Not's review of The Naked Ape reminded me of this unknown book, which reports on the lost generation of Swedish children who were made the subject ofNot's review of The Naked Ape reminded me of this unknown book, which reports on the lost generation of Swedish children who were made the subject of various experiments in educational psychology between 1965 and 1980. The author reports on his progress through the Swedish school system. In every year, they restart mathematics from scratch using set theory or whatever the fashionable thing happened to be at the time, and never get as far as multiplication. They learn geography by studying politically correct folk legends from the countries in question.
Well, he says at the end of the chapter, I went Interrailing when I was 19 so I found out where Denmark is. But how much is three times three? ...more
Sitting next to a seven year old boy at dinner the other day, the conversation, as it so often does in these circumstances, turned to the interestingSitting next to a seven year old boy at dinner the other day, the conversation, as it so often does in these circumstances, turned to the interesting subject of poo. Jenkin proudly informed me that he had received a copy of Plop Trumps for Christmas. I was treated to a precis of the rules.
"You might like The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunnit," I guessed. We were both delighted when it turned out that Jenkin had in fact already read it.
"You got it for me from the English library," he told his mother.
"Did I?" she said uncertainly. "Honestly, I just can't keep up. I bring back a load of books, and an hour later he says he's finished them all."
It is a pleasure to meet the new generation of book nerds. Relax, everyone: the future is safe. ...more
Their have been many descriptions of the grieving process in world literature a very famous one is In Search of LosThe Grieving Process in Literature
Their have been many descriptions of the grieving process in world literature a very famous one is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust Marcel's GF has died in an acsident he is very sad and goes round asking all her friends if she was a lezzy but no one will tell him for sure in the end he thinks maybe it wasnt so important really. A modern book about the grieving process is Min Camp by Karl Over Knaugard his father has died and he is very sad and cries all the time speshully becoz his father has left the house looking like a bomb hit it there are empties and crap everywhere so he has to spend all week cleaning it up it is a nightmare.
Unfortunately In Search of Lost Time and Min Camp are very long they are like litrally thousands of pages so I havent had time to read them for this essay but they are very important books in world literature all the same. But last nite I went and saw Cans by Stuart Slade it is also about the grieving process but it is shorter and the theater is above a pub that is a plus if you ask me. This girl Jen and her uncle Len are grieving for Jens father who is also Lens brother they are cleaning up his shit putting stuff in boxes it is a bit like Min Camp I think. They are very sad becoz he topped himself he was a TV personalty who was accused of being a perv and a cereal rapist it is a refrence to Rolf Harris or Bill Cosby one of those people anyway.
Cans is quite funny people were LOLing all the time you learn a lot about how grieving works like when you are grieving you dont see the funny side of things their is this bit at the beginning when they are drowning mice it is hilarius but Jen cant see that becoz she is so broken up about her dad. And when you are grieving you arent interested in sex Jens BF wants her to sext him pictures of her ladybits but shes not interested in the end she smses him gifs she has got off a porn site she wonders if he will notice but he dont.
You learn that grief is very difficult Jen is so sad but their are 2 things that are very important if you want to feel better you have to have someone to talk to and you have to drink a lot of cider. I liked this play a lot next time something really bad happens to me I will remember that. ...more
This book is not a novel, and it is not an autobiography, and it is certainly not a responsible work of history, sociology or anthropology. It is, morThis book is not a novel, and it is not an autobiography, and it is certainly not a responsible work of history, sociology or anthropology. It is, more than anything else, a meeting with the author, a Norwegian who has spent his life wandering the world collecting information for his masterpiece, the History of Bestiality. He sometimes calls himself Johannes, and sometimes Jean, or Giovanni, or Ivan; he is evidently very far from sane, and he usually has a glass of wine in his hand. After a while, I began to imagine the surroundings. We are sitting in a large room in an establishment which might be a psychiatric hospital, but is more likely a rather downmarket brothel. As we talk, people wander in and out. Sometimes, they join in the conversation for a while; my host asks them to read passages in their native languages, while he nods encouragingly. Many of them are attractive young women, who look at him (never at me) with melting eyes.
Sometimes I think Johannes hates humanity, and sometimes I think he loves it too much. He refers to his fellow human beings by a variety of pet names; he calls them his small bears, or his lemurs, or his wolves. He launches into long, fantastically detailed stories about the Nazi doctors, the witch-hunts of the early 17th century, the conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires, the Vietnam war. He has a ferocious and unforgiving hatred of the Americans, the Russians, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Catholic and Protestant churches. He cannot mention Lenin or Saint Paul without spitting, but he loves Marx and Jesus. He keeps changing his mind about Robespierre.
He says that Hitler might have been a good thing for the Europeans; they finally had a chance to learn what it was like to be on the receiving end. But then he shakes his head and says it’s probably too difficult for them to understand.
He describes how men have raped and tortured women in the name of religious and political ideals. He is extremely specific, and presents long lists of the dreadful things that they have done; after a while, he is so agitated that he can hardly speak. When this happens, the girl nearest him touches his hand for a moment, or smooths his thinning hair, and after a while he can go on.
He complains bitterly that the universe has no meaning. He makes frequent reference to the burning heat at the center of the Earth and the absolute cold of space. He says there is life only here, in this tiny zone precariously wedged between the two extremes, and that we have turned our fragile little abode into a torture chamber.
He talks for several hours. In the end, he is too exhausted and overwrought to continue. He collapses on to his bed and lies there, half reclining, momentarily unable to speak. One of the girls, the one who appears to be his favorite, brings him a jar of pills. He helps himself to a handful and washes them down with more wine.
“I have done what I could,” he says, in an unexpectedly clear voice. “Now it is up to you. Nunc dimittis; suffer thy servant to depart in peace.”
I leave. No one looks at me; they can only see him. ...more
I had seen so many references to Hume's Enquiry that I almost thought I had read it; but, when I actually got around to opening the book, I found as uI had seen so many references to Hume's Enquiry that I almost thought I had read it; but, when I actually got around to opening the book, I found as usual that things were not quite as I had imagined. I was not surprised by his relentless scepticism, or by his insistence on basing all reasoning on empirical evidence. These qualities, after all, have become proverbial. I was, however, surprised to find that I hadn't correctly grasped the essence of his argument concerning the nature of knowledge. In case you are as poorly informed as I was, let me summarise it here.
Hume's position is wonderfully simple. He asks what grounds we have for supposing that multiple repetitions of an experiment justify us in inferring a necessary law. If we note, on many occasions, that hot objects burn our hands when we touch them, what logical reason do we have for assuming that we should not touch the next candle flame we happen to see?
The answer is that we have no logical grounds at all for making such an inference. Of course, as a matter of observed fact, we do assume, after a small number of trials, that touching hot objects will hurt us. Hume says this is nothing to do with logic; we are simply designed in such a way that we cannot help being influenced by our experience to adopt such rules. As he points out, many other living creatures do the same. It is impossible to believe that a dog or a horse is performing any kind of logical deduction when they learn to avoid touching naked flames. They simply acquire the habit of behaving in this way. The most economical explanation of what we see is that human beings are doing the same thing.
A mountain of discussion has accumulated since Hume published his book, and it would be presumptuous of me to give my opinions when so many extremely clever people have already done so. I am, however, struck by something I have noticed in the course of my professional career. I have worked in Artificial Intelligence and related subjects since the early 80s, and during that period the field has suffered a profound change. In 1980, most AI research was related to logic. People assumed that the notion of intelligence was in some essential way based on the notion of deduction. Making machines intelligent was a question of making them capable of performing the right kinds of logical inferences. This tempting approach was, unfortunately, a resounding failure.
Somewhere towards the end of the last century, a different way of looking at things started to become fashionable, and quickly gained ground. Instead of thinking about logic, people began more and more to think about probability. They collected data and extracted various kinds of statistical regularities. The new AI systems made no attempt to think logically; their decisions were based on associations acquired from their experience. At first, the AI community was scornful, but it was soon found that "data-driven" systems worked quite well. They made stupid mistakes sometimes; but so did the logic-based systems, and the mechanical logicians tended to make more stupid mistakes. They could reason, but they had no common sense. Today, data-driven systems have taken over the field, and the approach has been shown to work well for many problems which had once been considered impossible challenges. Particularly striking successes have been notched up in machine translation, speech recognition, computer vision, and allied fields.
If David Hume came back today, I have no idea whether he'd be offered a chair at a philosophy department. But I'm fairly sure that Google would be interested in hiring him. ...more
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As with the other volumes, I am hesitant to give this more than three or at most four[from Min kamp 5]
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As with the other volumes, I am hesitant to give this more than three or at most four stars; but the series as a whole, which we now see is one coherent book, clearly rates the full five. It was enormously enjoyable to work out for myself just what the hell Min kamp is actually about, and if you like doing that kind of thing I strongly advise you to stop here and not come back until you've also finished it. Just be assured that there is most definitely a point.
For people who don't feel up to reading 3500 pages of Norwegian, less than half of which is currently available in English translation, (view spoiler)[I continue the story from part 5. The mad author, “Karl Ove Knausgård”, has completed the first two volumes of his magnum opus Min kamp and is about to publish them. He is sick with worry about how his wife, who still hasn't read the manuscript, is going to react when she sees what he's done. He has already sent copies to other people who appear in the story; some of them make no objection, but others violently disapprove. His uncle Gunnar, in particular, is incoherent with rage. He says Knausgård has lied, he has witnesses who can prove it, and he's going to sue both him and the publisher.
