Friday, June 26, 2015

Get Your Motor Runnin'

Some books defy summary.  So, I won’t even try.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The structure of this book is either a) the message itself or b) a way of masking the lack of a message.  Pirsig has a Philosophy—a big think, redo everything about the world, Philosophy.  He sketches it out in this book.  If this book was just that Philosophy, you’d think it was the wild ramblings of that crazy grad student whom you hate to see at a cocktail party because you know he will just start going off on his theory and he will never shut up and in the end his theory makes no sense but he is so convinced it not only makes sense but it will revolutionize the world if only you could understand this big idea he has which isn’t really definable because, you see, rationality is a trap and he sees how we can get around that trap by going beyond or above or around (it’s never really clear) rationality to see the true thing which is One and which generates everything from Rationality itself to Humanity to how to repair a motorcycle and let me just show you how some obscure details in motorcycle repair are really examples of this Oneness of all our ideas…and by this point you are frantically looking around the room hoping someone will come over and interrupt this guy and save you from this conversation, but everyone else in the room is avoiding eye contact with you because they see the guy talking to you and nobody else wants to get trapped in this conversation.  If the book had been just this, nobody would have read it.  It would have been the manuscript of a guy you knew was going to end up in an insane asylum.

Robert Pirsig ended up in an insane asylum.

He came out.  Schizophrenic.  So, the other, normal Pirsig wrote a book about his motorcycle trip across America.  He had his son with him.  The drove and stopped and drove again and stopped again and drove again.  Nothing of any interest whatsoever happened on this trip.  If that had been the book, nobody would have read it.

But, somehow combine those two things: guy takes trip on motorcycle and starts describing the theories of that old, pre-insane asylum guy and suddenly you have a 1970s bestseller.  The structure is clever in a way.  Pirsig can talk about his theories, but if you think there are giant holes all over the place, that is just because he is, you know, sketching out his fragmentary memories of what his other self thought before his other self went insane.

Oh, but Pirsig is a clever one—after he has lulled you into all this, it turns out that his other self wasn't insane at all, it is his new conventional self that is insane for thinking that life should be boring and conventional and so Pirsig rides off into sunset in the last chapter laughing maniacally now that his old self, which was not insane, triumphs in his schizophrenic battle.  And we feel free and liberated and forget that that the philosophical theory had all those strange holes because, you know, it’s a happy ending and I feel so good about myself right now.  Or something like that.

Now you don’t want to read the book.  But, you know what? Despite the fact that this book is utterly absurd and pretentious and annoying in a million ways, I enjoyed reading it.  Why?
“The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is.  People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance.  It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”
Therein lies the clever part of this book: this is just Pirsig ruminating about his life and philosophy while riding on his motorcycle.  You don’t have to treat all that Philosophy stuff in the book as some sort of mandate from God; it’s just a guy on his motorcycle remembering his life and what he used to think about and the circumstances in which he thought about it.

That’s the part that made the book an enjoyable read.  It was less what Pirsig was saying and more triggering all sorts of thoughts about things from my own life and what I think and why I think what I think.  Pirsig’s book was, in other words, like a really long blog entry in which the events of his life trigger thoughts about other events in his life which trigger thoughts about what he thinks about Life, the Universe, and Everything.  Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a Launchpad.  I use books.  Pirsig thinks like a westernized Zen Buddhist, 1970s style.  I think like an American Evangelical Protestant.  So, I could rename this blog: “Evangelicalism and the Art of Reading” and it would be pretty much the same thing.  Except I never went insane and ended up in an insane asylum getting electric shock treatment.

Where does this this all lead?  Pirsig taught English composition classes in college for a while and one of the things he tried to do was get his students thinking about deep, big things like “What is Quality?”  Pirsig would have been an annoying teacher.  Which is exactly what I am at times.  Annoying.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  (Note to my current and former students who are about to write me and tell me I am not as bad a teacher as I am pretending to be here—yeah, I know.  Bear with me a minute.) 

In my economics classes, I assign supplemental books.  I assign them to try to convince students that the world is bigger and more interesting than a textbook and a lecture, that there is this whole world of knowledge and a joy of learning things out there.  I tell them to just read the book and enjoy it and that I will throw a few questions on the test about the book and if they read the book they will know the answers to the questions, but really, just read and enjoy the books.  Some students do this and they love it.  Other students just skip the reading.  Then there are that few who get really angry about it.  Last semester, one of those angry students wrote on the course evaluation:  “Why do I need to read only for knowledge?”  That comment has both deeply amused me and deeply intrigued me since I read it.  At one level it is funny.  You come to college and get upset that you might need to, you know, read a book in order to get something called knowledge?  But, then again, on the other hand, I understand the complaint: students have been conditioned to think that college isn’t about knowledge; it is about getting good grades to get a good job.  So, if the purpose of a professor is to hand out the material which will be on the test used to determine the grade and thus the job prospects, then why should a student be expected to read for something as irrelevant as knowledge?  Why, after all, do I, the Professor, impose my view that gaining knowledge, and more importantly gaining the desire to acquire knowledge, is a more important goal than grade maximization?

