“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 26, 2014

on being cowed

In the footnotes to his 1780 edition of Johnson’s life of Joseph Addison, John Hawkins took the opportunity to defend his own character sketch of Addison, which had appeared in a book published in 1770, against the accusation that he had besmirched Addison’s character by describing him as "sheepish".  In his defense, Hawkins reported  two anecdotes about Addison's time as the under-secretary of State under Queen Anne. In the first anecdote, the Secretary of State gave Addison the job of writing the official announcement of Queen Anne’s death to  Hanover (George I). Apparently, faced with the idea of announcing something so grave to a personnage so high, Addison agonized over the wording to the extent that he was paralyzed. After a couple of days had passed and he still hadn’t composed the communication, the Secretary of State gave the task to Addison’s secretary, Southwell, who dispatched it with ease. The second anecdote concerns the time Addison was summoned to testify before the Parliament. I imagine the periwig, the papers, the briefcase, the heals of his shoe, the carriage he arrives in, the clopping of horse hooves on the cobblestones of the street. And there he is, and now he arises to speak. Supposedly he looked at the committee, then down at his papers, then looked back at the committee and said – I conceive… And then fell silent. Again he looks at his papers,  again looks up, again says, I conceive, and again falls silent. After a minute one of the wittier members of the committee said Mr. Under-secretary, we agree that you conceive – but will you please now bring forth.
Addison, as Hawkins puts it, was a man who was easily cowed in his personal relations.  I have an image of Addison as one of those stick-in-the-mud writers who tamed the wild and glorious English of the 17th century and transformed it into polite literature. However, these anecdotes present Addison in another light. He is not here the author of sententious Augustan essays. He is suddenly a character in Kafka.  More than that – he is my brother. For I, too, am a man easily cowed in personal dealings, who suffers, afterwards, with enormous shame and gnashing of teeth over my stupid cowardices.
Here’s a recent instance.
About three weeks ago, I had a strange pain in my left leg. Whenever a pain shows up in my body, I immediately jump to the conclusion that this is it: the hidden chronic disease that I always knew was there is finally showing its hand.  For a while, I decided that this must be some embolism, some cardiac warning, and I was seeing myself keeling over while changing Adam’s diapers. So I went to a doctor who seemed not at all concerned by my story and told me that no doubt the fact that I was intermittently carrying around a twenty three pound toddler had caused the sciatica nerve to act up, on the principle of the neck bone being connected to the back bone, etc. etc. In his opinion, a few exercises would make me as good as new. One hundred dollars please.
Relieved that the death sentence had been lifted, I noticed immediate improvements in the leg until the leg went through the day doing all the things legs do without complaining. Finally, last Monday, I decided to get a massage, thinking that any remnant of a problem would be taken care of by the soothing manipulation of my musculature. I walked up to Montana street, mentally calculating the necesssary tip – it was one of those places where the charge for the massage is cheap, but one is expected to tip the workers handsomely for the massage that one had enjoyed.
My massage, it became immediately evident, was designed to avoid any hint of enjoyment. When I began to explain about the leg, my masseur cut me off immediately, telling me: “I’ve been doing this for forty years.” At that moment I should have got off the table, or at least made a protest. Instead, I turned over and put my head down and let my masseur get to work. It became obvious that at least ten of those forty years were spent in the employ of the CIA at Guantanomo, extracting info from poor Afghan peasant boys. I was ready to give up all I knew, or make up all I knew and give it, in about four minutes. When the pain was too much, I would stop panting and grasp out in a pleading voice, please don’t do that. That was usually two hundred pounds of masseur pressing into my thigh or ankle muscle. I’d paid for an hour, and for an hour I was beat up. The piece de resistance was doing with my legs what I’d done to the legs of baked chickens – pulling them violently outward at a strategic angle. Sometimes, however, the masseur would say things like, tell me when it hurts.
When I limped out of the room, my assailant came out and, assuming a certain air of concern, asked if I was all right. I said I was fine, overtipped, and left.
As I hobbled around the next day and the deep pain in my legs slowly abated, I was bothered by one thing: why didn’t I make that guy stop? What could I have been afraid of that was more painful than being plucked and restrung? Why did I let him cut me off at the very beginning?
Why, in other words, couldn’t Addison simply bring forth?
To be cowed is to be afraid – that seems obvious. But fear, though it may be felt as quickly as touching or heart beat, develops along different lines, and is expressed in different modes. Being cowed is one of those modes in which the sum total of the pain of avoiding the fearful object is greater than the pain which may result from confronting said object. In other words, it is definitionally neurotic. Addison, gnawing his lip and lingering over the wording of his communication (passed away? Ascended to a far larger and better sphere?) was no doubt aware that as time passed, he was becoming ridiculous. He was making a fool of himself. But what if he made a fool of himself positively, by making some mistake? The knowledge that he was losing face didn’t help.
I sometimes take an extraordinarily aggressive tone as a writer; perhaps this is to make up for the extraordinarily cowed stance I take as a man.
The first instance of “cow” in the English language comes in the tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth, you’ll remember, considers himself invincible, since he can only be brought down, the witches have told him, by a man who is not born of woman.  But as he is battling Macduff, Macduff drops the coin: that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” This sufficiently fulfills the tricky condition contained in the witch’s prophecy, as Macbeth immediately sees. In response, Macbeth says: “accursed be that tongue that tells me so/for it has cow’d my better part of man.”
This is a pretty rich way for a word to introduce itself into the linguistic corpora. Etymologists are still puzzled about a verb that seems to be derived from an old Norse word, since Mr. Shakespeare, although excellent in many respects, had not only little Latin and less Greek, but surely no old norse at all.
I’m no blabbermouth in Old Norse myself. I associate the verb quite naturally with the noun. I think of this moment of freezing as something cow-like within me, something pasture fed and unable to realize my own weight against heard dogs and coyotes – not to speak of herdsmen and the technicians in the abbatoir. That frozenness is not broken by the application of a stick to my thick hide. On the contrary, I go in the direction that the stick wants me to go.
Yet the cow in being cowed doesn’t quite cover all the case, because to be cowed has definite connections to embarrassment. To be cowed is to come up against an invisible but almost overwhelming barrier. An electrified invisibility – one fears the shock, though one knows, rationally, that there is no calculating the shock. This is a state of being that is surely characteristic of developed countries, where the invisible barriers multiply along with the visible ones, and the taboos once associated with totems are now associated with a certain solitude – a lack of totems, in fact. In such a society, why one does what one does becomes a pressing question, which one has to constantly answer – along with why one doesn’t do what one doesn’t do. And not being able to explain the latter make one ashamed.

