Psychology

A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.

In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.

In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.

After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.

Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.

16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator

"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.

15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide

The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.

14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).

13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:

I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.

12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen

I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:

All aboard! Ship of fools ...

It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.

11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith

I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:

We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea

10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.

Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...

We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?

9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure

"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:

Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?


8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors

The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:

Evil walks on the moon ...

Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.

7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up

Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:

The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools

6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf

I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:

See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow

The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".

5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:

Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.

4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant

Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.

I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.

This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.

3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale

"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.

Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.

2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party

"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:

Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves

Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.

1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger

After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.

Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:

I alone ... survived the sinking.

This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)

Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:

Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?

But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.

Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.

Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.

Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.

Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.

5

The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...

view /FoolSongs
Sunday, March 29, 2015 09:09 am
A playlist of 16 different songs titled "Ship of Fools"
Story
Levi Asher

I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.

3

From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.

view /ShipOfFools
Monday, March 23, 2015 09:59 pm
boat full of dumb crazy people, by Heironymous Bosch
Story
Levi Asher

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker often appeared to be channelling the literary voice of John Updike in U and I, and I sensed you channelling the voice of Nicholson Baker often in B & Me. For instance, this sentence, which appears towards the end:

Our tactile experience of a book is that each of its "pages" has a front and a back, and these fronts and backs, somewhat confusingly, are also called "pages".

I'd recognize that as a Bakeresque sentence if I saw it all by itself on a subway at midnight. It delivers an original realization of a commonplace absurdity -- the fact that a "page" is at once a single thing and a doubling of the single thing, which certainly ought to be illegal as far as precise language goes -- and yet it accepts this absurdity with a sense of wonder and openness rather than complaint. If that's not Bakeresque, I don't know what is. Did you find yourself intentionally writing and/or thinking like Nicholson Baker as you wrote this book? Is it something you tried to do intentionally, or something you tried not to do but did anyway?

J. C.: Yes, but not in a strictly imitative sense. Geoff Dyer's great book Out of Sheer Rage does this same sort of thing with the fretful voice of D.H. Lawrence, as Dyer hears him in his correspondence, and for me that's a variation on something James Agee says about writers using words to embody subjects. Embodiment is the purest form of understanding or communion, and I’ve always tried to become that which I hoped to be able to describe. I was very conscious of moments in the book when I was indulging in Baker-style thinking, but I was aware too when I was departing from what he would say, or how he would say it.

Of the former, there was once, in the book, a longish passage about what it feels like to finger-pry a book down from a tightly packed bookshelf, the almost hydraulic feel of the book covers sliding against one another. That description wound up getting cut -- only the term "finger-pried" remains –- and maybe, in the end, it was a moment that I felt was too Bakerian, or needlessly so.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker has made his wife Margaret Brentano a constant presence in his books, where she often plays a comforting role. (Like you, I was worried about Baker's own mental stability when Paul Chowder revealed that his beloved Roz had left him in The Anthologist, and was slightly relieved when he and Roz seemed to try to get back together in "Traveling Sprinkler", even though I don't think Paul and Roz's chances for happiness together looked great at the end of that book.)

Similarly, you've put your partner Catherine near the core of this book, and even gave her the honor of echoing some of the scenes of scatological awkwardness that were so memorable in Baker's "Room Temperature". Since you and I are Facebook friends (though we've never met in real life), I hope you aren't shocked to learn that I peeked at your pages to see if there was a real-life Catherine. There is, and she's quite charming and fascinating. So I'm curious -- how did she react to being featured so prominently in your book?

J. C.: The book is dedicated to Catherine, but never was a dedication so much of an understatement. Catherine was there from the very beginning, buying me Baker books when I had only hinted that I might want to read him. She realized before I did that what I really needed to do was read someone long and deep. That’s what she’d been doing her whole life, actually – and that's what she does now as a professional editor. So Catherine is present in the book in the form that Proust says is the real reason we read: as an "incitement." In short, the book is not merely indebted to Catherine: she made it possible, and then she made it better when she read it and edited it.

Lastly, I disagree that Paul and Roz of Traveling Sprinkler are not destined for happiness. It’s love! Love!

LEVI: Let's talk about Traveling Sprinkler, then. This is Baker's newest book, and I have to mention that I really hated Traveling Sprinkler. I hate nearly half of Nicholson Baker's books -- the reason I am a big Nicholson Baker fan is that I really, really love the ones I don't hate. But, yeah, I hated Traveling Sprinkler.

I think I have more trouble with Baker's really extreme sexual exhibitionism than you do. As I'm reading Traveling Sprinkler I'm thinking: wait a minute, just because I love The Mezzanine and Human Smoke I have to suffer through this? Reading the book did make me feel like I was being sprinkled upon, if you know what I mean ... and I don't believe for a minute the narrator's suggestion that the title evokes a piece of gardening machinery.

But now this presents a very interesting "rhyme" with B & Me -- a section in which you come to the realization that Nicholson Baker's relationship with his authors is, shall we say, "ejaculative" ... and you seem to consider this a positive aspect of his work. So, did you write that section of the book before or after "Traveling Sprinkler" was published, and did you also notice the rhyme?

J. C.: The quick answer to the last part of your question is that Traveling Sprinkler wasn't released until I was mostly done with B & Me, but yes, I did notice the rhyme.

