The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:
The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.
Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book's purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker's cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert's reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert's criticism doesn't mean that Kolbert's criticism is invalid).
The book's inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won't pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.
There once was a guy at my wife’s gym who fancied himself a joker. This opinion was not shared by most of the other gym habitués at that hour of the morning, but they tolerated his attempts at humor, and those who wanted to tune him out simply donned headphones and pedaled away in blissful ignorance of what he was saying. The day after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the gym’s self-appointed joker felt duty-bound to offer a quip about the tragedy. Presumably feeling that his morning companions’ sensibilities had been inured to crudity by the 24-hour ravings of shock jocks, cable TV shouters and Sunday morning gasbags, he tried out this bon mot: “Well, that’s one down, 534 more to go.”
The reaction to the guy’s “joke” was swift, loud and outraged. One fellow, summing up the feelings of most in attendance, shouted, “Get the f___ away from me, you a__ h___.” The joker soon drifted away, seemingly baffled as to why anyone would take offense (“it was just a joke!”). He began doing his workout in the afternoons and my wife has, to her relief, not seen or heard him since. His once “harmless” banter is now considered toxic and he’s persona non grata among those who had previously comprised his daily companions. All because of one “joke.”
We think of a gift as a desired thing: a birthday present, a box of candy, a charitable endowment. But the word "gift" refers simply to the past tense of "give". A thing that is given is a gift, and we should not assume that every gift we are given is a thing we want to receive.
The word is sometimes used ironically in its negative sense. "He's got a gift for you," says a mother to a father when it's his turn to do the baby's diapers. A venereal disease is jokingly referred to as "the gift that keeps on giving."
Osama bin Laden gave the United States of America, and the entire world, a gift on September 11, 2001. It was a gift we didn't want or expect, a gift we could barely even stand to recognize. Many Americans refuse to admit that we received it, that we still own it. But we do. We're still carrying this gift around.
This is the gift of hate -- and hate is, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving. We've since handed it on to other unwilling and undeserving recipients in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now they suffer with the gift too. It's still with us today, and we see it everywhere. Look at the self-hatred so many Americans still feel, ten years after the horrifying day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. This knot of rage, this tar baby, this glutinous mass -- it is still inside us, whether we like it or not.
Some try to deal rationally with this gift of hatred that we don't know how to get rid of. For authors like Noam Chomsky, whose 9-11 has been reissued in a new edition, we can exorcise the hatred by confessing our own national sins. Other Americans consider Noam Chomsky's brand of self-criticism an insult to America's glory and honor, but they choke on the same self-hatred in different ways. It's a new meme among some angry Americans to hate the federal government itself, to declare that the only thing the Washington D. C. bureaucracy can do is go away, even if that means no more Social Security, no consumer protection agencies or business regulations, not even a federal emergency management bureau. The federal government has been poisoned, these new extremists say, infiltrated by suspicious agents. It needs to be purged of everything in order to rediscover its Constitutional purity. There may be some logic within this angry anti-government protest movement, but I see plenty of irrational self-hatred here too, and I wonder where the manic pitch of this self-hatred originates.
(As the English-speaking world eagerly awaits the translation of the newest Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84, here's Meg Wise-Lawrence's appreciation of the Japanese author's full body of work. Meg teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
How often does literature truly transport you?I remember walking out of the theater after first seeing Mad Max in The Road Warrior in 1981. I was shocked to find a sunny day in New Jersey, and not post-apocalyptic outback. When I read Ray Bradbury’s “Rain,” I felt soaked. Usually the transformative effect is more prevalent in movies -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Wim Wenders come to mind.
To read the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami is to enter an alternate universe that is uncannily similar to your own, and yet different enough that it brilliantly illuminates your own life. To read Murakami -- to engage with art -- is to enter an altered state of consciousness, to experience a reader-writer mindmeld. You don’t want the trip to end, but when it does you know you’ve been transformed -- even if it was just for a few seconds in the bright sun after a good movie.
Murakami’s books pay off. They are the odd friend you can’t explain but you know your other friends will like. Pick any of his works, and you’ll be invited into a semi-familiar, alien world, where his characters are guides. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire is going through a Jack Kerouac phase, carrying a “dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler” in the pocket of her tattered, oversized herringbone coat. Her passions are literature and music; she’s working on crafting a “Total Novel” but the magic hasn’t happened yet. Murakami’s narrator says, “If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.” She meets the lovely, older Miu who had “a vague sense that [Kerouac] was a novelist of some kind.” Wasn’t he a Sputnik? She asks.