Similarly in my Great Books classes, I spend a lot of time letting conversations wander all over and constantly arguing against whatever was just said.  Some students find themselves caught up into whole new thought patterns by this exercise and love every minute of it.  Some students hate it.  Last semester, again on the course evaluation, one student wrote: “I do not like the way he conveys his ideas that makes him sound like a stubborn 3 year old.”  Again, I was both amused and intrigued.  I know exactly what she means.  I spend a lot of time in a Great Books classes asking “why?” over and over and over and over.  Why is the outrageous thing I said wrong?  Why is what you just said right?  So, if the student who wrote that evaluation were to have said that in class, I would have instantly asked “Why is that bad?”  And no matter what she said, I would have then asked “Why is what you just said right?”  And she would have said I was acting like a stubborn 3 year old.  Socrates also acted like a stubborn 3 year old.  He was really annoying when you get right down to it.  They killed him for it.  Fortunately, I just get a course evaluation saying she didn’t like the class.

So, why do I think all this pondering about Big Questions is so interesting?  Why do I want to share my belief that thinking about Big Questions is endlessly fascinating?  How best to convey that belief?  Well, how about using mundane details from my life—like a couple of comments on teaching evaluations—as a means for thinking about the purpose of education?  Interestingly, if I knew a class full of students would all complain about being expected to read for knowledge, I would just assign more books to be read for knowledge.  If I knew a class would complain that I argued like a stubborn 3 year old, I would increase the frequency of times I asked “Why?”  Apparently I am a contrarian.  Is that part of my nature or part of my philosophy of learning? 

A shocking addendum: In an afterward written 10 years later, Pirsig notes that the manuscript for his book was rejected 121 times before someone finally agreed to publish it.  That fascinates me.  What kind of person sends a manuscript to a publisher after 121 previous publishers have rejected it?  

By the way, if you don;t want to read 531 pages of Pirsig, you can just watch the movie.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Whaddya Want?

In the (rather lengthy) reading packet for my recent sojourn into the Realms of Intellectual Inquiry with Kentucky School Teachers were excerpts from John Kenneth Galbraith’s (he of three names—so as not be confused with John Galbraith, you know, the one without the Kenneth) book, The Affluent Society.  Here is the funny thing about Galbraith.  To non-economists of a certain age (read: old), Galbraith was one of the leading lights of economics, the guy who popularized Keynes, the guy who understood economics and could explain it to the masses.  But, within the economic guild, Galbraith barely exists—sure his name floats around in the waters here and there, but I never met an economist who actually took him seriously.  Occasionally, I would see a reference to Galbraith's claim that the function of advertising was to manufacture desires; said reference was usually provided as a launching point to show that advertising does nothing of the kind.  So, Galbraith was the non-economist’s economist and the economist’s non-economist.  I was never tempted to read him.

But, I was suddenly faced with a remarkable coincidence: 1) as mentioned above (in case the Reader has forgotten) there was Galbraith in that there reading packet (did I mention the reading packet was lengthy?) and 2) the Library of America (Arbiter of Taste) just published a volume of Galbraith.  Clearly the Universe was whispering in my ear, “Time to Read Galbraith.”  Who am I to argue with the Whisperings of the Universe?

In one way, Galbraith was exactly what I assumed he was—a rather sloppy and lousy economist.  My goodness, there it is, that Saskatchewan of economics: an actual sighting of someone arguing post-Friedman that inflation is caused by wage demands, not that silly money stuff about which you may have heard.   But, it turns out that Galbraith’s rather dated economics is a minor part of the argument as a whole; indeed, strip out the sloppy macroeconomic model, and The Affluent Society would be a vastly better book.