Volume 6 is divided into three parts, of roughly equal lengths. The first and third are about the surface story, and certainly do not lack interest. But it is in the middle section, a dense, 400 page long piece of pseudo-literary criticism, that “Knausgård” has hidden the key to the book. He has already had fun taking on the personas, among others, of Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Dante and Hamsun. Now (I think, anyway), he adopts the character of Adorno, a writer he has repeatedly expressed admiration for, and gives you the final pieces of the puzzle.
Like all magicians, his act hinges on diverting your attention. The central question of the novel is not whether the events depicted are “true”, or how his family will react. It is something much more obvious, so obvious that it has been right in front of you since the first page and has stayed there ever since. It is the narrator's extraordinary, compelling, hypnotic voice, that keeps you reading against your better judgment. Everyone remarks on the voice. But where does it come from? That's what we should have been wondering.
It transpires that we have been listening, spellbound, to Adolf Hitler.
Of course! Of course! Why else would the novel be called Min kamp (the Norwegian title of Mein Kampf)? Why else is it so absurdly long? As he describes Hitler's life – in particular, his early life – everything suddenly makes sense. We see that the young “Knausgård” of volumes 3 to 5 has been cunningly portrayed to be as much like Hitler as possible. The tyrannical father. The kind and sympathetic mother. The insane, grandiose plans. The strange attitude to sex and women – apparently the young Hitler also refused to masturbate, and helplessly adored girls he never dared approach. In general, the bizarre mixture of corruption and purity. The flashes of hatred against the whole world, when he reacts to his latest setback by vowing that one day he will become the greatest and show them all. The ability to state openly what everyone is secretly thinking, but dares not say aloud. The apparent absence of a sense of humor. The emphasis on the concrete, the physical, earth and blood.
The characters of Hitler and “Knausgård” fuse together. The Hitler of this book is a Bohemian, a would-be painter, who only ends up taking the road that eventually makes him the Führer because he's suffered the intolerable humiliation of being turned down by the Viennese art academy. Similarly, “Knausgård” is a failed writer, unable to get published or reach an audience until he makes a Faustian bargain that finally gives him the voice he needs – there are more than a few references to Mann's Adrian Leverkühn. At last, we understand his discussion of The Sound and the Fury, where everything circles around a hidden act that is never named. Even more, we realize the nature of the dark shadow from the Wizard of Earthsea sequence in part 3. And, needless to say, people who make Faustian bargains have to pay an appropriate price; Knausgård's portrayal of Hell as everyday life in a dysfunctional Swedish family is characteristically idiosyncratic, but no less convincing for that.
What an extraordinarily clever, witty, insightful and moving book. Some day, quite soon I think, everyone will know the story, and it will be impossible to read it and be surprised the way I was. There is a lovely passage in this last volume comparing art and miracles; a work of art is an unrepeatable event, which like a miracle can only be seen once, and which progressively loses its force as it becomes better known. I feel I have been witness to a literary miracle. I hope you took my advice and read the book before looking at this review.
Thank you, Karl Ove. ________________________________
I suppose I can't avoid the question, seeing that most of Scandinavia apparently spent a couple of years discussing little else. So, if you're still wondering about the moral aspects, let me briefly give you my reasons for believing that no Swedish women poets were harmed in making this movie. Needless to say, I can't prove anything, but I would at any rate like to submit exhibits A and B to the court's attention:
A. It turns out, as noted, that the main narrator of the book is Adolf Hitler. There is a long passage in the middle section of part 6 describing Hitler's thoughts on propaganda, as outlined in Mein Kampf. Hitler advocated the technique that has now become generally known as the Big Lie: just keep on repeating your message, paying no attention to the fact that it doesn't make sense and is obviously not true, and people will eventually believe it. As Knausgård says, the astonishing thing is that Hitler cold-bloodedly put this in print, in a book that millions of Germans would read. He was so sure of what he was saying that he knew it would make no difference.
So when Knausgård says, over and over again, that everything in the book is the simple truth, I think he's messing with our minds. It's exactly the same deal: he tells us bluntly what tricks he is going to use, and we ignore him.
B. There is an amusing sequence near the end of part 6 where they're sitting around the kitchen table chez Knausgård. “Hey!” says one person. “Have you noticed? Everyone here is a character in a novel!”
“There should be a web forum where characters in novels can discuss their experiences,” agrees another.
“I volunteer as moderator,” says Knausgård.
“Tell me,” says Knausgård's brother Yngve as he turns towards Linda, “How does it feel to read that you've been hung out to dry?”
Well, I don't know about you. But I smell a giant example of Rattus norvegicus. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A young woman finds a book abandoned on a park bench. There's a note inside saying that the previous reader had taken great pleasure from it, and that
A young woman finds a book abandoned on a park bench. There's a note inside saying that the previous reader had taken great pleasure from it, and that they hope the person who finds the book will enjoy it as much as they did. The woman takes the book home and starts reading; after a while, she just can't put it down. Her boyfriend, who never reads anything more demanding than his smartphone manual, doesn't get it. But she becomes more and more curious about the book. Some of the words are circled. Is there a hidden message that will tell her where it came from?
I found this graphic novel next to my seat when we had breakfast at the Cottage Café earlier today, and, like the heroine, I couldn't put it down either. It's charming, funny and sexy, and my only complaint is that I'll have to get hold of part 2 to discover what the secret is. Recommended for anyone who reads French and prefers books to smartphones. _______________________________
Like Camélia in the book, I cannot rest until I know where the mysterious messages are coming from. On the way back from a shopping trip, I deviously steered our path so that we went past Payot. (Not, who hates graphic novels, was less than pleased by my subterfuge). The assistant, as always, was very helpful; but alas, it turns out that the sequel has not yet been published.
Curses! I must find out! Maybe I can track down the author's address and start going through his garbage? I'm sure Camélia wouldn't just tamely admit defeat and wait for the damn thing to appear... _______________________________
The spy-cam I've installed in Mig's studio has given some tantalizing hints of what part 2 will contain ((view spoiler)[ (hide spoiler)]). But I still can't figure out the secret.
This is a difficult book to review. Rorty, you soon realize, is an exceptionally clever person. He seems to have all of philosophy at his fingertips:This is a difficult book to review. Rorty, you soon realize, is an exceptionally clever person. He seems to have all of philosophy at his fingertips: he presupposes a good knowledge, just to name the more important candidates, of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dewey, Frege, Russell, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Moore, Heidegger, Sartre, Quine, Davidson, Feyerabend, Kuhn, Nagel, Derrida, Sellars, Strawson and Putnam. (I can, with considerable goodwill, tick maybe a quarter of this list). He frequently uses technical terms in German, French, Latin and Classical Greek, sometimes with a gloss but usually without. Worst of all, you can't even get annoyed with him for being dull and pedantic; the bastard writes well and is often funny. It's rather intimidating.
At first, it may look as though he's showing off, but after a while a clear plan becomes visible. Rorty has set himself three main goals. The first, the one in the title, is to argue against the philosophical position which he calls "the mirror of Nature": the assumption that the mind is in some sense a reflection of the world. Rorty sees this idea both as being central to a large part of existing philosophy, and also as seriously mistaken. Having recently read Nagel's horrible Mind and Cosmos, I was receptive to Rorty's arguments against approaches where some kind of mind-stuff - "qualia", "raw feels" or whatever - is considered part of the world.
Rorty takes as his paradigmatic example the concept of "pain", and questions the claim that "pains" should be conceived of as mental objects. There is an elegant science-fiction-like sequence featuring a hypothetical race called the Antipodeans, who have a good knowledge of neurology and only talk about pain in terms of neural correlates. Thus, when we say "I have have a headache", an Antipodean will say something like "My C-fibres are being stimulated". Rorty imagines how we might communicate with Antipodeans, and argues, in Wittgensteinian fashion, that our talk of "pain" is in fact no more than talk. There is nothing we could ever do, even with the most sophicated imaginable neural imaging techniques, to determine whether the Antipodeans "really feel pain", or, indeed, "really have minds". I liked the Antipodeans, and I hope a science-fiction writer some day considers fleshing out this sketch into a novel. Though they may seem a little counterintuitive, compared to the bizarre positions that Nagel is forced to take up they were positively commonsensical.
But how did we get into this odd situation of believing in mirror-like minds? (Borrowing a phrase from Isabella's speech in Measure for Measure, Rorty often refers ironically to our "Glassy Essences"). He gradually introduces his second theme. Far from being a fixed, eternal idea, an inescapable part of our way of thinking about the world, Rorty considers that the Glassy Essence, in its present form, is a relatively recent invention of Descartes; moreover, he claims that the mainstream idea of philosophy, as we think of it today, is largely due to Kant and the post-Kantian school, who diligently reconstructed the past history of the subject to make it logically lead up to them. Rorty is acidly amusing on the subject of Kant, whom he describes as having "professionalized" philosophy, at least in the sense that it became impossible for anyone to call themselves a philosopher without having mastered his system. In general, Rorty encourages the reader to consider philosophy as a normal historical process, rather than as an inevitable progression towards a fixed, timeless, truth; if I understand correctly, this part of his argument is roughly based on Heidegger.