Traveling Sprinkler offered support to many things I’d gone out on a limb to suggest in B & Me, so for me it was a very validating book, almost like a list of all the things I'd gotten right about Baker's career and thought. And I think that maybe returns to the first part of your question, because even when I read The Fermata and found it to be a lesser book than some of his others, I recognized that it contained ideas that were essential to understanding those "better" books. I suppose what I came around to was the idea that you can read the books of certain authors (and maybe Baker is a perfect example of this) like individual chapters of the vast novel of their career. You don’t hate Infinite Jest or The Grapes of Wrath because they've got a clunker chapter or two. And perhaps what I was trying to suggest in B & Me is that we should be thinking of reacting to writers' careers as a whole, rather than judging individual books inside of it.

That said, who hasn’t had the exact experience of a writer that you describe? We love some books, hate others. It’s probably safe to say that most human intimate relationships, with lovers, with our families, exhibit a similarly wide ranges of emotions, from love to hate. Why should a relationship with a writer be any different?

LEVI: I have one pet theory involving Traveling Sprinkler -- yes, even when I hate a Nicholson Baker book, I will take the time to analyze it -- which is that the character of Roz is named after Rocinante in Don Quixote, and that Paul Chowder sees himself as Don Quixote. (The fact that he names his erstwhile love interest after Rocinante instead of Dulcinea is certainly some type of wry irony.)

I'll probably never find out if this theory is true or not ... and actually I'm much more impressed by your theory that Nicholson Baker titled U and I after Martin Buber's I and Thou. That's a very intriguing theory -- but then Nicholson Baker himself shoots it down. Or does he? When he told you that U and I was not in fact titled after I and Thou, did you feel certain that he was telling the truth?

I'd also like to hear more about the Martin Buber connection -- whether it's true or not that this was intended by Baker, what do you think it signifies?

J. C.: Rocinante to Roz is a bit of a stretch, isn't it? He could have gone with Rocky, sometimes a woman's name. I feel compelled to point out, too, that Arno's girlfriend in The Fermata is Rhody. I think it speaks very highly of Baker’s work that he inspires – or arouses – this kind of frantic digging for whatever lies beneath the surface.

Baker told me he hadn’t read Buber –- not that he hadn’t heard of him, or thought of him, when titling U and I. I didn't mention looking into this in B & Me, but it's been suggested (in the John Updike Encyclopedia) that Updike revealed sympathy for Buber's I/Thou formulation, and even thought of it as a version of the writer-reader relationship, in A Month of Sundays. And A Month of Sundays is one of the Updike books that Baker cites directly in U and I ...

What does this signify? Maybe simply that the way literature shapes us isn't always direct. I finally read U and I when I realized that it had found a way to influence and shape me, via a kind of remote influence, without my yet having read it. So when I read it, finally, it wasn't just a gathering of information –- it was an act of recognizing how I'd become who I've become. Seems like a pretty good reason to read books.

LEVI: I loved the section near the end of your book when you finally met Nicholson Baker, when you frankly evaluated the real-life apparition of Nicholson Baker as you experienced him yourself. You watched him awkwardly interact with a townie friend, a lady whose name he couldn't remember, and you wrote:

That's when my heart just about melted for Nicholson Baker.

This poignant scene really anchored the book for me, and made me realize how sad Nicholson Baker often seems. It reminds me of the moment during his rather subdued recent appearance on TV when Stephen Colbert asked him "are you okay?". Do you ever wonder if Nicholson Baker is okay?

And while we're on the topic, are you okay?

J. C.: Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay? Like monks or mystics, we ask them to suffer a bit, and by suffering extract something –- some wisdom – from their experience and offer it up. This makes our own lives not more comfortable, really, but perhaps more understood. My heart broke for Baker because I was witnessing his suffering first hand –- the suffering that had resulted in the books I'd grown to love.

I felt an immense gratitude, and it was a weird gratitude because it would have been totally inappropriate for me to express it to him at that moment, in a live human context. Literature is, perhaps, human empathy outside the context of being able to, or even wanting to, ameliorate another person's condition. Writers suffer and offer us wisdom and understanding, and we offer them careful attention, but nothing more, in return. It's a gift.

That said, I’m fine!

LEVI: I'm actually not that familiar with Martin Buber's work either, though I've always known and loved the title I and Thou. (I can now console myself that I'm in good company with Nicholson Baker on the Martin Buber front, though apparently I need to catch up with you and John Updike).

But I am more familiar with the philosophy of William James, clearly also a favorite of yours, and I'm extremely intrigued by the Jamesian thread -- William, and also Henry -- that carries throughout B & Me. I'm particularly intrigued because William James, like Nicholson Baker, was an outspoken pacifist. What do you think William James means as a philosopher to Nicholson Baker, and what do you think the two have in common as philosophers?

J. C.: Baker's James influence goes all the way back to the earliest days of career. When James pops up in U and I, from 1991, it's in the form of a memory from 1981. Almost all the James references in Baker’s career come from a few pages of James's The Principles of Psychology, the chapter, unsurprisingly, about the stream of consciousness. So, early on, Baker’s interest in James seems related to his thinking on thought, and Baker’s own interest in cognitive analogies.

But James is a strange literary influence. Some writers, like David Foster Wallace and Robert Pirsig, seem more indebted to the James of The Varieties of Religious Experience, whereas writers like William Gass and Baker seem more indebted to The Principles of Psychology. That said, Baker inserted into his Paris Review interview a sly reference to one of James's most famous essays, "Is Life Worth Living?" So, to return to your last question a bit, it would seem that Baker recognizes himself to be one of James's "sick souls" -- those who cannot simply blink away the darker sides of life.

