how national literatures compete for attention in the global marketplace it would probably not have a paradigm shifting influence in the literary humanities. While it is too soon to know for sure, the early returns seem to suggest I was right. Casanova’s book has been received as important—noteworthy even—but not as something being read across the discipline, something that everyone in English or Comparative Literature has to read to remain part of the academic conversation.

By now I hope it is clear that I’m less interested here in the content or quality of Casanova’s book than in the hype that has attended its appearance. This sort of hype is not a new thing. Only four years ago, Emily Eakin wrote a rather silly article in The New York Times pronouncing that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire had become gospel for theory starved professors of literature now that deconstruction had passed out of fashion. Needless to say, Eakin had little idea what was going on in the humanities. Whatever else one might say about Hard and Negri—and again, their work has been well received and influential—it has not spawned a school or a movement with close to the impact that Derrida and DeMan had in the seventies and eighties. Emily Eakin is no Perry Anderson of course. But what interests me in this sort of prognostication is the recurrent desire to herald the next big thing in the literary humanities, the book or critic or school of thought that is likely to shake English departments out of the doldrums and back into the center of academic life. For some time, those outside of English (and some within it) have waited for this next big thing to happen. And it hasn’t. And it most likely won’t for some time. And that is probably a good thing.

I had a sense that Casanova’s book was not going to have the impact of Said’s because I knew intuitively that no book could. Why is this so? Wide-ranging impact within the academy (or, to be immodest, paradigm change) requires a vertically organized discipline with a relatively shared set of concerns. That is to say, the writing of a comparatively small number of scholars must be regarded by the wider professoriat as the state of the art. At the same time, the discipline as a whole must have something of a coordinated language of inquiry, one that can be addressed, criticized, and moved in one direction or another. The impact of Said’s Orientalism provides a case study of just this structure of reception. So too do the other great works of criticism and theory written during the heyday of English: Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet. These were books that reached beyond their particular concerns and shaped the language of an entire field of study and with that the larger academy. They gave an élan to English as the discipline of disciplines. Something appears to have changed within the broader intellectual culture over the past decade and a half to make that position untenable. Many books within English have an impact on their specific sub-fields, few or none on the discipline as a whole. The structure of reception that would provide the sort of canonization achieved by Orientalism—that is, the ability to reach across sub-fields to change the language of the discipline—is no longer in place. The vertical organization of English has loosened, as there are simply more books, published at all levels of the university system, than Said or Jameson could probably have imagined. (The reasons for this range from heightened demands for tenure to the democratization of the discipline itself.)  The result is a certain centrifugal dispersion of the discipline at large complimented by a centripetal pull within each sub-field. I cannot name a single book read by all of English over the past decade but I can name several read by all of my particular sub-field. I just won’t bore you by naming them.

English does not have a shared method of study or a single object of analysis. Perhaps it never did. But the moment when the discipline was organized in such a fashion to produce the illusion of such coherence has surely passed. What we see in even as astute a thinker as Perry Anderson is a certain nostalgia, one that will most likely continue to produce the occasional anointing of the next big thing, the newest trend, the latest method to capture the mind and habits of the literary humanities. And those pronouncements will continue to ring false and to seem a little passé.

Monday Musing: Hepburn and Heloise, A Tribute to the Defiance of Women

(On the occasion of a recent viewing of The Philadelphia Story)

For Shuffy.

In the early twelfth century a brilliant philosopher and logician named Abelard fell in love with a remarkable young woman named Heloise. Abelard tricked her uncle into thinking that he would be giving her academic tutoring and then the two fell into a torrid love affair in which the rest of the world seemed to melt away. But the world always comes back. The uncle discovered the ruse and plotted his revenge. Eventually, the uncle hired several men to break into Abelard’s home and chop off his testicles. Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. But before that fateful day Abelard proposed that he would marry Heloise and though this would end his career as scholar and teacher and force them into a layman’s life it might protect them from further censure or retribution. Heloise refused and then later acquiesced, though it did nothing to prevent their terrible fate. In his Historia calamitatum, Aberlard, rather self-absorbedly, relates that Heloise realized that marriage would have removed his great mind from the public sphere and could not allow such an event to occur. In a letter written to Abelard many years after the events in question Heloise corrects him on this matter. Referring to Abelard’s Historia calamitatum, she writes, “[b]ut you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to posses for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.” Nowhere in recorded history does there exist a more astoundingly moving, if somewhat disturbing, testimonial to love. It is as beautiful a thing as a human can say. “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself” she writes to Abelard, “I simply wanted you, nothing of yours.” Thus, for Heloise, “[t]he name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” The point, she is saying, is in the trust and love that holds two people together, screw what the world thinks.