One way to read The Affluent Society is that it is merely Walden, Part 2.  By the mid-20th century, it was obvious: America was a very affluent society.  Indeed, the level of wealth in mid-20th century America was staggeringly high by historical standards.  And, we are even more affluent now than we were when Galbraith was writing.  As we have gained all this new wealth, we have all this new stuff.  Getting wealth and stuff makes us happier, right?  So, surely we must all be in some sort of perpetual ecstasy these days.  But, we aren’t.  Why?  “Among the many models of the good society, no one has urged the squirrel wheel.”  Yes, we want more wealth and better stuff, but there is always even newer and even better stuff on the horizon, so we are left with a perpetual feeling that we aren’t quite at the Stuff Frontier.  This breeds dissatisfaction.  Sure, I have an iPhone 6, but that iWatch sure seems even more Awesome.

At this point in the argument, Galbraith starts running into problems.  He doesn’t like the fact that we always want more.  He thinks we should be content with the basic necessities of life.  But along comes The Corporation (insert shudder) which through Advertising (insert screams of terror) manufactures in us false desires for the things which they are producing.  Left to ourselves, we would have a different set of desires.  And, what, pray tell  would that look like?  How exactly are our desires being corrupted?  “Houses; automobiles; the uncomplicated forms of alcohol, food and sexual enjoyment; sports; and movies require little prior preparation of the subject for the highest enjoyment.  A mass appeal is thus successful, and hence it is on these things that we find concentrated the main weight of modern want creation.”  Hmmm.  Something seems amiss in that there list of manufactured enjoyments.  Ah, yes, he clears it up in the next sentence: “By contrast, more esoteric desires—music and fine arts, literary and scientific interests, and to some extent even travel—can normally be synthesized, if at all, only on the basis of a good deal of prior education.”  If only we were all as enlightened as John Kenneth Galbraith to like the proper things, the things requiring a fine (preferably Ivy League) education, you know things like fine art and sophisticated forms of alcohol  and sophisticated food, and, yes, even sophisticated sexual enjoyment (oh, JKG, how it would have been nice for you to have explained that one), if only we all had these educated tastes, then those corporations (shudder) and their advertising (terror) would not be so effective.

And, suddenly, the game is up.  Clearly that Advertising doesn’t seem to be working on dear old J Kenneth Galbraith.  He sees right through it and enjoys his sophisticated pleasures.  That is because his desires are natural and not manufactured.  He likes cognac and Mozart because it is natural to like Cognac and Mozart—all you need is a fine education; you, unenlightened Reader, like Beer and Football because corporations convinced you to like them.  And I, Your Humble Narrator, like cognac, beer, Mozart and football because…hmmm.  I am stuck there.

One way of look at it: all our desires are manufactured.  Nobody is born liking Mozart or Drake.  Some people develop good taste and like the former; some don’t and like the latter.  Why?  Taste formation is a complicated thing.  But, it is not clear that our desires are any more manufactured in an age of television advertising than they were in the Dark Ages.  People liked decorative clothing long before corporations came along to tell them they should like them.

Another way to look at it: we have necessities: food and shelter.  But, once you have shelter from the rain, it is wrong to want insulation to keep you warm in winter?  Is it wrong to want air conditioning to keep you cool in the summer?  Is it wrong to want a man cave so you can put in a large screen TV and an epic audio system so you can watch football in a state of total immersion?  Nobody wanted those things before they were invented.  But, it sure is nice now that they are invented, even though I only have two of the three.  Is it bad that in idle moments I think I would be really nice to have the third?

Galbraith would surely say it is wrong, but that is because his preference set is quite different than mine.  You see, dear old JK Galbraith has a sophisticated set of preferences based on objective reality.  I am not exaggerating.  JKG knows that because of all those false wants, we spend too much on private goods (you know, things you buy for yourself) and not enough on public goods (you know, things the government buys for you).  You aren’t allowed to disagree with JKG on that point, by the way: “This disparity between our flow of private and public goods and services is no matter of subjective judgement.”  If you think we aren’t underfunding public goods, you are a flat-earther.  It is objectively true.

Now that line of argument would be intriguing if John Kenneth Galbraith could actually stick to his argument.  But, he can’t.  You see: only some public goods are underfunded.  Military expenditures are overfunded.  Uh…  So, public goods that Galbraith wants more of are underfunded and public goods Galbraith wants less of are overfunded.  And Galbraith knows this because…well, because, he, unlike the rest of us who disagree with objective truth, sees through the attempt to manufacture false desires.

What genuinely puzzles me about Galbraith is how he is so certain that his own desires haven’t been manufactured.  How does he know he isn’t the deluded one and the people he thinks are deluded aren’t seeing clearly? 