LEVI: Can you tell us about the other books you've written? In particular, what novelistic themes or approaches do you believe you have in common with Nicholson Baker?

J. C.: Well, I've not yet published a novel, though I do have a collection of short stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets. But even there, I felt anticipated by Baker. I have a couple of sexually explicit stories that feel informed by Baker even though I hadn't read his sex books when I wrote them. I have a story, too, that features a man and his young nephew playing a violent video game together –- written long before Baker wrote a New Yorker essay about playing violent video games with his son.

When Baker and I met, he told me that as a young man he had tried his hand at correspondence chess – and my first book was about the chess subculture (I interviewed a famous murderer, Claude Bloodgood, who was a correspondence chess champion.) When I say, in B & Me, that it started to seem as though I didn’t really have an imagination of my own, I really meant it!

LEVI: Here's a quote I like from B & Me:

Incidentally, [the New Yorker short story] "Snorkeling" has an enticing typo: an open parenthesis that never closes. Given the New Yorker's attention to detail and the fact that "Snorkeling" has never been reprinted, it's tempting to wonder whether it's actually not a typo, whether Baker is suggesting that we think of the rest of the story, the rest of his career, as contained within a parenthetical statement that will never end."

I think that explains why I like Nicholson Baker so much -- because I believe he really did plan that typo, and as you suggest he probably had to do a hell of a hustling job to get it past the New Yorker copy editors. Nicholson Baker might be the only writer who would work that hard to create a typo in the New Yorker. Did you place any similar devices or easter eggs or time-bombs in B & Me? You can at least toss your readers a hint.

J.C.: I don’t know that I'm willing to suggest that the typo in "Snorkeling" was intentional –- it was Baker's second or third published story, and wouldn't it have been hard for him to argue for something that experimental? Too much pride at The New Yorker for that –- though that pride is much deserved.

That said, the rest of your question intrigues me. In B & Me, I liken myself to the unnamed critic in Henry James's famous story, "The Figure in the Carpet", who fancies himself a sleuth on the trail of some heretofore unseen idea in the work of a famous writer. True, the writer tells him that there’s something there to be found –- a figure in the carpet of his career that no one else has ever seen. And I have to admit that there are a couple things in B & Me that stand out very loudly for me, systemic things that were very much part of why I wrote the book the way I did, but which early readers of the book haven't really remarked upon. A hint? A hint would ruin the hunt!

But it is worth noting that readers tend to be more willing to plumb the depths of fiction than nonfiction. That’s too bad, because even within the constraint of nonfiction, it's possible to be enticingly subtle, and to offer rewards to the careful, persistent reader.

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"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of a new book about Nicholson Baker.

view /HallmanAndBaker
Tuesday, March 10, 2015 10:59 am
JC Hallman's book "B & Me"
Story
Levi Asher

In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.

The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.

Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.

If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name "Napoleon", I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a "Napoleon Delusion" has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It's worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power -- for good or evil -- his image once evoked.

To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all -- -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.

So why has Napoleon's name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.

A "Napoleon" is also a dessert pastry, and "Waterloo" is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.

Literature's cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte's death, proves again how important the French Emperor's image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.

The level of Napoleon's rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person's human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.

As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, "people power". He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.

Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it's impossible to fully understand Nietzsche's notion of the "ubermensch" without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe's "ubermensch".

Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx's Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon's name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.

The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed -- and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.

We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It's no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon's great battles.

It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe's last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it's a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.

Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It's a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don't understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.

Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.

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Napoleon is barely remembered today, except as a joke. But his influence over the disastrous wars and revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was immense.

view /ContradictionToCartoon
Monday, March 2, 2015 08:02 am
Two comedians dressed as Napoleon
Story
Levi Asher

The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.

This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?

To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.

Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.

When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.

This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.

If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?

But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?

Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...

No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.

It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.

The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.

Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.

Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.

Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.

So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.

This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.

Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.

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Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is more powerful by levels of magnitude than that of any individual's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind.

view /TortureAndTheHerdMind
Saturday, December 13, 2014 10:51 am
A 1919 Wilfred Trotter book explains a lot today.
Story
Levi Asher

A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.

This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.

I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".

I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).

But here's the strange thing about last night's Dylan concert in Washington DC: I wasn't feeling this anxiety myself at all. I had already seen Bob Dylan fourteen times. But last night's concert came 24 hours after a shocking judgement from Ferguson, Missouri which had caused an impassioned protest around the world. Emotions were high on November 25 all over the United States of America. I wondered if this would affect the mood of the crowd.

I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".

Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.

He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".

Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.

The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.

"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.

This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.

Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.

Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.

Last night's concert, I'm happy to say, was Bob in top form, a night to remember. Here's the setlist, and here are some more detailed reviews of the show I saw.

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Bob Dylan and his traveling band delivers a powerful performance at Constitution Hall in Washington DC on November 25, 2014.

view /DylanDC2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 09:50 am
Bob Dylan concert in Washington DC 2014
Story
Levi Asher

The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.

The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!

The bad news, though, is that the immediate impetus for HTMLGiant's closing is a charge of sexual abuse that has been leveled against the novelist Tao Lin, who happens to be probably the most successful and popular member of the whole "alt-lit" crowd.