It all makes me want to sadly moo in some misty valley in the morning.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

an op ed from a mouse hole

As allegories move towards some threating point
Where fact and magic clutch at your throat
Remember – you don’t get the dynamics of this joint
-        Don’t even think you have a vote.

They call it homeland – cast a firelit glow
Over the dude peeing in his pants
On the corner – he’d been the first to go
When they were downsizing the urban peasants.

Yes, the bottle is now uncapped
But we aren’t stuffing genies back inside it.
You think you’re so special? You’ve just relapsed.

That fucked over feeling, you’ll just have to hide it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

delusions in economics

This week, Ezra Klein reprinted an old speech given by the economist  Thomas Sargent in 2007 under the title: “This graduation speech teaches you everything youneed to know about economics in 297 words.”  Given that Sargent is a “clintonian democrat”, I don’t think Klein meant to mock the man. However, the speech is a disaster, a series of bromides that do tell us a lot about the current intellectually bankrupt state of economics. For political reasons, about 1980, economics began to experience a huge increase in prestige. Although economists have long felt that their discipline was the physics of the social sciences, few other people did. But in the era of Reaganomics, when every big newspaper was adding a business section to the sports news and ‘living’, other people began to take the physics idea seriously. Sargent does us a favor by stripping down economics to the inspirational truisms that make it apparent that this is less about physics than about Babbitry, gussied up with models.


I could have an enjoyable time driveby shooting at the inanities in Sargent’s “list of lessons that our beautiful subject teaches. But I’d like to take one item on the list out of line and especially maltreat the thing – no. 3: “ Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.” I’m sure Sargent thinks this is an axiom with no need for proof. In fact, economists have never even tried to prove it. But in other corners of social science, this assumption has long been shown to be wholly fallacious as stated. Our self-assessments, going from the way we remember the past to the way we predict our correctness in the future, is subject to severe cognitive biases that make it the case, generally, that ‘other people’ tend to either overestimate or underestimate their abilities, tend to define their efforts in different, self-defensive ways, tend not to understand their social and economic contexts very well, and certainly tend not to line up their preferences in good transitive order a la the Arrow theorem.


Everywhere in the social and cognitive sciences – except in economics – the myth of the unified individual, who can be certain of his thoughts, beliefs, memories, and intentions, has been shown to be insufficient. From Freud to Prospect theory, cognitive biases and theories about the unconscious have been found whenever the laboratory met the social scientist. Sargent, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 1991, has apparently never encountered the work of the winners of the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, Kahneman and Tversky. Rather, he seems here to cling to the musings of Hayek and other ideologues of the cold war period.


In economic life, as opposed to economics, people aren’t that stupid. Evey advertiser knows of the parodox of parity products – that blind taste tests often show that people cannot really tell one brand of coffee, wine, or soft drink from another. Yet this doesn’t prevent the formation of ‘preferences’ – which is where advertising comes in. One of the few economists who even considered the effect of advertising was John Kenneth Galbraith, and he was roundly attacked for it.


