Sunday, 25 September 2011

Status Syndrome; by Michael Marmot

Social standing affects your health:

Professor Michael Marmot is an eminent researcher, and is justly celebrated for his findings that social status, such as within the hierarchy of the UK civil service, have a clear and startling correlation with health and longevity. People at the top of the tree are healthier and live longer. He has diligently gathered and analysed the data, and the conclusions are clear.

This is good material for an extended essay, or a short book. What he has done is to batter this subject to death over nearly 300 pages, thereby battering me the reader and losing my interest. He drove me crazy with the endless repetition of the word ‘gradient’ – either social or health gradient. I counted the word popping up again and again in single pages and even single paragraphs. I started to dread the reappearance of the word, and wished he could find some other metaphor to vary the stodgy diet of ‘gradient’. It became a cliché, and an irritant, like the weather forecast saying ‘a touch of frost’, which similarly makes me wince.

Having, I am sure, got the gist of his message, I had to put the book down around page 100. Despite resolutions to pick it up again, and do justice to the friend who had lent me the book, a deep aversion has prevented me from doing so.

Unended Quest; By Karl Popper

An ‘intellectual autobiography’ of my favourite philosopher:

I was introduced to the ideas of Karl Popper by my school-friend ‘Toj’ Winter, and I learned the outlines of his thinking from a ‘Fontana Modern Masters’ paperback by Bryan Magee back in the 1970s. While acknowledging the persuasiveness and sanity of Popper’s thinking, and adopting many of this ways of thinking myself, I have flinched from the hard work of reading any of his main works directly. Tackling ‘The Open society and its enemies’ and ‘Conjectures and refutations’, for instance, remains on my intellectual To Do list.

A good substitute, though, is to read Popper’s autobiography: ‘Unended quest’, which I have just done again for the second or third time. This book explains many of his ideas in a succinct form, and shows that Magee’s book is a very good summary of Popper’s philosophy. Most of the 200 pages are devoted to philosophical discussions, backed up by at least 50 pages of notes, references and bibliography. The range of topics covered is dazzling: criticising Marxism, speculating about polyphonic music, the problem of induction, Quantum mechanics, the definition of science, ‘killing’ logical positivism, debates with Schrodinger, theories of knowledge, the process of learning, the tautologies of Darwinism, the objective reality of human theories and so on.

Popper gives us some interesting details of his personal life, particularly in the early chapters, but he becomes increasingly self-effacing as the book processes. I would like to know more about the man, and the details of his life, but we are vouchsafed only fragments of his personal biography. One can see how his views were shaped by the tumultuous years just after the First World War, as they were for various other prominent Austrian Intellectuals, such as F. A. von Hayek. Popper surprisingly worked as a cabinet maker for a couple of years, which he seemingly did in a dreamy way, while thinking great thoughts.

He left Austria as the Nazis came to power, coming to England. He is somewhat disparaging about the lack of intellectual rigour he encountered in England (and in New Zealand during the war), but is complimentary about the “honesty and decency of the people and their strong feeling of political responsibility”. He adapted to lecturing and writing in English, and published some of the most influential and important philosophic works of the 20th Century. When he moved back to England and lived in Buckinghamshire, he touchingly describes himself as “I suspect, the happiest philosopher I have met.”

Certainly Popper has a seemingly endless curiosity, and ability to understand the widest and deepest range of intellectual subjects. He is grateful to have found himself living in an ‘open society’, describing ‘Western’ liberal democracies as “the best and most equitable societies that have ever existed in the whole course of human history”. He declares at the end, in a postscript, “Our society is not only open to reform, but it is anxious to reform itself. In spite of all this, the propaganda for the myth that we live in an ugly world has succeeded. Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!”

It is not possible to explain all Popper’s lines of enquiry in this interesting and difficult book. But there is a common thread: Critical thinking. We have to look at all things with a critical eye, whether in the field of science, politics or whatever. We propose theories / conjectures, and hold them open to criticism and falsification. In his view theories cannot be proved or verified, and it was largely he who ‘killed’ the Viennese school of logical positivism. For him theories can only be falsified, and once shown to be wrong or inadequate, but build a better theory that incorporates the criticism (not just explain it away, such that the theory can never be disproved). He is particularly against the Marxists for their lack of honesty in not recognising that much of Marx’s theories are clearly falsified.