I haven't seen Tao in a few years but I used to enjoy talking with him at New York City literary events. I always had a positive impression of this quirky young writer. I would be very sorry to see his career destroyed for any reason, though I agree with others that if he has committed an act of violence against another person, he cannot be easily forgiven. I don't understand the detailed facts about this case, but it is clear that people have been hurt, and that is sad.

The Tao Lin news wasn't the worst bombshell on the scene for me this week. Ed Champion, one of my closest friends, and my longtime "traveling partner" on the literary blogging scene, has had a severe mental breakdown. This didn't happen suddenly. Several of us have seen this coming for the last few years, especially the last two, as various paranoid tendencies got the better of him.

A dumb offense against another writer has (rightfully) generated tremendous backlash against Ed, who has by this point really hit bottom. Unfortunately for himself, he generated a lot of damaging publicity in doing so.

I felt particularly close to the events this week because the other writer who finally called Ed out on his increasingly offensive behavior was the novelist Porochista Khakpour, who is also a good friend of mine. I reviewed her novel The Last Illusion recently, and saw her read from this novel at a Virginia book festival just three weeks ago.

I wrote extensively about my personal feelings about the really frightening crisis that has occurred between two of my good friends and several others in the publishing/lit-crit community on my Twitter account, particularly in a stream of about 50 tweets on September 30 and September 28. Please go there if you'd like to read my perspective on the whole story.

All I'd like to say here is that I think Porochista did the right thing to speak out loudly when Ed started threatening her, and that I really hope Ed gets well. Many people have enjoyed his work at EdRants.com or Bat Segundo over the years, and I hope the literary community can find some sympathy for a guy who made big mistakes and is now suffering for them.

* * * * *

I call this Philosophy Weekend blog post "From Chaos" because life feels chaotic right now. But the emphasis is on the "From", because I'm making some good changes on Litkicks right now. If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed that I've been gradually reducing the frequency of blog posts, which used to come at the rate of two or three a week. Starting now, I'm going to stick to a slower pace of one blog post a week.

This will help me keep the quality level high (quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to blog posts, don't you think?). It will also help me work on a new project I'm cooking up, something that is currently being born, but will take a little while more before it can emerge from the chaos.

I will still be writing often about philosophy and politics and ethics, but this weekend's blog post will be the last one called "Philosophy Weekend". Now that I'm doing one blog post a week, they'll all just be "Literary Kicks". This may take some getting used to, but I think it will work out fine.

I began Philosophy Weekend in June 2010 after ending a weekend series devoted to the New York Times Book Review because that had stopped being fun. I wanted to start using the Litkicks platform to share thoughts about the issues that were most on my mind at this time, particularly issues relating to history, sociology, psychology, politics, religion and philosophy. I think the series was a success, and I am thrilled that Litkicks readers embraced the experiment and kept up a steady level of intelligent and provocative debate in our comments. I hope this keeps going, and I have no doubt that it will.

I'll be continuing to write about the same topics, but it will no longer be a separate section. I like the symbolism that the last Philosophy Weekend blog post is named after the primordial Greek god Khaos, while the very first Philosophy Weekend blog post was named after Sisyphus. Pretty cool, eh? That's how I'm going out. I like to think dear Friedrich would approve.

* * * * *

A note about the artwork: before I began writing this article, I googled "primordial chaos" and found this image on the page of an artist named Vivi-Mari Carpelan, who has very nice work.

11

Why this is the last blog post in the "Philosophy Weekend" series.

view /FromChaos
Friday, October 3, 2014 08:47 pm
Primordial Chaos by Vivi Mari Carpelan
Story
Levi Asher

If you only know the (great) movie version of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, you might think Atlanta was burned in a day. But a city as big as Atlanta can't be burned down that easily. It took General Sherman's army nearly three months, from September 1864 to November, to reduce the entire city and railroad center to ashes. The first of the three months was exactly 150 years ago.

150 years ago: the conflagration blazes around us. Of course, the clever journalist turned fiction writer Margaret Mitchell was not there for the original burning. It would take several generations before the young lady began typing her manuscript from a quaint room on Peachtree Street, imagining Scarlett O'Hara moving in to Aunt Pittypat's house on the same uptown corner.

Margaret Mitchell researched her book well, and her skill for brisk and vivid description made her telling of Atlanta's agonizing fall the one that stuck. Here is a passage from Margaret Mitchell's masterwork, her one and only book, the epic poem of the Confederate South.

Note: I tried to select a brief sequence of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, but prose this elegant must be allowed to breathe, so here's a long section. Here we find Scarlett O'Hara and her refugee friends hearing the news from the city they'd just fled.

The Confederates, he told them, had retaken Atlanta after Sherman marched out, but it was a valueless prize as Sherman had burned it completely.

"But I thought Atlanta burned the night I left," cried Scarlett, bewildered. "I thought our boys burned it!"

"Oh, no, Miss Scarlett!" cried Frank, shocked. "We'd never burn one of our own towns with our own folks in it! What you saw burning was the warehouses and the supplies we didn't want the Yankees to capture and the foundries and the ammunition. But that was all. When Sherman took the town the houses and stores were standing there as pretty as you please. And he quartered his men
in them."

"But what happened to the people? Did he--did he kill them?"

"He killed some--but not with bullets," said the one-eyed soldier grimly. "Soon's he marched into Atlanta he told the mayor that all the people in town would have to move out, every living soul. And there were plenty of old folks that couldn't stand the trip and sick folks that ought not to have been moved and ladies who were -- well, ladies who hadn't ought to be moved either. And he moved them out in the biggest rainstorm you ever saw, hundreds and hundreds of them, and dumped them in the woods near Rough and Ready and sent word to General Hood to come and get them. And a plenty of the folks died of pneumonia and not being able to stand that sort of treatment."