I’ll end this with a quote from a 1988 study of illusion and well being:  


Decades of psychological wisdom have established contact with reality as a hallmark of mental health. In this view, the wcU-adjusted person is thought to engage in accurate reality testing, whereas the individual whose vision is clouded by illusion is regarded as vulnerable to, if not already a victim of, mental illness. Despite its plausibility, this viewpoint is increasingly

difficult to maintain (cf. Lazarus, 1983). A substantial amount of research testifies to the prevalence of illusion in normal human cognition (see Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Greenwald, 1980; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Sackeim, 1983; Taylor, 1983). Moreover, these illusions often involve central aspects of the self and the environment and, therefore, cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

our Seneca

I know little about Seneca. In the back of my mind, I have the idea that his plays are disgusting and his moral philosophy derivative, although where these judgments come from I cannot tell. I know that he was studied by all the greats – Machievelli, Montaigne, Bacon – but I put this down to an exaggerated enthusiasm for Rome. So I had little reason to plunge into the article about Seneca’s and Nero’s suicides, Dying Every Day, by James Romm, in the winter Yale Review. Yet every once in a while I like to dive into a scholarly topic that I’m really not interested in, in the hope that I’ll broaden my horizons. I am an incorrigible optimist re those horizons, which – being horizons – are probably geographically and mathematically impervious to the broadening motivation. Nevertheless…
Well, Romm’s article is excellent. Of course, I recognize that much of it regurgitates what every historian of the period knows – but it plays the facts to create a kind of Lehrstueck about tyranny and what you could call the trivialization of the sage.
Our sages now roam the popular blogs and newspaper columns and tv opinion shows without, oddly enough, being questioned about their expertise. What in particular does a Tom Friedman or a Christopher Hitchens do? What is the skill set? Usually there is a retreat to the idea of “reporting”  - but they aren’t reporting in the sense that the stringer or the semi-anonymous AP person reports. In most cases, they are opining. Their opinions, moreover, are based on a sort of assumed greater ethical sensibility. Hitchens, for instance, in his declining years, would often fill his columns for Slate or Vanity Fair with opinions in which he triangulate his feelings – his disgust, his righteous joy – to some object in the world, as though he were some moral litmus test.
Long ago, William James, in an excellent, disgruntled essay on the moral philosopher, dispatched the breed, which even then was turning up at Chatauquas and writing for the highfallutin’ quarterlies.
The ancestor of this type is surely Seneca. Although Cicero, too, was a sorta stoic philosopher in his off hours, for Seneca, there was a bond between the prestige he garnered as a sage and his heady position in the world of Roman politics. Having landed the job of tutor to Nero, he milked it for all it was worth.
Romm sets up his story by pointing to the ambiguous reputation of Seneca (who, spookily, willed his imago to his friends – as if his reputation, the image of his life, was some kind of separate creature). On the one hand there is a long tradition that sees Seneca in the terms he created for himself in his treatises and letters – as the moderate in all things Stoic sage, tragically doomed by having as his pupil a sort of armed Id. On the other hand, there was another version of Seneca:
“These are the opposing ways in which Romans of the late first century a.d. regarded Seneca, the most eloquent, enigmatic, and politically engaged man of their times. The first is taken largely from the pages of
Octavia, a historical drama written in the late decades of that century, by whom we do not know. The second is
preserved by Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler who lived more than a century after Seneca’s death but relied on earlier writers for information. Those writers, it is clear, deeply mistrusted Seneca’s motives. They believed the rumors that gave Seneca a debauched and gluttonous personal life, a Machiavellian political career, and
a central role in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero in  a.d. 65.”

Romm, as the essay develops, doesn’t think that Seneca’s life was debauched, and he thinks that his role in the assassination plot – a role that led to his death – was, as was much in his life, the result of trying to have it both ways. But he does seem to think that there was something Machiavellian about Seneca – that in effect he was like Thyestes, the hero of his most famous play. Thyestes the sage was also, by the will of his father, supposed to share the kingship with his brother Atreus. Rather than do so, he retired to the countryside. Atreus however lured him back with the promise of the throne. Actually, Atreus had in mind the extermination of Thyestes line, and he had a clever way of going about it – he slew and cooked Thyestes children, while getting Thyestes drunk and promising him a feast fit for his new royal function. Thyestes is shown revelling in his vision of power, and mightily enjoying the meal that, it turns out, consists of his children. Romm examines Thyestes as a projection of Seneca – a warning, perhaps, that Seneca issued to himself. And at the same time a reference, via Atreus, to the wicked Nero.

Even so, Seneca had not opposed the wicked Nero when he murdered his mother, or began murdering all the descendents of Augustus that he could find.

There’s something compelling about the duel between the Ubu-esque emperor and the Imperial pontificator. We have no Neros, but we have created a sort of plutocratic Neropolis in the US, with Senecas all over the place – and I kept thinking how mysteriously relevant this story is.  Romm develops a nice little dialectical picture of the two sides of Seneca by contrasting two physical images of Seneca. One is  statue that used to be considered to be of Seneca – a bust  of a man who is “gaunt, haggard, and haunted, its eyes seemingly staring into eternity. Its features had served as a model for painters depicting Seneca’ s death scene on canvas, among them Luca Giordano, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jacques-Louis David.” The other is a bust  dug up in  Rome in 1813: “The bust shows a full-fleshed man, beardless and bald, who bears a bland, self-satisfied mien. It seems the face of a businessman or bourgeois, a man of means who ate at a well-laden table.”
1813 – ah, just in time for the birthpangs of the modern socio-economic world! Seneca, the bourgeois. I can see him in my minds eye, and hear him 24/7 on cable or talk radio.