One can’t help feeling in reading the letters between the two that Abelard is never as steadfast to that ideal as Heloise. It is she who upholds the ethics of pure intention that Abelard had set forth in his Scio te ipsum (Know Thyself). By that doctrine, there is nothing in the act itself that merits praise or condemnation, but everything in what the act intends. “Wholly guilty though I am,” she says “I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it was done.” The ‘as you know’ that she throws into the phrase directed at Abelard is not without its bite. That is why she can proclaim herself a whore as an act of defiance, and an act of love.

Katharine Hepburn was a whore. She fell in love with Spencer Tracy and he fell in love with her but because of his allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church he would never get a divorce from his wife. So he and Hepburn lived in some form of sin together until his death. It is hard not to feel that her position was the nobler and braver of the two, though she never seems to have chided him much for it. They made a number of classic films together and one in particular, Adam’s Rib, that is a secretly utopian film. It imagines a situation in which a man and a woman could love one another and make each other better for it, instead of tearing one another apart, slowly or quickly as the case may be. One of the best details of the movie is the fact that they both have the same pet name for each other, Pinky. One can only imagine the process of emotional exhaustion by which they finally reached the sublime stasis of Pinky and Pinky. That, in itself, is one of those small triumphs of love.

Hepburn liked to wear pants and she wanted to live, as she put it, ‘like a man’. By that she meant primarily that she wasn’t going to take any shit and, moreover, she was going to get away with it. She was sometimes accused of being cold and lacking in emotional range as in the famous quip by Dorothy Parker that her performance in “The Lake” ‘ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B’. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that Parker was occasionally jealous of a woman who could be exactly what she wanted and never seem particularly tortured about it either. Hepburn always claimed to envy the ‘meat and potatoes’ style of her love, Mr. Tracy. Which is to say that one can do a lot in the space between A and B. Perhaps no role captures the full range of that limited range better than her Tracy Lord character from The Philadelphia Story. Her eventual route back to marriage with CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is a tribute to everything she ever stood for as the marriage seems the least important part of the process. Indeed, she considers marriage to no less than three different men throughout the film. But that only serves to make her all the more wonderful, more powerful. It is the ethics of pure intention that really matters. The link between woman, whore, defiance, freedom, etc., and the ambiguity of it all is made further delicious by the fact that the notorious underage porn star of the 80’s took her name, Traci Lords, from the Hepburn character in the movie.

Every once in a while Hepburn will look away from the camera in one of her movies. Her chin will point upwards a bit, imperiously, and the high cheekbones will give the whole performance a far away feel. It is not clear entirely what she is looking at in such moments. It is simply remarkable that someone would be able to look away like that.

Vollmann, Crane, and Adventure Journalism

The only real surprise about William T. Vollmann winning the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central was that merit was rewarded. In literature as in life this is not always the case. I have been reading Vollmann since my college days in the mid-1990s, when a love affair with a Canadian caused me to pick up Fathers and Crows, the second of the Seven Dreams series, about Jesuits in Quebec. (This might be mere sentimentality, but I still believe it’s his best book.) The Vollmann award means that serious novels are still being taken seriously, despite Norman Mailer’s comments at the ceremony to the contrary during his depressing Lifetime Achievement speech. (“It’s a shame in the literary world today that passion has withered, producing fiction that is all too forgettable,” said Mailer. “I’m watching the disappearance of my trade. The serious novel may be in serious decline.”) Does Vollmann publish too much? I leave the question open – it’s not rhetorical. Vollmann’s style is perhaps overly mannered and has not developed much over the years (he started in the stratosphere but has stayed at the same relative altitude), although in his best writing the mannerism works to his advantage. But his seemingly monomaniacal prolixity is more likely to be a sign of compulsive brilliance more than anything else, so that the complaint is almost meaningless – roughly the same could be said of Dickens, for example. This is genius in more than one sense: you get the feeling Vollmann has an actual daemon sitting on his shoulder dictating book after book.

The writer that Vollmann brings to mind most strongly is not Dickens, however, but Stephen Crane. At first this may seem like an odd comparison, given that Crane’s devotion to literary realism is very far from being Vollmann’s first priority. Like Crane, Vollmann writes both adventure journalism and novels. Like Crane, Vollmann is drawn to wars and conflict zones. Vollmann’s series of books about prostitution surely have a classic literary source in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Vollmann’s historical novels are strongly flavored with reality and research. Vollmann’s tremendous output matches or perhaps even exceeds the famously productive Crane, who by the time he died at age twenty-eight had already published two novels, a multitude of short stories and poems, as well as an immense body of journalism. (The authoritative edition of Crane’s work, published by the University of Virginia, apparently runs to ten volumes.) It’s almost as if Crane knew that time would be short; a sense you get reading Vollmann as well, who, you sometimes feel, has lived longer than he thought he might. Even Vollmann’s short chapters, with their antiquated newspaper-dispatch style headings, call to mind works like “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” (1897).