I've been reading Barbara Oakley, a professor and social scientist with a unique theory about altruism. Far from being a boon to mankind, she believes, altruism is often our scourge, our instrument of self-destruction.
She cites the altruistic Chairman Mao (as we have too, in our discussions about altruism and ethics) and Adolf Hitler (who never stopped constantly reminding the German people how much he was helping them, up until the end when the entire country burned). These are both apt examples in the critique of "bad altruism". Her recent book, lengthily titled Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts offers the case study of a Utah woman named Carole Alden who liked to draw in men who needed help, devote her life to helping them ... and then kill them. Carole Alden's fatal self-victimization complex is an instructive illustration, and Barbara Oakley believes it points to a general truth about the meaning of altruism in our lives.
Well, I don't know. I admire the clarity and force of Barbara Oakley's convictions, which remind me of Ayn Rand's. But Cold-Blooded Kindness is a bumpy read, maybe because the style of writing veers between psychology textbook and Scott Turow thriller (a combination also often used by David Brooks). This breathless writing style can work if expertly handled, but it feels forced here. The idea that horrible Carole Alden (who resembles, roughly, evil nurse/fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's Misery) stands as a representative example of normal altruism also feels forced, and this is the more significant problem with the book.
Yes, this woman claimed to be an altruist and screwed up (or killed) every person or animal she tried to help. Yes, there are fringe cases. But the idea that we ought to avoid altruistic impulses in general because of these fringe cases takes it much too far.
When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?
These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.
But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?
The remarkable novelist Katharine Weber has published her sixth book, her first work of non-fiction. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is a memoir with a subtitle that evokes the great Broadway composer George Gershwin, who played a key role in Weber's family past.
But Weber is a novelist, and her faithful readers will not approach this new book as a diversion but rather as the sixth entry in a series marked by creative and stylistic variation. None of her previous five novels resemble each other in terms of storytelling approach, tone or setting; she has reinvented her mission as a novelist with each work, and the memoir is clearly the latest step in this progression.
The notion of a Katharine Weber memoir raises immediate questions, because she has always played with real life and fiction in her novels. Her characters play with real life and fiction too. Her well-loved first novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear presents a young female narrator so full of verve, affection and enthusiasm that she has to constantly contain herself and rein in the power of her imagination. The tension between Harriet's beckoning sense of romantic possibility and her impulse to control herself and appear polished to others supplies the core of this character's voice. Weber's second novel The Music Lesson offers a heroine who willingly falls for a charming criminal's thin veneer of lies, preferring not to abstain from the great sex that accompanies the story. Her third novel The Little Women, a jaunty comic tableau, then presents an entire family of incorrigibly fanciful souls, spinning together in the whirlwinds of their half-composed psychological theories and illusions. Her powerful fourth novel Triangle also explores what it means to live a life defined more by fiction than by reality, and her fifth True Confections, her broadest comedy, takes the form of a legal affadavit by a woman who is obviously straining at the boundaries of truth.
Many of these works capture the voice of a child's mind, though the "child" may be in the body of an adult. Some writers eschew parent-child relationships (Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts" comes to mind, since he never drew a parent or an adult in a "Peanuts" comic strip). Katharine Weber is his opposite, as far as subject matter is concerned. Without a parent or grandparent to defy, disappoint, become enraged by, look up to, accept gifts from or give help to, a Katharine Weber character wouldn't know how to live.
Stone Arabia is a new novel by Dana Spiotta, a writer from California. It's about a sister and brother, fast approaching middle age, both grappling with the failures of their once-bright artistic dreams. They are mutually supportive opposites. She's an earthbound, discouraged office worker (who narrates this story in a series of sardonic fits and starts), while he carries on a bizarre habit that provides the koan at the center of this strange book. Having failed as a rock star during the late 1970s, he began a lifelong construction of a fantasy career as a rock star, complete with homemade CDs, extensive bootlegs, memorabilia, fan mail, good and bad reviews. This is his life's work, even if nobody but his sister, his niece and a few assorted ex-girlfriends ever see it. As he nears his fiftieth birthday, impoverished and nearly friendless, he begins to face the fact that this made-up world has gone as far as it can go.
Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.
This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.