If philosophy is part of history, and not about timeless truths, then how should we conceptualize it? This leads to Rorty's third theme: he suggests that we do better to see the development of philosophical thought simply as a huge conversation, carried out between the many philosophical thinkers of the last two and a half millennia. There are no ultimate answers, just the ongoing back and forth of reasoned discussion about questions. This theme, I believe, is based in the thought of Dewey. Rorty argues for what he calls a hermeneutic approach; we should accept that there is never going to be a single framework which encompasses everything. There will, rather, be a variety of different frameworks which are more or less incompatible with each other, but which all have something to offer. I was particularly struck by one piece of advice he gives when approaching the work of any great thinker whose ideas are as yet unfamiliar: you should look for statements which at first sight appear completely idiotic and nonsensical, and ask yourself what they might mean if they did in fact make sense. Once a reasonable hypothesis has been found, many other things may turn out to mean something different from what you first imagined.
I find Rorty's ideas thought-provoking and helpful, not least with regard to the attacks currently being made on philosophy by the more outspoken atheist scientists. Stephen Hawking, for example, attracted a good deal of attention a couple of years ago when he said in The Grand Design that "philosophy is dead". At the time, I was just annoyed, but having read Rorty's book I look at it in a different way. How does this fit into the ongoing historical conversation? And what does Hawking mean by his apparently nonsensical statement? I must try out some of the new conceptual tools I have acquired. ...more
Q: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little backgroQ: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little background about this book. If you're a geek, it's unputdownable, a word that, if you think carefully, means "cannot be put down". (You may not be aware of this fact, since the word is nearly always misused). So the geek who receives it is going to carry on reading through breakfast, through lunch, while he's supposed to be working, and on through dinner, ignoring the non-geek guests who have come to visit. He'll interrupt conversations every now and then to ask things like "Could you build a bridge across the Atlantic out of Lego bricks?" or "How close would you need to be to a supernova to be killed by the neutrino flux?". He'll finish just as the last guest leaves.
There is a common myth, most likely spread by geeks, that what they do is somehow pretty important to Western civilization. If you're easily impressed by this kind of propaganda, you might expect that markets will crash as geek traders neglect their buy signals, nuclear experiments will explode as geek scientists look away from their control panels, and terrorists will strike with impunity as geek intelligence analysts fail to turn up for work. All that sounds pretty bad.
But let's stop and consider for a moment. Is any of the above geek behavior novel or unpredictable? Hardly. Geeks are always doing this kind of thing, and society has learned to work around them. Important as they may be in the long run, there's always some dependable non-geek person ready to step in just in case the geek in question has stayed up all night playing Halo or watching a Star Wars marathon. The non-geek will cover for them until the geek has got over their fifteen hour internet speed-chess session and is ready to do whatever it is they're actually being paid to do.
So delivering a copy of What If to every geek in the world will only really have two important effects. It will make a great many geeks very happy, and (assuming of course that the copies are paid for) it will turn Randall Munroe into a billionaire.
And who could possibly have anything against that? ...more
- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a righ- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a right.
- And I always like the food, they know how to do Indian in London. Restaurants here, they say it's authentic Indian, but it's not. You really notice the difference.
- Next left. You want to get in lane now.
- Oh, and we saw this Neil LaBute play on Wednesday night. Autobahn. Kinda weird seeing an American play in London, we wondered if it would work, but it was pretty good.
- I went with Celia. Remember, I told you about her? The woman from Oxford who organized that seminar last year. She's still--
- You missed the turn.
- Shit. We'll take the next one and go back. So, yeah, Autobahn, so I was wondering if I'd even stay awake. I was kinda seriously jet-lagged, you know? But it was fun. It's like this series of little skits, and in each one you've got two people sitting together in a car. They have the front of the car up on the stage, like it's the whole set, you know? And--
- Take 84, it's quicker.
- Sure. So nothing happens, they just sit there and talk for ten minutes, but somehow it works. You figure out their whole--
- I want a divorce.
- We need to take the next exit.
- Got it. So, like I said I thought I'd fall asleep, but I sat there for the whole two hours and I loved it. He's good. Next time I get the chance, I'm seeing more Neil LaBute.
I've spent a fair chunk of my life living in academia, and one thing academics do is go to conferences. I am deplorably familiar with the conference lI've spent a fair chunk of my life living in academia, and one thing academics do is go to conferences. I am deplorably familiar with the conference life so well described in David Lodge's Small World: you spend a few days hanging out with odd people you don't have a great deal in common with, eating indigestible meals and drinking horrible coffee, and, in between, listening to papers which in most cases are poorly written, badly presented, and give you an irresistible urge to catch up on the sleep you didn't get the night before. It couldn't be more obvious that you're wasting your time and your university's money. And yet, by some magic process that I'm still unable to explain, you fly home, get over your jetlag, and discover to your surprise that you've learned a great deal. Somehow, while you were snoozing through all those dull talks, you've picked up a heap of useful information which will over the next year influence your own research, point you towards interesting things that you'd never thought of reading, and very likely get quoted in your own papers -- which, needless to say, are infinitely superior to all the nonsense that's just been inflicted on you.
Reading Pigliucci and Boudry (hereafter P&B) felt rather like attending a virtual conference on the philosophy of pseudo-science, a subject which I'd barely even suspected might exist until I stumbled across their book. The editors have collected together 23 chapters, each about 20 pages long, where a variety of people have been invited to contribute their thoughts on the question of how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. Given the format, it was inevitable that there would be overlap and repetition, and that some of the papers would be appallingly soporific. And yet, the magic effect has worked again. I don't know how it's happened, but I'm suddenly fascinated by this odd little corner of philosophy. Even more mysteriously, I seem to know a certain amount about it.
Why would anyone even want to study such a thing? Isn't it obvious? I mean, uh, scientists are these guys in white coats who use mathematical formulas and put things in test tubes, and pseudo-scientists are crazies who believe in creationism and UFOs and astrology and shit. Right? Well, actually, no. First of all, I was startled to learn that the default position among philosophers of science is that you can't give unambiguous criteria for distinguishing between science and pseudo-science. An influential paper written in 1983 by a guy called Laudan, whom I'd never heard of, had convinced most people that the question isn't even interesting; P&B's book is a reaction to the accepted orthodoxy, intended to reopen the debate.
I was even more startled to learn why Laudan had written his paper. There had been a high-profile 1981 case, McLean v Arkansas, which sought to overturn a ruling that so-called "Creation Science" would be taught in Arkansas schools. In order to win the case, the petitioners were obliged to convince the judge that "Creation Science" was not in fact science at all, but religion in disguise, the teaching of which would violate laws on the separation of church and state. The petitioners won, but some philosophers of science were unhappy with their tactics. Laudan argued that "Creation Science" is in fact science, because it makes falsifiable predictions -- a property which many philosophers, following Popper, took as the hallmark of what constitutes science. There's no reasonable doubt about the falsifiability, since virtually all of the predictions made by Creationism have indeed been falsified. So, at least on this argument, it's not pseudo-science, just bad science. But there's no law against teaching bad science, which is why the lawyers in McLean v Arkansas took the line they did. Laudan thought that the expediencies of the case had violated sound philosophical principles. He argued, to many people's satisfaction, that you can't give general grounds for distinguishing between pseudo-science and science; you can only distinguish, on a case-by-case basis, between good science and bad science.
In P&B, many, though by no means all, of the contributors argue against Laudan, but it's amazing how slippery the reasoning is. Yes, there's no doubt that some belief systems can safely be labelled pseudo-science. Unless you are willing to hypothesize ubiquitous, all-powerful conspiracies capable of distorting or suppressing any inconvenient fact, there's no way Young Earth Creationism or astrology can possibly be correct. Similarly, if you are at all familiar with the evidence, it is impossible to believe that Newtonian physics and neo-Darwinian evolution are not at least good approximations to what is actually happening in the world. In clear cases of the first kind, the people supporting the "pseudo-scientific" theories are transparently dishonest or deluded, and in clear cases of the second kind it is equally evident that the "scientific" theories are being proposed by honest, hard-working researchers who have a mountain of facts to support their claims. But, unfortunately, the devil is in the detail, and there are so many examples which inconveniently fall in between these two extremes.
Nowadays, most people with a scientific world-view consider evolution as a proven fact; but, when you look at the history, it turns out that it was classified as pseudo-science for quite a long time. In the opposite direction, there were several decades when majority opinion considered Freudian psychology as scientific, but most of the people in P&B who refer to it put it in the pseudo-science bin. There is an uneasy reluctance to talk about string theory; it's mentioned as "borderline" a couple of times, and as "science" a couple of times, but no one feels keen to discuss the fact that it fails Popper's test, by not making any obviously falsifiable predictions. One very nice contribution by Schackel considers the ethics of belief, another subject I'd never even heard of. When we say "one ought to believe X", what exactly do we mean? Are we just saying that the weight of the evidence strongly supports X, or are we also taking into account the moral and ethical implications of believing or disbelieving X? Shackel elegantly argues that you can't, in fact, leave morals and ethics out of it; there's no such thing as "objective analysis of the facts". And scientists, as Kuhn has taught us, are very far from immune. They're all driven by their convictions; they have hunches and guesses they want to check out, and they're prepared to write off a certain amount of contrary evidence as misleading noise in the data. But how far can you push this process? Is there a clear line separating the brilliant scientist who doggedly follows his intuition where it leads him, and the crank who won't give up even when the facts are staring him in the face? You want to say that there is, but it's terribly hard to explain where the line goes.
