Friday, October 21, 2011

A Tale Told by an Idiot

I have been doing tutorials for years now—the basic framework is a small number of students, Great Books, and lots of wandering discussions.  Putting together the book lists is fun; I think of a few books I really want to read, combine them into some theme, and then off we go.  Sometimes the fake theme actually makes sense and reading the particular set of books really does result in something bigger than the sum of its parts.  Most of the time, it’s just a set of really Great Books. 

This semester’s theme was the American South.  Three books in, it has turned into one of the most cohesive tutorials I’ve ever had. 

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner turns out to be a remarkable follow-up to I’ll Take My Stand.  The latter book argued the South was being killed by Northern industrialization.  Faulkner’s book is a document on exactly what that means.  I didn’t make that connection at all the first time I read this book (about 20 years ago).  But, this time, all I could think about was the death of the aristocratic South in the face of an industrialized age.  The result—misery all around. 

Even the characters took on an eerie aura.  The only character in the novel who would actually fit into the modern world is Jason, who is the least appealing character in the book.  And if you don’t want be like him, your choice is—Quentin (the male one) who is so tortured by the past, he kills himself (after a year at Harvard which did not do him much good at all (think about that before sending your kid off to college)) or Benjy, who cannot process anything at all, and so thinks in a stream of consciousness which has no linearity or coherence.  (He’s mentally retarded, seriously mentally retarded.)  I suppose you could also be Caddy or the younger (female) Quentin, both of whom are what would have once been called loose women.  There are also the servants—Dilsey being the most important of them—who, as Faulkner notes in the biographical sketches in the appendix, the most which can be said of them is “They endured.”  So, no real option here—we are all Jason now.

It’s an amazing book—four chapters, four different perspectives (though the last chapter is an omniscient narrator).  The first chapter is Benjy’s thoughts, and so it literally makes no sense on a first reading.  The second is Quentin’s—also stream of consciousness—I don’t know if it would ever make complete sense.  Then suddenly we get Jason’s section and lo and behold it is easy reading, and we begin to figure to what is happening in the novel.  The book is thus one part crossword puzzle—who did what to whom when?  If you haven’t read things like the previous paragraph before you read the book, there is a wealth of discovery awaiting the first time reader.  Unfortunately, there is no way to even begin to talk about this book without tipping off surprises.

One of the students in the tutorial asked a really interesting discussion question about our obsession with time and the linearity of time.  We are obsessed with marking off the day.  Not only do I wear a watch, I habitually and unconsciously check it constantly.  My entire life has the mechanical order of a giant machine, marking off the time by moving from one part of the machine that is my life to the next all on a rigid schedule.  I’ll go home at 6:00 tonight.  Why?  Because that is what time I will go home tonight.  And how will I know I am done for the day and that it is time to relocate to my house?   My watch will tell me so.  And suddenly I realize I may not be Jason after all, I may be Benjy, who needs everything to happen in a precise and predefined order simply to make it through his day.  The novel ends with the driver of a coach in which Benjy sits, going left around a monument that Benjy normally passes on the right.  Benjy loses all control in a paroxysm of horror.   
Quentin (the older one) also shows up as a narrator in Absalom, Absalom!, which I may reread over the break.  I really enjoyed that novel too when I read it years ago, though it is the starkest case of the title of a novel giving away the whole plot I have ever seen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Journey to the Past

When Daniel Smail (On Deep History and the Brain) was last here giving a lecture, he led off with a discussion of Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life.  It sounded like an intriguing book—economics combined with Deep history.  What can we learn about economic behavior from the prehistory of Man?  How have economic institutions evolved?  The publisher blurbs added to the aura—here is a book which uses biology and history and anthropology to look at a wide array of economics institutions.  A grand integration of economics with, well, everything.  What could be more interesting?

How does the book measure up to my expectations about the book?  Sigh.

Seabright means well.  He really does.  But, the book suffers from the same problem I keep seeing in all the Deep History stuff—all tantalizing prospects, no payoff.  There is remarkably little in the book about ancient history.  Instead, the book rapidly becomes an exercise in showing that economic institutions evolve.  Shocking, that.  I lost all patience with the book when I hit the chapter on what caused the financial crises of 2008.  Really now.  A book promising a Darwinian history devolving into a pop analysis of the events of 2008.  Disappointing to say the least.

I assigned this book in my introduction to microeconomics class.  A few students liked it.  A few hated it.  I think the rest didn’t get past the first chapter. 

