The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain (2017) is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion.  Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hidden motives, because they tend not to show humans in the most flattering light. Continue reading

The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers, written in 1962, is something of an uncharacteristic masterpiece.

The narrator, Lucius Priest, is an old man recounting adventures from when he was an eleven-year-old boy, in 1905, just as automobiles first arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi. His grandfather, Boss Priest, who owns one of the few cars then in existence, goes by train to a distant funeral, leaving Lucius to enter into an unspoken pact with his grandfather’s driver (and distant relative), Boon Hogganbeck. They conspire to steal the car and take it to Memphis, Tennessee, where gambling, scams, and prostitution await. To “reive”, by the way, is to steal, hence the “reivers”.

It remain a powerful narrative and worthwhile read for several reasons: Continue reading

Kudos

After discovering her piece Aftermath a few years ago, and having revisited it several times since, I’ve been an adherent of Rachel Cusk’s. I am tempted to re-read that piece now, but I know that its stark, hypnotic beauty would move me too much and prevent me from writing anything about her latest book. Kudos is the third in a trilogy of what feel like semi-autobiographical novels, featuring a painfully vacant writer (and absent mother) who is going through the motions on the literary festival circuit, rarely speaking, as those around her uncontrollably pour confessions, philosophies, and personal quandaries upon her as if she’s their unpaid therapist. Continue reading

Circe

Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a bad book, but it is disappointing in a number of ways. It takes for its first-person hero the witch of Aiaiai, Circe, a daughter of the sun-god Helios, turner of men into pigs, and eventual lover of Odysseus. It is a sort of riposte to The Odyssey so it’s unsurprising that it takes the time to dismantle the old heroes and gods one by one: Odysseus, Achilles, Hermes, Athena, Helios, most of the other nymphs, demigods, and gods, are portrayed as frivolous and vain, as well as Jason, Herakles, Ajax, who are depicted (amusingly) as hulking bores. This is all fair enough; the gods are mercurial and immature at the best of times, and quite pathetically petty at their worst, and the heroes are nothing if not unwise. On this level her treatment is welcome, humanising and critical of the often misogynistic and merely vacuous penchants of the gods. Continue reading

12 Rules for Life

You probably shouldn’t read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m not normally one to discourage reading (or intellectual endeavour), but this is a strange exception. It’s not exactly that Peterson is wrong about anything specific, although he occasionally very much is. It is rather that on many topics, he is right, but his extreme confidence in mixing many correct observations with some incorrect ones, combined with his bleak view of humanity make its potential for harming your worldview outweigh its potential for improving your life. His unwavering certitude is one reason I recommend against reading it: someone impressionable might not be able to distinguish between where his views are mainstream versus where they are highly dubious, to say nothing of how strident and repetitive his writing can be. (Most of the best things he says are said more eloquently elsewhere.) But my primary objection is with a sort of self-contradiction that exists in his ideas. Continue reading

Mrs. Dalloway

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Mrs. Dalloway is so heartbreaking. Some of it is undoubtedly down to its manner of plumbing the depths of time, the way in which those strong moments of life, of violence and of youth, of youth’s violence, can so resolutely stand time’s test, can so indelibly inscribe one’s present, can last so long into age, can remain more real to us than our everyday existence; more familiar, sometimes, those faces from one’s youth, than the deepening lines in the mirror make us to ourselves. It conveys precisely how certain acquaintances can be cut for years, even decades, without their bonds on us weakening in the slightest. One might be forgiven for assuming, as I had, that this manner of recollection would come across as stream of consciousness. But the novel’s profound consciousness is not streamlike. As a cursory introspection into one’s own mind reveals, there is really nothing continuous about it at all, and it is its discontinuity, and, in sensitive and damaged individuals, its total susceptibility to environment, that is its defining characteristic. Continue reading

