An excerpt from a 1959 Australian Broadcasting Commission TV programme on the Beats, featuring interviews with Sydney University students, Clive James and Robert Hughes (pictured, image from ABC).
Henry James on literary criticism (in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, March 1873):
I do . . . believe in criticism, more than that hyperbolical speech of mine would seem to suggest. What I meant to express was my sense of its being, latterly, vastly over-done. There is such a flood of precepts, and so few examples – so much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing: so many gentlemen sitting down to dispose in half an hour of what a few have spent months & years in producing. A single positive attempt, even with great faults, is worth generally most of the comments and amendments on it.”
I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool that seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’ It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
It was just where I went.”
Robert Penn Warren : All the King’s Men. Harcourt, Brace and Company.
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
David Eagleman : Sum: Tales from the Afterlives. (London, UK: Canongate). A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating. One will blow your mind! (HT: WPN).
A. C. Grayling : Friendship. (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press).
Andrew Sullivan : Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival. (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).
Michael Blakemore : Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber). A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.
William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]: And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK: Penguin Classics). Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.
Jack Kerouac : Vanity of Duluoz. (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).
Charles McCarry : The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK: Duckworth Overlook, 2009). The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.
John Williams : Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012). Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes, I starting reading this book with keen anticipation. I should have known better: someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of. Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.
Is the book great literature? Well, frankly, no. It is well-written, no question, but not well enough. We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why. We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed. Why did he have this epiphany? Where did it come from? Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described. Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed? Not in my experience.
I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching. But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts. Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.
The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head. Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself. One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person. But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third: on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker. A few hundred? Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave. Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount. This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.
Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War. But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth. It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted. So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks. Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says? The book undermines its own case.
Why has the book proven popular? Well it is more popular in Europe than in America. I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America: In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it. In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it. Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself. And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.
Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them), but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way. Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show. The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions. If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:
Anita Raghavan : The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund. (New York: Business Plus). This is a fascinating and excitingly-written account of the rise and fall of several people, many of them Americans of South Asian descent, associated with the activities of the Galleon hedge fund. First among these is billionaire Tamil-American Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon, and convicted insider-trader. In the next tier are his many insider informants, primaily Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar, both prominent partners of McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm. Indeed, Gupta was three times elected global MD of McKinsey by his fellow partners, and thus the book has lots of fascinating information about The Firm and its operations, incidental to the main story.
Insider trading is a strange crime. Surely most traders engaged in trading for its own sake (and not hedging some activity or transaction in non-financial markets) seek to take advantage of something they know that others don’t, even if it is just knowledge arising from more clever or faster analysis, or the knowledge that comes from aggregating views across multiple trades. And who, exactly, are the victims here, since any trading requires a willing counterparty? But even if insider-trading is not considered an evil, there is great dishonour in breaching confidences gained in positions of trust, and there seems little doubt that Rajaratnam’s informants did that.
An odd feature of the book, where so many prominent Indian Americans and South-Asian businesspeople are name-checked, is the failure to mention Praful Gupta. As far as I am aware, the two Guptas were no relation, and met when they were fellow students at Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta, in a newspaper interview in 1994, said they became and remained very good friends. While Rajat pursued a career with McKinsey, Praful became a management consultant and partner with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and later a senior executive with Reliance Industries.
An annoying feature of the writing is the author’s repeated confusion about tense. On page 217, for instance, we read, “In 2005, Lloyd Blankfein’s predecessor and former secretary of the Treasury Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. had approached Gupta about joining the Goldman board of directors.” But Hank Paulson only became Secretary of the US Treasury in 2006, where he remained until January 2009. At the time this sentence was written by Raghavan in 2012 or 2013, Paulson was a former Treasury Secretary, but not in 2005, the time referred to at the opening of the sentence. There are similar instances of inaccurate or confused tense on pages 257, 288, 347, and 362, and no doubt more that I did not catch. These appear so frequently that one is tempted to consider them not mere lapses nor evidence of a non-grammatical linguistic style, but indicative of a more fundamental difference between the author’s conceptualization of time and that of most speakers of English. There are also a number of confusions or ambiguities of subject and object, and of deictic markers, in sentences throughout the text.
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:
- Jason Matthews : Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran, this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible. The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly. As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters. Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player. And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book by the machinations of the other players. In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again. Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me. The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.
- Henry A. Cumpton : The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York: Penguin). A fascinating account of a career in espionage. Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country: The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique. Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion: a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion. Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.