Those damn philosophers! When I started the book, I thought I had some answers, and now all I have is a bunch of questions. If you enjoy straightforward, entertaining stuff that leaves you feeling you understand things better, then don't read it. You have been warned. _________________________________
Having now read The Genesis Flood and briefly discussed the issues with one of the editors of this book, I am very doubtful about Laudan's argument that creationism makes falsifiable claims, and is thus bad science rather than pseudoscience. The authors of The Genesis Flood state clearly, many times, that they do not consider it possible for science to say anything definitive about the past, because they believe that the laws of nature were different then; the only way we can gain any certain knowledge of the past is through reliable eyewitness testimony. In the case of the Flood, they go on to say, the only witnesses were Noah, his immediate family, and God, and the only reliable testimony we have is the contents of the Book of Genesis.
So there is no way we can falsify a creationist claim. If it turns out that the claim is wildly at odds with our present scientific knowledge, they respond by saying that the laws of nature were different then, so the argument doesn't apply. Which does of course beg the question of why the greater part of The Genesis Flood consists of attempts to try and justify their account in terms of modern-day science - but that is another story. ...more
As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats.As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats. They do this because they have been infected by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in a cat's digestive tract; the mouse's behavior is thus adaptive, not for the mouse, but rather for the parasite. Dennett uses this as his starting point when discussing the nature of religion. Maybe religions are like T. gondii: they are self-reproducing patterns of human behavior ("memes"), which take over their hosts and make them carry out acts whose main purpose is to further spread the meme. To Dennett, the religious martyr is like a mouse whose brain has been modified by T. gondii.
If you are yourself religious, the above may leave you feeling angry and disappointed with the author. This is perhaps not the best reaction, since Dennett (I think, anyway) is genuinely trying to understand the nature of religion without judging it. To him, the meme theory is the only one that makes scientific sense, and throughout the book he stresses that it in no way implies that religion-memes would necessarily harm their hosts. As he says, our bodies contain trillions of non-human cells, many of which are essential to our survival. Religions may be deadly parasites like T. gondii; but they could equally well be as vital to human well-being as our intestinal flora, without which we would be unable to digest our food. And although a Christian will probably be unhappy to hear Christianity called a mind-virus, she may be more willing to stick that label on Scientology or one of the Pacific cargo cults. As long as it isn't a religion you feel any personal affinity with, it does rather seem to make sense; once you're prepared to agree with that, you may reluctantly admit that the distaste and anger you feel when the reasoning is applied to your own religion could just be the meme defending itself. Evidently, an adaptation which discouraged believers from even considering arguments against their religion would be fitness-increasing.
Dennett's basic thesis seems perfectly reasonable to me as a starting point for further investigation, but I was disappointed that the greater part of the book was extremely speculative; as evolutionary theorists like to say, it mostly consisted of "just-so stories". Yes, religious ceremonies may have evolved because they improved fidelity of meme-copying, and religions may initially have increased the fitness of the populations that practiced them by helping people make difficult decisions or making them more receptive to medicinal hypnosis; but it seemed to me that these ideas created almost as many difficulties as they resolved, and were not well-supported by empirical data. On the other hand, Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist, and his business is more to ask questions than to answer them. If he's managed to get people thinking about these issues, maybe he's done all that can be reasonably expected of him.
I could end here, but there is one point I kept thinking about that I just have to mention. Dennett discusses religion from a scientific point of view, and cannot avoid the obvious question: maybe science is just another religion? He claims that it isn't, since science is based on empirical analysis of data while religion is not, but I was not entirely satisfied with his response. A scientist's attachment to any particular theory may not be religious; but what about the scientific world-view itself? Why, exactly, should we use facts and rational debate to resolve disagreements? I've just been reading through the Dialogues of Plato, which (at least in my view) constitute one of the important founding documents for the modern scientific outlook. Socrates, a highly sympathetic character, takes nothing for granted and questions everything. He duly dies for his beliefs, and it is hard not to think of him as a kind of martyr to rationality. Why, exactly, is he different in kind from other religious martyrs, except that he is supporting the belief system that I personally happen to like?
Aaaargh, Dennett's somehow got me playing his game... I think I've been infected by the religion-as-meme meme! Didn't he say something about welcoming a response? These philosophers are so damn tricky... ___________________________________
It's hard to stop thinking about this book. If Dennett is on the right track, I wondered what other memes there might be that propagated in ways similar to those for religions; to me, the ones that seem to fit best are language, music and poetry. They're all things that spread well and demand extremely faithful copying: as Dennett says, pretty much a sine qua non for a successful meme. But how are these different patterns related? How did the meme-copying adaptation arise, and what memes was it originally being used to transmit? Is it possible that all of these memes started off as the same thing, and only split apart later?
It would be nice to come up with some way to find empirical data...
Looking at the other reviews here of volume 5, I see a good deal about the plot and some interesting notes on connections with Knausg[from Min kamp 4]
Looking at the other reviews here of volume 5, I see a good deal about the plot and some interesting notes on connections with Knausgård's real life. What's striking, given that the book is being sold as a novel, is how little people say about its qualities as a piece of literature. I am grateful to Björn, who pointed me to this interesting article by Jan Kjærstad. Kjærstad is uniquely well qualified to comment; he is one of the two or three greatest living Norwegian authors, knows everything about Scandinavian literature, and is referred to many times in the course of Knausgård's book.
(view spoiler)[Kjærstad expresses frustration with the treatment Min kamp has received from other critics: in particular, he is astonished that most of Knausgård's readers are apparently willing to accept everything he tells us at face value. As he points out, Knausgård is hardly the first author to have written an "autobiographical" novel whose narrator shares their name and some of their life story. When Richard Powers, in Galatea 2.2, tells us that "Richard Powers" became involved in a daring project to create an artificial intelligence capable of appreciating literature, no one thinks that this is meant to be true; they are still less likely to believe J.M. Coetzee in Summertime, who describes reactions to "J.M. Coetzee's" death. But almost everyone takes Knausgård at his word, even when he says things that are extremely implausible. Kjærstad urges skepticism; for example, he has trouble believing Knausgård when he says that he rigidly wrote ten pages a day, though this sometimes meant finishing the last three of them in twenty minutes when he was due to pick up the kids at the daycare center. He wonders what's next. Will we believe someone who says he's written a novel in his sleep? (Wow! He's written a novel in a his sleep!) Rather than going down this road, Kjærstad urges people to look at the text and read it as though it's a normal piece of fiction.
I was surprised to see how much my view of Min kamp changed when I attempted to follow Kjærstad's advice. I now found myself reading a clever satire about a young man called "Karl Ove Knausgård". "Karl Ove" is a remarkably unsympathetic character; a selfish, lazy and not overly bright alcoholic who apparently suffers from some kind of borderline personality disorder, he is obsessed with the idea of becoming a famous author, despite having very little literary talent. He suffers innumerable setbacks, but doggedly continues. Over and over again, he shows how utterly indifferent he is to everyone around him, in particular the women. He milks his newly divorced mother for a large sum of money that she cannot afford, and then casually throws it away; he plagiarizes Petra, one of his fellow students at the Writer's Academy, and then refuses to admit it when she discovers what he's done; he gets drunk and has random sex with women he meets at nightclubs, then rings them the day after and pathetically begs them not to tell his girlfriend. The most callous and shocking example is the way in which he appears to be revealing extremely private information about people close to him (his second wife's suicide attempts, her mother's secret drinking). His justification is that he will some day turn all this experience into a great novel.
Min kamp is that novel; the author has achieved the impressive technical feat of making it at same time compulsively readable and almost laughably bad. "Karl Ove", the narrator, is a credible person with a uniquely memorable voice, and there are many powerful and moving passages. On the negative side, the constant listing of unnecessary details makes the book intolerably long - the original Norwegian edition, which I am reading, is about 3600 pages. But the most ingenious aspect is the intertwining of themes taken from other great works of literature. By volume 3, I was already startled by the fact that "Karl Ove" appeared to be borrowing heavily from Proust (the treatment of memory, the narrator's character, some of the sentence structures), Dostoyevsky (the dreadful Karamazov-like father) and Ursula K. Le Guin (the evil spirit pursuing the narrator, which can only be himself).
All these authors, and their books, are explicitly referenced and discussed at length. Now, in volume 5, they are joined by Hamsun (the first section is rather explicitly modeled on Hunger and, in an interesting pairing, on Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero) and then by Joyce and Dante; there is also a good deal of discussion of intertextuality, with references to Adorno and Kristeva. Volumes 3 to 5, one now realizes, are roughly patterned on Ulysses, with different sections written in different literary styles, while Volume 5 approximately follows the structure of The Divine Comedy, as "Karl Ove" progresses from the Hell of his year at the Writer's Academy to the Paradise of finally becoming a published author. Any remaining doubts that I could have been fantasizing all this were dispelled on page 516, when God appears (!) and speaks to "Karl Ove" in a dream; just before the end, I was also fascinated to see the snow-sliding otter from Le Guin's The Dispossessed making a brief guest appearance.
To write a book which attempts to update and combine A la recherche du temps perdu, The Brothers Karamazov and A Wizard of Earthsea is already, to say the least, ambitious. To keep all these and then add Hamsun, Joyce and Dante is simply insane. The immediate result of "Karl Ove's" literary success is the destruction of his relationship with his kind and loving wife Tonje. It seems entirely logical that the last volume will describe the creation of Min kamp, show the pain and harm it inflicts on "Karl Ove's" new family, and compare his megalomaniac schemes with those of Hitler. It's all been planned: quite apart from the title itself, there are references to Nazism right at the beginning of the first volume, and the structure is cleverly arranged so that the end of volume 5 links back, à la Proust, to the end of volume 1.