The book is not without virtues, though.  It really is interesting, as the title suggests, that humans engage in a large number of interactions with complete strangers.  That is a very bizarre fact from an evolutionary standpoint.  No other creature routinely engages in exchange with strangers.  How did that happen?  It’s hard to know—the history of that evolutionary movement predates written records—and so the book is at its best when thinking about how it might have happened.  The answer is a very Smithian (as in Adam Smith) tale of specialization and the desire to have trading partners.  It’s rather interesting to discover that Smith’s argument is actually supported by the historical record.  On the other hand, since Deep History is one part history and one part Just So story, it is impossible to eliminate a lingering fear that maybe Seabright is finding this specialization and trade in history because Smith suggested it was there.    

Of course, we could just learn about the evolution of economic institutions by watching the video record.  (By the way, I was scared, seriously terrified, of that show when I was a child.  I was excited when it started, but then in episode 2, when the Sleestak arrived, I was so frightened, I could never watch it again.  A few years back, I decided to confront my childhood fears by getting the show from Netflix.  I watched it (with the lights on) with my kids.  They have not yet stopped mocking me for being afraid of the Sleestak.  If you are feeling very brave, you can see the terrifying portion of that show here; but don't say I didn't warn you about how seriously terrifying the Sleestak are.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Go Ask Alice

1. a) Sometimes being an economist is terribly annoying.  When you are in a meeting and people can’t seem to grasp the idea that any given idea will have costs and benefits, being an economist means being annoyed.  I’ve had a few meetings like that in the last week. 

b) Fortunately the Nobel committee came along, and in a bit of a surprise, gave the Prize to Sargent and Sims—two economists whose real claim to fame is the advancement of technique.  Not the study of the economy itself—neither one is associated with any particular results—both simply worked out new ways to use mathematics in economics.  A refreshing Noble. 

c) And speaking of the economy, for anyone who cares what I have to say about the current state of things, you can read it here.

2.  Clara is turning 12 next week.  This is my last teenager-free year for quite some time.  Have pity on me.

3.  No, really, Clara is a sweet kid.  So is Lily.  Emma doesn’t live at home any more so I am not sure if I am supposed to include her in my Offspring Reports.

4.  As you can tell, I really have no point here.  I am trying to avoid paperwork by pretending that writing a blog post is a necessary and productive use of time.  I’m not doing a good job of convincing myself of that fact.

5. A book review will help. Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland was a very curious book.  Indeed the longer I read it the curioser it got.  I’m not even sure to what category of book it belongs.  It’s kind of like a comic book, but not really.  It might be  graphic novel, but it isn't really a novel.  It’s sort of fiction, but mostly non-fiction.  There are pictures, lots of Photoshop involved, but also lots of drawings.  I can’t even figure out how to convey the sense of what it is.  It is one part biography of Lewis Carroll, one part history of the city of Sunderland, one part History of Britain, one part history of the Alice books, one part comic book tale of an artist writing a book, one part travel guide to Sunderland, one part story of a theater, and one part into which we can throw all the other parts that it is isn’t worth spending the time to list in detail.  The book roams all over.  There are comic books within the comic book.  There are self-referential nods in which there is a character who is the author of the book we are reading.  It is part dream, but maybe not.  There are ghosts of other people who may or may not be real or dreams or, I don’t know.  And through it all, I have to say I enjoyed this ridiculously quirky book.  I learned a lot about Lewis Carroll, for example—that was interesting.  I also learned a lot about Sunderland—which was interesting to read even though it shouldn’t have been interesting since I had never heard of the city before and will probably never hear about again, and so was, in the end, perfectly useless material, but strangely interesting at the time I was learning it.  So, if you want to read a very odd book, which I enjoyed but I cannot even begin to figure out why I enjoyed it, then this a good choice.  I’ll undoubtedly read it again sometime, and I have no idea why I will read it again, but I am virtually certain that this book will somehow draw me back in.  Maybe it’s like Wonderland itself—I just can’t resist heading back into a thoroughly bizarre little world of its own in which all the rules of books are routinely and brazenly violated.

6.  Here is the Obvious Music Video.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Al Davis, RIP

Ever since I can remember, I’ve said that Captain Kirk was my hero.  But, having a fictional character as one’s hero is cheating.  So, if pressed to reveal which actual, living person was my hero, it has never really been in doubt.  Al Davis has been my hero sine I was junior high age.  Al died on Saturday.  And, life seems a bit emptier.

I miss Al.  Seriously, I miss him.  The Raiders won on Sunday, and it was really a bit sad to think that Al wasn’t there to see it.  It’s really sad to think that Al won’t see any more games, that he will never see another Super Bowl win.  And I will never again see him in a press conference, with that arrogant, devil-may-care attitude.  I love the Raiders.  And the Raiders are simply the personification of Al.