The book has four very interesting accounts:
1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.
2. The account of the preparations needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan. The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 1950s (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).
3. The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s. What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations. Why should the Government be so far behind?
4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda. Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11. George Tenet remarked at the time (in his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders. From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.
- Paul Vallely : Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. (London, UK: Bloomsbury). A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church. Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology. His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.
Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment. In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents. Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least. The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.
The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles. The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.
The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977 to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens. We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.
This is a list of non-fiction books which have greatly influenced me – making me see the world differently or act in it differently. They are listed chronologically according to when I first encountered them.
- 2019 – Mary Le Beau (Inez Travers Cunningham Stark Boulton, 1888-1958) : Beyond Doubt: A Record of Psychic Experience.
- 2019 – Zhores A Medvedev : Andropov: An Insider’s Account of Power and Politics within the Kremlin.
- 2016 – Lafcadio Hearn : Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East. London, UK: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company Limited.
- 2015 – Benedict Taylor : Mendelssohn, Time and Memory. The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. (Cambridge UP)
- 2010 – Hans Kundnani : Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. (London, UK: Hurst and Company)
- 2009 – J. Scott Turner : The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. (Harvard UP) (Mentioned here.)
- 2008 – Stefan Aust : The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (Bodley Head)
- 2008 – Pierre Delattre : Episodes. (St. Paul, MN, USA: Graywolf Press)
- 2006 – Mark Evan Bonds : Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. (Princeton UP)
- 2006 – Kyle Gann : Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. (UCal Press)
- 2005 – Clare Asquith : Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. (Public Affairs)
- 2004 – Igal Halfin : Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard UP)
- 2001 – George Leonard : The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.
- 2000 – Stephen E. Toulmin : Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. (University of Chicago Press)
- 1999 – Michel de Montaigne [1580-1595]: Essays.
- 1997 – James Pritchett : The Music of John Cage. (Cambridge UP, UK)
- 1996 – George Fowler : Dance of a Fallen Monk: A Journey to Spiritual Enlightenment. (New York: Doubleday)
- 1995 – Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch : Thinking Body, Dancing Mind. (New York: Bantam Books)
- 1995 – Jon Kabat-Zinn : Wherever You Go, There You Are.
- 1995 – Charlotte Joko Beck : Nothing Special: Living Zen.
- 1993 – George Leonard : Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
- 1990 – Trevor Leggett : Zen and the Ways. (Tuttle)
- 1989 – Grant McCracken : Culture and Consumption.
- 1989 – Teresa Toranska : Them: Stalin’s Polish Puppets. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.(HarperCollins) (Mentioned here.)
- 1988 – Henry David Thoreau : Cape Cod.
- 1988 – Rupert Sheldrake : The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.
- 1988 – Dan Rose : Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. (U Penn Press)
- 1987 – Susan Sontag : Against Interpretation. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- 1987 – Gregory Bateson : Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (U Chicago Press)
- 1987 – Jay Neugeboren : Reflections at Thirty.
- 1982 – John Miller Chernoff : African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. (University of Chicago Press)
- 1981 – Walter Rodney : How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. (London: Bogle-L’Overture Publications)
- 1980 – James A. Michener : Kent State: What happened and Why.
- 1980 – Andre Gunder Frank : The Development of Underdevelopment. (Monthly Review Press)
- 1980 – Paul Feyerabend : Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
- 1979 – Aldous Huxley : The Perennial Philosophy.
- 1978 – Christmas Humphreys : Zen Buddhism.
- 1977 – Raymond Smullyan : The Tao is Silent.
- 1976 – Bertrand Russell [1951-1969]: The Autobiography. (London: George Allen & Unwin)
- 1975 – Jean-Francois Revel : Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.
- 1974 – Charles Reich : The Greening of America.
- 1973 – Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich : Yoga and Health. (NY: Harper)
- 1972 – Robin Boyd : The Australian Ugliness.
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:
- Igor Lukes : On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. Oxford University Press. Some comments here.
- Randall Woods : Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA. Basic Civitas Books. Colby comes across as remarkably liberal, pragmatic and sensible in this account of his life, promoting agrarian socialism and grass-roots democracy to beat the communists in South Vietnam, for example.
- Roger Hermiston : The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake. Aurum Press.
- C P Snow : Variety of Men. Penguin Books, second edition. (HT: Saul Smilansky at Normblog.)
- Charlotte Joko Beck : Everyday Zen: Love and Work. Thorsons.