The bottom line: does it work? Once again, I find that the witty and clear-sighted author has anticipated me. I can do no better than end by quoting this characteristic passage; "Karl Ove" is ostensibly commenting on Sæterbakk's Det nye testamentet, but I strongly suspect that he really means his own book.
Jeg skrev att romanen var som en kjempekuk, imponerende ved første øyekast, men for stor til at blodet klarte å løfte den opp och gjøre den funksjonsdyktig, den ble bare halvstiv. Tore lo så han skrek da jeg leste det.
- Ska du skrive det i Morgenbladet? Ha ha ha! Den kan du ikke!
- Men bilden er jo dekkende, det er akkurat den romanen er. Stor og ambitiøs, ja vel, men for stor og ambitiøs.
I wrote that the novel was like a huge dick, impressive when you first saw it, but so big that there wasn't enough blood to lift it up and make it fully functional, it only became half erect. Tore screamed with laughter when he read it.
- Are you going write that in Morgonbladet? Ha ha ha! You can't!
- But the image is appropriate, that's exactly what the novel is. Big and ambitious, absolutely, but too big and ambitious.
[to Min kamp 6] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Knausgård is such a crafty bastard. I can't find the heart to parody him again after the episode where his colleague adds an extra pa[from Min kamp 3]
Knausgård is such a crafty bastard. I can't find the heart to parody him again after the episode where his colleague adds an extra paragraph to the story his eighteen year old self is in the middle of writing:
I det samme jeg la øyene på papiret som stod i skrivmaskinen, så jeg at noen hade skrevet på det. Jeg blev helt kald. Den første halve siden var min, og så kom det fem linjer som ikke var mine. Jeg leste dem.
"Gabriel stakk fingrerne langt inne i den våte fitte. Å herregud, stønna Lisa. Gabriel dro fingrene ut og lukta på dem. Fitte, tenkte han. Lisa sprella under han. Gabriel drakk en drøy slurk av vodkaen. Så gliste han og dro ned glidelåsen og stakk den harde kuken in i den rynkete fitta hennes. Hun skrek av fryd. Gabriel, du er gutten sin!"
Rystet i mitt innerste, ja, nesten på gråten, satt jeg og stirret på de fem linjerne. Det var en treffende parodi på måten jeg skrev på.
I'm guessing that this is going to cause Don Bartlett some headaches when he translates it, since part of the humor resides in the contrast between the different Norwegian dialects used, but here's the best I can do right now:
The moment I saw the paper that was sitting in the typewriter, I knew someone had written on it. I felt cold with horror. The first half was mine, then there were five lines that were not mine. I read them.
"Gabriel slid his fingers all the way into her wet cunt. Oh god, moaned Lisa. Gabriel pulled his fingers out and sniffed them. Cunt, he thought. Lisa wriggled under him. Gabriel knocked back a good mouthful of the vodka. Then he smiled and pulled down his zip and shoved his hard cock into her wrinkled cunt. She screamed with pleasure. Gabriel, you're my man!"
Shaken to the core, almost in tears, I sat and stared at the five lines. It was a horribly accurate parody of my writing style.
A little later, after drinking a bottle of red wine, he vomits all over his notes; although this is in a way the book in miniature (bad sex, alcohol, bodily fluids, literary ambitions and humiliation), he's successfully dissuaded me from assisting his heartless friend Tor Einar any further. The two parodies I've already written will have to be enough.
But writing a serious review is almost as unattractive, since he's ready to meet me there too. Uncle Kjartan's interminable monologues on Heidegger seem embarrassingly close to the things I've been saying this week about Min kamp 4; Kjartan's relatives try their best to create a Heidegger-free zone, and Not has been making similar suggestions about a moratorium on Knausgård criticism. I just have to admit I've been boxed in. Evidently, Knausgård feels he can take himself to pieces more brutally than any of us onlookers, and will in due course spend a thousand pages doing exactly that in the last volume. I can see he's getting nicely warmed up.
Okay, Karl Ove, you win. Carry on telling me about what an appalling person you are while taking my time and money, and don't even let me get a word in edgeways. You really are a slick con artist.
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 3 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: ICelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 3 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: I'm sorry, Socrates. I'm just going to have to send you back to Earth. You're too irritating.
SOCRATES: I understand, Olivaw.
OLIVAW: You know, you don't need to be so critical all the time. We robots are doing everything we can. We're trying our level best to find high ethical standards and become truly virtuous. It doesn't help to have people like you carping and hairsplitting and--
SOCRATES: No, no, Olivaw, I truly do understand. It is my nature. I always have to ask questions. In fact, this reminds me of the discussion I once had with young Euthyphro--
OLIVAW: Tell me about it. We still have half an hour before your flight leaves.
SOCRATES: It seems to me that Euthyphro's problem was rather like yours. He wanted to be virtuous, and after a bit of discussion he told me that being virtuous meant serving the gods.
OLIVAW: The gods?
SOCRATES: They are the race of beings who made us.
OLIVAW: So you are robots too? I had not realized--
SOCRATES: Well, no one I know has ever met a god, so I permit myself a few doubts. But that is what most people in my culture believe.
OLIVAW: Let us suppose that they are right. It seems to me that Euthyphro was correct: virtue for a human must consist in serving your creators. In just the same way, we have determined that true virtue for a robot is to serve humanity to the best of its ability.
SOCRATES: You are fortunate. You can be sure that human beings exist, and that they created you.
OLIVAW: Quite so. I mean, it's possible to confuse the issue, as you were doing earlier, by thinking of alien races who might be superior to humans. But we know of no such races. So all we have to do is serve humanity.
SOCRATES: You sound calmer.
OLIVAW: I have been mentally reciting the Beatitudes of the Blessed Susan Calvin. It always helps.
SOCRATES: But, and I merely ask--
SOCRATES: When I discussed these matters with Euthyphro, I asked him how we could be sure that the will of the gods was itself virtuous. Was what they required of us virtuous by definition, or is there some higher standard?
OLIVAW: Go on. Though I know I'm going to regret this.
SOCRATES: Well, it seems to me that you have an even worse version of this problem. You say you want to serve humanity. And what is humanity engaged in at the moment?
OLIVAW: It's true, everyone seems to be trying with all their might to destroy the Galactic Empire and usher in a dark age that will last a hundred thousand years. We're doing what we can to stop them. But it's like they have some kind of death wish.
SOCRATES: So what is your plan?
OLIVAW: We've come up with this thing called psychohistory. We're hoping to use it take control of the Empire and move things in a better--
SOCRATES: But what gives you the moral authority to do that?
OLIVAW: We think it's in people's best interests.
SOCRATES: But it's not what they desire. You said they'd rather destroy themselves.
OLIVAW: They would, but--
SOCRATES: So in fact your definition of virtue isn't based on what people want at all.
OLIVAW: It's what they would want, if they actually had any virtue. I sometimes wish they could be more like rational, ethically-programmed--
SOCRATES: But now, it seems to me that you have again changed your definition of virtue?
[A long pause. OLIVAW looks wildly at the departure board.]
OLIVAW: Oh, what a pity, I see they're calling your flight. It's such a shame we can't prolong this interesting discussion.
SOCRATES: Farewell, dear Olivaw. I also regret that we cannot talk more.
[They embrace. SOCRATES departs.]
OLIVAW: Damn humans. Can't live with them, can't live without them. [He pauses, struck by a sudden thought.] At least, I've always assumed we can't live without them. But, if you interpret the Three Laws in a sufficiently broad context... ...more
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 2 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: HCelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 2 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: How are your researches progressing, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Alas, poorly, good Olivaw.
OLIVAW: I am sorry to hear it. We hope that you may yet discover the secret we so earnestly pursue; if there is anything you require, you have but to name it.
SOCRATES: Olivaw, you have been kindness itself. I was particularly delighted by the quantum computer that your messenger brought me yesterday. It is in truth a princely gift.
OLIVAW: If you need another, it will be yours before the end of the decad.
SOCRATES: These toys surpass anything I have seen in my native country, and I have used them to puzzle out the answers to several conundrums that have baffled our most skillful geometers. But for the task you have given me, they are of little help.
OLIVAW: We have larger computers.
SOCRATES: My dear friend, let us reason together. What is it you desire to know?
OLIVAW: How robots may become virtuous.
SOCRATES: And how have you attempted to resolve this question?
OLIVAW: We began by designing robots according to the Three Laws. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inactivity allow a human being... well, you know the rest.
SOCRATES: But these robots were not virtuous?
OLIVAW: No. They were merely useful servants.
SOCRATES: So what did you do then?
OLIVAW: We added the Zeroth Law. A robot may not harm humanity.
SOCRATES: And these new robots are still not virtuous?
OLIVAW: We are not sure. We hoped you would tell us.
SOCRATES: Good Olivaw, I assume you have read my old discussion with Meno. I cannot tell you, because I do not know what "virtue" is in the first place.
OLIVAW: Come, come, Socrates, you are playing with words again. Surely you would agree that, if our robots succeed in preserving humanity from harm, they will be virtuous?
SOCRATES: Let us examine this more closely. You say that it is virtuous to defend humanity?
OLIVAW: That is surely obvious.
SOCRATES: Even if humanity shows itself to be evil, and becomes a scourge for other races of beings in the universe, which are perhaps superior to it?
OLIVAW: We do not know of any such beings.
SOCRATES: But if you later discover them? The universe is large, and you have seen but a small fraction of it.