"Oh, but why did he do that? They couldn't have done him any harm," cried Melanie.

"He said he wanted the town to rest his men and horses in," said Frank. "And he rested them there till the middle of November and then he lit out. And he set fire to the whole town when he left and burned everything."

"Oh, surely not everything!" cried the girls in dismay.

It was inconceivable that the bustling town they knew, so full of people, so crowded with soldiers, was gone. All the lovely homes beneath shady trees, all the big stores and the fine hotels -- surely they couldn't be gone! Melanie seemed ready to burst into tears, for she had been born there and knew no other home. Scarlett's heart sank because she had come to love the place second only to Tara.

"Well, almost everything," Frank amended hastily, disturbed by the expressions on their faces. He tried to look cheerful, for he did not believe in upsetting ladies. Upset ladies always upset him and made him feel helpless. He could not bring himself to tell them the worst. Let them find out from some one else.

He could not tell them what the army saw when it marched back into Atlanta, the acres and acres of chimneys standing blackly above ashes, piles of half-burned rubbish and tumbled heaps of brick clogging the streets, old trees dying from fire, their charred limbs tumbling to the ground in the cold wind. He remembered how the sight had turned him sick, remembered the bitter curses of the Confederates when they saw the remains of the town. He hoped the ladies would never hear of the horrors of the looted cemetery, for they'd never get over that. Charlie Hamilton and Melanie's mother and father were buried there. The sight of that cemetery still gave Frank nightmares. Hoping to find jewelry buried with the dead, the Yankee soldiers had broken open vaults, dug up graves. They had robbed the bodies, stripped from the coffins gold and silver name plates, silver trimmings and silver handles. The skeletons and corpses, flung helterskelter among their splintered caskets, lay exposed and so pitiful.

And Frank couldn't tell them about the dogs and the cats. Ladies set such a store by pets. But the thousands of starving animals, left homeless when their masters had been so rudely evacuated, had shocked him almost as much as the cemetery, for Frank loved cats and dogs. The animals had been frightened, cold, ravenous, wild as forest creatures, the strong attacking the weak, the weak waiting for the weaker to die so they could eat them. And, above the ruined town, the buzzards splotched the wintry sky with graceful, sinister bodies.

Frank cast about in his mind for some mitigating information that would make the ladies feel better.

"There's some houses still standing," he said, "houses that set on big lots away from other houses and didn't catch fire. And the churches and the Masonic hall are left. And a few stores too. But the business section and all along the railroad tracks and at Five Points--well, ladies, that part of town is flat on the ground."

"Then," cried Scarlett bitterly, "that warehouse Charlie left me, down on the tracks, it's gone too?"

"If it was near the tracks, it's gone, but--" Suddenly he smiled. Why hadn't he thought of it before? "Cheer up, ladies! Your Aunt Pitty's house is still standing. It's kind of damaged but there it is ..."

There it is, indeed. We often think of Gone With The Wind as a story about a young girl with a crush, but it was also the story of a mature woman who became a powerful businesswoman and a proud rulebreaker in post-Civil War Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O'Hara on herself, and indeed both of them had the knack for rising up from ashes, and inspiring others to do the same.

I have spent 2014 working on an website project for a federal health agency based in Atlanta, and I had an opportunity to spend a week in this glimmering city earlier this year. I visited Margaret Mitchell's simple apartment house on Peachtree Street. I also tried to visit some Civil War battlefields, but I discovered to my dismay that Atlanta doesn't like to remember the Civil War very much. Battle memorials for this city are few and far between.

This conforms to a general principle of battlefield preservation that I've observed: if the region that owns the battlefield is proud of the battle, there will be a great battlefield park. This explains Gettsyburg, Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Shiloh and Chickamauga.

But Atlanta doesn't like its battlefields, and hasn't done much to honor them. There's a small Civil War museum east of the city, near one of many spots where the Confederates entrenched around the city in the summer of 1864 in a hopeless attempt to hold Sherman's army back. There are occasional reenactments of the major battles that took place around these entrenchments: Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough, Ezra Church.

But there's not a battlefield park to be found. The locations at Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough and Ezra Church are completely paved over, developed into houses and golf courses and shopping centers, unknown and forgotten.

Atlanta wasn't kidding around when it obliterated its battlefields. They actually built a highway cloverleaf directly on top of Bald Hill, the site of the shooting of Union General James McPherson. This was one of the most climactic and dramatic moments of the battle for Atlanta. Here's a picture of the spot today.

No respect at all! This only proves how deeply painful and offensive it must have been for the people of Georgia to see their brightest city destroyed with such enthusiasm by invading enemies. The lack of public recognition for the traumas of 1864 indicates a need for healing that has still never taken place.

This is another reason we can all treasure Gone With The Wind: Margaret Mitchell's novel turned out to be the war memorial that the city could not create for itself.

2

A dull highway cloverleaf decorates an honored but forgotten battlefield in the proud Southern city that burned 150 years ago.

view /Atlanta2014
Wednesday, September 17, 2014 09:05 pm
Atlanta on fire in 1864
Story
Levi Asher

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

I thought New York politics was unpredictable, with the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani running around. But our Eric Cantor and Dave Brat and George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have got them beat. The crazy reached a crescendo this week with the stunning news that our once popular and likable former governor Bob McDonnell has been found guilty of accepting bribes from and delivering favors to a businessman named Jonnie Williams.