- James Button : Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business. Melbourne University Press. A mention here.
- Robert Dessaix : As I was Saying. Random House Australia. A typically erudite collection of talks and essays, as smooth as a gimlet.
- Charles S. Maier : Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany. Princeton University Press.
- Meredith Maran (Editor) : Why We Write. Plume.
- Marci Shore : The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Crown Publishing Group, New York.
- Thomas Nagel : Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford University Press USA. Any book so heavily criticized by Brian Leiter has to be of great value, and this was.
The photo shows the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from 1954 home of the Berliner Ensemble.
We are currently living in a Golden Age of television drama – well-written screenplays, innovative narrative techniques, significant themes, gripping stories, mostly true-to-life representations, all superbly-acted, and realized with attention to detail and high production values. See, for instance:
- 24 (although many implausible plots, the office politics is true-to-life)
- Band of Brothers
- Breaking Bad
- The Bridge
- Covert Affairs
- Generation Kill
- The Good Wife
- The Hour
- House of Cards
- The Killing
- Mad Men
- The Newsroom
- Political Animals
- Prisoners of War (Hatufim)
- The Sopranos
- Spiral (Engrenages)
- Sports Night
- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
- The Unit
- The West Wing
- The Wire
Like the golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, one has to wonder: Why here? Why now?
Adam Gopnik in the latest New Yorker magazine, writing of his former teacher, McGill University psychologist Albert Bregman:
he also gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Trying to decide whether to major in psychology or art history, I had gone to his office to see what he thought. He squinted and lowered his head. “Is this a hard choice for you?” he demanded. Yes! I cried. “Oh,” he said, springing back up cheerfully. “In that case, it doesn’t matter. If it’s a hard decision, then there’s always lots to be said on both sides, so either choice is likely to be good in its way. Hard choices are always unimportant. ” (page 35, italics in original)
I don’t agree that hard choices are always unimportant, since different options may have very different consequences, and with very different footprints (who is impacted, in what ways, and to what extents). Perhaps what Bregman meant to say is that whatever option is selected in such cases will prove feasible to some extent or other, and we will usually survive the consequences that result. Why would this be? I think it because, as Bregman says, each decision-option in such cases has multiple pros and cons, and so no one option uniformly dominates the others. No option is obviously or uniformly better: there is no “slam-dunk” or “no-brainer” decision-option.
In such cases, whatever we choose will potentially have negative consequences which we may have to live with. Usually, however, we don’t seek to live with these consequences. Instead, we try to eliminate them, or ameliorate them, or mitigate them, or divert them, or undermine them, or even ignore them. Only when all else fails, do we live in full awareness with the negative consequences of our decisions. Indeed, attempting to pre-emptively anticipate and eliminate or divert or undermine or ameliorate or mitigate negative consequences is a key part of human decision-making for complex decisions, something I’ve called (following Harald Wohlrapp), retroflexive decision-making. We try to diminish the negative effects of an option and enhance the positive effects as part of the process of making our decision.
As a second-year undergraduate at university, I was, like Gopnik, faced with a choice of majors; for me it was either Pure Mathematics or English. Now, with more experience of life, I would simply refuse to make this choice, and seek to do both together. Then, as a sophomore, I was intimidated by the arguments presented to me by the university administration seeking, for reasons surely only of bureaucratic order, to force me to choose: this combination is not permitted (to which I would respond now with: And why not?); there are many timetable clashes (I can work around those); no one else has ever asked to do both (Why is that relevant to my decision?); and, the skills required are too different (Well, I’ve been accepted onto Honours track in both subjects, so I must have the required skills).
As an aside: In making this decision, I asked the advice of poet Alec Hope, whom I knew a little. He too as an undergraduate had studied both Mathematics and English, and had opted eventually for English. He told me he chose English because he could understand on his own the poetry and fiction he read, but understanding Mathematics, he said, for him, required the help of others. Although I thought I could learn and understand mathematical subjects well enough from books on my own, it was, for me, precisely the social nature of Mathematics that attracted me: One wasn’t merely creating some subjective personal interpretations or imaginings as one read, but participating in the joint creation of an objective shared mathematical space, albeit a space located in the collective heads of mathematicians. What could be more exciting than that!?
More posts on complex decisions here, and here.
Adam Gopnik : Music to your ears: The quest for 3D recording and other mysteries of sound. The New Yorker, 28 January 2013, pp. 32-39.