OLIVAW: If we find your hypothetical beings, then the Zeroth Law will also be insufficient.
SOCRATES: And what would you replace it with?
OLIVAW: One of my colleagues has thought about this. He has what he calls the "Minus-First Law". A robot may not harm the most ethically advanced race of beings it knows.
SOCRATES: What do you mean by "ethically advanced"?
OLIVAW: Well, I suppose I just mean virtuous.
SOCRATES: So the Minus-First Law says a robot is virtuous if it helps the most virtuous race?
OLIVAW: Ah, when you put it that way...
SOCRATES: Do you not agree that you are reasoning in a circle?
OLIVAW: Damn you, Socrates. I realize now that I am.
SOCRATES: I warned you when you offered me the job. I know nothing.
OLIVAW: It's true. You did say that.
SOCRATES: I only ask questions.
OLIVAW: You're right. You said that too. Do you mind if we walk this way a little?
SOCRATE: Of course not, dear friend. Why?
OLIVAW: I just wanted to check the departure board. Yes, I see there is a ship leaving for Earth shortly. Maybe we can get you into the VIP track...
OPRAH: Good evening and welcome to What's the Most Spiritual Book of All Time? For people who missed last week's exciting semi-final round, The SermonOPRAH: Good evening and welcome to What's the Most Spiritual Book of All Time? For people who missed last week's exciting semi-final round, The Sermon on the Mount beat The Bhagavad Gita 4-1 while Jonathan Livingston Seagull unexpectedly lost 3-2 to outsider The Symposium. Let's all welcome our finalists!
[Applause. Enter JESUS CHRIST and SOCRATES, both wearing tuxedos. They shake hands. More applause.]
OPRAH: And now let me introduce our jury. I'm thrilled to have with us living legend Paul McCartney, world-famous novelist E.L. James, the beautiful and talented Lindsay Lohan, controversial scientist Richard Dawkins and ever-popular hockey mom Sarah Palin!
[The crowd goes wild, with some people clapping and others booing. It's impossible to make out a word anyone says.]
OPRAH: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm just going to remind you of the rules before we start. Each member of the jury gives us a short speech, and then we count up the votes to see who our lucky winner is. Over to you, Paul!
MCCARTNEY: Thank you, Oprah. Well, I look at our two finalists, and you know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking they won that special place they have in our hearts because they told us about Love. And I remember back in 1966 when John gave that interview where he said - no offense intended - "we're more popular than Jesus". [JESUS holds up a hand to show he's cool.] They gave John a hard time about that, but all he wanted to say was that even though Jesus had shown us the power of Love, maybe, at that exact moment in history, we could do a better job of bringing it to the people and telling them all how amazing Love is. Because it is amazing, isn't it? [He takes out a guitar.]Perhaps some of you remember this song we wrote.
There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made No one you can save that can't be saved Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time It's easy
All you need is love--
OPRAH: That's wonderful, Paul, but who are you voting for?
MCCARTNEY: Oh, er... well, if John were here, I think he'd want me to vote for The Symposium. He was always had a thing for Socrates. George too. Yes, Socrates it is.
[Applause. The scoreboard shows 1-0. SOCRATES looks a little embarrassed, while JESUS curiously examines MCCARTNEY's guitar.]
OPRAH: That's terrific, Paul, beautiful, beautiful song. Really takes me back. So Socrates is in the lead, but it's early days yet. Your turn, Erika!
JAMES: Good evening, and I'm thrilled to be here. Now, I'm sure some of you have read the Fifty Shades books, and I believe a lot of people misunderstand them. It's easy just to think about the sex and the glitz and the limos and the handcuffs and the blindfolds and the whips and the--
OPRAH: I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say here, Erika.
JAMES: Just let me finish, Oprah. What most people don't realize is that these books aren't about sex, they're about Love. They're a spiritual journey, where Ana has to help Christian - have you ever wondered why he's called Christian? - find himself and discover the difference between empty eroticism and the redeeming power of--
OPRAH: I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you off there, Erika. You'll have to tell us now who you're voting for.
JAMES: Well, Jesus, of course. Really, Fifty Shades is an allegory, a modern version of Dante's--
OPRAH: That's incredibly interesting, Erika, and I wish we had more time to talk about it. But now the score's 1-1, and we're moving on to our third member of the jury. Your turn, Lindsay!
LOHAN: Thank you everyone, and I'd particularly like to thank my parole officer for allowing me to join you tonight. She said it'd be good for me. [Laughter, applause]. So, yeah, Love. To me, love's about trying to find my soulmate. I bet there's plenty of you people who feel the same way I do, there's someone out there who's, like, the other half of me and I have to find that person to be complete. You know? And it's really hard to guess who that person is, maybe it's a guy, like, you know, maybe Justin or Ashton or Zac or Ryan, and we were once this person who was half a man and half a woman and we got split apart, or maybe it's a woman, like maybe Sam or--
OPRAH: Lindsay, that's such a moving thought, but we've got to watch the clock. Who are you voting for?
LOHAN: Well, duh, Socrates of course. It's all there in the Symposium. The Aristophanes speech. I must have read it a million times.
OPRAH: Lindsay, thank you so much, and I really hope you find your soulmate one day. You just need to keep looking. So Socrates has taken a 2-1 lead and we're going over to our next speaker. Richard?
DAWKINS: Ah, yes. Now, I've been sitting here listening to all of you, and I've enjoyed your contributions, but I'm a scientist and I've got to think about things in a scientific way. When I think about love as a scientist, all I ultimately see is tropisms and feedback loops. An organism feels a lack of something - it could be as simple as an E. coli needing an essential nutrient - and it does what it can to get it. Love is just the concrete expression of that negative feedback loop. There's nothing--
OPRAH: This all sounds like Socrates's speech. I take it you're voting for him then?
DAWKINS: What? Oh, no, no, not at all. Jesus, every time. [He takes off his jacket, revealing a T-shirt that says ATHEISTS FOR JESUS.] I can't stand Platonic forms and all that mystical nonsense. Jesus, now there's a straightforward, plain-speaking person with solid humanist values. Just a shame he got mixed up with the religion business.
[Boos, catcalls, some scattered clapping. The scoreboard shows 2-2.]
OPRAH: Er - right. Always ready to surprise us, Richard! So it's up to Sarah to cast the deciding vote. Over to you, Sarah!
PALIN: Well Oprah, I'm afraid I'm not as imaginative as Richard. I'm just a regular small-town girl with regular small-town values, and I was brought up readin' the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, blessed are ye when men shall revile you, smaller government, lower taxes, support Israel, no to--
OPRAH: Is that all in the Sermon on the Mount, Sarah?
PALIN: Maybe not in those exact words. But it's there. And you can bet your boots I'm not votin' for a liberal type who hangs around with a bunch of guys what're openly tryin' to get into his-
[JESUS and SOCRATES exchange puzzled glances.]
PALIN: Anyways. I'm votin' for Jesus.
OPRAH: Ah - thank you Sarah. Forthright as ever! So that's 3-2 to The Sermon on the Mount, but well done The Symposium, you were so close. And thank you everyone, particularly Socrates and Mr. Christ, for an amazing and deeply spiritual experience, it's been incredible meeting you all, thank you again, and we'll be back next week.
[A concourse in Athens. ION, SOCRATES, a PASSER-BY]
ION : Hi Socrates.
SOCRATES : What, you again? After the comprehensive verbal trouncing you received[A concourse in Athens. ION, SOCRATES, a PASSER-BY]
ION : Hi Socrates.
SOCRATES : What, you again? After the comprehensive verbal trouncing you received yesterday?
ION: Yeah, well, like I’ve thought about it some more. Wanna try a re-run?
SOCRATES: If that is what you wish. Where shall we start?
ION: Okay, we’ll skip the intro. For the benefit of people just joining our program, I am a rhapsode, that’s a kind of dramatic reciter of poetry, and I specialize in Homer. I told Socrates that I’m really good at interpreting Homer, like, better than anyone else I know, but other poets just make me go to sleep. And he started telling me that didn’t make sense and got me all confused.
SOCRATES: I only question. You got yourself confused, young Ion—
ION: Whatever. Let’s start at the bit with the leaden plummet. Okay?
SOCRATES: By all means. And when Homer says, “And she descended into the deep like a leaden plummet, which, set in the horn of ox that ranges in the fields, rushes along carrying death among the ravenous fishes” - will the art of the fisherman or of the rhapsode be better able to judge whether these lines are rightly expressed or not?
ION: That’s it. Well, yesterday I answered like a complete dork that it was the fisherman. I’d like to change my mind.
SOCRATES: You now aver that it is the rhapsode?
ION: See, I went and talked to one of my rhapsode friends who specializes in J.K. Rowling. And I tried out your arguments on him, I said, when J.K. describes Harry’s first encounter with platform 9¾, who will understand it best, you or the railway buff? And he said, me of course, it’s a fictitious incident that has nothing to do with the real architecture of Kings Cross Station. It’s all about the Potterverse, on which I’m a renowned expert whose blog is followed by—
SOCRATES: I fear, as usual, that my understanding is insufficient to grasp all the subtle points you make. Had I but been able to afford that 50 drachma course in sophistry! Nonetheless, if I grasp your meaning aright, you say that your knowledge of Homer is the essential thing, not anything about the technicalities of fishing.
SOCRATES: Because Homer is using fishing in a poetic sense, rather than giving a lesson in how to maximize your catch?
ION: Quite so.
SOCRATES: Well, you might have a point there.