Crane made his name as a war correspondent, covering, for example, the sinking of the Commodore, a ship laden with arms bound for Cuba. This happened in 1897, just prior to the sinking of the Maine and the entry of American into the Spanish-American War. Journalists were more than observers in the conflict. The representation of the coverage in Citizen Kane isn’t far off the mark regarding the pro-war Yellow Journalism of the Hearst papers of the day. Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin, the editors of the excellent Riverside Crane volume, write that

The existence of newsreels, filmed reproductions of events, and even enactments that were clearly remote from the action in Cuba provided people in the United States with images of warfare that made it a kind of spectator sport in which most viewers had a clear rooting interest. With his writing, Crane helped create the new public sphere, and as a celebrity journalist, he participated in it.

Iraq was not the first time that reporters were embedded, and the problems of bias they created are nothing new. Crane reported under fire with the marines direct from a very different Guantanamo. Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, published in 1992, ten years after he flung himself into the middle of the struggle against the Soviets, has the self-mocking subtitle “How I Saved the World.” In it, Vollmann dissects himself as much as the conflict, creating a ruthless (and very timely) examination of the entire concept of American altruism when it is combined with an emphasis on military solutions. (Not everything Vollmann wrote about Afghanistan was perfect – when the New Yorker sent him back to check up on the country during the 1990s, Vollmann was at times too soft on the Taliban, acknowledging their crimes but presenting received ideas about how they had brought stability to the country.)

Here’s the problem with adventure journalism more generally: it’s not written by experts or beat reporters, and therefore only infrequently rises above the usual combination of local color, exoticism, florid prose, and received opinion back home. (Good adventure writers, among whom I count friends and some of our best writers all around, are to be admired all the more for rising above this level.) The adventure writer is essentially a proxy for the reader, an American dropped into a strange – and, ideally, somewhat dangerously atmospheric, hopefully more atmospheric than dangerous – locale. It’s understandable, but no less peculiar, that we would rather read what American magazine writers think about the Taliban, for example, rather than someone like, say, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani who writes in English and has covered the region’s politics for something close to two decades. But the adventure journalist gives us something we desperately need – an exotic fix.

This thirst for far-flung locations and the current craze for dispatches is surely not bad in itself; I tend to enjoy it, as a kind of literary stamp collecting. Also, it’s probably another “since September 11” type of trend, and hopefully a sign of renewed American interest in the outside world. The only downside is that the entire genre excludes those legions of literary types who are retiring homebodies and prefer to stay in bed all day crafting sentences. Not everyone should be forced to be a reporter, that’s my thesis; writing shouldn’t be a form of reality TV in which one auditions for a part in the national conversation by exposing oneself to mud and murder.

I think it was Schopenhauer who once wrote that there are two kinds of good books, those which introduce the reader to an experience they couldn’t have themselves, and those which use language in a remarkable way. Probably all good writing combines something of both, but the rise of adventure journalism involves a lopsided emphasis on one aspect against the other. It also represents another chapter in the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for it is against “thought” and for “experience.” Our magazines are full of direct experience – like the kind that comes mediated through a translator on a two-week junket. Of course, the best writers in this field manage to combine thought and observation in a kind of genre-bending tag-team wrestle, and, in doing so, are creating a fine new genre in the process, don’t get me wrong. Vollmann is an ideal example.

Even though much of Crane’s and Vollmann’s fiction is based on research, interviews, and reportage, it is more enduring stuff. “The Open Boat” is a classic, whereas “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” is more ephemeral. Maggie was based on Crane’s real experiences with prostitutes, but the imaginative work outlives the adventurism, just as Vollmann’s The Royal Family feels superior to his Butterfly Stories. But it is the historical fiction of both writers – The Red Badge of Courage and Europe Central, respectively (plus, for my money, Fathers and Crows) – that critics have celebrated as their greatest accomplishments. Historical fiction might be the least fictional of fictions, the most closely related to facts, a genre involved directly with actuality as a magical element in the alchemy. But these two novels have more in common than an obsession with or addiction to the atmosphere of violent conflict. They are both novels documenting real events that their authors never could have experienced. It’s almost as if their thirst for experience was so overwhelming that when they ran out of the amount of reality available to them directly they had to fabricate other worlds to inhabit as well.