This line of thought is the key to many of the chapters. For instance he sees learning as a process of error correction and the discovery of polyphony in music as noticing the errors in congregations singing out of tune! He greatly admires scientists like Einstein, who overthrew the orthodoxy of Newtonian physics, by exposing its inadequacies and building a better theory that explains much more, and (crucially) makes predictions that hold themselves open to refutation.

There are some unexpected results, in that he is not greatly impressed by Darwinism. He recognises the usefulness of Darwin’s theories, calling them an important ‘metaphysical research project’. He points out that the ‘survival of the fittest’ formulation is essentially tautological. That which survives is that which is most adapted to survive – a tautology.

One would think that his theories lead to a permanent state of all our knowledge being provisional – an endless regression of uncertainty. But in the chapter ‘Values in a world of facts’ he recognises the existence of objective truth; almost in full Platonic vein. This is a fecund book, and I do not claim to understand all of it, or possibly even a fraction of it. But I recognise that there is much wisdom to be gleaned from this book, even if it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Lustrum; by Robert Harris

Roman politics:

‘Lustrum’ is the second volume of a planned Trilogy about the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero. Robert Harris is continuing a strong tradition following William Shakespeare, Robert Graves and even the HBO channel. He has done his research thoroughly, and writes fluently, as ever.

He educates us about one of the important foundation stones of European civilization: Ancient Rome. In the process he tells a generally exciting tale. The plethora of characters is hard to follow, and I felt some tedium in the middle of the book from the repetition of speeches and court cases and triumphs. The defeat of the Cataline conspiracy, and his flight from Rome at the end of the book were particularly exciting, but the whole book is not consistently thrilling.

In the preceding volume ‘Imperium’ Cicero was portrayed as more consistently upright and good. Here we see weaker and less pure sides to Cicero’s character. So we lose a little sympathy for the protagonist, but he becomes more rounded and human. Another character comes more to the fore in this volume, the slave and secretary Tiro, who is the ostensible author of this book. He displays more initiative, wisdom and courage than his rather retiring personality in ‘Imperium’.

Harris draws out more universal lessons of politics, in an unobtrusive way. For instance: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events.” He seems to be making contemporary references at times: “We pile up riches for ourselves while the state is bankrupt…” There is an element of philosophy that can be picked up too: “It seemed to me… an act of madness for a man to pursue power when he could be sitting in the sunshine and reading a book.”

The Penelopiad; by Margaret Atwood

Odysseus viewed from a Feminist perspective:
I enjoyed this book. This is a good book. These two statements are not necessarily the same thing. Others do not necessarily come to the same conclusions from their readings of this book. My own views may change. A second reading is often more telling than a first.

Certainly ‘The Penelopiad’ is a short work. One could complete it in one concentrated sitting. That is not to say it is a slight book. It picks up on one incident in Homer’s Odyssey, where Telemachus, following his father’s instructions, executes 12 maids who were accused of consorting with the suitors who besieged Penelope in Odysseus’s palace. Atwood, taking her typical feminist fresh look at things, is obviously outraged by this incident. She explores how unfair and arbitrary this treatment was.

The story is told with a cool wit from the viewpoint of Penelope, speaking as a ghost. She speaks to us in our contemporary age, and hence makes ironic references to museums full of unused ‘trash’ and TVs as domestic shrines. This is amusing and quirky, lending a universality and relevance to the old story. But it also creates an unstable voice that is not successful throughout. There is an epigrammatic quality to the writing, mixed with some satire and irony.

The realistic portrayal of the unfree position of women in that society is one of the author’s main aims. Violence to the female body (and mind) is something I have noticed in all the books of hers that I have read. But it is intelligent, not virulent, feminism, and all the more effective for that.

The interpolated poems and theatre scripts may irritate some readers, but I liked them. They reminded me of some sections in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. They are poignant.

The portrayal of Helen (the famous one whose face launched a thousand ships) is particularly catty and telling. Atwood is alive to the destructive side of females too.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A struggle for Life, by Llewelyn Powys

Selected essays of an Epicurean

Reactions to the written word can be extraordinarily diverse and startling. I have been taken aback by replies to e-mails I have sent, for instance. Critical evaluations of literature often tell you more about the critic than the text. Judgements about irony, sarcasm, sentimentality and so forth are quite subjective. I find that one’s reactions to a piece can alter, according to time, place and mood, or, even more intriguing, one can hold two different feelings about a writer simultaneously.