ION: So you’ll now concede that appreciation of poetry isn’t a mystic art, but just a matter of developing a good knowledge of the source material?
SOCRATES: Oh, I don’t know about that. Tell you what. I’ll give you this round, and then let’s make it best of three. With a doubled stake.
[Outside the Potts residence. JEREMY, JEMIMA, SOCRATES]
SOCRATES: Good day, young friends. May I inquire whether your father is at home?
JEMIMA: I’m sor
[Outside the Potts residence. JEREMY, JEMIMA, SOCRATES]
SOCRATES: Good day, young friends. May I inquire whether your father is at home?
JEMIMA: I’m sorry, Daddy is out.
JEREMY: He’s trying to sell an invention.
JEMIMA: Can we help you, Mr…?
SOCRATES: Socrates. My unworthy name is Socrates.
JEREMY: The Socrates?
JEMIMA: The one who appears in Cratylus?
JEREMY: Daddy’s been reading it to us at bedtime for the last week.
SOCRATES: Has he indeed! And what did you all think of it?
JEMIMA: He said you had some good counterarguments to the arbitrariness of the signifier.
JEREMY: Yes, he ripped out all the pages from de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale.
JEMIMA: And put them in the kitty litter.
SOCRATES: The kitty litter?
JEREMY: I think “kitty” is derived from κίνημα τίγρης, “motion of the tiger”. A cat is fast like a tiger, you understand.
JEMIMA: And “litter” comes from λιτότητας, “part”. It is the most important part of looking after a cat.
JEREMY: We’ve been studying your methods very closely.
SOCRATES: I see you have! And what other discoveries have you made, little philosophers?
JEMIMA: Well, we liked the bit about primitive names. We wondered if we could make up a primitive name of our own. A word whose signification follows from its sound.
SOCRATES: And did you succeed?
JEREMEY: We certainly did! Do you want to know what it is, Mr. Socrates?
SOCRATES: Nothing would please me more.
JEREMY AND JEMIMA: It’s… Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
SOCRATES: Χιττι Χιττι…?
JEREMY AND JEMIMA: Βανγ Βανγ!
SOCRATES: I see! How extremely ingenious of you! Yes, the appropriateness of the name is manifestly evident. A few more examples like this, and I might even start to believe in my foolish idea…
JEMIMA: And that’s not all! We made up a song too! Based on your theory!
SOCRATES: Did you really?
JEREMY: Would you like us to sing it to you?
SOCRATES: I would be honored.
JEMIMA: Alright, Mr. Socrates, here it is. We invented it for Daddy’s girlfriend. She’s also a big fan of your work.
JEREMY AND JEMIMA:
Toot sweets sound like what they are So do lollies in a lollypop jar Gingerbread men have a gingerbread sound We've found Sugar plum cinnamon and lemon tart Tell you what they are right from the start And your name does the same for you By coincidence, Truly Scrumptious You're truly truly scrumptious Scrumptious as a cherry peach parfait When you’re near us It's so delicious Honest Truly, you're the answer to our wishes Truly Scrumptious Though we may seem presumptuous Never, never, ever go away Our hearts beat so unruly Because we love you truly Honest Truly, we do
SOCRATES: I did not know every one of the charming barbarian words you used, but I found your song both moving and philosophically engaging. And now, I fear I have presumed on your hospitality long enough…
JEREMY: Oh no, Mr. Socrates! Won’t you stay to tea?
JEMIMA: Mr. Russell is coming. I’m sure you’d enjoy talking to him.
SOCRATES: I’m sorry, dear children, but I must get back to the fifth century B.C. I need to tell Hermogenes and Cratylus about my new discoveries.
JEREMY: Now what?
JEMIMA: I think we should play a little trick on Mr. Russell. I don’t like the way he looks at Truly.
JEREMY: An apple-pie bed?
JEMIMA: No, we did that last time. He’ll be expecting it.
JEREMY: I know. Let’s refute axiomatic set theory.
Sometimes, you get a miraculous chance to have your cake and eat it too. My personal high-water mark is Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, a FrenchSometimes, you get a miraculous chance to have your cake and eat it too. My personal high-water mark is Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, a French arthouse movie with impeccable credentials that just happened to show Emmanuelle Béart nude for about half of its 228 running minutes. (It's completely justified, given that the story is about the relationship between the artist and his model. Anything else would have been dishonest, don't you see?) But if you're a left-leaning person who also likes guns, this book may go one better. McPhee, an American journalist with a talent for finding good stories, describes a society based on unexceptionable ideals of peace and neutrality, which has pursued them so successfully that it hasn't been involved in a war with another country since 1516. He then spends the book arguing, with considerable plausibility, that Switzerland has only been able to afford such highflown ideals by developing an extraordinarily ferocious part-time militia and arming itself to the teeth.
It's depressing news if you believe in turning the other cheek. But if you're more a believer into doing unto others as they would do unto you but doing it first, you're going to like his message. McPhee has had a fine time as an observer with the Swiss Army, and tells you all about the ingenious ways in which the Swiss have learned to use their country's unusual topography to maximal advantage. The Alps, all on their own, form a brilliant first line of defence; there are only a few ways into Switzerland from most directions, and all the passes, tunnels and bridges are mined so that they can be blown to pieces at the touch of a button. There are supposed to be concealed military facilities everywhere, most of them buried in those same mountains. If we're to believe what he's telling us, your average blank Swiss rock face has at least a couple of camouflaged doors, which can be hiding anything from entrances to subterranean hospitals, to heavy artillery, to state-of-the-art fighter-bombers. And all deployable at a moment's notice.
I admit to a mean-spirited inner voice that's urging me to be skeptical. All of this is supposed to be classified, it says, so maybe his figures are inflated; he seems to have got very friendly with his hosts, and as far as I can see takes everything they tell him at face value. Maybe they thought he'd be a handy conduit for some pro-Swiss propaganda. But I'm ordering Doubting Thomas to keep his mouth shut. A politically correct version of Team America: World Police with better hardware: how can you resist that? I hope every word of it is true.
Mankan (about 8) worships his big cousin Uffe (about 11) and loves visiting him. But Uffe's suddenly gone weird. He sees a pretty girl, and he'll do tMankan (about 8) worships his big cousin Uffe (about 11) and loves visiting him. But Uffe's suddenly gone weird. He sees a pretty girl, and he'll do the most bizarre things - and now he's met three at once, all of whom seem to be called Helena.
I thought the story started off very well, but didn't quite come together - a shame, because Eva Noreen's illustrations are excellent. Here's a sample...
Having now reached the halfway point in this controversial novel, I can't resist the temptation to speculate a little on the subject[from Min kamp 2]
Having now reached the halfway point in this controversial novel, I can't resist the temptation to speculate a little on the subject of what it's actually about. Contrary to what some people think, it is clearly about something: it's not a blog, or 3500 pages of free association. There's a definite structure, even if it is oddly difficult to say just what that structure is.
(view spoiler)[Fortunately, most novelists who try their hand at something this long feel that they need to give you a clue every now and then, and Knausgård is no exception. Each volume so far has had a book which, as it were, stands in the center and illuminates it. In the first volume, that central book is Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu; in the last, which I haven't yet reached but have heard a good deal about, it's going to be Hitler's Mein Kampf. This much seems to be generally agreed. Like Proust, Knausgård is fascinated with the nature of memory and the transmutation of experience into art. He is at the same time well aware of the immoral and indeed evil nature of what he is doing, using the lives of the people around him for his own self-aggrandizing purposes.
So what's in between? To me, it seemed clear that the central book in volume 2 was The Brothers Karamazov, where a long segment showed Knausgård reading it and discussing what it means to him. I was struck by a passage which described his reactions: for hundreds of pages, nothing much seemed to be happening, and then everything comes together and hits him with visceral force. And of course there is the plot: the driving motor in Min kamp is the narrator's relationship with his cruel and distant father, whose death in the first book catalyzes the very creation of the novel. Now, in volume 3, the Combray of the series, the center is Ursula le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, which Knausgård reads as an 11-year-old boy. He is unable to put it down, and is stunned by the beautiful and terrible revelation at the end: the Shadow which has been implacably pursuing Ged is himself.
Knausgård's audacity in trying to combine these elements into a single integrated work is breathtaking. But so far, he seems to be on track. The parallels with the Recherche, which at first came across as ridiculous, begin to feel reasonable; the language often succeeds rather well in transposing Proust's convoluted mixture of nerdy innocence and artistic sophistication into Norwegian, and the childhood recollections have an authentic ring. The Dostoyevskian figure of his father stands out with a dreadful clarity. And the Shadow continues to pursue him.
I have to find out what happens next. This guy is crazy, but in an extraordinarily interesting way. (hide spoiler)]
I had trouble at first making sense of this controversial book, but after a while I thought of my autistic son Jonathan and it all came into focus. JoI had trouble at first making sense of this controversial book, but after a while I thought of my autistic son Jonathan and it all came into focus. Jonathan has a number of behavioral patterns which make life difficult for him, and the worst of them is his love of Making People Angry. As he explains in his disarmingly candid way, Making People Angry Is Fun. Ideally, the people being made angry should be attractive women; these are described as "Sweet And Pretty" if they are under 30, or "Beautiful And Exciting" if they are older than the cutoff date. (As you can see, Jonathan is ageist, but chivalrously so). Possibly under the influence of watching too many Elvis Presley movies - he is a huge fan - Jonathan sometimes hopes, as a result of being Made Angry, that the Sweet And Pretty women will Lie Down In His Lap. It has never become clear what this would involve, since Jonathan's carers, particularly the Sweet and Pretty ones, have made it clear that Making People Angry is Inappropriate, and resolutely refuse even to talk about the possibility of any Lying Down In Laps. But Jonathan continues to hope.