Bullshit Jobs

First, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is an extremely pleasurable read, and you should read it, if nothing else for the accounts of the utterly useless things people have been employed to do. The book was born in the wake of the storm of Graeber’s 2013 article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“. The premise is simple: In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted, with the pace of mechanisation and technological advances, that by the end of the century the world would enjoy a 15-hour work week. Given the endless, inescapable, invariably tedious discussions of automation and AI, why hasn’t this happened? The short version of this book is: it has. The reason that it doesn’t appear to have happened is because the remaining twenty-five hours (or in more dire new-world cases, sixty-five hours) have been filled with unnecessary admin and bureaucracy, with some of the worst jobs (from the soul’s point of view) concerned exclusively with increasing that burden. Sound fanciful? The argument is premised mostly on empirical data, self-reported by the people actually doing these jobs. (It also lines up well discussion I’ve had with people in many industries.) Polls in the UK and the Netherlands have shown 37 to 40% of people do not believe, by their own estimation, that their job contributes anything useful to their company or to society. How can this be? Isn’t this impossible under capitalism? Continue reading

The Enchanted April

“Enchanting” and its close cousin “charming” are apt words for Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April. It’s an outwardly unassuming meditation on how one’s surroundings can change one’s mind, and gives a fair amount of early (1922) insight into British attitudes towards the rigidity of society, as well as to the ameliorative effects both of holidays (and may even give some insight into today’s music festivals). The relaxation of strictures and class stratification empowers not just the destination sun but even the act of leaving England with an enchanting quality that slowly but surely changes its characters. In the book these qualities actually line up well with American philosopher William James’ categorisation of mystical experiences. First, he calls them ineffable, and indeed the characters have a difficult time putting into words precisely what is happening to them or what it is about the setting that is quite so transformative; they merely keep repeating the the name of the place, “San Salvatore,” which doesn’t really explain anything, though one gradually gathers an empirical understanding of its meaning. Second, he calls them noetic, meaning that they seem to reveal truth. Most of the characters feel that something inside them is awakening which is more true than their previous lives. Third, they are transient, and cannot be sustained for long. Although here the experience lasts a month, the characters worry that the effects will dissipate on their return to London. Fourth, they are passive. Certainly Mrs. Wilkins and the others feel like it is the environment acting upon them rather than vice-versa. In other words their experience is a retreat of sorts, leading to a quasi-religious transformation, with Mrs. Wilkins becoming saint-like, a more powerful harmony with nature, raptures of gratitude, the dissolving of old selves. This is an interesting representation of the effects of a new environment, representing a kind of primeval British holiday, providing what holidays were invoked to provide: not just a break and refreshment, but rediscovery, renewed vigour, and a new love for life, caused by the beauty and unfamiliarity of a new place, which one hopes will persist and bleed over into the everyday. It must also be said that certain scenes in this book are absolutely hilarious. An enchanting read. 

How to Change Your Mind

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to see Michael Pollan talk about his new book, How to Change Your Mind. He was interviewed by author Zoe Cormier, at a co-working space called Second Home in East London. Pollan is best known for books on food, including the excellent Cooked (2013), the first book of his that I read (and reviewed here). This led me to his earlier books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and The Botany of Desire (2001). Pollan views himself not strictly as a food writer, but as having written on food out of a broader interest in the ways in which humans interact with nature; it just so happens that agriculture is one of the most consequential ways that we do so. His earlier books were provocative and mind-opening; they changed what I ate and how I cooked. His new book seeks to open vistas of the mind in a different way. Ambitiously subtitled “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” the book largely delivers on its wide remit, and I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of prior interest on the topic. Continue reading

Flourish (2011)

Psychologist Martin Seligman’s Flourish is a strange book, in that it does not deliver on any of its promises, and yet somehow remains enjoyable. You would be forgiven for assuming, given the book’s rather bold opening that “This book will help you flourish,” that the book will in fact help you flourish—which it does, sort of. The early chapters, after promising then not delivering many practical exercises, then seem to imply that the book will instead summarise developments of positive psychology beyond its original scope of “authentic happiness”—which it does, sort of. The rest is part intriguing memoir, part summary of where psychology and philosophy went wrong in the twentieth century, and part discussion of the military and education. If this sounds like a strange mixture, it is. And yet the writing remains engaging, and the book does actually give some practical advice about how to incorporate gratitude, better listening skills, and activities which are orientated towards character strengths and accomplishment, into one’s life. Because of what appears to be a lack of editorial guidance, going into it with expectations to learn anything specific is likely to lead to disappointment. But if you pick it up, as I did, with an open mind no expectations, you may find quite a few provocative facts and perspectives.