I was interested to note in Anthony Head’s excellent introduction that the poet John Wain judged one of L. Powys’s books to be the ‘corniest’ book he had ever read. I can empathise with that reaction, and had a streak of that judgement as I read some of the essays collected in the book. L. Powys tries hard to tug the heart strings, and waxes eloquent in a florid, almost Euphuistic style at times. One could easily parody and satirise his writing.

However, more strongly, I felt a personal closeness to the experiences of the author and the views he expresses. For one, he lived in Africa for five years, somewhat paralleling my own decade or so living in Zambia in my childhood. He also has an abiding love of the culture and nature of the English countryside, which I share, though bowing to his much greater knowledge and experience. His reverse Pilgrim’s progress away from what he sees as the syrupy delusions of conventional Christianity, has many points of contact with my own philosophical journey. The debilitating and serious disease he suffered from finds a kinship in my heart, given my own medical problems. Lastly, his love of Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ and of the beauty of the stars are big recommendations for me too.

Head has made a judicious selection, covering many topics and the broad sweep of his life, in Dorset, the USA, East Africa and Switzerland; only one of which I have read before – ‘Bat’s Head’. The first essay ‘A struggle for life’ introduces us to the central tragedy of his life, his contraction of pulmonary tuberculosis, diagnosed when he was only 25 years old. This damaged the rest of his life, eventually killing him, but did not hold him back from enjoying his time on earth to the full. This essay is written in an unsentimental and un-self-pitying way, that is admirable.

The four essays on aspects of his life in Africa are vivid, but reveal a colonial callousness. He shoots leopard and hippo without any compunction, all the more surprising given his otherwise tender nature, and the later essays ‘Christian Fingers’ and ‘Barbarians’, in which he criticises hunting and cruelty to animals.

His time in America seemed to have sparked little creative writing, though he mentions a striking image of him sleeping on the roof of buildings in New York, looking up at the night sky, and waking covered with light snow.

The philosophical essays appealed particularly, though I find his attitude to religion inconsistent and unstable. He often refers to God, admires aspects of Christian culture and expresses sentiments close to conventional religious opinions, yet he professes himself an atheist at other points. In the essay ‘The Epicurean Vision’, he declares his adherence to a joyful, sturdy enjoyment of the simple physical pleasures of life. He criticises ‘Christians at prayer’ as ‘obsequious’, ‘sycophantic’ and ‘craven, unhealthy, neurotic’. Strong words! He dislikes the creed of the church in trying to discredit life upon earth, with all its talk of absurd Trinities, fables about ascensions, dead men rising from the grave and a focus on a mythical heaven. Powys follows the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, wanting us to look at the world we live in now, to make the best of it, with unfaltering loyalty to our senses. He urges us to “enjoy our hour of sunshine”.

Powys’s philosophy of life is expressed even more eloquently in ‘The Aebi Wood’. He stared at this green wood for many hours from the balcony of his sanatorium in Switzerland, and is came to symbolise the immediacy of the physical life and world we inhabit. He writes “Make no doubt of it, it is matter that matters. In all else there is mirage, man himself, for all his vaunts, being but a cheap and accidental phantom of cleaver clay. There may well be other dimensions, but in so far as we allow the suspicion of their existence to dim our worship of what is, we suffer ourselves to be entangled in a cloud-net of folly. Our paradise, our hells, are here and now, we shall see no other.”

His most powerful chapter is ‘Reflections of a Dying Man’. Somebody suffering from worsening Tuberculosis, with no cure in sight, has a right to record such reflections, I don’t find this passage ‘corny’. It is unblinking and objective, rejecting easy solutions, recognising mankind is blessed with self-knowledge “on a rainbow planet that is tumbling through a physical universe of inconceivable dimensions”. He preaches joy in what we have, and an admirable stoicism: “It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature? Surely to look at the sunlight for the last time should rather be an occasion for the trembling of our marrow bones with gratitude.”

So lovely a country will never perish, by Donald Keene

Japanese wartime diaries

It is often not felicitous when you are given books by friends, but this was an exception. Once I started reading these extracts and commentaries on diaries of Japanese writers during the Second World War, I was rapidly drawn in. It may have had extra resonance for me, due to my close personal connections with Japan, but I think it would widen and deepen anyone’s understanding of history.