Talking Pints: Happy Birthday, Political Science

Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.

Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century.

Discovering that these same arguments have been going on for 100 years was both heartening (I was in good company) and depressing (‘round and round we go’). But in doing so I discovered something else. If political science is a ‘science’ by virtue of its ability to predict, as many of its ‘scientific’ brethren maintain, then it really should have been abandoned years ago since the prediction rate of my field over the past 100 years is less than what would be achieved by throwing darts at dartboard while wearing a blindfold. To see why this is the case consider the following potted history of political science.

From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.

After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics.

After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world. To see why this is the case I ask the reader to follow me through three ‘possible worlds’ that have three different probability distributions, and then decide which world it is that political science studies – and which one it thinks it studies.

Our first (type-one) world is the world of the dice roll where the generator of outcomes is directly observable. Here we live in a world of risk. We know when throwing a die (the generator) that there are six possible outcomes. Given the ability to directly observe the generator and a few dozen throws of the die, the expected and actual means converge rapidly via sampling, and this is sufficient to derive the higher moments of the distribution. This distribution, given the known values of its generator, is reliably ‘normal’ and sampling the past is a good guide to the future. One is not going to throw a ‘300’ – there are only six sides on the die – and skew the distribution. This type one world is reliably Gaussian, and is, within a few standard deviations, predictable. Political science thinks it operates in this world. This is the familiar world of the bell-curve.

Our second world (type-two), is a world with fat tails (Gauss plus Poisson) where uncertainty rather than risk prevails. An example of the generator here would be a stock market. Although one can sample past data exhaustively, one does not observe the generator of reality directly. Consequently, one can ‘throw a 300’ since large events not seen in the sample may skew the results and become known only after the fact. For example, stock market returns may seem normal by sampling, but a ‘Russian Default’ or a ‘Tequila Crisis’ may be just around the corner that will radically alter the distribution in ways that agents cannot calculate before the fact. This is a world of uncertainty as much as it is risk. Agents simply cannot know what may hit them, though they may be think that the probability of being hit is small.

Our third possible world (type-three) is even more unsettling. Imagine a generator such as the global economy. In this case, not only can one not see the generator directly, agents can sample the past till doomsday and actually become steadily more wrong about the future in doing so. As two probabilists, Nassim Taleb and Avatel Pilpel, put it, with such complex generators “it is not that it takes time for the experimental moments…to converge to the ‘true’ [moments]. In this case, these moments simply do not exist. This means…that no amount of observation whatsoever will give us E(Xn) [expected mean], Var(Xn) [expected variance], or higher-level moments that are close to the “true” values…since no true values exist.”

To see what this means, consider the following example. Macroeconomics, like political science, has had at least four general theories of inflation over the past fifty or so years, which suggests two things. First, that these theories cannot be general theories since they change every decade or so. Second, that such theories might be thought of as general (at the time they were constructed given the sample that they were derived from) but such theories must become redundant since the actual sources of inflation change over time.

For example, if the agreed-upon causes of inflation in one period, (monetary expansion) are dealt with by building institutions to cope with such causes (independent central banks), this does not mean that inflation becomes impossible. Rather, it means that the conditions of possibility change such that the theory itself becomes redundant. In such a world outcomes are fundamentally uncertain since the causes of phenomena in one period are not the same causes in a later period. Given this, when we assume that outcomes in the social world conform to a Gaussian distribution we assume way too much. Any sample of past events can confirm the past, but cannot be projected into the future with the confidence we typically assume. Take away that prior assumption of ‘normality’ in the distribution and standard expectations regarding prediction fall apart.

Given this, which world is the world most likely studied by political scientists? Our type-one world can be ruled out since if the world was so predictable our theories should be able to predict accurately. Given the record in this regard, it is safe to conclude that the world we occupy is not this one. Our type-two world seems suspiciously normal most of the time, but our theories ‘blow up’ much more than they should since most of the action occurs in the tails and we cannot see the generator of outcomes. This sounds more like the world where people actually live.

A type-three world is even worse however, since in a type-three world all bets are off as to what the future may bring. Humans do not however deal particularly well with such uncertainty and try to insulate themselves from it. Whether through the promulgation of social norms, the construction of institutions, or the evolution of ideologies, the result is the same. Human agents create the stability that they take for granted. In taking it for granted however they assume the world to be much more stable than it actually is. Consequently, our theories about the world we live in tend to assume much more stability, and thus predictability, than is warranted.