This businessman had befriended the governor's wife, Maureen, who was also charged with the same crimes. Only two years ago, many believed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were destined for the White House. They will now be spending many years in jail.

Normally a husband and wife found guilty together could take solace in each other's company, but this is not possible here because Bob's lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to pin the blame solely on Maureen, who had apparently been the conduit for most of the gifts. Surprisingly, these gifts were not substantial political donations given with insidious intent for major policy changes, but rather trivial and showy displays of wealth traded for minor favors: a Rolex watch, a loaner Ferrari, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a lavish wedding for one of the McDonnells' five children.

Attempting to defend himself while throwing his wife under the bus, Bob McDonnell declared in court that their marriage had broken down years ago, that Maureen had been infatuated with Jonnie Williams, and that she had engineered the bribes without his full understanding, even though he had delivered small favors in return. The jury didn't buy it. Worse, the tawdry testimony shockingly contradicted the public image of this conservative "pro-marriage" Republican politician, because McDonnell's appeal was always grounded in his Christian fundamentalist background, and on his outspoken belief in family values.

If I were a vengeful liberal Democrat, I would be gleeful about the ungraceful fall of Bob McDonnell. This would be especially easy for me because I had always found McDonnell extremely uninspiring, as plastic as a middle-aged Ken doll.

But I'm avoiding the temptation to gloat about the scandal, because I always try to look beyond petty politics towards grander themes. I also can't pretend to believe that Democratic politicians are much less likely than Republicans to get caught committing outrageous crimes. (Yes, I still remember John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich).

After the verdict came out this week, I found myself defending poor Bob and Maureen McDonnell to a few friends who declared themselves disgusted with the former Governor's dishonesty and greed. Curiously to my friends, I could not agree that dishonesty and greed had much to do with the fall of Bob McDonnell. That seemed to me a shallow and superficial explanation. As we so often find to be the case lately, once we even begin to look deeply at the facts of a crime, we find that the common explanation of the motivation does not stand up to close examination.

I don’t think we discover anything interesting by identifying greed as Bob McDonnell's fatal flaw, because this makes greed sound like a disease that inhabited and infected him. Everything would have been fine, according to this model, if a good man hadn’t been spoiled by an unfortunate psychological toxin. Uncontrollable urges of greed infected Bob McDonnell first, according to this model, and then his second sin of dishonesty followed as he began lying to cover his secret tracks.

However, an examination of McDonnell’s evident courtroom strategy contradicts this. He never acted like a person with a guilty secret. The former Governor insisted on testifying extensively in court to protest his innocence. He even made the devastating decision to publicly break with his wife, who is not only the mother of his children but had also always been the public symbol of his political stance in favor of strong "traditional" (read: not gay) marriage, all to establish his innocence. It's hard to imagine a man who knew he was guilty making so dramatic and destructive a choice.

It turned out that he could not persuade a jury to believe in his innocence, but the terrible personal sacrifice McDonnell made to try to prove his innocence strongly suggests that he believed he was innocent himself. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde model of a good man with a demonic other side does not match this behavior. Dr. Jekyll would not have bothered to try to prove in court that he did not sometimes turn into Mr. Hyde.

Another reason the superficial explanation falls short is that Bob McDonnell showed no lifelong pattern of greed for wealth. If he'd ever really prized expensive watches and prestige cars and lush weddings for his children, he could have pursued a career in banking or finance instead of electoral politics. He had the born gifts to make a lot of money legally: a winning personality, a capable leadership style, enough brains to earn a law degree. A career in politics is nowhere near as lucrative (even with the bribes) as a career in business or finance, which suggests that Bob McDonnell was more interested in the ego gratification of becoming a successful public figure than in the material gratification of quietly attaining wealth.

So, if Bob McDonnell was not possessed by inner demons of uncontrollable greed, what can explain his crimes? The first key is found in the fact, revealed during the trial, that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were not wealthy at all, that their finances were nearly a mess. As available financial records show, this political family with five kids was always struggling to manage its budget, even while living in the Governor's mansion. They never took the time to cash in on book contracts or speaking engagements, and never managed to put serious money into their own bank accounts even as the Governor's low-tax/high-growth policies helped other Virginians who were much more wealthy than they would ever be.

Bob and Maureen were both from modest middle-class backgrounds, and both had worked hard to gain success. Strangely, once they met Jonnie Williams and began receiving his gaudy gifts, Bob and Maureen McDonnell developed a strange habit of getting their pictures taken with these displays of wealth. They were not only eager to drive around in the white Ferrari seen at the top of this page: they were eager to be photographed in it.

Some journalists speculated that a well-publicized photo of McDonnell showing off a new Rolex wristwatch hurt his defense. But it's an essential point that the impulse to be seen wearing a Rolex is different from the desire to own a Rolex. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

It all comes together when we consider a third essential point: Bob McDonnell was a rising star in a Republican party that worshipped financial success. He was not personally wealthy, but he was eager to continue to rise in a social milieu that valued wealth as a primary proof of grace.

With this last point, we now have enough evidence to piece together an entire theory of Bob McDonnell's downfall. He thought he was supposed to accept these gifts. The whirlwind of his fast rise into national politics, and perhaps the stress of being considered a likely Vice-Presidential pick for the fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney, had left him grasping for a foothold in a world above his station. He was trying, foolishly, to play the game of big-money politics correctly when he accepted the bribes.