Donald Keene, a renowned scholar of Japan, has read, edited and selected from the diaries of prominent Japanese writers, who recorded their thoughts and events during and immediately after the war. This is history as experienced first-hand by individuals, not from tendentious text books. The diaries reveal the raw thoughts and emotions of our (former) enemies – though admittedly not those who fought in the front line. But these men (mainly men) had experiences being bombed and working in some overseas territories. It occurred to me that all school children should read history written by our enemies, not those written by our own side, especially those blessed by our own governments.

The diarists from which Keene quotes were all novelists, poets or literary figures of some fame. They naturally experience the war differently and interpret events differently. They are swept along by the euphoria of success in 1941-42, and are scorched by the defeats and humiliations of 1943-47. It is sobering to see how the zeitgeist, public opinion, rumours, military lies and government propaganda have a large influence on their thinking. It is even more sobering to reflect that such large-scale influences impinged and still impinge on all of us – such as the way the USA and Britain were swept into war with Iraq.

I have to confess that there were not sufficient markers for me to distinguish between the different writers. Unfortunately they blended into one self-contradictory voice for me. Maybe symbols in the margins would help, as Pullman uses in ‘The subtle knife’?

We peep into the minds of these diarists through the choices that Donald Keene has made for us. So one may pause to wonder how representative they are. It is a question of trust, and I give him that trust. By inserting some personal information about his own war experiences, such as his interviewing of Japanese prisoners of war, and his landing on Okinawa, we can perceive that he is a sympathetic and balanced commentator. Anyway, his distillation of these various diaries are something I have read and enjoyed, whereas it is unlikely that I would ever have had the chance or inclination to read the whole of each of the diaries. Even with diaries, we often have to encounter them at one remove.

The bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Taleb

Philosophical and practical aphorisms

This elegant little hardback is Taleb’s latest publication (2010). It contains thoughts that carry straight on from his arguments in ‘Fooled by randomness’ and ‘The Black Swan’. Instead of a narrative and argument in a full book, he presents us with his private almost-poetry. We are given a series of aphorisms, well spaced out, only four or five to a page. This slows us down and persuades us to pause to think about each cluster of words.

The aphorisms are generally witty and designed to provoke a fresh perspective. They do not have the frivolity of Oscar Wilde, and do not achieve his level of charming, mischievous humour. They are certainly often wise and counter-intuitive, shaking us out of a conventional, shallow view of our modern world. Some structure is given by clustering them in chapters, revealing the preoccupations with which his readers will already be familiar. For instance, there is a chapter called ‘Fooled by Randomness’, one on ‘The scandal of prediction’ and one on ‘Robustness and fragility’.

Taleb is a wise man, and well worth listening to. His erudition and originality are on full display. Here are samples to give you a flavour:

“The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.”

“Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way round.”

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.”

“English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence towards the temporarily powerful) and arrogant down (directed at the small guy).”

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

“Suckers think that you can cure greed with money, addiction with substances, expert problems with experts, banking with bankers, economics with economists and debt crises with debt spending.”

You may notice that he blends a wide vocabulary with American idioms such as ‘Guy’ and ‘Sucker’, which lends a disconcerting instability to his voice. But he generally achieves the balance of an epigrammatic style, and there is an immediate impact for most of his aphorisms, plus an added sequence of afterthoughts, akin to the sensation of a perfume.

I remain a fan of Mr Taleb, and would urge others to read this book too. However I have a complaint that must be articulated. This may sound like an ‘ad hominem’ attack. I agree that the ‘ad hominem’ riposte of questioning a man’s motives or qualifications for saying something is inadmissible in civilised argument. His book is not an argued case, but much closer to a literary work, hence I believe this complaint is valid.

The author has made a lot of money trading options, and more recently from the sales of his books. Fine, and the best of luck to him. Possibly he is the beneficiary of randomness, as he may admit. Now he sets himself up as a philosopher and part poet. He has valuable things to say, but (and here is my complaint) he adopts a sneering tone against the majority of humanity, believing himself as someone much superior in understanding and heroism. I find it hard to stomach his long stream of aphorisms despising those having to work – which is the majority of us. Hence he shows a lack of respect for the readers.

“Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working.”

“There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment.”

“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave better by convincing him that he is an employee.”

And so on. Mr Taleb has revealed too much of his nasty side, diminishing himself. While he sits on his millions in Treasury Bills, I can do without the sound of him snickering as I trudge off to earn an honest penny. Where is his heroism in this attitude?