In the end, The Affluent Society is a flawed book.  But flawed in a way that makes it eminently worth reading.  It makes you think.  That is high praise.  Higher praise: I was faced with the choice on where to keep Galbraith’s book.  Does it belong in the economics section or the non-economics, nonfiction section of my library?  He now lives in the latter—this is very high praise.  Before reading him, I assumed he would be filed under economics and relegated to being a bad economics book.  But, the parts that are good in this book, the non-economics parts, are so worthy of respect, that he got filed outside of economics.  I am not sure he would see that as praise, but it is.

And, for those of you who don’t want to read the whole book, here is a musical version of the main argument.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Serving Tea to Friends

Part 1 of the experiment has ended.  Waves of relief.  Part 2 is much shorter.

Oh, Henry James.

Clearly, I am stalling.

To begin with a misdirection:  I just returned from spending a pleasant week in Atlanta with 14 amazing Kentucky school teachers in a conference organized by the McConnell Center and Liberty Fund. This is the third year I have done this—and once again, I left the week inspired by these teachers, having had many wonderful conversations about Great Books and Other Matters (while conceding they have talent, I still say Heart is not a good band (and, Toad the Wet Sprocket?  Surely, you were jesting…) (one of the best things about a blog is that you always get the last word in bar fights)).  The McConnell Center is doing great work, truly great work.  If you have access to large sums of money to distribute to charitable causes, look no further,

A week-long conference with travel to and fro merits a Plane Book, which as the ever attentive reader will recall is a book one thinks one should probably read but will never actually get around to reading unless trapped in a metal cylinder hurtling through the air.  Add time in a hotel room, exhausted from endless social interaction, and you have many hours to work through said tome.  Plane Books are everywhere; the trick is picking which one.  Which brings me to the experiment.

I really don’t like Henry James.  He is a bore.  I have read several things by James over the year, and other than a brief flicker somewhere about three-fourths of the way through my third reading of Washington Square, I have never once thought, “maybe, just maybe, there is something worth reading here.”  Yet Henry James keeps coming up in discussions about Great Books.  I don’t understand it.  So, I decided on an experiment.  There are two English profs here at Mount Holyoke whom I have heard say kind words about Henry the Bore.  So, I e-mailed both of them back toward the end of the semester with a request.  I will give Henry James another chance this summer.  Send me the title of the one book you think I should read.  The fate of James’ immortal reputation hangs in the balance.  He has somehow climbed into Purgatory; will he be cast back own into the inferno?

I figured I could fit in two books by Henry James this summer and still enjoy my summer.  I got my two suggestions.  I have now read the first one.

The Portrait of a Lady.  Had some promise since T S Eliot has a poem of that name.  Then again, the novel is 600 pages.   “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”  It begins.

In one way, the experiment was a success.  I have a new theory on Henry James and I have a second book in which I can test my theory.  The theory:  A Henry James novel is like an exquisitely crafted object, something made so perfectly that you can look at the object and admire the craftsmanship because the craftsmanship is so perfectly visible and obvious no matter where you look at the object.  But, the object itself, though perfectly, and I mean perfectly, crafted, is not Beautiful.  At all.  There is nothing in the object which would attract a second glance unless one likes to look at craftsmanship for the sake of craftsmanship.

I realized this late in the novel.  It is perfectly put together, perfectly written.  Every character is perfectly described.  The plot twists are perfectly foreshadowed and revealed.  The characters act perfectly in accordance with their perfectly crafted natures.  There are a perfect number of main characters and secondary characters.  The novel has a perfect ending, which is only ambiguous if you haven’t been paying enough attention to the perfectly crafted characters, but if you realize that all these clockwork characters will continue to function like perfect timepieces, then you know exactly what comes next.  And in the midst of all that perfection, the story is terribly dull.  The characters have no blood in them.  There is never a moment when the novel grabs you by the lapel and forces you to care.  It is a perfectly detached novel.  It is there, it is perfect, and yet it is lifeless.  Henry James failed to discover the secret of Dr Frankenstein.

If the foregoing is correct, then I understand why James is held in such high repute despite not being worth reading.  It is the Specialist problem.  If you are a professor of English literature and when you read novels, you treat them like items in a laboratory, then Henry James gives you great specimens to study.  But, step outside the laboratory, read the books because you want them to show you something about Life beyond how to craft the perfect sentence, there there is nothing to see.

I’ll test the theory soon.  Fortunately, the second book is vastly shorter.

What I don’t know is whether confirmation of the hypothesis will lead to Henry James being banished to perpetual exile or not.

In the meantime, another 70s band who is on a Kentucky school teacher’s Top 5 list.  This band is much better than the ones mentioned above.