In short, we cannot live in a type-three world, so we build institutions, cultures, and societies to cope with uncertainty. But when we are successful at doing so we assume we live in a type-one world of predictability and develop theories to navigate such a world. Unfortunately, we actually have succeeded only in constructing our type-two world of fat tails, and this is why we are constantly surprised. We think (and model) type-one while living type-two. Meanwhile, as a discipline, we refuse to admit the possibility of a type-three world generating both the others.

The result is that the action is in the tails, and we, given our type-one assumptions and models, are blind to what is going on there. So we focus, like the proverbial drunk under the lamp-post, on the middle of the distribution since that is where the (theoretical) light is; and like the proverbial drunk, we are constantly surprised that our keys are actually to be found somewhere else entirely. Political science may have reached the ripe old age of 100, and I congratulate it for doing so. It did so however by imagining the world to be quite different from what it is, and by completely ignoring its predictive failures. If however political science wants to be around for another 100 years it may want to think a bit more about what those failures are trying to tell us.

Keillor on Lévy

In The New York Times, Garrison Keillor has a funny review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo.

As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. (“I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region”), and suddenly sees that the young man has “all the reflexes of Southern culture” and the “studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region.” With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox – America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans’ party loyalty is “very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty.” Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both “libertine” and “conventional,” “depraved” and “proper.” And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy’s tedious and original thinking: “A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high – extremely high – symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one.” And what’s with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? “What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?” Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. “What does this experience tell us?” he writes about the Mall of America. “What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?” And what is one to make of the series of questions – 20 in a row – about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?

America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure…

Thanks, pal. I don’t imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

Policing Monkeys

In the Economist,

MOST people, even the law-abiding, have ambiguous feelings towards the police. They are a salvation when it comes to protecting life, limb and property, but their efforts are, perhaps, slightly less welcome if your foot happens to slip momentarily on the accelerator. Few, however, would argue that human societies could dispense with their activities altogether. Even in villages, where everybody knows everybody else and social disapproval and the near-certainty of exposure are enough to discourage most criminal acts, the local bobby is a reassuring presence.

Most people, too, would assume such policing is uniquely human. But they would be wrong—at least if Jessica Flack, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and her colleagues are correct. For Dr Flack thinks that monkey societies also have police. Moreover, removing those police makes such societies less happy places…

Dr Flack had discovered this behaviour in earlier research. Her latest work, just published in Nature, looked at how important policing is in maintaining harmony in the monkeys she studies, an Asian species called the pigtailed macaque. To do so, she went to the opposite end of the biological scale from that occupied by ethology (the science of animal behaviour) and borrowed a technique from genetics, called knockout analysis. In genetics, this involves “knocking out” a particular gene and seeing what effect its absence has on a cell’s biochemical network. In ethology, it involves removing particular animals from a group and seeing what effect that has on the group’s social network.

Ground Level Portraits of the Red Army

In the TLS, Omer Bartov reviews two newly published books on the Red Army, including the war diaries of the novelist Vasily Grossman.

Not all understanding [of the Soviet Union] is derived from documents newly salvaged from the archives. Some of the sources for understanding the tragedy and glory of Russia’s war have been waiting to be “discovered” and employed for decades, yet in a sense they were always available. This is the case of the two magnificent books under review here. Vasily Grossman completed his novel Life and Fate in 1960, but Mikhail Suslov, chief of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee, decided that it would not be published for at least 200 years, and the KGB seized all copies it could lay its hands on.

Life and Fate is finally being recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. But it had to be smuggled to Switzerland and only gradually came to be known by an international readership. It was finally published in Russia after the fall of Communism. An extraordinary combination of a sprawling nineteenth-century Russian novel and a Soviet social-realist depiction of simple men’s discovery of their capacity for heroism and sacrifice, the book was based on Grossman’s own experience at the front as a correspondent for the Red Army’s official paper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Thanks to Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, the notebooks on which Grossman based much of his novel, written during his time at the front – where he spent most of the war years – are now available in an excellent English translation.

mozart, vicious


It is true that one doesn’t normally speak of Mozart and Sid Vicious in the same breath, but they do have this in common: primitivism. Rock’n’roll began as a primitivist movement, and it renews itself with mini-primitivisms, of which punk is just one example. To see Mozart as a primitivist is a little harder, since his style is so identified with the civilized and the rational, things we think of as anti-primitive, and yet the Classical movement in music, like its companion neoclassicism in art, owed everything to the primitivist desire to begin anew by stripping away the false and inessential. Écrasez l’infâme. To the Baroque’s heavy sauces, multiple courses, and thickly layered combinations of tastes and textures, the Classical would propose a nouvelle cuisine.

more from the TLS here.