“Just win, baby.”  That is without a doubt the most perfect expression of the proper ethos of sports.  It doesn’t matter how you win; you don’t get points for style.  You win or you lose.  And if you aren’t playing to win, then what’s the point of playing at all?  It’s a game, and the point of a game is to win.  You don’t break the rules, but you never pass up the chance to get an edge.

“We don’t take what the defense gives us.  We take what we want.” 
“Commitment to Excellence”
“Pride and Poise”
“You don’t adjust.  You just dominate.”

Al was fundamentally Nietzschean:  the “Will to Win” is what mattered.  If you don’t have that Will, you don’t Win.

Al embodied that spirit.  He never cared what anyone thought about him.  He cared about winning.  He made mistakes.  Lots of them.  But, he also made some utterly brilliant decisions which the timid types would have never had the courage to make.  That’s Al:  he did what he wanted in the way he wanted to do it.

Silver and Black.  That color scheme is as recognizable as any in professional sports.  There is something about it that simply speaks to my soul.  Black has always been my favorite color—ever since I was very little.  If an organization can embody a color scheme, the Raiders, and Davis, embody Silver and Black.

We’ll never see his like again.  And it will be a real test for the organization he loved so much—how long can it stay true to Al?  And how long before I can watch the Raiders again without that tinge of sadness, that feeling that I really wish Al was watching the game too?  Mourning the death of a hero is an odd feeling.  I never met Al, and yet I still feel like a part of my life died on Saturday.

Al Davis, RIP

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Southern Man

I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners (that is the listed author, by the way—the book has 12 essays written by different people, and rather than listing the book by the name of an editor, the book is listed as being authored by Twelve Southerners—I can’t think of any other book with a listed author like that) was the book we read for my tutorial this week.  The book was published in 1930 as an attempt to articulate what is distinctive and important about the traditional Southern culture.  As such, it is largely a response to observations (by Mencken, for example) that the South was a cultural wasteland.  The general thesis is that Southern culture is marked by its Agrarianism, that an agricultural society is not only an important part often South, but the defining feature of the South, and that the culture born in the South is both superior to and threatened, probably fatally (and actually fatally as it turns out), by Northern Industrialism.  The book preaches the virtues of a simple agricultural life, with no ambitions for progress or increasing wealth, but a life in tune with Nature, and the rhythms of the seasons.  (“A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn” (Lytle).) It’s a slow life in the South, and the Twelve Southerners liked it that way.

The book is, as one would expect in a book with twelve different authors, a mixed bag.  Some of the essays are terribly tedious, which oddly, may have been intentional—after all, if you are preaching the merits of slowing down, not rushing through everything, then what better way to do so than by writing in a thoroughly non-economical manner.  Indeed, if a point can be made in a sentence, then it may be better to make it last two pages.   The condensed version of this book—or what I suppose could be called the California version—might make it to about two dozen pages and not lose any content at all.  (The Northern version wouldn’t exist at all if the thesis of this book is correct—Northerners would have no interest in a book which argues, quite explicitly, that progress is a bad thing.  (I’m not entirely sure that the last sentence is accurate, though—being a Californian, I have never really been able to see all that much difference between Northerners and Southerners—they are all just a bunch of Easterners—though if the thesis of this book is correct, my inability to distinguish among varieties of Easterners may be due to the fact that Southerners are extinct, having been killed off by Northerners bringing their Industrialized ways to the geographical South.))

None of the students in the tutorial liked this book at all.  I tried gamely for a couple hours to convince them of the merits of the Agrarian Tradition, but I didn’t get very far.  Every one of them was convinced of the virtues of Progress and Industrialization and doing things and being busy.  I couldn’t even get any of them to entertain the idea of spending a day doing nothing but sitting in one place looking out over a lake, let alone imaging a life of deliberate slowness.  And I tried really hard.   

Of course, I have no patience for this Southern Tradition either.  Sure, the idea of being in touch with Nature is good—I find the modern inability of people to understand the source of food, for example, to be thoroughly odd.  And sometimes, I would like to spend a day at a lake—but, and this is important, only with a book in hand.  Being unproductive drives me crazy.  My definition of “productive” is quite catholic—watching football or reading mystery novels or writing meaningless ruminations on a blog all count as being productive, but daydreaming does not.  Why?  I have no idea.  It’s undoubtedly some cultural characteristic.  I also can’t stand inefficiency, and the South, as described in this book, is horribly inefficient. 

So, is I’ll Take My Stand a Great Book?  Not at all.  But it is an important book, and a book well worth reading.  Once. And Quickly.