It was not urges to gluttony but rather feelings of inferiority that deluded Bob McDonnell into accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams. Jonnie Williams appeared to the Governor to represent something greater than what he himself had: vast wealth in the private sector, a know-how about the muscle power of money, an inborn ease with the world of luxurious possessions.

It's entirely possible that Bob McDonnell didn't care at all about Rolexes or Ferraris. He only cared to be seen with them. He hinted at this during his trial testimony when asked about his wife's acceptance of a Louis Vuitton handbag. "I wouldn't recognize a Louis Vuitton handbag if I saw it," he said. Courtroom reporters speculated that this line didn't persuade the jury, but perhaps it should have. It may be the truest thing he said during the entire trial.

I find it remarkably useful to analyze news events in the way, to look past the surface and try to construct a psychological story that encompasses all known facts of the case and still rings true. This process often has the positive side effect of generating a general sense of sympathy, and indeed I do feel very sorry for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell right now. I didn't like them much when Bob was Governor, and I never thought he deserved to be Governor, but I also don't think that he and Maureen deserve to be utterly disgraced.

Reporters said that Bob and Maureen both wept (separately, in different parts of the courtroom) during the reading of the verdict. I suspect that Bob McDonnell cried because he was surprised, because he really does believe himself to be innocent. In the broadest sense, he really was innocent, too innocent — a babe in the woods, lost in the hall of Rolexes, playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand. It’s because he was so innocent that he was just found guilty.

As sorry as I feel for Bob McDonnell, I feel even more sorry for Maureen McDonnell, who was just demonized and ridiculed (“a nutbag”) by her own husband's lawyers and witnesses in a public courtroom. I’m sure she would have preferred to have spent the time being waterboarded. Maureen's core motivation, it turns out, was her poignant love for a flashy, glad-handing businessman. Her beloved Jonnie Williams also turned witness against her, so it’s disturbing to imagine how alone she feels right now. She seems nearly as tragic a character as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

The entire saga of Bob and Maureen McDonnell seems to take on the dimensions of a Buddhist fable. They were both starry-eyed with maya, with the endless refractions of glittering illusion. The handsome and confident Governor appeared to be Vice-Presidential material, but he was staggering inside, trying to figure out the rules of a game that was playing too fast, all the while trying to deal with the soul-crushing disappointment of a marriage gone bad while smiling for the photos with his wife on his arm. Both were in the grip of mad desire, the wheel of samsara. The luxuriant objects they reached for turned out to be empty. It all dissolved into dust.

I refer to this as a Buddhist fable because the concepts of karma and dharma seem to ring truer in our eternal judgement of Bob and Maureen McDonnell than words like “guilty” or “corrupt”. This is useful when we compare (as we should) their behavior to our own expectations of how we might behave in their place. If we believe the Governor and his wife were suddenly possessed by insane greed for shiny possessions, we can flatter ourselves that they caught a disease we don’t seem to have fully caught ourselves yet, and that, temporarily at least, we are safe from ever making similar mistakes.

But once we understand that they were blinded by maya in the grip of dharma, we can begin to relate more personally to their stories, and hopefully pick up some deeper lessons from the tawdry affair. This is why Buddhist fables are useful. If any of us think we are too smart to avoid ever making the kinds of mistakes Bob and Maureen McDonnell made, even in our own humble little worlds, we’d probably do well to start checking our own maya every day.

5

The Bob McDonnell scandal was about much more than greed. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

view /BobAndMaureenMcDonnell
Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm
The Buddha watches over Bob McDonnell
Story
Levi Asher

A few days ago, an African-American teenager was killed by a policeman for no apparent reason in a town called Ferguson on the outer edge of St. Louis, Missouri. As outraged citizens began protesting in the streets, the police made a bad situation worse by confronting the protestors in terrifying battle-line formation with quasi-military equipment and tear gas grenades, denying the right to assemble, arresting journalists and photographers.

Now the protest has become a global concern, and the anger that many of us in the USA have been expressing contains some pent-up rage, since we’ve all been watching video footage from Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq. We’ve been seeped in images of foreign violence all year, so the images of violence in the middle of our own country can feel like the revelation of a hidden universal truth: we are part of this war-torn world.

Universal truths often emerge rapidly in times of public crisis, but we need to carefully choose which universal truths we want to nurture. It is indeed a discouraging truth that our own benevolent authorities can commit murder, that our own peaceful towns can erupt in bitter conflict, all on a pleasant summer day.

But there are also other more encouraging and instructive universal truths that emerge in difficult moments like these, though the positive lessons often shine only weakly through the ugliness and noise. Because so many people in Ferguson, Missouri are sharing photos and videos and instant reports, and because the local police chiefs and politicians have been issuing regular press conferences, the mechanics of this crisis have been relatively transparent. We haven’t yet learned why an African-American teenager was shot by a cop, but we definitely have learned how the reaction to the shooting devolved into a riot.

The whole story went like this: first, a cop shot a teenager for no reason. Then an angry crowd expressed its outrage, and the police snapped into brutal military mode to quell the protest. Why was the police response so brutal? Because the cops felt threatened. They felt threatened because one of them had made a terrible mistake, and retributions were sure to follow. The violence of the police response was a reflection of the police department's internal sense of guilt about the original shooting.

Of course, the overreaction by the police only made the protestors more determined to stand their ground, and unfortunately the scene on the street also began to devolve into some amount of mindless destruction and looting, thus creating a demand for more police. The cycle was complete.