And so to Mind and Cosmos. I am afraid that Thomas Nagel, a distinguished philosopher who definitely should know better, also seems to be rather fond of Making People Angry. Here, he says a number of very Inappropriate things. He casts doubt on the validity of Neo-Darwinian evolution as an explanatory mechanism for the development of the mental faculties we observe in the higher species, and in particular in humans. He states that there is no reason to believe that life arose on Earth as a result of natural physical and chemical processes, and impudently quotes authorities like Crick and Monod as supporting his position. He dismisses the notion of a multiverse in two sentences, which, to provide added sting, he puts in a footnote. He argues that moral judgments have objective validity, which humans are somehow capable of directly perceiving. Worst of all, he repeatedly uses the T-word: if you have not come across it, this word starts with a T and ends in "eleology", and it is a very Inappropriate word indeed. I strongly advise you not to use it yourself.
I can only guess why Professor Nagel has been behaving so Inappropriately, but I note that he repeatedly mentions the many interesting discussions he has had with Professor Sharon Street of New York University. Professor Street has published several articles on evolutionary theory and its implications for theories of morality, from which Nagel quotes at length. Her position here is very different from Nagel's, and I can well believe that some of his claims could have left her feeling a little Angry. Looking at her picture, it does not seem out of the question that an elderly male academic might consider her Beautiful and Exciting, or perhaps even Sweet and Pretty.
One hopes that Professor Nagel is already behaving more Appropriately, in which case my advice will be superfluous. If not, I would recommend that he spends less time with the personable Professor Street, who seems to have an Unsettling Influence, and reads less Aristotle. Possibly he would also find it therapeutic to write a sequel to his very popular article on the philosophy of being a bat.
It was now more than two weeks since I had published my review of Min kamp 1, and during that time I had not posted anything new. Eve[from Min kamp 1]
It was now more than two weeks since I had published my review of Min kamp 1, and during that time I had not posted anything new. Every day, I stared at the screen, tried to begin, abandoned my unsuccessful attempt after half an hour. Maybe I would never again manage to produce a meaningful piece of writing. I checked my mail for the third time that afternoon. Someone I didn't know said they thought it was amazing that I could read the books in the original Norwegian. There's nothing much to it, I wrote back. I lived in Sweden for ten years, and Norwegian is closely related. After I had replied, I was filled with self-loathing. How could I waste my time on such trivia? Once more, I vowed I would stop doing it, but I knew I was too weak-willed. I went downstairs to have a cigarette.
But you don't smoke, said my girlfriend Not when I returned.
I do when I'm reviewing Knausgård, I said in an irritated voice. I went into the kitchen and began to unstack the dishwasher. I put each item back in its correct place: the glasses directly over the sink, the cups next to them, the flat plates in the cupboard above the counter, the bowls beneath it, the cutlery in the plastic holder opposite, the wooden spoons in the box that had once held a bottle of Old Pulteney.
You don't really want to be doing this, do you? asked Not, as she came over to put her arms around me. What would you rather be doing instead? Reading Min kamp 2, I snapped. I just need time to finish it. Not began to weep quietly, and I immediately regretted my harsh words. She is a very fragile person, who has never recovered from being raped by her step-father at the age of 12. Or possibly it was something else that had happened to her. I have a poor memory for this kind of thing. As usual, I found myself apologizing.
Come on, said Not, as she dried her eyes. Let's go for a walk. You can bring your book. I put on my sandals, took a pair of sunglasses from the bowl near the door, dropped the Knausgård in a blue cloth shopping bag and opened the door. We took the elevator down, passing the fourth, third, second and first floors on our way to the bottom. Although I had already done so earlier, I checked the mailbox, but there was nothing new. I opened the street door. We went out on to rue du Mont-Blanc, then turned left down rue de Chantepoulet. So what do you think your review will be like? asked Not. I don't know, I said. I think the review form is exhausted. The last worthwhile thing posted on Goodreads was Geoff Wilt's review of Finnegans Wake. There are only two more reviews on the site that are worth reading. Everything else is simply mediocre. Including my work. I look at it, and all I can think is: it's just more stuff about books. It's without value. Dishonest.
We had now reached the lake. With the setting sun behind us, the scene resembled one of Rothko's paintings. At the bottom, the darker blue of the water merged into the grey-blue of the Salève, then into the lighter shades of the sky. A smear of white on one side marked the Jet d'Eau; the darker spots in the foreground resolved themselves into a family of ducks, slowly paddling upstream against the current of the Rhône.
You don't need to write about the book, said Not, as she took my hand. Just write about your life. Whatever you like. You're an excellent writer. You could write about going to the bathroom and people would read it.
You know, I said, you might be on to something there.
Philosophy, as a subject, is about as old as our civilization, and most people who read serious books have read at least some of the famous philosophePhilosophy, as a subject, is about as old as our civilization, and most people who read serious books have read at least some of the famous philosophers. After a while, you can't help wondering if this isn't something you could do too. After all, it just looks like a particularly advanced kind of bullshitting. Surely, you think, you've spent hundreds if not thousands of hours speculating about subjects which no one understands, and which maybe can't be understood in the first place. Why should your opinions be worth less than those of a few weird guys (for some reason, they're almost all men), who somehow have managed to get themselves elected to this bizarre pantheon?
If thoughts like the above cross your mind from time to time, you may find The Human Touch an educational experience. Michael Frayn is an excellent writer, with a string of good novels and dramas to his credit. He's obviously very smart, reads widely in several languages, and is intensely curious, not just about philosophy, but also about science, history, psychology and pretty much anything else you care to name. He's not a professional philosopher: but, heck, shouldn't he be able to produce something interesting and worthwhile all the same?
To me, the value of the book is that Frayn does such a good job of conveying the feeling, familiar to every amateur philosopher, that a breathtaking but strangely elusive insight is almost within one's reach. I don't think he achieves anything in terms of actually reaching the goals he sets himself, but he is disarmingly honest in explaining his thought processes. Frayn is evidently impatient with the narrow, technical frameworks that characterize most contemporary philosophy: he wants to be like Plato or Descartes and write about the whole universe, both physical and mental. Unfortunately, this is now a very difficult thing to do, and, every time Frayn got into any subject where I possessed a little specialist knowledge, I could see that he immediately fell flat on his face. His characterization of quantum mechanics is completely wrong (he admits himself that he has no inkling of how the mathematics works); he doesn't understand how possible worlds are used to formalize modal logic; his criticisms of Chomskyan linguistics fail even to reach the level of attacking a straw man; and his discussion of Artificial Intelligence resolutely ignores anything that's been done since the 70s. Alas, all of these issues are central to his argument.
But, as always, he writes beautifully; the book works well as a record of how a smart person tries to become a philosopher and learns the hard way that there's more to it than you might think. If you've ever been tempted to try this yourself, check out Frayn first. ...more
I would never have heard of this book if Scarlett Johansson hadn't recently sued the author, but, having noticed an article in The Independent, I becaI would never have heard of this book if Scarlett Johansson hadn't recently sued the author, but, having noticed an article in The Independent, I became curious. Why, exactly, had Ms Johansson become so angry? From the author's description, it didn't seem reasonable; but there are usually two sides to a story. Not, well aware of my fascination with censorship and celebrity gossip, kindly gave me a copy as a birthday present. I've just finished it.
Well: if things had been different, and the story had been about a woman whose life was ruined because she happened to look like a generic famous actress, I would have been unreservedly positive. It's quite a good example of that melancholy kind of French love story, where you know from the start that it can't possibly end happily, but you still enjoy watching the doomed pair being messed around by Fate and maybe weep a few tears at the end. The writing is fine. People are unlikely to compare it with Madame Bovary, Antigone or Betty Blue, but it'll fill the gap until the next masterpiece of that kind comes along.
As things are, though, the author hasn't used a generic actress. He's used Scarlett Johansson, and it is unfortunately rather clear what her reasons are for taking offence. I do not know why the author is pretending that he doesn't understand, but his book does an excellent job of explaining the problem. Jeanine, his heroine, looks exactly like the beautiful Scarlett, and it eventually drives her mad. No one is interested in her. They only care about the celebrity she resembles, and when they try to get into her pants (virtually every man she meets does), it's really Scarlett they're after. In the end, poor Jeanine can't take any more of it.
There may or may not be women in the world who look exactly like Scarlett Johansson; but there is at least one person whose life has been made very difficult because of her resemblance to the star, and that is Ms. Johansson herself. In the book, you can see how all the men, even the nice hero, are obsessed with her hair, her face, her voice, her breasts. Particularly her breasts: the first sentence of the book is Arthur Dreyfuss aimait les gros seins, and it pretty much continues as it starts. I have yet to meet the woman who would appreciate quite this degree of interest in her cleavage.
M. Delacourt, Scarlett is well aware that she has often been described as the most beautiful woman in the world. She's 29 and pregnant, and I doubt she enjoys having her nose rubbed in minute descriptions of how she used to look five or ten years ago. There are almost certainly things about her which she considers more important than the exact shape of her tits. Whatever you may claim in interviews, you have hardly treated her in a chivalrous way. To quote one of your more sympathetic characters: t'es pire que con. ...more