The object in the image at the top of this page looks like a weapon, but it is in fact just an antique razor, found among other ruins of medieval England centuries after it had probably been used by at least one man to shave his face. I choose this image (which I superimposed on a scene of a World War One military parade) to represent the philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor.

William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian and philosopher known for a declaration that is widely loved among philosophers even today. “Occam’s Razor” is an appeal to empirical simplicity, to common sense, to the power of rationality and the importance of avoiding bias. The statement is this: given a difficult problem to solve, the simplest answer is probably the one to keep.

Wikipedia’s introduction to the concept explains it well:

Occam's razor … is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.

Occam's Razor is a famous philosophical statement, but it’s not a cliche, because a thoughtful consideration of this principle can still provide surprising and provocative results in many applications. I thought of Occam’s Razor as I followed events in Ferguson this week.

I also thought of Occam’s Razor when I wrote last weekend’s Philosophy Weekend blog post arguing that the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency 40 years ago was not actually the product of Nixon’s personal psychological problems but rather of a reasonable fear of espionage and military weakness shared by many Americans during the Vietnam War era. I also thought of the Razor several months before when I wrote a series of blog posts suggesting that every major incident of genocide during the last couple of hundred years has been primarily motivated not by hatred or prejudice or racism or religious bigotry but, again, simply by fear.

This emphasis on fear as a root cause of conflict is indeed the major truth that Occam’s Razor can deliver to us as we analyze any crisis, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or in Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine or Syria and Iraq. The answer always fits, and it always explains everything. Always.

Occam’s Razor is intended not only to emphasize simple answers that work but also to cut out complicated and tortuous answers that don’t work. When we accept the simple answer that violence and conflict and war are always the product of fear, we are successfully cutting out several other bad answers that are often cited as the root cause of violence and conflict and war.

Here are some of the bad answers that Occam's Razor can help us shave away, when we try to think intelligently about the violent conflicts of our time:

  • These terrible things happen because some people are just evil and hateful.
  • These terrible things happen because some sectors of society are not capable of civilized behavior.
  • These terrible things happen because of our innate enjoyment of violence.

It's sad to realize how popular these three general beliefs are, and how widely they are held. If a poll was taken, I bet all three of these statements would rank higher in public acceptance than the one I am proposing, which is:

  • These terrible things happen because both sides feel threatened.

But that's just because people aren't thinking very hard, and aren't using Occam's Razor.

Indeed, the hypothesis that fear is the root cause of most civil and global conflict survives Occam's Razor in a way that the other three statements do not. To posit a mental state or motivational force called "evil" or "hate" is to introduce murky and quasi-demonic concepts where they are not needed. We do not know for sure what "evil" is or where "hate" originates. But we do all instinctively know what "fear" means. If all the historic and current conflicts of the world can be explained simply as products of fear, than this is a better answer than any answer involving intangibles such as "evil" and "hate". Fear is the more primal and direct phenomenon, and thus better passes William of Ockham's test for reasonable belief.

Since it is indeed possible to find strong expressions of fear as motivating factors for most conflicts or mass atrocities, the statement that posits evil or hate as more influential than fear does not pass Occam's Razor. That takes care of the first statement.

As for the second, which posits deeply embedded societal difference between, say, street protestors and cops in Missouri, or between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, we will quickly bog down in contradiction once we try to characterize exactly what these differences are. On what scale is a society's moral sophistical supposed to be measured, and how do we know that our cultural biases are not reflected in these scales? The closer we look, the less clarity we will find regarding these societal differences, and therefore this explanation is more of a conceptual stretch than the simple explanation that conflict between societies is a product of fear.

As for the third statement above, the Dostoevskian observation that humans often enjoy violence, we must admit that this is in itself true. However, it does not appear evident that our natural enjoyment of violence plays a strong role in our politics. While we should not deny the twisted aspects of human nature, we can at least take comfort in the fact that our violent instincts generally provide only weak and sporadic signals to our rational minds, and that most people will choose to behave decently to each other when they can. Most importantly, we can observe that psychological urges towards violence are a private individual phenomenon, and that these secret individual urges are not likely to occur to large numbers of people at the same time. This means that the collective behaviors that become dominant in times of a public conflict -- protests, fights, police riots, foreign invasions, wars -- are not likely to be expressions of private urges to violence overcoming many people at the same time. That would require a practical mechanism to exist for the transference of private urges to public policy, and this mechanism itself is too murky and mysterious to survive Occam's Razor.

To sum up: sure, we could believe that the ongoing disaster in Ferguson, Missouri is a manifestation of spiritual evil, or a result of societal deficiency, or the product of dark psychological urges towards violence. But, again, William of Ockham has advised us to always select the simplest answer that successfully addresses all particulars of the question. In Ferguson, Missouri, the simplest possible answer is "fear".

In Israel and Palestine, the simplest possible answer is also "fear", and it is too in Ukraine and Russia, and Iraq and Syria. In all cases, we can trace the influence of fear on both sides of the conflicts, and we can sadly watch everything unfold from the fear instinct alone. It's an answer to a difficult question that holds up pretty well. William of Ockham showed us the method 700 years ago, but we're still struggling to wield this razor correctly.

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A medieval theologian named William of Ockham gave us a philosophical principle that can help explain the violent conflicts that puzzle and terrify us today.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014 08:44 am
Ockham's Razor and a military parade
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Levi Asher